This day, June 12, will bring us into Alaska and back to the US of A. Our route, known as ďThe Top of the World Highway,Ē will take us from Dawson City, YT to Tok (pronounced toke), AK. Along the route we will pass through the northern most US Customs check point, the small town of Chicken,
AK, the junction back with the Alaska Highway known as Tetlin, and end at our first Alaska State Park, Moon Lake, just north of Tok. We travel about 180 miles with that being equally divided between horrible once-paved roads, gravel roads, and dirt roads. The road runs along the tops of the mountains, much of it above the tree line, and that is where it gets its ďTop of the World HighwayĒ name. Most roads and highways in Alaska, like most places, travel along the valley. Top of the World travels along the mountain ridges and gives one unique skyline views along the way.
This eventful, beautiful day, June 12 is also my mother's birthday. As our phone service has been out since crossing into Canada, I can't call her, but my thoughts are with her.
The journey begins with a steady 9-mile-long ascent on some paved, some gravel roads. At the 7-mile mark, we stopped to let the transmission cool off a bit at a unique little rest area with some wild west looking mock buildings overlooking the Yukon River Valley we had just left. After about a half-hour of cooling, we continue the steep climb, interspersed with steep descents down gravel roads. After 65 miles of this, we faced one extremely steep hill on very poor pavement.
This is the only hill, since we left Florida, that I wasnít sure whether the truck was going to make it over.
The transmission and the turbo temperature gauges were letting me know I was pushing it too far, then the engine just didn't seem to have the old hill climbing power it had been so willing to provide previously. When we finally reached the peak, the turbo gauge was showing the turbo charger to be red hot. Over the peak, and down another short, steep descent, and there is the US border, alongwith the always friendly and understanding customs agents. I needed to let the turbo cool, but I didn't think it prudent to stop just shy of the customs office and sit for ten minutes. So I pull up and the first thing the customs guy says is shut your engine off, which is exactly what you're not supposed to do when the turbo and transmission are so hot, but I'd rather argue with a Dodge mechanic than a customs agent. I shut the over-hot beast off. Guns? No. Booze? No. Cash? No. Any purchases in Canada? No. Rabies vaccination for the dog? Yes. Let me see it. May I get out of the car to get it sir? Yes. Be gone, peasant. With that, we're back in the good old USA.
About a mile past the customs station was one of the many long abandoned fuel stops along the Alaska Highway. I always found these fascinating and imagined all the stories that went along with their rise and fall. The whole Alaska trip thing was dying out and there were ample shrines to its demise all along the way. I'd say virtually two out of three fuel stops and lodges were closed. Apparently, for many years, going up and staying the summer in a lodge was the thing to do. Fortunately, we had a taste of lodge life when we stopped at Duck Lake Lodge for water, just before entering Glacier Nation Park.
From US Customs to Chicken, about 50 miles, is a mostly single-lane dirt road sprinkled with large half-buried rocks. Most of this road runs alongside and over mountains, with no guardrails or shoulders. Fortunately, this is a seldom-used road, for obvious reasons, but we did end up having to pass about a dozen other RVs and large trucks. The routine was always the same: the vehicle closest to the side with an edge pulled over as far as possible then stopped. The other vehicle, the one with no room for error -- lest they slide down the mountain -- proceeds slowly past. I am somewhat amazed that the side of the mountain along this road isnít littered with the debris of what were once RVs.
We didnít bother to stop in Chicken, even though it was the first town weíd seen in 120 miles, and it's rated as a "must see" town due to its ramshackle assembly of temporary houses and businesses. We had another 70 miles or so to go before our next town and were a bit anxious to put this "adventure" in the history books. For the life of me I canít understand why doing ďíThe Top of the World Highway,Ē and touring the town of Chicken, rates so high on an RVerís ďmust doĒ list.
After Chicken, the road was 90% pavement, and Iíve never been so happy to see a long stretch of very bad road. We spent the first twenty miles after Chicken not being completely sure we were on the right road. The road we were on appeared to be long-ago abandoned and rarely if ever traveled. I pushed on because we appeared to be heading in the right direction, compass wise, and there really were not that many options in Chicken for making a wrong turn. OTOH, the last thing we wanted to do after such a hard trek was go 50 miles down a horrible asphalt road and then have to return to Chicken, of all places. After 70 miles, being reunited with the Alaska Highway at the abandoned Tetlin Junction, rewarded us.
The only thing of note to happen during our 70 miles from Chicken to Tetlin Junction was the sighting of a very large cat. Donna was sleeping, as usual, and I'm just dealing with each hill as it comes along. Suddenly ahead, I spot what looks to be a mountain lion-sized cat just sort of trotting down the middle of the road. Considering we were 21,000#s of steel being pulled up and down steep hills by a noisy diesel in the pristine quiet, I'm surprised at how close we got to the animal before it bounded off into the woods. A quick Internet sleuthing at the eveningís rest stop seemed to indicate nothing resembling a mountain lion lives in the area.
At Tok we pulled in to fill our bone-dry fuel tank. With a fill up, facilities were provided to wash the RV, dump the tanks, and fill the water. I was one tired puppy at this point but I dutifully gathered the energy to wash the whole filthy rig. Personally, I could have waited until I got back to Florida, but I didnít want to have to deal with Donna. There was another guy at the wash station with us, a gruff old ex-military type, up on a yearly fishing expedition. At first he didn't take kindly to my sense of humor, nor the obvious fact we were first- timers, but after a while he lightened up. At the time, all the places he planned on going sounded like a foreign language but by the end of the trip, I knew what he was talking about. He was hitting all the fishing hot spots at the right time. Like anything else, fishing in Alaska takes a bit of getting used to.
Then we headed out to restock the booze cupboard. Iíd been on the wagon for a while, just because, but I needed something to wash the dust out of my gullet. Like everything else in Alaska, they donít let go of their booze cheaply.
