Coloring the Void

living nomadically

Archive for the tag “alaska”

2015 – we had a blast!

(Yes, I know am way behind my blog posts. But my computer ate three before I published them and I just didn’t have the brain power to completely rewrite them. And then, we were kinda rushing around doing 100 things and nothing. But, they will be updated over the coming month, once I finally get the pictures edited. Again.) Anyway.

We started the blog in May and for quite a few months, updated it religiously. But, we did have plenty of adventures before May and we found some pretty amazing places that we want to return to in 2017.  In 2015, we didn’t make reservations anywhere, just moved and stopped when we felt like it, where we could find space. The results varied, from hell in Florida to bliss in Alaska and all the stages of both in between. So, here is part of our year in review, with highlights and pictures.

January found us in 18 different spots, from Maryland to Texas. Yes, we drove and moved that much. We were on a mission: to get to Alaska and, looking at January, we were hell bent on getting there as quickly as possible. By the end of January we realized we needed to slow down and wait for the weather to catch up with us – it was still REALLY COLD in most of the country. We did manage to find some great spots for a couple of days (our longest stay was three days) and took some great pictures.

In Florida, we got to see manatees up close in Blue Springs State Park, eat great oysters at Eddy Teach’s Raw Bar (now closed), watch amazing sunsets at St. George Island State Park and visit with quite a few  friends.

In Texas, we met up with more friends, ate amazing BBQ at Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, breezed through San Antonio, and set up camp in Big Bend.

manatees

Manatees at Blue Spring State Park

sunset

Sunset at St. George’s Island State Park

mission

Mission in San Antonio Texas

Rio Grande River

The Rio Grande near Big Bend, Tx

In February, we fell in love with the town of Terlingua then quickly made our way through New Mexico to stay awhile in Arizona. We browsed Arizona for a while, though we didn’t sit in one place for long. We had Marv Braun, of Precision RV fix the absolute clusterfu%k the dealer made when re-installing our solar system (he also added a panel and swapped our batteries for AGMs). We made a quick visit to Tombstone and Bisbee, got lost in the Dragoon Mountains, and wandered the back roads of Prescott. Our longest stay at a campground in February? Three days, if you don’t count the stop in Casa Grande to visit with Marv (six days). We were still in a hurry.

jeep

Great Sand Dunes National Monument

jeep

Lost in Arizona

jeep road

The backroad from Prescott to Jerome. Probably one of the funnest drives in the area.

In March, we ran the border at Organ Pipe National Monument, went to the Escapees Escapade, hung out with my brother in Gilbert, then raced to Desert Hot Springs, CA. We ended the month with a week in Coarsegold at the Escapees Co-Op just outside of Yosemite.

We fell in love with Organ Pipe and in Desert Hot Springs, we had the best sushi ever (and really good noodles) at Domo Sushi. We visited Joshua Tree National Park and found it completely packed with Spring Breakers so we beat a hasty retreat out a back road that had us testing the abilities of the Jeep (it passed). After browsing for a day in Yosemite, we cancelled our week of reservations at one of the Valley campgrounds – it was just entirely too crowded and most of the campgrounds hadn’t even opened yet!

border stop

The US border in Organ Pipe.

creek

Creek in the Superstition Mountains

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Joshua tree near Palm Springs, CA

Yosemite

Yosemite Valley in March

April had us pushing northward faster than we expected because of the crowds. We had no reservations and they were hard to come by. Many of the state parks had sites available but they were too short for our rig. So we made our way North to Oregon and then Washington.

We found a peaceful site in Klamath where we wandered around huge trees for a couple of days. We landed a last minute oceanview campsite in Harris State Park in Oregon and stayed put for a week – until the rain drove us out. We stopped at Newport (loved it) and Seaside (loved it more), then raced up to Chimicum, WA in need of some rig repairs. We then bummed around Washington and continued to do that the first two weeks of May as we waited for our departure to Alaska.

jeep

In the Redwoods, the jeep is very tiny.

marina docks

Newport Marina Sunset

ocean

The Oregon Coastline

In May, we did last minute prepping and purchasing, including getting Belle’s shots before we took off for the Great White North. The border crossing was easy but the price shock wasn’t. Gas and many food items doubled in price. But, the scenery was amazing, the places to boondock beautiful and we were finally on our way to Alaska!

We were wowed by Fraser Canyon, enjoyed  Terrace and Stewart, got an oil change in Whitehorse, and finally settled for a breather in Haines. We got to see bears, moose, foxes, and glaciers and we were barely in Alaska.

June found us in Wrangell St. Elias Park finding McCarthy, then Valdez  watching eagles play, and left us on the Kenai Peninsula dodging forest fires.

While McCarthy didn’t live up to expectations, Valdez kept our attention and we managed to stay a week. It ended up being our favorite Alaska town (though Haines was a close second). Seward was beautiful, Homer was busy, and the Kenai River was crowded. June was more than sensory overload but if I had to relive one month of my life over and over, it would be this one.

In July we made back up to the heart of Alaska, visiting Anchorage and Fairbanks, then pushing north to the Arctic Circle. Unfortunately, while there, Belle had another stroke. We were tired and she was sick, so we began our push back south. It wasn’t really a direct path, as it took us through Chicken, Dawson City, Skagway, Toad River and down into Montana by the end of the month. There are many places we missed – we drove through the Canadian Rockies but didn’t have a chance to stop for long – but it gives us an excuse to go back.

The month of August was spent bouncing around Montana, with a brief ‘vacation’ down in Cody Wyoming. We found some beautiful places to stop and spend some time. We also found the best brisket in the country and the best biscuits and gravy in the country (sorry – it is a friend who is an amazing cook!). We found ghost towns, an endless number of backroads, and quiet, out of the way, places to hide.

The weather was finally turning so we headed south in September, spending a couple of weeks in Utah before ending up in Usery Park.  We finally followed the White Rim trail, nearly got car-jacked by wild horses and got to watch an amazing lunar eclipse before meeting up with family at the end of the month.

October was almost completely dominated with visiting family, though we did get a brief break at Balloon Fiesta. Another bucket list item done! Seriously, if you ever get the change to go to Balloon Fiesta, do it. And I highly recommend it in an RV.

