Slow Boat to Canada

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Alaska, Canada

Day 20: Lake Laberge, YT to Sbekagway, AK (221km/137mi, 13293km/7638mi total)

Most of this route was on roads we’d already seen back through Whitehorse. On the branch toward Skagway, though, there was one of the most bizarre landscapes in the entire north: the Carcross Desert. This tiny true desert, created by a mountain rain shadow, looks spectacularly out of place at best in its climate.

The crossing back into Alaska, on the same mountain pass once traversed by the dreaded Chilkoot Trail, was still snowy even in late June. It’s easy to see why so many 99ers’ journeys ended here, as even the lure of gold might well have been insufficient to motivate the average adventurer into carrying two tons of gear up this in a frozen winter hell.

Skagway itself was, as expected by its position in the cruise shipping business, more or less a tourist trap. We never particularly planned on coming here, other than to catch the boat out; as far as we cared it might as well have been Dawson-by-the-Sea, but without the casino, and with all the hotels sold out months in advance to cruise ship people on package tours and Alaskans ferrying back to the lower 48.

The one thing I did find particularly enjoyable here was the local brewery, a place that may derive its business from tourists, but was a few blocks off the tourist strip. Its beers, which I consumed abundantly despite the early hour, were uniformly delicious, hoppy West Coast brews. But after a few rounds at the brewery, it was time to get on the SSV Matanuska. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but she’s actually a kind of ugly, very authentic boat; utilitarian, not touristic, built with Northerners in mind.

Day 20/21: Skagway, AK to Prince Rupert, BC (501mi/806km, 8149mi/14300km total)
For the rest of the afternoon, we sat on the topdeck, watching the beautiful Inside Passage go by.
Inside Passage



I think this is the Mendenhall Glacier, just outside of the state capital of Juneau.

We slept on the swaying, rocking boat pleasantly drunk, and woke up just outside of Wrangell. The boat would stop here for an hour, we took shore call and stopped by this garnet stand we saw from the docks; Laura’s favorite gem is the garnet so I think she may well be glad I did!

And then, getting out into the open water, I saw this. What do you think it is? Fish jumping? Whale tail?

Oh, look! There’s four of them! But what are they?

Despite its name, the MV Susitna is not this boat’s sister ship; it is actually a crabbing boat of the same class as the Deadliest Catch ones.

On another shore call, we went to a seafood restaurant in Ketchikan and ate some of these fresh Alaskan snow crabs, which were absolutely delicious. Back aboard ship, I spent the rest of the night in the ships’ bar, one Alaskan Amber after another. Sometime after midnight, the heavy seas hit, and the seasick world started rolling and pitching, fore to starboard, port to aft.

Far too early in the morning, the ship foghorned its lumbering way into Prince Rupert. I think this is my favorite view of the entire trip so far…
Rupert's Fog

Day 22: Prince Rupert to Prince George’s, British Columbia (718km, 14011km total)
The fog hung around for a while longer on the coast road. Just what I always thought British Columbia would look like… I’m glad the weather sucks actually!
Prince George

This road was very kind to us for wildlife, with a black bear and a wolf in the starring roles on an otherwise unremarkable and boring route.


It Was On the Marge of Lake Laberge

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Alaska, Canada

Day 18: Anchorage to Tok, AK (318mi, 7061mi total)
Leaving Anchorage, we passed through Mat-Su County, a region named for its two spectacular glaciers, the Matanuska and Susitna, which form the two main rivers of southeast Alaska. It was a tourist experience again, basically, but I got to see and almost approach the Matanuska glacier. (Leave it to my parents to stay off the ice, even the part on the tour, on trumped up fears of falling through!) From a distance, the glacier looks almost like a snowfall.

But not so much standing at its icy face!

This was as close as they would have me to the ice. Even though the rest of the tour got to go on the glacier and walk quite far into the ice.

What may or may not be a pingo, a small pyramidal hill caused by expanding and melting ice

This is the entire Susitna valley, glacier and all, a few miles away from Matanuska. Both glaciers begin in the St Elias mountains, the second highest in North America.

Fuck. Not this again.

The dirt road continued most of the way to Tok, alternating rough gravel and broken pavement. At least every day southward gets us closer to civilization and normal road.

Day 19: Tok, AK to Lake Laberge, YT (398mi/640km, 7501mi/13072km total)
Today was just another long drive through beautiful mountains… and still more wishing I could climb them. There isn’t even much to say about them, I don’t know what the mountains are called, how high they are; even the wildlife was mostly missing.