A few miles north of Tok we settled into our first Alaska State Park. We were pleasantly surprised to find them very much like Canadian Provincial Parks. Moon Lake State Park, believe it or not, is on Moon Lake. We pulled in to find one other camper there so we had our pick of beautiful waterfront spots, just like in Canada. Unfortunately, this park had a half dozen young adults hell bent on tearing up as much of the place as possible, all in the name of having a good time, and making enough noise while doing so to make sure anyone around would notice. As unlikely as it sounds, these youngsters were also terrorizing the lake on jet skis. We picked a spot on the other side of the park so the noise and mayhem didnít really affect us. I spent a pleasant few hours sitting outside having wine with our Canadian camper neighbors. I think I called it a night about midnight but it was still dusk out.
On our morning walk, I had to keep Buddy out of the water, as the shoreline was thick with fuel and oil, most likely from the Jet Ski crowd. But now the park was quiet and beautiful, and we were excited to be in Alaska.
By 10:30 AM, weíre on the road, heading to Delta Junction. Delta Junction is the official end of the Alaska Highway, and the first decent size resupply town on the way. We make the customary stop at the visitor center to get some photos of the End of the Alaska Highway monument, and the giant mosquito sculptures.
Across the street from the visitor center was an original roadhouse, moved from a military bombing range. Roadhouses were stopping places for travelers traveling by dogsled in the wintertime. Travelers could make 20 or 30 miles a day, stopping in roadhouses along the way to dry out, warm up, get a hot meal, and continue the journey. The roadhouse display was very nicely done and the volunteer guide was very interesting. This was quite an enjoyable stop. Plus, they had more vintage Alaskan Highway heavy equipment on display and Iím a bit fascinated by it. Fortunately, Donna made me stop climbing around on the old construction equipment and go visit with the roadhouse host.
We had planned on finding a local state park to stop, but at the roadhouse guide's suggestion, we pushed on towards Fairbanks. Our Alaska State Park for the night was Chena Lakes State Recreation Area. This particular state park was part of a very large flood control and dike building program. This was by far the largest development weíve stopped in. But, like all the rest, it was 90% empty. The first loop of the campground we checked out was completely empty. The second loop had maybe five campers. Iím pretty sure we paid the usual $12 per night.
At this park, the mood and behavior of the customary clouds of mosquitoes changed dramatically. Before, although there were millions of them everywhere, the mosquitoes were not really a problem. Here, it was different. The mosquitoes became quite aggressive. They swarm all over you, and your clothing, desperate to find blood. We had become complacent in our procedures to keep mosquitoes out of the RV, and we paid the price. Most of the night and the next morning were spent killing wave after wave of mosquitoes, seeming to come out of nowhere.
I took my normal morning and evening walks with Buddy, but things had changed due to the mosquitoes. This park had a beautiful river, and some lakes, and very nice forest trails, but the nasty bloodsuckers made every moment outside a challenge. Then I stopped and read one of the signs politely asking the trappers not to put their traps directly on the walking trails. I assumed that if the trails were explicitly excluded from traps, anything off the trails must be fair game. It made walking Buddy much less enjoyable.
We were more than happy to pull out in the morning, heading for Fairbanks. In Fairbanks, we settled into another state park, Chena River State Park, right in downtown Fairbanks. The first night we took our usual type of campsite: no services, just a clearing in the woods along a dirt road. As it was overcast and we were in a thick canopy of trees, our solar system was not keeping up. The next two nights we splurged on a site with water and electric to make life a little easier.
Fairbanks is just another dirty, run down, crime ridden, small town in America. The amount of bars and chains and cameras and warning signs and boarded up buildings was a real eye opener during my many walks with Buddy. The closest thing to life in the Chena River, running through downtown Fairbanks, was a Miller bottle. I canít say I found anything I liked about Fairbanks. But, we needed a bit of a rest, and this place worked fine for that. I had thought about traveling a bit north of Fairbanks to do some fishing, but a bit of further research revealed most everything in the area was fished out to the point of not being worth the effort.
There was one park in downtown Fairbanks that I did enjoy, Pioneer Park. There is a large paddle wheeler on display that can be toured, plus many old original settler's buildings have been moved to the site. We spent an enjoyable afternoon touring the place.
June 16 we head out with Denali as our goal. We decide to pass on the national park and opt for Byers Lake Campground in Alaskaís Denali State Park. We had an uneventful passage though some very nice mountainous terrain. The entrance to Denali National Park was the only vibrant area weíd seen in Alaska so far. Right at the entrance to the park, there are many shops and restaurants with crowds milling about. It was obvious weíd found an upscale location, as the tourists with cash were abundant up and down the boardwalks.
Denali State Park is 90 miles farther down the road. Byers Campground is a nice park on a beautiful lake. Our campsite is $10 a night. Like most everything else weíve seen so far in Alaska, Byers Lake used to be a pristine area filled with wildlife. Up until around the time of the building of the Alaska pipeline, large lake trout were abundant and easily caught. Now it is a beautiful lake where on occasion someone catches a fish. I didn't bother to break out my fishing gear.
The mosquitoes in this campground are every bit as tenacious and aggressive as the ones in Chena Lakes. Setting up camp was a battle. We doused ourselves in bug repellent, along with the door and surrounding area of the RV. A good spray down of repellent gives about 45 minutes of protection. Most of my walks with Buddy end in a jog home to try to stay ahead of the ravenous horde.
While trying to pick out a site in this park we had one of our rare RV damaging incidents. We pulled into one site we thought we'd like, but decided to move on as some nearby neighbors had several large dogs, and considering we had the pick of the camp, we figured it prudent to move on. Unfortunately there was a large hump in the ground that I didn't judge well and it removed some equipment from the underside of the RV. The fortunate thing is the equipment it removed (a storage tube for a sewer hose) was something I never used, so no big loss. After we settled into our permanent spot I strolled back to pick up the pieces and dispose of them.
Mornings give some respite to the mosquito attacks. At around 6:00 AM Buddy and I head out to a veterans memorial park that was just up a hill from the campground. As soon as we entered the clearing for the park, Mount McKinley came into spectacular view. There was not a cloud in the sky to obscure the sight. Iíve read of many people coming to Denali National Park for a week and never seeing Mount McKinley due to the clouds, so I knew what a special treat this was.