The first half of November we chilled with family around Phoenix and then raced back to Virginia for Thanksgiving.  We managed to stop for some amazing meals and moments with both friends and family on our trip east (Did I mention the most amazing burgers that are worth a 200 mile detour in Roswell? Yeah, we are still reminiscing about those.)  and then settled in Wakefield, VA on the family farm.

December we holed up just outside DC at Cherry Hill RV park, where we caught up with dentists and doctors, more friends and family, and celebrated the holidays.

squirrel

We finished up the month in South Carolina, and started the new year there, too.

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If I had to do it all again, I would. And I probably would only change one or two things. Yes, we sped through many, many states when I would have preferred to linger. And yes, we acted like vacationers with a time limit rather than permanent travelers. But, now that we have done the trip once, we can do it again in 2017, but a little bit slower. There is still so much of the country to see…

Carcross and Skagway

Dawson City overflows with gold rush history.  It is a beautiful little town with a lot to do and a lot of history to take in. We only had a day, so we raced around a little bit to check out the buildings and the waterfront. It wasn’t packed with tourists, so it was pretty easy to find a parking space and wander. The restaurants we wanted to try – Klondike Kate’s and the Drunken Goat – were closed for the day (on Monday’s, much is closed), so we settled on The Jack London Grill for lunch.  The salad was very good and fresh and the buffalo sliders were excellent. We sat outside in the warm day and watched people wander down the street. We took a pass on the Sourtoe Cocktail next door; I don’t put my own toes in my mouth, let alone someone else’s.

We decided to see some of the countryside during the afternoon and headed up the road to dredge number 4. It is incredibly large, gargantuan, and one can see the path it took following the road to get to it. The tailings/pilings line the road and are the road. There is still a lot of mining going on today and equipment is everywhere. I wish I had my camera with me to take some pictures; I had forgotten it at home. Further up the road is what appears to be a very popular ($$) gold panning attraction but if you proceed a little farther, there is a province run free spot to pan in the Bonanza River.

In the morning we got up and headed south. The road is beautiful and wandering and, since traffic is light, enjoyable. Some time between Dawson City and Whitehorse we got our Sirius Radio back constantly. We had enjoyed it here and there throughout much of the north, but it would come and go with the wind.

Yukon road

Road view between Dawson and Whitehorse

We skipped Whitehorse except for a quick gas stop and headed down to Carcross. On the way is Emerald Lake and the smallest desert in the world, both worthy stops.  We stopped at Montana Grocery and RV Park (and restaurant and gas station), and called it a night.

Carcross is a picturesque little village on the edge of Bennett Lake. There is gold rush history here as well as first nation history. We are glad we decided to stay here rather than brave the drive into Skagway with the RV. It wasn’t the roads that were a problem though there are grades; it is the sheer number of human bodies that make Skagway so uncomfortable.

We took the drive down to Skagway, across the border and over White’s Pass. The drive is sublime. Between the mountains, the lakes, and the general landscape, it is easy to get lost for hours just looking. The stop at the border – we only had the Jeep – was quick and easy both ways. It has changed a lot since the last time we had been there, around 2007 or so. Large buildings and an actual checkpoint had been added.

road to Skagway

Heading south to Skagway

Tutshi Lake

Tutshi Lake

White's Pass

A cloud obliterating the view at White’s Pass (we didn’t do passes very well this trip)

Skagway was just what we expected. Four cruise ships had disgorged their passengers and the town streets where wall to wall tourists. Literally. It was almost impossible to get anywhere. They wandered blindly in the streets, a few of them nearly getting flattened by trucks trying to deliver goods. More than half of them had their cell phones in their hands, madly texting or posting to facebook or some such, not watching where they were going or what they were doing. Of course, because so many people were on their phones, Verizon service wasn’t much good for anything other than phone calls. Our goal in Skagway was to pay a bill online and to do some last minute shopping; we were foiled on both. We tried to find a place to eat figuring that the cruisers had free food on the ships but no such luck. The lines were 15-30 people deep. We gave up and headed back north.

The view on the return from Skagway

The view on the return from Skagway

A new place had opened up on the highway: Yukon Suspension Bridge. The restaurant was on the canyon that overlooked the supremely blue Tutshi River. While the food was nothing to write about (but it was good), the views of the canyon and the architecture of the building was amazing. We completely enjoyed our brief stop away from the overwhelming hoards.

On the way back to Carcross, we came across a boat ramp that had room for camping/overnighting. The view was spectacular, the area level and easy to get to. If one could endure the tour buses that regularly stopped there during the day, it would be a great place to spend the night. We also came across a new campground the Yukon government seems to be putting in right next to the river. It is supposed to open in 2016 and from the looks of it, will have paved roads and a great view. Unfortunately, it was not somewhere we could stay now.

Lake

The great boondock/overnight boat launch site

The area right around Carcross is beautiful. There are lots of lakes and streams and mountain views. Had the weather not been calling for a week straight of rain, we would have stayed and then wandered to Atlin for a day or two. There are plenty of great places to overnight and boondock and it seems to be an out of the way area for some peace and quiet.

Heading South

After Fairbanks, we decided it was time to head south. Belle was sick, my allergies were raging, and we were all very tired. We needed to stop in North Pole to pick up a couple of gifts, meet up with a couple of people and take a look around.

We decided to stay at Chena Lake Recreation Area. The recreation area has very nice widely spaced campsites with a good bit of privacy but no hookups. It was very quiet, as we were the only RV in the entire loop.

North Pole, Alaska is another city I had expectations of that quickly let me down. There was a christmas store and a few light poles painted to resemble candy canes but other than that, nothing. Having been to Alpine Helen, Georgia and Leavenworth, Washington, I thought just a little effort was in order for a place named “North Pole.” But no such luck. We stayed two nights and couldn’t think of any reason to stay longer.

We decided to head to Chicken. On the way, we stopped in at the Delta Meat & Sausage store. I love buying local and love trying local foods even more. We bought two different kinds of sausage, smoked cured bacon ends, and a pound of ground yak. Since then, we have tried them all. Some of the sausage went into a macaroni and cheese. It was milder than I expected, being jalapeno sausage, but it was fully flavored otherwise and added a great counterpoint to the smoothness of the cheese. Some of the bacon ends were great cut up and fried and used for baked potatoes and to flavor peas. The yak – boy was the yak good! It was only a pound and now I kick myself for not buying more. The yak was as mild as filet mignon, a little sweet, and tasted wonderful in homemade ‘sloppy joes.’ I expected something much stronger and a little gamey, hence the sloppy joe preparation; if I get the chance to do it again, I will probably go for yak steaks.