If or when I ever come back somehow, this is where I’m camping. Even though it’s 50 feet from the road, this has to be one of the best views in Alaska

This little guy was waiting for us just past the border checkpoint into the Yukon. I’d love to take one home with me…

Judiciously avoiding Whitehorse this time, we stayed instead at an eco-tourism resort north of the city along Lake Laberge, best known perhaps for its appearance in a Robert Service poem. It is, however, a beautiful lake with radiant blue-green water!
Lake Laberge

Around the Wild

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Alaska

Day 16: Fairbanks to Denali to Fairbanks, Alaska (292mi, 6382mi total)
Planning the trip, I kind of dreaded Denali day. This seemed like about the worst possible experience for a repressed outdoorsman, having to take in the Alaskan wilderness from the window of a tour bus. As much as I tried to tell myself it would be just like a safari (like I ever wanted to go on safari?) the idea just seemed depressing, missing out on it all when it’s right outside the window. This wasn’t exactly Alexander Supertramp’s bus; I wasn’t going ‘into the wild’, just around the wild, or through it, ignoring the wildness of it. The visitors center did little to help my dismal opinion of the place, heckles raised by the steady flow of backpackers in the other line picking up their wilderness permits while we waited for bus tickets. This had better be either some damn good wildlife or some damn bad views so I don’t feel cheated and want to come back when I can like all these other places, I thought.

Once our bus was finally due to leave, it lurched onto a surprisingly narrow, steep mountain road (no wonder you can’t drive here anymore), into what reminded me a lot of Arizona and the Navajo lands, near the Grand Canyon.

The mountains themselves were an odd hybrid of the colorful rock formations of the Southwest and the muted pyramids of the Arctic Range. According to the tour guide, they get even more colorful in clear weather, and in July when the alpengrass blooms, giving them the name “Polychrome Hills”

Getting closer to The Big One. Apparently with the right weather you can see Denali’s summit behind these foothills. When do I ever have the right weather on a trip?
No View

Yes, Laura, I really am a moose. Look right here!

The valley, from yet another tourist concession. Denali’s peak is just starting to peek into view behind all these clouds.

On the way back out, the sun made a feeble attempt to light up Polychrome, giving it at least a tint of color.

We made one very ironic stop at the Teklanika River crossing, just 3/4 of a mile from where “Into The Wild” was filmed, and not much farther than that from where Alexander Supertramp spent the summer of 1994 in an abandoned bus. You can just see the bus in the distance from the tour stop, and there is a trail along the riverbank to the bus itself. What I’m wondering, and what the tour guide had no answer to, was why Chris/Alex didn’t escape this way, following the “uncrossable” (itself a stretch) river to the tour road, and taking a national park bus back out of the wild? It certainly makes me think more about how I would go about it when I eventually go for myself.

It turned out to be not so bad; I’d rather climb the Arctic hills if I ever returned, not these ones. That being said, the experience of riding the tourist bus (and seeing no wildlife whatsoever) didn’t drag on as painfully long as I had feared it would. We stopped at a tourist trap (everything here is) restaurant on the way out of the park for fish tacos, which seemed appropriate somehow in Alaska. Back in Fairbanks, we were treated to this brilliant sunset (actually sundip, this was about as dark as it got before the sun rose again!)

Day 17: Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska (359mi, 6743mi total)

Today was only a highway day, going back along the road to Denali park then toward Anchorage, on what we only thought might have been a scenic route. At least I got a zoom lens today, finally, for better views of the wildlife (after missing all the most exotic stuff, but whatever). And we saw Sarah Palin’s house, from which there is no view whatsoever of Russia, only suburban Wasilla and a strip-mined mountainside.

So Long To This Cold, Cold Part of the World

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Alaska

Day 14¼: Deadhorse to Wiseman, Alaska (241mi, 5819mi total)
All this and we were only halfway! Starting back southward, the enormity of the continent really started to sink in. It took two weeks to go north, it would take as long again to get home. We were fully a quarter of the way around the world from where we started, in a place where caribou roam free, and a pile of dirt laid out in a more-or-less straight line was called a “highway”. We would see a lot more of this…
before there would be any recognizable pavement, let alone a town. The first leg of the southward journey seemed to be much faster than the ride to the Arctic ocean. Maybe we were just a bit jaded, but even Atigun Pass seemed almost normal to us.
Atigun II

We did see a few more surprises at least, like this incredible cloud formation.

And, coming back toward Coldfoot at 1:30am, one last look at the midnight sun
Midnight Sun

Day 14¾: Boreal Lodge, Wiseman, Alaska
I thought about it, I almost went out again, pulled by a renewed desire to climb, emboldened by my success last night. I escaped the cabin again, and started walking back toward the river road, the opposite way as last night, looking for a different mountain. Beholding it from the bottom, it felt wrong, in a way last night didn’t at all. I started running back toward the cabin, and got inside just before Mom came downstairs. Oops. I guess I’ll be back again to climb here someday… this wasn’t the one though!