After waking Donna to let her get a glimpse of Denali, and then taking some photos, we decide to make the 90 mile run back to the national park area. Clear days are a rarity and we figured we'd make the best of it, even though I'm not a big national park fan anymore.
We made a brief stop at a pristine roadside lake on the way back to Denali to do a little fishing and to stretch our legs. I was able to catch a dozen or so grayling so it was a worthwhile stop for me.
First item on the list is getting a little diesel as I had let the tank run a bit low. We ended up having to drive 110 miles (20 miles past the Denali entrance) before we could find a station with diesel available. This is not an area to pass an opportunity to top off the tank. Denali National didnít really have a lot to offer us. The only way to get far enough into the park to view the mountain was by paid bus tour, no dogs allowed. I've read more than a few accounts of people disappointed by a Denali bus tour so I wasn't really thinking I was missing anything. The Alaska state park had great views of McKinley and did allow dogs on the trails so I was happier in the state park.
Denali does let people -- even people with dogs in the car -- drive into the park for a ways. We did take this tour but there was little to see with the exception of a few grazing elk. And we did a brief tour of the visitor center at the park but it was mobbed, at least by Alaska standards and it didn't have any real draw for us.
Although there were no fish, but plenty of mosquitoes, Byers Lake was beautiful and had great hiking trails around it. Buddy and I did a good bit of hiking and exploring the shore line. One of the unique things in the area is this old trapperís cabin along the trail. Signage warned of the danger in inspecting the place but I couldnít resist getting a close up. A couple built the cabin as a summer camp to stay while trapping the area. They were dropped off by float plane in the spring and picked up in the fall. It must have been an amazing area and experience at the time, but brutally crude.
Byers Lake is close enough, about 100 miles, to Anchorage to be a weekend get-away destination for people there. This Friday night the weekend warriors descend on the park. We went from two campers on our section of the park to full. Most people didnít start to show up until after 8:00 PM, but they made up for their tardiness with noise. Generators were running, dogs barking, kids yelling, doors slamming, groups hollering from one site to another. At 11:30 PM I stepped outside to remind an ongoing town hall meeting, which was taking place right under our bedroom window, that there were quiet hours and please respect them. By midnight, most people had finally figured out camp and things quieted down. I start looking forward to an early, if noisy, exit in the morning.
June 18. We make a hasty exit from Byers Lake Campground, feeling much like Elk seeking relief from the biting insects of summer. We blew through the ambiance of Wasilla, and Anchorage. We'd hoped to find a place to stay somewhere just SE of Anchorage but it wasn't to be. We ended up pushing on another 70 tired miles, settling in a US Forest Service campground, Granite Creek.
US 1, or the Seward Highway, is the route running SE from Anchorage into the Kenai Peninsula. This is a two-lane road with train tracks running alongside that runs along the Tunagain Arm, a body of water resembling a river. The traffic here is fast and furious, and bumper-to-bumper, with regular passing attempts to gain one car length. It is hair-raising crazy. When camped anywhere in the area that has TV reception, there were almost daily reports of fatal collisions on this route. I didn't take venturing out on this stretch of road with the RV in tow, lightly.
Anywhere in Alaska, one needs to be keenly aware of the tides when along the waterfront. When fishing the mouth of any river, you can be holding prime fishing ground one minute, and have water rising over your knees five minutes later. Considering that sometimes accessing these fishing spots involves some treacherous climbing down slick muddy riverbanks, being stranded by freezing, fast moving water is not something to be taken lightly.
The Seward Highway along the Turnagain Arm is an excellent place to watch these fast-moving tidal extremes. The incoming tide forms a long wave moving up the arm. Groups of spectators drive from one pull off to the next, watching this rush of water come up the bay.
The Granite Creek Campground was only about half full when we arrive, but there is only one site big enough for our rig, and that is due to a no-show reservation. Itís the weekend, and weíre very close to Anchorage, so in a few hours the ďcamp ground fullĒ sign goes up.
The first thing we notice about our new temporary home is the lack of mosquitoes. There are a few, but not enough worry about. Itís a delightful change. No phone, no TV reception, no (or not many) mosquitoes. Iím as happy as a clam; Donna, not so much, as she likes her TV and phone. Buddy and I have some nice hikes around the park and out along the main highway which has a nice paved trail just off the road.
Our plan was to spend several days at this Spartan forest service campground and explore the area, sans RV. Sunday we take an exploratory trip west to the next big town, Soldotna, and finally to Kenai, where the Kenai River flows into Cook Inlet. The traffic was heavy and aggressive, as always. Considering the conditions, I was delighted to be free of the RV.
Our route takes us past probably the most popular fishing spot in Alaska, where the Russian River flows into the Kenai River. Long lines of cars full of anglers wait for available parking places. There is a ferry service to take anglers to the preferred opposite bank to fish. Anglers are lined shoulder to shoulder along the bank. There is much jostling and jockeying for positions. This type of fishing is aptly called Combat Fishing. The King Salmon season is completely closed, at least in this area, so the target fish are Coho Salmon.
The fishing regulations for Alaska are intimidating in their complexity. I was able to strike up a conversation with a couple of anglers who were willing to give me the scoop. The fish arenít in a feeding stage, so snagging them is the only option. But snagging salmon is not legal so some crafty alternatives are used. A heavy amount of weight is used to get the fishing rig through the strong current to the bottom where the fish are. A long leader, maybe 5í of 30# test line, is attached with an empty #4 hook. Since the fish are swimming along the bottom, opening and closing their mouths, the hope is that they will get the leader line, then the hook, in their mouths. Snagging isnít allowed so only those hooked inside the mouth are legal. The rivers run very fast so even with a large amount of weight, the line is quickly pulled downstream. As the crowd is shoulder to shoulder, everyone is constantly pulling in their drifting lines and casting back up stream. It was interesting to watch but I wasn't the slightest bit interested in joining the fray.