The Taylor Highway to Chicken was surprisingly well kept. A bump here or there, a rough patch, but nothing worse than any other road in Alaska. And the views were outstanding. We drove to about 10 miles outside of Chicken and decided to call it a night. We pulled off into a large gravel area with beautiful views and watched the approaching rain.

taylor highway

pull of with a view

When we got up in the morning, the rain was still threatening. We got an early start and headed to Chicken. There are actually three ‘Chickens:’ the one on the main highway, the one to the left on airport road and the one to the right on airport road. We decided on the one to the right as it seemed the most authentic. And they had cinnamon buns. We didn’t stay long, rain was coming, but I could understand how it would be very easy to pull up a chair and stay for a while. A long while. This is what I expected of McCarthy: a warm comfortable feeling with a beautiful view. There were quite a few people there, mostly Alaskans, and they didn’t look like they were going anywhere soon. And I would have quickly joined them. Some times, when one gets to a place, one just knows it’s the right place. Everything just ‘clicks’ and a feeling of bliss overcomes. For me Chicken was such a place. I could imagine living here for a summer, perfectly content to sit on the porch and people watch. Of course, it could have been my state of mind – we had been rushing and traveling and touristing for weeks and I think I was ready to stop and just watch other people race around for a while.

Chicken

The real downtown Chicken

We continued on up the road to Top of the World Highway. To get there, you need to do the thirteen miles of the Taylor to the Boundary Road. Those thirteen miles are the worst of the entire road between Tetlin Junction and the Dawson Ferry. The road is narrow, winding, and edged by steep cliffs. But, if you take it slow, it really isn’t so bad. The most difficult part is passing another vehicle on the skinniest parts. Since we have a toad with a surge brake, it would be doubly difficult – we can’t back up. Had we encountered another class A with a toad, it could have been ugly in one or two spots. But, we didn’t – the road isn’t that well traveled and so those last miles were uneventful, even as rain fell.

Boundary Road

Paved highway to the border

We quickly covered the remaining well paved miles to the border. At the border, because we had a shotgun with an expired entry permit, we had to go inside. It took a while; the computer connection went down right in the middle (of course) and traffic backed up. There was a giant tour bus, a class C, and about six cars – all had made it those thirteen miles. We also passed half a dozen rigs (buses and class As) going the other way. As we haven’t heard of a major accident on the Taylor, we assume they made it, too.

Top of the World

Top of the World Highway

The Top of the World Highway, once the Canadian border is crossed, is gravel with occasional ruts, washboards, and paving. The views are beautiful, the road doable. We saw a lot of caribou, many birds, and a lot of squirrels. The weather alternated between drizzle and cloudy. It was over quickly and we found ourselves in line for the ferry.

Dawson Ferry

On the Dawson Ferry

It was more scary watching the boat from shore than it was actually being on the ferry. The captain used the current of the Yukon to swing the ferry around then powered it to the other shore. It took all of five minutes and we were safely back on land. The ferry hands were excellent in maneuvering us onto and off the ferry, taking care to make sure we approached correctly to keep from dragging. They were very good at their jobs.

Ferry Dock

Ferry Dock

We desperately needed a rig wash and there were two in town. We picked one, washed the dust off the rig, then settled on a campground. None of them were overly appealing, being squishy tight and on gravel, so we picked the better of the two: Dawson City RV Park. It was only better in that the spaces seemed just a few inches wider and the rigs weren’t arranged helter skelter anywhere they could fit. It also turned out to be only $32CAD per night as they no longer offered cable tv.

Fairbanks?

Belle was sick. Some time between the Arctic Circle and 60 Mile Camp, she started throwing up. When we stopped at 60 Mile Camp, she ran around frantically trying to find grass to eat. All that was there was dusty weeds. In the morning, she didn’t seem any better. Listless, feverish, and craving water, we decided to move as quickly as possible south.

Since we already knew there was grass and a decent campsite at River’s Edge, we called them; they had space available for three nights. We made a beeline for the campground. Some time between the Yukon River and the end of the Elliott, Belle started sneezing. It wasn’t her usual lady like snuff but a body shaking, spastic ACHOO! followed by two or three more. He nose started running. She looked totally miserable.

We set up in the campground and managed to get a benadryl in her. She was doing her business regularly but she didn’t eat much. We also fed her baby aspirin in hopes of bringing down the fever. By the second night at the campground, she was looking much better. The vomiting had stopped and the sneezing was much more rare. She still snarfed occasionally, but nothing out of the ordinary.

We woke the morning after the third night – set to pull out with a much improved and rested companion. But Belle was having problems walking – her back legs wouldn’t cooperate. He head tilted and she would completely loose focus of everything around her. We called a vet. Aurora Animal Clinic was right up the road and could see us at 3PM. Mike went to the campground office to arrange another night.

In October last year, while we were in Hunting Island South Carolina, Belle had a stroke. Or vestibular disease, which looks like a stroke. The vet we saw at time, Jim Holden of Veterinary Wellness Care, was pretty wonderful. He told us that chances are it was one or the other and that he could perform a dozen tests but after spending $1000 the prognosis would be the same: she would recover or she wouldn’t; an accurate diagnosis would not make a difference. He stated that she would either improve over the next few weeks or she wouldn’t and that only time would tell how much the event effected her. Lucky for us, Belle got better and better every day, improving to almost completely normal in a few short months.

Because we knew what the first attack/stroke looked like, and because we knew the likelihood of a second attack/stroke were very high, we have been watching her for any changes. They came that morning at the RV Park. We were really worried this time as she was now 17 years old – older than most Jack Russells live and about the end of a Chihuahua’s life span. We had considered every day with her for the last eight months bonus time. She is incredibly spoiled, but a very happy dog.

At 20 minutes before 3PM, Belle made a miraculous recovery. She was bouncing around (though her back legs gave out a few times) and begging for a treat. She knew we had called the vet! At the vet’s office, our suspicions were confirmed. Chances are, her allergy attack and sneezing caused a stroke or a return of the vestibular symptoms. The vet gave us antibiotics, anti-nausea pills, and doggy prednisone. And wished us the best. She stated she had never seen a dog survive a second attack but Belle seemed to be doing fine.