Day 15: Wiseman to Fairbanks, Alaska (271mi, 6090mi total)
This was a rather uneventful day today, retracing our steps back down the Dalton in a showery rain. I hardly took any pictures, since I’d seen it all on the way north, not shrouded in clouds. I did notice these mountains right outside of Fairbanks though.

The main news of the day was looking for a way to avoid ever having to see another dirt road or Whitehorse shithole on this trip! There aren’t many roads here, so we searched for alternate routes, and found only one, by recommendation of a local: the ferry. Instead of going back through Dawson City, we would go by way of Skagway and, in reverse, the Gold Rush route on a ship through the Inside Passage. Ordinarily boats are a bit of a hard sell for Mom, but the choice of a bit of seasick against another thousand miles of bad road was an obvious one, and it would even save us a day somehow. So with that, we booked a cabin on the USS Matanuska and changed a few destinations around.

On Thin Ice

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Alaska

Day 13: Fairbanks to Wiseman, Alaska (266mi, 5317mi total)

So started the next stage of our adventure: the notorious Dalton Highway. The northernmost road in the Western hemisphere, the Dalton was built as a trucking road, to bring loads to the Beaufort Sea oil operations in the winter, and provide maintenance for the Alëska Pipeline, which carries crude oil south from Prudhoe Bay to the refineries in Valdez. Tourist travel on the Dalton wasn’t even allowed until 2003, and was never any more than a total afterthought, with a 400+ mile dirt road to nowhere being so far out of the average American’s vacation plans.

South of the Arctic mountains, it looks a lot like Canada…

This rock formation, located at the Arctic Circle, is called the God’s Finger for its appearance as a hand pointing upward.

The “Oh Shit! Corner” is a particularly sharp turn, which causes its share of problems in the winter. The things one learns from watching Ice Road Truckers…
Oh Shit

Coldfoot is the only “town” on the Dalton, with a population of about 10, centered around the truck stop. It’s supposed to be a great place for breakfast and a chance to meet real ice road truckers.

Wiseman is a few miles off the highway, on the Koyokuk river, which many people mistakenly thought held gold. It didn’t, and the town mostly disappeared after the last gold rush.

Staying here is best described as interesting — hundreds of miles off the grid, everything is either brought in by truck or self sustaining, so electricity and plumbing, while both work, do not work in normal “southern” ways. Same thing with phones: no cell service, just land lines with two-digit numbers to call within Coldfoot and Wiseman, and theoretically some way to dial out, that just makes the old dial-up noise and doesn’t connect the call. That and the fact that even at midnight it’s still just as bright as any other time of day. Which shouldn’t be that amazing but it is, even knowing exactly this would happen! So I started to get some ideas… maybe THIS was how I could get out and experience some nature, see just a taste of the Alaskan wild, no one would suspect me sneaking out?

Day 13½: Gates of the Arctic national park, unknown mountain

So I stayed up reading until 1:30, made sure my parents were asleep upstairs, and wandered out into a mosquito-ridden Arctic morning. These mosquitoes are hell on earth! Right out the door, and a hundred or more started swarming. Oops! I had no choice but to go back in and look for bug spray. Making it out the door again, I looked around for a good target. I figured I may as well pick the obvious one even though it was across the ‘river’, which to my delight was about 100 feet wide, but 6 inches deep at most.
River and Mountain

The climb reminded me of an Adirondack at first, the same stilted, unruly trees that clog the summits approaching tree line. Beyond that, the upper reaches though were distinctly Arctic, only clumps of grass sticking out of soft pyramids of bare dirt. (The scale of this picture, believe it or not, is only tens of feet from one side to the other… behind the summit in the last shot, there are dozens of these mini-peaks)

From the top, the view belied the tiny height of the “mountain”, which couldn’t have been more than 400 feet above river level, and took less than an hour to climb, even stopping to look at every interesting plant and rock. Even the tall, snow capped peaks are barely 2000 feet above the river, or 4000 feet elevation, which puts tomorrow’s Atigun Pass (4300 feet or so) in perspective as to just how cold and snowy this region can be even in June!

I wandered back toward the cabin, trying to savor as much of wild Alaska as I could knowing this was my only chance for the trip… and knowing that someday I’ll need to come back! I’d love to spend a week wandering these mountains, bugs and all (amazingly, the bugs quit around tree line). I was back in the cabin and asleep by 4:15; my escape, successful as it was, had to end before I took too many chances, as much as I wanted to keep climbing, keep exploring.