Soldotna didnít seem to have any attraction to us. There was a large, cheap, mostly empty municipal campground right downtown and close to the river, but it was, to me, just a muddy field. The fish werenít running in this section of the river now so Iím fairly sure when they are, this campground comes to life. The town of Kenai right on the coast was worth a drive through. There is an old section with the old buildings, a very interesting church and a park with a whale watching area. No whales today, but it was a nice stop.
When we return home Sunday evening we find the campground almost completely abandoned. There were only two other campers in the campground. This seems to be the cycle of summertime campgrounds within 150 miles of Anchorage. Needless to say, Iím much more fond of Monday through Friday camping than I am the weekend stuff.
Monday we make another exploratory trip sans RV, this time 75 miles south to Seward. Although it appears to be a popular tourist town, it is very appealing to us. The town has several municipal campgrounds right on the water for a reasonable $15 per night. There is a large public marina, a commercial port facility, an interesting entertainment district, a fairly vibrant RV population, Kenai Fjords National Park, great dog walking possibilities, cell phone reception, TV and no mosquitoes. To a couple of road weary, mosquito savaged travelers, this seemed like heaven.
After making the decision to make this our summer home, we treated ourselves to a fish and chips (Halibut) lunch. It was certainly pricey by this cheapskateís standards ($20 each for lunch), but the fish was outstanding. We tried to eat outdoors on the deck but the cold ran Donna inside. I begrudgingly put the dog in the truck long enough to eat my lunch.
With Seward being a major halibut fishing port Iíd hoped to find some reasonable source for fresh halibut while we were there. It wasnít to be, as apparently there is a rule that fish has to be sold to a processor first. Fresh Halibut was running $19+ per pound, salmon $17. I did find one distant outlet selling last yearís frozen Halibut for $14.50 a pound. We bought a few pounds and enjoyed it, but fresh off the boats would have been better. I spoke to a few locals who were a tad bitter about the fish-pricing situation.
The old Seward downtown was destroyed in the earthquake and tsunami of 1964. The town was rebuilt on higher ground with the low ground turned into parks and RV campgrounds. I guess if the tourist RVs are washed out to sea in the next tsunami itís not so bad. We settled into Resurrection Bay South Campground, which is nestled right up to the rocky shore. There are several campgrounds along the shore, half with water and electric, and half without. We, as usual, stayed in the dry (no power or water) camping area.
We had pulled into camp early by RV standards, maybe 10:00 AM, as we werenít that far away and we wanted to get a good waterfront spot. Most RVíers pull out between 9:00 AM and 11:00 AM, so the early bird gets the best spot. By 8:00 PM we were well settled in, watching the late arrivals jostle for spots and provide entertainment by trying to back in and get set up.
Donna was in heaven watching TV as she had three channels to choose from, and I was being my usual campground gad-about self, when the tsunami warning alarms started sounding. Loud speakers started warning of an impending tsunami and telling everyone to evacuate. A couple of truck campers immediately pulled out at a fairly high rate of speed, throwing gravel around the lot as they left. Soon after, a number of the cars that people tow behind their rigs, left in haste. I was chatting with some local folks who didnít seem overly concerned, so I didnít get too excited. I walked back to the RV to talk to Donna and there was a message scrolling across the bottom of the TV saying the tsunami warning was a mistake. With that info under my belt, I went out to enjoy the spectacle of the non-TV watching folks scramble to safety. After about 20 minutes, a fire truck pulled through the campground, blaring a message about a false alarm. About 45 minutes later escapees began to slowly trickle back into the campground. It made for an interesting and entertaining night in camp.
It turns out, not only was the tsunami warning for our area a mistake, it was also mistakenly broadcast after the tsunami. So, if there had actually been one, it would have already struck the area.
The big event during our five weeks in Seward was the Fourth of July celebration. The townís normal population of about 4,500 swells to well over 40,000 for the event. Every square inch of available space is turned into an RV parking spot. The big attraction is a foot race up Mount Resurrection, then down, and a return to town. Racers have to follow a trail up, but can take any route down. It was interesting to watch the racers return, cut, bruised, torn, and limping. Most of the racerís backsides were a huge mud stain as sliding down on oneís posterior is a proven method. The actual view of the race was anti-climactic from our location, as the racers appeared to be ants in slow motion. But watching the battered heroes coming across the finish line was entertaining.
One of our long day trips from Seward was a trip to Homer, out to the spit, and back. Plenty of people go to the trouble of dragging their RVs down for a few days, or weeks, but considering it's a 340-mile roundtrip from Seward, we day-tripped it. Homer is an interesting town and worth a dayís time, but the scenery along the way was nothing special by Alaskan standards. We treated ourselves to lunch out, walked on the beach, and did a bit of window-shopping. We then did the road warrior thing again for the trip back to camp. For us, it's hard to beat just hanging out on the Seward waterfront.
My main activity while in Seward, like most every other place, is walking with Buddy. The nice thing about Seward was that there were so many good walks. There was one along the waterfront through the RV parks. A few blocks in the same direction was a nice walk through the business and entertainment district. Both of these walks ended at the Seward aquarium. In the other direction, we would walk along the marina waterfront and through its shopping and entertainment district. We would sit and watch the tour boats and fishing boats come in and offload their cargo. Or, in the same direction, a few blocks in, we'd walk to a local park with a lake, the Benny Benson Memorial Park. On the route back from this park was a section of the nicer homes in Seward on the edge of a cliff. Seward was a dog walker's paradise and we made good use of it.
Donna did go on a glacier and wildlife boat tour, and we visited Kenai Fjords National Park. We were content to enjoy a lazy summer in Seward until the last moment, but word of Valdez made us decide to stop there on the way back.
The last few days of our stay in Seward the solar system started charging intermittently. Tech support required me to have a voltmeter to periodically check the reading on the system, so we had to schedule a stop in Anchorage on the way out to pick one up. And Donna needed to refill some prescriptions. In addition, I had found an RV tailgate for the truck on Craigslist in Anchorage. So, as much as I hate doing errands in a big city while towing an RV, we scheduled a day of Anchorage shopping.