We returned to camp and drugged our dog. The one with the most immediate effect was the anti-biotic. She must have picked up an infection somewhere on the Dalton. During the four nights in Fairbanks, at least one of us was with her at all times. I went to the grocery while Mike stayed home. He went to wash the Jeep, I stayed home. We didn’t see any of Fairbanks except the road to the Vet’s office, about five miles away. But, we aren’t really city/shopping people so I don’t think we missed much.

(It is now a couple of weeks later and Belle is doing wonderfully. She is still demanding treats and people food and has a sluggish lazy day once in a while. But for the most part, she is close to being back to her old self. She loses her back legs once in a while and when tired, has a head tilt. We have started leaving her alone again, for up to two or three hours at a time, but try to stay pretty close the short bus when we can’t bring her with us.)

Return from the Dalton

The return trip on the Dalton Highway was pretty uneventful. We could make faster time because we knew the roads and in the 2.5 days we were north, some road repairs were made.

Dalton Highway

South on the Dalton

There was a slight pucker factor when we saw this in our windshield:

Dalton Hwy

One of the hills on the Dalton

We didn’t remember anything this steep on the way in. We took as much of a running start as we could and hit the top at a respectable speed of about 25 MPH.

The view on the other side:

Dalton Highway

Dalton Highway

In places where there had been old gravel patches in the asphalt with tire killer transitions, new gravel had been added and the road smoothed. In places where the chip seal/dirt was deeply pockmarked and potholed, grading had been done.

Dalton

See, there is dirt on the Dalton – road crew grading the surface

Sometimes those road crews work really fast! And then we hit it – an area that was being freshly graded. It wouldn’t have been so bad had it been a flat straight away or if we didn’t weigh 26,000 lbs, or if we hadn’t had to slow when a truck passed the other way. Our guess is that when the crews grade the dirt, they first wet it down. A lot. Then they drag it repeatedly to get the dirt churned up and soft enough to roll. Then they add calcium chloride as a kind of binding, stabilizing agent. And then they roll it all flat. We hit an 8% grade up after they wet it and dragged it but before they rolled it.

Anyone who has driven a lot in snow knows the tipping point: the moment when weight and gravity overcome forward momentum on a slippery surface and one begins to slide backwards while going forwards. If lucky, forward movement is faster than backward movement, at least long enough to crest the hill. We hit that moment, just short of the crest of the hill. Creeping along at 10 MPH, though the gas pedal was to the floor, we crested the hill just as we slid back.

We were extremely thankful and continued carefully to 60 Mile Camp where we could assess the damage.

Yuck! Mud was caked everywhere. I really wish I had taken pictures because words can’t describe the amount of mud. We couldn’t see the headlights or foglights of the jeep; it was as if the entire front end was one solid mass of oozy ick. Just imagine a 2-4 inch thick blanket of mud thrown over it (people pay a lot to do that to themselves). My bike on the back was unidentifiable – it could have been a kayak. In each Short Bus compartment, 4 inches of mud was caked on the bottoms of the door where it met the frame. Mud had worked its way into the sewer drain compartment and the propane compartment as both had openings to the ground below. The wheel wells, exhaust, frame, bumpers, everything was covered in pounds of mud. We do a lot of off roading and have been known to take a turn through the mud just for fun but we had just never experienced it on this scale. It was probably due to the size of the Short Bus – we must have knocked about 500 lbs of mud off the vehicles in that parking lot. But, we lived to tell about it and now we can check one other bucket list item off (okay, mudding in our RV was not on our bucket list but it was something we accomplished so…).

We had a decent night’s sleep (the sun sets for about an hour before it rises again) and continued the last 60 miles of the Dalton.

Yukon River

the Yukon River

Yukon River Bridge

Yukon River Bridge on the Dalton

It started to rain when we had about ten miles left on the Dalton. As we had done many times on this trip, we repeated our mantra, “I think I can, I think I can.”

Dalton Highway

Dalton Highway – we kept running into the red and white German plated class C but we never got a chance to talk to them.

We made it off the Dalton and onto the Elliott. The rain eased up and we had an easy trip back down to Fairbanks through the fire zone and into the city.

bb4 bb5Notes on the Dalton Highway

We read all the scare stories about how horrible it was, how one needed extra gas cans, two spare tires, various other parts, etc. but we also read of other RVers who had done it. One in particular was extremely helpful: FulltimeUSA. I took my inspiration from him, though he no longer blogs. We didn’t carry gas cans. We had a spare for the jeep but none for the RV. We have a spare air filter for the RV and various tools and duct tape, but that is about it.

We had plenty of time.  We could go as slow as we needed to as we didn’t have any schedule to keep. This was probably our smartest move as too many people drive too fast. That is how one blows a tire or loses a windshield. Since we didn’t feel any pressure to get from point A to point B, or any pressure to even drive the Dalton, we had a much better, safer experience.

We watched the far off road as much as we did the road immediately in front of us. On the Dalton, one can see for miles. If we saw a semi behind us, we prepared for him to pass us: we slowed down and either found a very wide spot or even a pull off. It slowed us down but it was safer for both us and the trucker as typically, they were going significantly faster than we were. If we saw a semi coming towards us, we slowed down and moved as far over as we could. Slowing down probably saved our windshield – we were hit by quite a few rocks but we suffered no damage. If we were going to meet a semi on a hill, and he/she was going down, we got out of their way. With the narrowness of the road in most places, combined with the unevenness of the road surface, we were worried they might bounce right into us. While we had a few close calls, we came out without a scratch.

There are way more motorcycles on the Dalton than one would expect; from our discussions with bikers, it seems to be a bucket list item, much like it is for everyone else. We slowed down when passing them the other way, more for their safety than ours. If a rock can break a windshield imagine what it can do to a human body.

There were plenty of other RVs on the Dalton though we saw few trailers or fifth wheels. We only saw one other Class A but plenty of Bs and Cs and dozens of truck campers. Just from experience, the smaller you are the easier it is.

I guess the gist is: we went slow. We did about 680 miles on the Dalton and had absolutely no damage (other than the mud) to either of our vehicles. Going slow also gave us more time to enjoy the ride. And we did. Would we do it again? Probably.  But we would wait until the end of August to see the changes fall brings.