Day 14: Wiseman to Deadhorse to Arctic Ocean to Deadhorse, Alaska (261 miles, 5578mi total)
This was to be, in a sense, the peak of our trip: the northernmost, wildest, most isolated place, quite literally at the world’s end, with nothing between us and the Pole. My fascination with the far north pulled me here, and to my surprise thanks to IRT my parents wanted to see the end of the road too. This is the mountain at the top of the infamous Atigun, which despite only being 4000 feet is the highest pass in Alaska, and coldest in the US.

Beyond Atigun, we were truly in the tundra, north of the tree line despite being at sea level, in the bizarre landscape of ice, water and alpine grass. Most wildlife seemed to know better and stay south of this area, but the road was lined with these caribou for at least a hundred miles. While I never tried it, I feel like I could have walked right up to one of these beasts and petted it, without it even caring. One of the weirder road signs of the trip was here as well: apparently it is illegal in Alaska to shoot more than five caribou at a time from your truck, as if drive-by reindeer hunting is a problem here.

Deadhorse itself, the second northernmost settlement, and end of the northernmost road, in North America, is an incredibly utilitarian place. Everything here must either be flown in, or trucked from Fairbanks on 400 miles of bad road. Houses and buildings are non-existent, replaced by prefab structures resembling shipping containers more than civilization. It is a town where time does not operate in the normal manner either; while nominally on the Alaskan time zone, 5 hours behind the eastern US, the oil fields work on a 28 hour clock, with workers on for 14 hours and off for 14 hours every “day”, causing the few businesses in town to be open at very odd hours for tourists. For our tour, we had the choice of starting at 7:30pm, 10pm, 1:30am or 4am, since that happened to be the “afternoon” here today.

At the Arctic Caribou Inn, the only “hotel” in the town (which also forbids alcohol, guns, and going outdoors in temperatures below -50), we met our tour group to go to the oilfields and onward to the beach. After an obligatory hour of oil company propaganda, we were shepherded onto a convoy of short buses for the ride to the ocean. Ostensibly this was for security purposes when driving over pipelines like these

And here we were, at the brightest, sunniest beach on the Arctic coast!

I ventured out on the ice at one point to try to get up close to a muskox (presumably behind me in this photo)

The predictable thing happened. This ice, while somehow able to support a well practiced muskox, decided it was time for me to take the Polar Plunge. I barely felt the frigid water at first, and thought maybe the ice just moved a bit, then I realized I was suddenly on a tiny little iceberg. Just like a cartoon, as I screamed “FUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCKKKKK!!!!!” the 28-degree saltwater took me in. And I splashed right out of it, Of course I only managed to go in exactly balls-high

And just like that it was time to begin the journey south… we had gone as far as we could. I couldn’t help feeling just a bit wistful leaving Deadhorse, not that I ever would have wanted to stay there longer than I did, but more that there was no farther to go, that the rest of the trip would become a voyage OUT OF the unknown, even while there was plenty of unknown yet to go. Like how to use the gas pump at Deadhorse Camp. Apparently even an engineer cannot figure out how to pump gasoline at 70°N.

On Top Of The World

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Alaska, Canada

Day 11: Dawson, YT to Fairbanks, AK (623km/387mi, 8129km/5051mi total)
In the mountains above Dawson, last winter’s snow still hasn’t melted, this despite being above tree line and in direct sunlight at least part of the day! It wasn’t even cold here… maybe 60-65 degrees.

Starting to sound like a broken record here but… I want to get outside and be a part of this!
Green Mountains

The border checkpoint was tiny, and consisted of this informational sign, a cabin, and a little shack no larger than a toll booth. Which is probably about what one would expect all the way up here.

Alaska is cold. Or something. It’s the 49th state to join the Union, and the 49th state I’ve been to.
Frozen River

This was the most exciting part of dinner in Fairbanks at a mediocre seafood restaurant: sitting out on the deck watching a beaver swim back and forth.

Day 12: Fairbanks, Alaska
Stuck inside of the world’s northernmost Ford dealership, getting new tires before the drive to the Arctic Ocean. Other than the 23 hours a day of sunlight, and the occasional moose wandering through a neighborhood, this could be any mid-sized American city… most of what I’ve seen so far looks an awful lot like Binghamton. I’m not sure what I expected to see here, or why — with almost 100,000 people, even if it’s thousands of miles from the mainland, it’s only natural it would develop into a recognizable city. Even one that I can’t escape the feeling that I’ve been here before. The one thing missing is a photography store. After those relatively distant encounters with wildlife, I really could use a zoom lens. Especially going to the Arctic ocean and Denali this week…