We made a brief two-night stop at Bird Creek on the way to Anchorage as the red salmon were running and I thought Iíd give it a try. River fishing for salmon in Alaska is a bit different than any other fishing Iíve done. Besides learning the techniques used, one has to deal with extremely sticky, slippery, steep mud banks leading to the river. Once at the riverís edge, waders are needed for getting out to where the salmon are hanging out. I gave it my best shot, but one day was just not enough time to learn the whole trick. I donít feel bad, as most of the fishermen I observed didnít take home any fish in spite of obviously knowing the tricks and having all the right gear.
We left Bird Creek Campground to tackle our Anchorage resupply mission. I was already nervous about running around a busy city looking for supplies with the RV attached, and then the transmission started running hot. The air temperature was moderate, the roads level, yet the transmission temperature was in the upper range of comfortable for me. I was beginning to think my luck was running out on what had been a mostly trouble-free trip.
Our first stop in Anchorage was for Donnaís prescriptions. I was in luck as there was a Sears store right across the street where I could easily park, get a voltmeter, and diagnose the solar controller problem. While Donna was doing her thing, I was able to quickly diagnose the problem with the solar system. The main power line in from the solar panels had overheated and melted where it connected to the controller. The solar controller was toast, but at least I now knew it and could go about getting a replacement.
Now it was on to the Craig's List tailgate. They make special tailgates for pickup trucks towing fifth wheel RVs for a good reason. It is highly likely, if you donít have one of these special RV tailgates, you will bash your existing tailgate into uselessness in short order. I had whacked mine with the RV hitch twice. It was still possible to close the tailgate, but one more forgetful moment and my tailgate would no longer close. Iíd been watching a used one on Craigslist for a few weeks and we now headed out to find it. Although the seller said it wouldnít fit my truck, it did, and we bought it. What a nice improvement.
Although we had burnt a good bit of the morning already, with our Anchorage chores successfully completed, we hit the road for a long haul to our planned stopping point, Kenny Lake Mercantile Campground. Kenny Lake is a small settlement near the Copper River. It is also at a junction leading to an old, closed, Kennecott copper mine we planned to visit. At Kenny Lake, we would drop the RV and take the truck alone on the grueling 85-mile route to the mine.
I had expected a relatively easy run from Anchorage to Valdez, but I wasnít thinking. The route was yet another narrow,winding, rough mountain trail with the usual Alaska delay, road repairs. As we had a long way to go, we just kept pushing hard in spite of the conditions. Luckily, the sights along the way kept the trip interesting. And, the mysterious transmission running hot situation didn't reappear.
KennyLake Mercantile was advertised in the book as a modern clean RV park with all the amenities. My impression was of a poorly constructed, run down, overpriced dump out in the boonies. We also got our first serious dose of mosquitoes since smartly settling along the coast in Seward and it renewed our determination to stick to the Alaska coast as much as possible. But it was a place to dump the RV while we did some exploring, so we were happy.
From the campground, it was 25 miles of rough asphalt to the small town of Chitina, where the road ends. Just as we approached the grueling 60-mile graveled-over railroad bed to the Kennicott mine, we spotted a moose eating weeds in a lake. We spent a pleasant 20 minutes or so just watching the action, then started towards the mine. The Kennicott mine shut down in the early 30s. The legend goes that the workers were given 24-hourís notice to get on the last train back to town, or walk out. There was no road back to town, only the train tracks. The road to the mine from Chitina was made by pouring gravel over the old train bed, forming a sometimes single-lane 60-mile gravel road, sprinkled with railroad spikes that had a reputation for finding tires. Conveniently, there are tire repair places at both ends of the road. At the end of the train track road is the town of McCarthy, then a foot bridge, then another five miles of severely potted dirt roads to the old mine.
The first 15 miles of the run to the mine are the worst. It starts out going through a barely single lane cut through the rocks. After getting through the couple of hundred yards of the pass, the next 15 miles are 5 mph pot-holed, washboard winding roads with steep drop-off down one side, with no guardrails. After this much mountain trekking I'd become accustomed to this type of driving, but I was giving serious consideration as to whether I was willing to drive 60 miles of this type of punishing driving, one way, to see the mine. Our neighbor in Seward had assured me the first 15 were the worst, then things smoothed out, so, based on that we pushed on. His description proved very accurate.
The next 45 miles were rough, but we were able to make about 40 mph. The problem was the stretches of relatively good gravel road would lull you into complacency, only to be rudely jolted out of it by the sudden very rough patches. It was a cycle repeated dozens of time on the trip. Passing a rare oncoming vehicle was usually not that big of a deal, slow to 5 mph and squeak by each other, with a quick wave of appreciation to the other driver. Then there were the locals obviously hell bent on punishing the tourists who dare to venture into their domain. The worst offender, we were to learn later, was a local from the town of McCarthy on a supply run. Iíll never forget the vision of him barreling down the road looking like he was pulling an Arizona dust storm, in an old WWII duce and a half-truck, pulling a trailer of the same vintage. This monster was on me so quick I really didnít have time to do more than pull over as far as possible and wait for impact. We were showered with a hail of gravel and a blinding dust storm, and then he was gone. I had the misfortune of another encounter with the maniac on the way back, but this time I saw it coming and found a little wide spot in the road to get out of the way. When I told our shuttle to the mine driver of the experience, he obviously knew just who I was talking about.
There was one unnoticed obstacle in our path that, if I'd known ahead of time, may have caused us to cancel our drive to Kennecott. There is a single lane wooden bridge over a gorge that must be driven over. The bridge is narrow, and wobbly, and must be driven at less than 15 mph. These things give me the heebie-jeebies. But, by the time Donna told me it was upcoming, we were already a good 50 miles into the trip, so I had to grit my teeth and go for it. After all was said and done, it wasn't' that bad, but I'd just as soon not do that again.
At McCarty we parked the truck and walked across the foot bridge to catch the shuttle. We were lucky to be crossing the river during a violent draining of the lake that forms behind the winter ice. At some time in the summer the ice block finally gives way, draining the lake over a two-day period. We just happened to be there on the right day. The raging torrent was a sight to see.