North of Coldfoot on the Dalton

We packed up our jeep with all the essentials – lunch, bug spray, water, and Belle. It was a beautiful day and the temperature was already in the 60s. We headed north on what had to be the best road in Alaska. We hadn’t believed the owner of the Hot Spot Cafe when she told us that but she was right; for 30 miles the pavement was the smoothest we had seen so far. The dirt/chip seal after that was also very good – it must have been done within the last year. We managed to make very good time heading north.

Brooks Range

Approaching the Brooks Range

We passed the “Farthest North Spruce” which no longer existed due to vandals, and the few straggling spruce that managed to grow just beyond that. The clouds gathered. As far as we know, there are always clouds over the Brooks Range. The mountains seem to suck up and trap all moisture for miles.

We had been worried about Atigun Pass and the stories of its dangerousness; it was why we didn’t take the RV further north. Well, it wasn’t as bad as we thought, at least in the jeep. We were the only ones in it on the trip up and so, other than the threat of rain, the passage was uneventful.  It was beautiful though.

Pipeline

The pipeline running through the Brooks Range

The Alaska Pipeline is a constant companion on a run up the Dalton but north of Coldfoot, it is almost always in sight of the road and takes a prominent position in the landscape.

Arctic Tundra

Arctic Tundra

We got our first views of arctic tundra. We continued north, through construction, just taking in the views. With an up and back route, we tend to go to our ‘destination’ making our stops on the passenger side of the road, leaving the other side for the return trip. This gives us a gauge of how much time we will need on the way back.

Our ‘do or die’ spot was Happy Valley Camp. When we reached there, we would have to decide if we would go all the Deadhorse or turn around – we needed to make sure we had enough gas for the return trip. It was 2PM when we reached Happy Valley. It had taken us about five hours to get there, with a lunch break. We decided to turn around.

We took some time to enjoy the view and wander around before turning back south.

Sag River

The Sag River at Happy Valley Camp

There was one five mile stretch of road where fireweed grew with an unimaginable abundance on one side of the Dalton. The color was so vibrant, if I stared too long,  green splotches clouded my vision.

Fireweed

Fireweed along the Dalton

jeep

The jeep on the Dalton

One thing the Dalton has is a lot of truck traffic relative to its traffic in general. And much of that traffic is wide loads. The Dalton, for the most part, is 28′ wide. In most parts, that includes the shoulder even if it is slanted down into a ditch. Twice, we ran into 21′ loads.

wide load

a 21′ wide truck on the 28′ wide Dalton

Luckily, for this one, we were in a very, very wide part of the road – it had just been redone so it was also smooth. The second time, the shoulder into the ditch wasn’t so slanted and soft so we were able to hide out there, as the road wasn’t wide enough for both of us. The pilot cars of the extremely wide loads called us on the CB (yes, we bought a CB just for this) to give us a chance to find a place to stop. It probably would have been a problem had we been in the Short Bus; chances are it would have rolled right off the highway at that slant.

pilot car

Pilot car through construction

The return trip through the construction zone was a little slower this time – about a 45 minute wait. We talked to the motorcycle guy we would run into two more times later. He also made the trip from Key West to the Arctic though he took three and a half weeks to do it instead of nine months like we did. He decided the Dalton did him in and, when he got back to Fairbanks, he would ship the bike back. I think a lot of that had to do with the 500 mile days he had to do to get there that quickly.

Nearing the Brooks Range, the clouds began to gather again.

the Dalton

The Dalton

The Dalton

The Dalton

The Pipeline was almost always in the landscape. But, without the pipeline, the Dalton wouldn’t exist, and vice versa.

pipeline

Gathering clouds and the ever present pipeline

mountains

mountains

As we started into the pass, it began to rain. Not too hard but enough to have us worry about road conditions – we didn’t know how long it had been raining. The pass was mostly uneventful, save for the speeding semi on the wrong side of the road. We missed him and he missed us, so we consider it a success.

Brooks Range

Rain in Atigun Pass

view

The view in Atigun Pass

The Dalton

Cutting through the mountains at Atigun Pass

overlook

An overlook with a view

Brooks Range

Landscape of the Brooks Range

Dalton

Out of the mountains and into the foothills and the land of trees

j20

Skukakpak Mountain

j21

Dalton Highway

j22

River along the Dalton

j23

The beautiful blue of the Middle Fork of the Kuyakuk River.

We thought about taking the side road to Wiseman but it was late, we were hungry, and I’m pretty sure Belle had had enough. She endured the drive like a champ but was getting restless in her kennel in the back seat.

We returned to camp, fed Belle, and then headed back to Coldfoot Camp.  I really needed a beer and Mike wanted to hit the buffet again. The beer was excellent (Silver Gulch Copper Creek Amber), just what I needed to get the dirt out of my throat.  The buffet was again very good – Ahi tuna, beef shish kabob, pizza, veggies, a salad bar, and more heavenly desserts. We again ate too much then toddled back to camp tired.

Driving the Dalton Highway

Over the day and a half we spent in Fairbanks, the smoke cleared, the jeep was washed, and we relaxed a little. We decided we would continue north rather than turn around and go back to Denali. The Dalton Highway was probably the exact opposite experience we had in Denali and we were looking forward to it.

As usual, we got a late start. But we made it out of Fairbanks and onto the Elliot Highway, the connection between Fairbanks and Manley Hot Springs and the Dalton.

The Elliott Highway is a beautiful drive. It has bumps and frost heaves and gravel parts but for the most part, it is pretty fast. At mile 32 we started seeing signs for firefighters and the sky got darker and dreary. And then smoke. The smoke wasn’t as bad as Fairbanks but, since we hadn’t heard anything about fires up this way, we were a little apprehensive. (Hindsight – turns out the Elliott had been closed for a while at MM 34 because the fire had jumped the road).

Elliott Highway

Fire on the Elliott Highway

Elliott Highway

Recent burn on the Elliott Highway

We passed through the fire area without problem and found the Dalton Highway.

Dalton highway

Welcome to the Dalton Highway!

The Dalton Highway is considered one of the most remote roads in North America. It is also considered dangerous. Everyone attempting to travel on it is encouraged to have two spare tires, plenty of gas and food, and plenty of time. We had two out of the three and figured Meatloaf would approve. We decided to take the RV as far as we could and use the jeep from there.