We got lucky on the ride to the mine, as we were the only ones on the shuttle, so we were able to talk to the driver at length. His business story is about like mine, a refugee from the demise of the lower end of the recreational industry. This guyís last business was delivering fifth-wheel RVs, primarily to dealers. When the business dried up he ended up moving out to this extremely remote location to live. Once a month he drives 350 miles round-trip to Anchorage for groceries. He lives in a 500-square-foot cabin with no refrigeration, using a generator and kerosene. There is a community freezer at the church that he shares. If a bear or moose is taken, the spoils are shared with neighbors. Salmon are a big food source for most everyone I met in Alaska, this guy included. He was a very nice and interesting fellow.
This was the first blistering hot day weíd seen in many months. I think the temperature hit 71. Although it sounds balmy, the dry dusty roads seemed like a death march to us. Buddy was having none of it. I was able to coax him from shady spot to shady spot for a little ways, but then he just wouldnít go anymore. It didnít help matters any that there were a fair number of dogs running loose with owners oblivious to anything other than their own enjoyment. Buddy and I sat in a shady spot while Donna explored a bit of the mine and the shops along the road.
Most of the buildings were dilapidated to the point of almost falling down, with a few renovated into park offices or shops. There were many flowers planted and they were in full bloom, to our delight.
As little as I explored, I did enjoy my visit to the mine. One of the lasting impressions I have of the place is the amount of waste thatís routinely tossed into the environment. There was a huge tailing pile that I walked out onto, and it was apparent the mine waste, barrels, old machinery, crates, and vehicles, were dumped and then covered with these tailings.
Unlike our empty shuttle ride to the mine complex, our return ride was jammed packed. Plus, there was another dog on board, who didn't appear to like Buddy, and the feelings were mutual. It was a long, extremely bumpy ride back that I was glad was over.
The ride back was about like the ride out, with one twist thrown in. We passed a tour van that had the misfortune of finding one of those railroad spikes. There were perhaps a dozen passengers milling about watching the driver trying to change the tire. The fact that there were only inches to spare in passing didnít seem to register with the tire changer or the passengers. The tire changer had scattered tools and the spare tire all on the road and had to gather is all up so I could pass. The passengers all milled about in the lane like a bunch of cattle, not seeming to have enough sense to move to the other side of the road. I canít imagine what the scene would have been like if the deuce and a half-truck happened to come up on this.
The next morning we were more than eager to hit the road headed for Valdez. It was Donnaís birthday so I sprung the few gifts Iíd gotten on her. I think we were rolling by 8:00 AM with no regrets about leaving Kenny Lake. The visit to the Kennicot mine was well worth the effort, and the drive out to the old railroad bed was an adventure I'll never forget, but Kenny Lake Mercantile was just another muddy, mosquito-infested, run down dump that charged three times stateside prices for anything you needed. As usual, we should have stayed at a forest service or state camp ground, but decided to treat ourselves to this "modern campground with all the conveniences." I wonder how much they had to pay the tour-book people to print that misrepresentation.
As seems to be my norm, I expected insurmountable mountain peaks to appear just ahead, blocking our route. Although the path to Valdez involved a good bit of extended climbing, the scenery was outstanding. They, whoever they are, call Valdez the Switzerland of Alaska. Glaciers, waterfalls, rivers and lakes lined the route. After a long and splendid climb to the top of the mountain, we were treated to a, just as long, and just as splendid, winding descent into the valley containing Valdez. The road then meanders maybe 10 miles along a river, before arriving at the town of Valdez.
We needed to find an affordable campground with electric available as our solar was not charging. Most full service parks are priced out of our range at $40 to $50 per night, but there was a municipal campground about five miles out of town, Glacier View Campground, that fit our budget. We did a quick tour of downtown Valdez to get the layout, and then headed for camp.
Glacier View was typical of most municipal campgrounds, wet, muddy, mosquito infested, a very frontier-town type of setting. Most of this very large park is primitive with no service, with long, muddy, pot-holed access roads with the occasional clearing in the brush to pull in an RV or pitch a tent. There was one small gravel road with gravel parking pads, water and electric. We scored one of these spots and settled in for a week of problem solving. This section of the park was actually pretty nice and I enjoyed the stay here, but the fellow residents were not nearly as friendly as most campgrounds I'd encountered. I had to put my camp gadabout act on hold for the week.
Much to my surprise, the solar controller company agreed to warranty the unit and send me a brand spanking new one. I never expected that kind of service and I don't think I'd have been so quick to warranty something that had all the signs of being a problem of installation error. I was more hoping they'd give me a good deal on a used one, or maybe sell me a new circuit board, but I wasn't going to turn down a new unit, drop-shipped for free. The unit arrived as promised, in about five days, general delivery, Valdez. In a few hours we were back to charging with sun power. Freedom.
As odd as it sounds, Glacier View Campground gets its name from being right down the road from a glacier. There is a parking area and some primitive facilities as close to the base of the glacier as the water surrounding the glacier would allow. To me, this was the most memorable glacier experience I had, including any national park glacier displays. Standing in the park was like standing in front of an open walk-in freezer. Frigid cold air continually rushes down off the glacier and out into the valley. Chunks of floating ice drifted around the lake and a rapid noisy river continually tried to keep draining the lake with no luck.
We'd been dealing with bear hysteria since about Yellowstone, and it had gotten tedious. Just seeing a bear in the distance was a rare treat, but anyone in authority made it sound like the moment you stepped off the pavement you'd be attacked by packs of frenzied bears. Valdez was different; there were bears here, and a fair number of them. Black bears were common on the road to the camp, and there were plenty of first hand sightings of black bears working the inner park roadways. This kept me from venturing too far into the scrub around the glacier with buddy.
The layover in Glacier View gave us plenty of time to get to know Valdez and make a plan. Our first night in town we treated ourselves to a rare meal out, pizza. By now I'd become somewhat numb to the pricing of commodities in Alaska. Our pizza was $30. This was no fancy pizza place, just a dump that at first appeared to be an abandoned building. The pizza guy was a sumo-wrestler-looking character that appeared to be of South Pacific descent. He had silver-dollar sized discs inserted into his ear lobes. As our stay in town progressed, the pizza guy became a familiar face around town, certainly easy to recognize. Iíd rate our pizza treat as the best Iíd ever had. I think we ended up having three more during our stay and after the first one, I never minded the cost.
We decided to stay across the sound from Valdez at Allison Point Campground. Allison Point is a primitive campground that is the destination for hard core fishing folks. To get to Allison Point, one takes a long road that winds its way down to the oil loading facility, across the bay from the town of Valdez. The first stop on this road is the salmon hatchery, then there are several primitive campgrounds on both sides of the road before one is forced to stop at the highly off-limits oil terminal. We decided on the second to last campground before the oil terminal, on a high bluff overlooking the sound. We were able to back in with our rear window in the RV overlooking the sound from a bluff about 50' high. This was to be our home for the next three weeks.
The very first place we explored in our new digs was the hatchery. The hatchery sits right at a bridge over a small river cascading out from a steep ravine going up the mountain. At the base of the river is a damn with a weir that forces salmon into the hatchery. One of the large salmon smoking and processing operations funds the hatchery. They process somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million salmon eggs a year. Because of the hatchery operation, the number of salmon that return to spawn in the river far outnumbers the rivers ability to provide spawning ground. The hatchery, the wildlife, the fishermen, and finally the purse seine netters have a field day until the run is over.
Until the hatchery catches its quota, the purse seine netters are not permitted in the bay. Once the hatchery is finished, the netters are allowed in, and the folks camping along the bluffs get a rare sight of commercial salmon netting in action. We spent a very interesting afternoon watching them pretty well scour the bay clean.
The masses of salmon at the weir draw a large number of seals, sea lions, otters, bears, eagles and fishermen to partake in the bounty. During this frenzy the fishermen are forced to watch for bears and scatter when they come down to feed, which is often. Along this coastal road, there are also numerous spots where one can safely sit in a vehicle and watch as both brown and black bears work the rivers for spawning salmon. Across the river from the hatchery is a large parking lot for visitors and one of the best fishing spots is on the waterfront right next to the lot. The bears are as aware of this as are the two-legged fishermen. The routine was to make your way down the rocks from the parking lot to the sea wall. There, about every 10 feet, fishermen lined up to cast for the more than abundant salmon. On occasion, bears would come out of the woods across the street from the parking lot, and fish for salmon along this very seawall. It was in the fishermen's best interest to keep a keen eye out for these salmon-seeking bears and make haste up the rock embankment to safety.
I was fishing along this very wall, just one of many, casting for pink prey. I was pretty much lost in my thoughts when I realized I was the only one left on what was just recently a crowded seawall. I then noticed a brown bear making his way down the line towards me. I made haste and scurried up the treacherous rocks to safety. The bear put on a great show for the crowd that had gathered in the parking lot to witness its hunting prowess. I knew from experience that once the bear caught its prey, it would bound up the rocks and head to the woods to eat its kill. Me, being much smarter than the folks manning the crowd, stood by the truck door knowing safety was only one quick jerk of the handle away. Sure enough, the bear came bounding up the rocks with a salmon flapping in its jaws, scattering the crowd of gawkers. I was smug in my knowledge that safety was right at hand. The bear, as expected, headed right for me, as I was between him and the safety of the woods. As he bounded right for me I jerked the door handle, expecting to jump in to safety only to realize I had locked the door and Donna had the keys. It all happened so quickly there was nothing I could do except stand there, with a wild- eyed look in my eyes, as the bear bounded right behind me.
After that bear experience we decided to call it a day. We tossed the catch and the fishing tackle in the back of the truck. Just about that time Mr. Bear decided to come out of the woods in search of more salmon. We were sitting in the truck just watching the bear making his way back to the waterfront when it became apparent it was not the fish in the bay that interested the bear, but the fish in the back of our truck. The bear was making a beeline directly for the truck. The last thing I wanted was a brown bear rummaging around in the back of the truck for grub so I started the engine to make a getaway. Fortunately, Mr. Bear was not fond of diesel engines and changed his route back down to the waterfront.
Fishing for salmon was about as easy as fishing ever gets. If one is satisfied with snagging a fish, every cast will bring results. If you are a purist and want to mouth catch a fish, several casts are necessary. Unfortunately, pink salmon, which were running this time of year, are not the best eating variety and are usually smoked or used to make canned salmon. We did grill a couple but quickly tired of the bland taste.
The tides here, like most in Alaska, are extreme. Low tide is an ideal time to explore the waterís edge, especially in the wee hours of the morning, as itís plenty light at 3:00 or 4:00 AM. One of the major pastimes for some of the folks is collecting fishing tackle at low tide and then selling it to tourist fishermen. At every low tide thereís an entire new crop of freshly lost fishing rigs there just for the taking. Iíve always been a beachcomber at heart so I quickly fell into gathering this tackle myself. As itís fairly competitive, it was fun to watch the actions of people trying to get to spots before anyone else. I really didnít have a use for all the tackle I was collecting, so I started giving it to a young man in the campground that was well known for finding and selling tackle as a summer job. It turned out to be a wise move as this young man and his father supplied us with the much more desirable silver salmon we ended up shipping home.
As always, Buddy went with me everywhere, including my early morning low tide explorations. During one of these he discovered something he loves more than anything else, chasing and catching salmon. It was hilarious fun to watch him stick his head underwater and chase salmon with his head submerged. Heíd chase them up the stream banks right into their holding pools. He got to the point where he was pretty good and could bring them in one after another. Soaking wet I guess he looked like a bear cub doing this routine as a couple of people stopped to take pictures thinking he was a bear cub. The only problem I had was getting him to stop, as he would chase salmon until he was absolutely exhausted. When I would get him back to the RV heíd be dead to the world for the rest of the day.
Our campground was rated primitive, and it was, but it was a nice primitive. The foundation was mostly mud with some crushed rocks. Facilities consisted of steps to get to the water and fresh water tanks for drinking water that were always empty. But the view was superb. Most days were overcast with a cold drizzle. Rarely could the city across the bay be seen. One of our biggest problems was keeping the batteries charged, as even though the solar system was now up and running, the sun was not. If I recall correctly, we endured 23 straight days of rain. But, all in all, it was a glorious place to be and made it exciting to be alive.