The Dalton highway is listed as having pavement, gravel, and chip seal. I’m not sure if I actually saw any chip seal, but that might be what they call hard packed dirt. They also don’t mention the miles of dirt road which can be the most treacherous when it rains. Where ever there is a transition from one type to another, expect a rough ride. The worst was where pavement had eroded and been replaced by gravel. The longer ago the gravel had been placed, the deeper the hole where the pavement ended. New gravel was almost always a joy compared to the alternatives. It hadn’t yet washboarded and one could make fairly quick time. Of the longer stretches, the worst was the ‘chip seal’ packed dirt that hadn’t been redone in a few years. One could find a variation of potholes, washboards, grooves, and pockmarks. The pockmarks, hundreds of shallow depressions all over the road, would often go on for miles and could rattle teeth out.

Of all the miles of road on the Dalton, the worst is the first 30 miles. We covered it at an average of about 25 miles per hour. We talked to a motorcyclist on the road and he agreed. He, like us, almost turned back before 30 miles because the road was so treacherous and unforgiving. I’m pretty sure the state of Alaska allows that part to remain so bad to discourage people from continuing on the road.  But honestly, once you pass that part, the road gets better and better.

Dalton

The ‘chip seal’ of the Dalton

Dalton

The winding road of the Dalton. Here, paved for a while.

dalton4

More paved Dalton – high pass views.

Dalton meets Yukon

The Dalton Highway approaching the Yukon River.

Immediately on the right after crossing the Yukon River Bridge there is a tourist information area and a large parking lot. While overnighting in the parking lot is not allowed, the couple in the office have a lot of information. And a bathroom if you need it. Based on their local knowledge and assurance, we decided to continue on with The Short Bus into Coldfoot. We also picked up a brochure listing the highlights of the Dalton Highway and two certificates for crossing the Arctic Circle.

Across the road is Yukon River Camp, a place to get gas ($5.50/gal), food, and lodging if you need it.  We didn’t, so we continued five miles north to 60 Mile Campground to spend the night. The campground is a large open area with some picnic tables, fire rings, and a great view. The campground also plays host to an artisan well from which fresh water tanks can be filled and the only public dump station on the Dalton. About 100 yards from the campground is The Hot Spot Cafe, a restaurant, gift shop, outpost. The owner is interesting, the food is good, and the prices, all things considered, are great.

It was very quiet in the middle of nowhere and with only five other rigs (a car, 2 truck campers, a B and a C), we had a good night sleep.  So good, in fact, we didn’t wake up until almost 10AM the next morning. We quickly got ready and resumed our passage north.

For the most part, the road was improved from the previous day, at least as far as surface went. However, we were entering the “Rollercoaster” a long section of PUDs (pointless ups and downs) with grades up to 12%.

Dalton

One of the PUDs in the rollercoaster, a section of the Dalton Highway

We stopped for a short break at mile 98 – Finger Mountain Wayside. The wayside is on a high spot with a lot of interesting rock formations and a short informative walking trail.

Finger Mountain Wayside

The Short Bus at Finger Mountain Wayside – lots of smoke lingering in the air.

Finger Mountain

Finger Mountain Interpretive Trail

Finger Mountain

Finger Mountain

We continued on to the Arctic Circle where we had lunch and posed the bus for pictures.

Arctic Circle

The Short Bus at the Arctic Circle. She has made it from the Keys to the Arctic in less than a year.

Arctic Circle Sign

The back of the sign where people sign their names.

We checked out the campground but it wasn’t that great and we still had hours of daylight left. We had only gone 60 miles (about three hours) and so we pushed on.

We stopped at Gobblers Knob to take in the view.

Gobbler's Knob

Gobbler’s Knob. The far off mountains are the Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park.

We continued on and passed rivers and meadows and hills.

River

A River along the Dalton

The sky began to darken and cloud over and finally to drop rain as we approached Coldfoot.

Dalton

Approaching the Brooks Range and Coldfoot

We passed by Coldfoot to find a campsite at Marion Creek Campground, a developed BLM campground with beautiful surroundings in the foothills of the Brooks Range. For $8 per night, we got a 100 foot long mostly private campsite with a fire pit and a picnic table. The sites are well built-up from the tundra, about 3 feet of packed gravel, and have flowers, trees, and bushes between sites.

Marion Creek Campsite

Campsite at Marion Creek Campground on the Dalton Highway

We settled in for a bit, shaking off the highway dust, then got hungry. We headed into Coldfoot. We checked out the really great Visitor Center (a must do if you want information for heading north) and then went to the Camp. While the buildings and the setting are nothing to write home about, the food was. Considering how far we were from ‘civilization,’ the food was exceptionally good. It was also very well priced: dinner was an all you can eat buffet for $21.95. While that may not seem remarkable, the buffet included a well-stocked salad bar, slow cooked steak, ahi tuna, roasted mushrooms and potatoes, sauteed brussel sprouts and green beans, and three kinds of dessert with soda to wash it all down. And it was all very fresh. It was probably one of the best meals I ate so far in Alaska and I hate buffets.

After stuffing ourselves beyond what our pants could hold, we rolled on back to camp for a good night’s sleep.

Heading North

We woke up, unhooked, and headed for Talkeetna.  It is a beautiful drive along the parks highway. There are many moments where one gets a glimpse of Denali and it is easy to see why it is called “the Great One.” We pulled up to Talkeetna Camper Park.  Luckily, they had space for us, though they could only give us one night – someone else had left a day early. The park is in a wooded area between the highway and the train tracks. It is very tight everywhere in the campground and we were lucky to squeeze into our site with enough room to open both slides. We had to open one into tree branches but they weren’t large ones.

Since we only had one guaranteed day, we immediately took off. We first headed south, back the way we came, to Kahlitna Birchworks, makers of Birch Syrup. I have never had Birch Syrup and, since I love to try local foods and flavors (and supporting small businesses), I had to go. In the store front, there are an array of products, including birch syrup, with samples of each. We tried at least a dozen different jams and spreads, settling on wild blueberry and salmonberry.  Both are very good. We also picked up a bottle of birch syrup and learned about how it is made (there is also a factory tour).  The clerk was very knowledgeable about all the products and explained to us that it takes 110 gallons of birch sap to make 1 gallon of birch syrup (for maple, it is 35 to 1). This explains why it is so expensive! We also picked up a 100% natural (and better smelling) bug repellent. We haven’t tried it yet, so I can’t comment on if it works. To be honest, I’m glad I bought and tried birch syrup (with pancakes even) but I still prefer real maple syrup. The birch has an alcohol like aftertaste that I don’t care for.

We headed north a couple of miles to Flying Squirrel Bakery where we got much needed coffee (good) and some bread and pastries.  The cinnamon raisin bread was good – I could eat it without even using butter. As it was late in the day, they didn’t have many other choices. We also got a piece of coffee cake which was very good.  The only thing lacking was attentive customer service – we ordered our coffee and waited ten minutes before the counter clerk realized she didn’t make it. It took her a while, I guess, to figure out why we were looking at her expectantly.

We drove further north into the town of Talkeetna. We were completely unaware that cruise lines have tour buses there (to catch trains) and there happened to be five of them in the large parking lot with at least five more down by the train station. Each tour bus holds more than 60 people. The town was so overrun with tourists, we could barely drive down the street. Think Disney on a holiday weekend. Daytona during Bike Week. New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Seriously, I am not exaggerating. The town is about four blocks long and it took more than 10 minutes to drive it. Tourists were wandering and walking where ever whim took them. It was maddening, crowded, and overwhelming. We raced back to the RV and stayed the rest of the evening.

When we got up in the morning, our goal was Byers Lake. We unhooked and headed north. It was a clear day and we had wonderful views of Denali and the Alaska Range.

Parks Highway

leaving Talkeetna, a view of Denali

tal2tal25We stopped at Byer’s Lake to check out the campground. We were in the mood to kayak and were looking for a place to do it. the campground was very nice – large fairly level sites, but the site were hidden in the trees and we just weren’t feeling it.  The views weren’t spectacular enough to pull out the boat (we were dreaming of Glacier National Park type views). We were looking for a wide open space to enjoy views of something – anything – after the squishyness of Talkeetna and the tight quarters of Wasilla. So we continued north to Denali View North. The ‘camping’ spaces were wide open with a wonderful view.

Denali View

Denali View Campground Panorama

We could even see Denali. But the ‘camping’ spaces were rest stop spaces and the ground was slanted enough to cause problems. So we continued on.

We lucked into a beautiful re-alignment of the Parks Road at about MM220. The two lane wide area meant we could put out our slide on one side, pull out our chairs, and watch the river slide by.  There were four other rigs parked on the road, and a semi, but there was plenty of space for everyone, and even room for a few more.

Nenana River

Our overnight spot at about MM220, next to the Nenana River

We had a quiet evening and watched for Dall sheep on the nearby mountains – we spotted at least four. It drizzled a little but otherwise it was our best campsite since Homer.

In the morning, we got up and headed to Denali. All the campgrounds in the park were booked, so we thought we would try a private one just outside. The closer we got, the more traffic we saw. We were sure the area would be empty or relatively empty as we watched more than 100 RVs pass us heading south on the Parks Highway over the two days. There was no room to park or turn around. And then we hit the construction zone. Between the road repaving and the bridge replacement, we moved twenty miles in about an hour and a half. The jeep was a disaster and needed to be washed just to open the doors. We stopped in Healy and thought about our options.

Unfortunately, it was 10AM, an hour too early to have a beer at 49th State Brewing Company. Yes, at this point, I would have no problem having a beer at 10AM. We decided that there was no way we were going to drive through the construction zone again, with or without the Short Bus. We decided to head further north, and stop short of Fairbanks.

It was a great plan (okay, we suck at planning) until we got to Anderson, Alaska. We thought we would go to Anderson and stay at their municipal campground on the river. But we started smelling smoke. The sky had been darkening during our quick run from Healy and now it was smoky, too. By the time we got to Nenana (we skipped Anderson due to smoke), one could only see about 150 feet ahead on the road. Cars ahead of us would vanish into the thick soup.

smoke

Smoke outside of Nenana over the river.

We discussed our options. Our best bet was to continue into Fairbanks and, if the smoke was still thick, finding a campground with electric so we could run our A/C to keep the smoke out. We don’t mind smoke at all and often have campfires but this was a campfire on steroids – a few thousand acres of campfire.

We got lucky – River’s Edge Resort had a site available for two days with hookups. It would be expensive but, after the two days of aggravation, worth it. The sites aren’t wide but they do have grass, full 50 Amp hook ups, laundry, and a car wash.

Taking a break – Anchorage

Well, it finally happened – we got burned out. We have been doing a lot of travelling and touristing but not much living. Yes, our bills were paid, our laundry clean, we had food in the fridge, but our daily living had been crammed between racing here and hiking there and looking at this and learning about that. We needed a break.

We headed up to Eagle River Campground for a couple of days to rest and regroup. While there, we did run up to the nature center which is in a beautiful location, hiked around (there are many great hikes up there) and took in the views.

mountain view

View from one of the trails at Eagle River Nature Center

Internet weather sources stated that it would be cloudy and rainy the entire week. Since the campground is pretty much in the woods, we wouldn’t be getting much solar even if the sun was out (the paved, level campsites were really great though) we decided to ‘live it up’ and go to a private park with actual electricity. Whenever we are in a full hook up park, I always feel like I am in an upscale hotel – unlimited power, unlimited water, sometimes cable and wifi. It is a treat that I love to indulge in once in a while.

We went to Big Bear RV Park and Campground, just north of Anchorage in Wasilla. The wifi there is TengoNet (lousy) and there is no cable tv but the campground is quiet and there is actual grass, which Belle loved to roll around in. I was tempted to myself.

We finally did a much more thorough inside cleaning of the Short Bus, some inside cleaning of the jeep (we are still finding desert dust in it), got a ton of laundry done, and rested up for our next leg. It wasn’t a week of laying around though.

We were able to meet up with TipsOnRoadTripping.com, a family of seven touring Alaska in a 31′ class C. They have four weeks and were racing from New Jersey to Alaska and back. I have no idea how they can manage but they are having loads of fun.

We also met up with the Snowmads, a wonderful couple who are touring Alaska while they work full time from their RV.

A friend of ours from Maryland just happened to be moving to Anchorage for a great job and we spent a day with her running around, trying to find a moose. We were unsuccessful but we had a great time.