Access to the waterfront from these campsites was by concrete steps to the high tide line. Depending on the tide, there could be a substantial and dangerous climb down to the water from the steps as the rocks were extremely slick with marine growth. On two occasions, as careful as I was trying to be, my feet went out from under me and I fell hard into the rocks before I knew what hit me. I was lucky as only my ego was bruised, but it was treacherous walking.
This was by far the most fascinating beach combing this lifelong beachcomber has ever encountered. One could venture out into the drizzly gloom at 3:00 or 4:00 AM, decked out from head to toe in full rain gear. Usually the clouds were low, almost to the water, with a mist keeping visibility low. Sea lions and seals could be heard just offshore surfacing for air. Eagles and large gulls would be working over the dead fish along the shore. The only person I would ever encounter on these early walks would be my young friend looking for tackle, and it was always a pleasant meeting. I'd give him most of my tackle at that point, only keeping a trinket or two to use, or as keepsakes.
I was in town one day, at the post office, and I overheard some locals talking about the hatchery opening up the bay to the seiners. The bears, eagles, sea lions, seals, otters and fisher people are allowed to take their fill of the salmon at any time. The purse seiners are restricted to offshore waters until after the hatchery has filled its quota. At that time, the boat crews are given the go-ahead to move into the bay and clean up what's left, which is a substantial amount.
From our cliffside abode, we were treated to a front row seat to watch the action. There are three boats, primarily, that perform the task -- a small runner, a larger net boat, and the factory boat. First, the small runner, with one or two people onboard, come in and scout the area. Then the net boat comes in close. The runner boat takes the end of the net from the net boat and runs it out into a
big circle around a concentration of fish, returning the end to the net boat. The net boat, with its large winches, begins bringing in the next and closing the circle. While this is happening, the runner boat is busy scurrying about, pulling the net boat away from the rocky shore, keeping the net from under the net boats propellers, and generally keeping the net off snags. Once these two operations have the fish in the net and amply concentrated, the factory boat is called in. As the action was all right along the rocky shore line, the factory boat slowly made its way over to the net boat with its concentrated load. A large suction boom was hoisted over and dropped into the mass of salmon in the net. When the pumps were turned on the salmon were sucked into the vacuum and then spewed forth onto cleaning tables on the deck, lined with fish cleaners. Once the tables were loaded to capacity the pump would be shut off and the cleaners would do their deed. As soon as the supply on the cleaning tables was low the pumps would be turned back on for a few moments to disgorge another load of fish to the cleaners. This process would be repeated over and over until the net was empty. Then the whole process would start over.
We were trying to hang around until the silver salmon run but I was getting a good bit of pressure from brother Dave to arrive in Portland in time for a party he had planned. I was lamenting my predicament to my young tackle selling friend. He offered to bring us some silver salmon as they were catching more than their quota from their boat and would be glad to give me what I wanted. Needless to say, I accepted. About 9:00 PM I heard a knock at the RV door and remembered he was going to bring fish. I quickly thought to myself, damn, now Iíve got to get up and clean a bunch of fish. To my delight, he brought me a bucket full of already filleted salmon. The next night he did the same thing, pretty much filling our shipping quota. I was very appreciative. As it turns out he and his dad had been coming to this spot for 17 years straight. I can see how someone could get hooked on this place.
My big chore was to take our salmon to the processor/shipper. Although the filets were washed and bagged they weren't frozen solid yet. Propane refrigeration was all we had and it is a slow process. At the processors recommendation, I had the filets individually vacuum packed and flash frozen to 40 degrees. We had 45 pounds to ship and the jumbo shipping crate had a capacity of about 56 pounds. I topped off the shipment with 10 pounds of Copper River red salmon filets. Copper River salmon have the highest omega fat content of any fish, reportedly due to the long journey to the spawning grounds they face. The Copper River is the river we followed on our journey to the Kennecott Mine complex. It is indeed a swiftly running river. Copper River reds are a favorite of the locals, so Iím looking forward to getting home and trying a few. 55 pounds of salmon, packaged, frozen and overnight shipped ran $464. I could maybe buy the salmon on sale at home for not much more, but I donít think I could match the quality.
As much as I hated to leave this outdoor utopia, after our salmon quota was filled, we decided it was time to move on south.
August 12. Our last day in Alaska. Although I was melancholy about leaving I awoke with anxious anticipation. In spite of a good bit of yakking with campground friends, we were hitched and moving on by 8:40 AM. We went back to Glacier View Camp Ground to take on a half a tank of water, dump our holding tanks and take showers. In an effort to lighten our load as much as possible for our long return trip to Florida I tossed out anything I didnít feel Iíd need. To help getting over Thompson Pass I decided to go with a half a tank of water and fuel.
Ever since our descent into Valdez Valley, I had been apprehensive about the very long climb to get out of the valley. I was glad to be finally facing the challenge. Although they did get to the upper temperature range of what is acceptable, the transmission and turbo performed just fine. Ever since the transmission had run hot going into Anchorage Iíd been apprehensive about how it would handle its toughest job, steep climbs requiring low gears. After successfully handling the Thompson Pass chore, I felt confident about the rest of the trip.
After the Thompson Pass challenge, our next destination was Glenn Allen to get both Canadian and US currency, and fuel up. Glenn Allen is the junction for turning west, back toward Anchorage, or continuing north to connect back with the Alaska Highway. The half tank of fuel we left with was just enough to get us into Glenn Allen, as we pulled in right at reserve. Glenn Allen was right at halfway of our plan for the day, 130 miles. Our next planned stop would be Tok.
We knew several of the fuel stops in Tok offer free overnight RV stops if you fuel up. Our plan was to do just that, fuel up and take advantage of a free overnight spot. But, once we got fueled up, we just didnít feel like hanging out behind a gas station for the rest of the afternoon so we headed for the Canadian border, 90 miles to the east.
Two hours later, we passed the Canadian border and our Alaskan adventure was over.