We had cocktail hour (or three) with another full timing couple who happened to be from the same area as we are (DC) and who happened to be in some of the same campgrounds as we (Florida) at the same time and we didn’t even know it until bumping into each other in Alaska. A Shenandoah National Park t-shirt started the conversation. Yes, it is a small world.

We also made an attempt to drive Hatcher Pass but the cloud cover completely socked us in before we got to the good part.

And, we had a blast on the Knik River racing up and down the gravel bars and through streams in our jeep. The jeep is still working and we didn’t need a tow so all is good.

Okay, so we didn’t take it too easy. But there was a day or two in there where we did nothing. Belle and I were having allergy attacks – we still don’t know which weeds are causing it – and we really needed time to exhale.

I don’t have a lot of pictures of this time. I also needed a break from the camera. A few years ago, I worked for a newspaper as a photographer. After about a year, I hated photography, I hated cameras, and I wanted out. Photography was no longer fun, it was work. I didn’t pick up a camera for an entire year after that though, before that, you wouldn’t catch me without one. By Anchorage, I was getting that feeling again; I felt obliged to take pictures and I was taking pictures of things that didn’t interest me. Looking back at what I have captured of Alaska, I can see the deterioration of my image quality starting just after Valdez. The images started lacking expression and have become more and more about representation. So I hope, with a break and the recognition of getting that feeling again, that I can get back to enjoying capturing life as I see it.

Oh, and we also made a firm decision to buy a boat. But more on that in the coming months as we wrestle with the funding and logistics.

seagulls

The first time I have every seen baby seagulls (there are three in the picture). Taken at Potter Marsh.

Leaving the Kenai

Skilak Lake and the Kenai Wildlife Refuge was still closed so there was no way we could spend a week there. Smoke from the fires obliterated the view across Cook Inlet while we were at Discovery Campground in Captain Cook, so were weren’t sure we wanted to hang out near the fires anyway. But we did want to spend some time at Kenai Lake, so we headed east to Quartz Creek Campground.

We got there early enough that there were plenty of available spaces for a day or two – many of the campsites are reserve only. The campground is beautiful, with some sites on the Lake, some sites near the creek, and all sites wide, fairly level, and paved. We had Verizon 3G signal, though it was weak, and good, strong sunlight for about four hours a day, enough to keep our batteries mostly charged.

Our reason for stopping was to have some kayak time on Kenai Lake. The blue of the water with the mountain backdrop was irresistible.

Kenai Lake

Kayaking Kenai Lake

kenai lake

Kayaking Kenai Lake

The winds were a little high, gusting around 20 knots, so we didn’t get to explore as much as we liked. But we did enjoy a good workout and a sunny day.

The spot we were in was only available for two nights, so we packed up and moved to Bird Creek Campground on Turnagain Arm. Contrary to the reviews on RVPark Reviews, the campground is well paved, the sites are large, level and paved, and the campground overall is very clean. The sites are open (so not private) so it was great for batteries. The Verizon signal was only so-so. We were only a few steps down the hill to the bike path and a few more steps to views of Turnagain Arm, which was hidden behind trees from our campsite.

Our purpose in stopping here was to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. We were also within twenty minutes of Southern Anchorage and grocery stores and fifteen minutes from Girdwood.

The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is a great place to see and learn about Alaska’s wildlife up close. For a photographer, it is a great place to practice shooting wildlife.

Some tips for shooting wildlife that isn’t so wild:

fox

Fox

musk ox

musk ox

Get close. Use the opportunity to capture their faces and expressions. This makes it easier to hide any fences, posts, and other stuff that draws attention away from the animal.

EagleIf there is a fence between you and the animal, get closer to the fence and shoot through it. Make sure that you are closer to the fence than the animal is – if you are focused on the animal, the fence will blur out of focus and be much less noticeable. (in this eagle picture, there is a fence link on his back and the upper right corner – places where there looks to be fade. Much better than if the fence was in focus.)

Moose

A moose cooling off in a pond

Sacrifice ISO for shutter speed. You may not be able to blow the picture up to poster size due to grain, but you will be able to capture interesting moments.  This image was shot at f/6.3, ISO 400 for 1/1250 second. This allowed me to capture the detail in the water. Had I been using my usual f/8, ISO100, my shutter speed would have been closer to 1/125 and most of the image would be blurry.

reindeer

Antler detail – reindeer

Try for detail. I have never seen a reindeer antler and never seen an antler in velvet up close. The reindeer were all hanging around by a fence in a dark corner, so there was really no opportunity to get a decent reindeer picture. But, the antlers were fascinating to me. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to how they grow or why they take the shapes they do. So I took this as an opportunity to study the antlers just in case I someday get the opportunity to shoot caribou in the wild. (Reindeer are domesticated caribou).

Elk

Elk

bison calf

A Bison calf, keeping cool on a warm day

Try for personality. Some of my most successful wildlife shots are not ‘great’ wildlife shots, but excellent expressive shots. People love to relate to wild animals on a human level.

awrporcupine

porcupine

Be patient. Sometimes, animals (or people for that matter) just won’t cooperate. They eat, they sleep, they hide, they make it impossible to get a great shot. But, just like waiting for a sunrise or sunset, sometimes you just have to wait them out. Had I been a little more patient on this day, I could have had an image of a momma grizzly and cub playing in the water. Instead, I got them eating grass.

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear eating grass

And some days, no matter what you do, the animals just won’t cooperate. You just have to get what you can and learn from the results. When we lived in Washington, DC, I used to go to the National Zoo about once per month. The Zoo opens officially at 10AM, but they allowed people in at 8AM for jogging, wandering, and whatever else. Because the zoo was almost always empty at that time, I found it very easy to sit in one spot for a couple of hours and study the animals I was shooting. I learned a lot about them and could pick out specific animals by their movements and how they acted. This greatly helped my wildlife shooting. Some days I would return with fifty images, some days 400.  But, if I had just one image that captured an animal and his/her personality in full, I was ecstatic. It’s the little things, I guess. Practice, lots and lots of practice, makes a good photographer; owning the best/newest equipment just makes practicing easier.

While I got no ‘iconic’ images at AWCC, I did learn quite a bit, had a wonderful day watching wildlife, and got to get up close with many animals I had not had a chance to shoot before.

black bear

A very agitated black bear

Fox

Fox

reindeer

Reindeer

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