Early August saw us all (Ballentines, Monroes and Tillotsons) getting ready to pull up stakes and head back to the Lower 48. Just before the Monroes left, we all attended a thank you cookout put on by the Kenai Peninsula School Borough for its school grounds hosts at a park in nearby Soldotna. Where else but in Alaska will you find halibut and salmon as the main course instead of burgers and hot dogs? What a great send off!
That Sunday we made our musical debut, playing our dulcimers along with Karen, Galen and church member Pat during the service’s offertory. Galen played chords on guitar while Karen, Larry, Lucille and Pat played dulcimers. Larry switched to pennywhistle for the last stanza of the one hymn we all knew well enough to play in public. Don’t rush out and look for our CD yet – we’ll need more than one song! Afterwards, Reverend Jon Walters honored us by first saying a few words about all of us, and then asking us to serve communion that day. It was quite an honor to be asked. Karen and Lucille volunteered to serve snacks at fellowship after the service so we had time to talk to the parishioners as they came through the line to get coffee and baked goodies.
When Ballentines left two days later, we knew we were ready to hit the road as soon as Larry worked one more weekend at Home Depot.
We weren’t the only ones that made friends in the area…Shelley made friends with a Nova Scotia Duck Toller, a breed dog we’d heard of just recently and had never seen until Kenai. Buddy, along with his owner Carol, would come by often and we would walk together for a little ways. On our way back through Dawson Creek, a resident campground dog, Bear, came by and introduced himself to Shelley. We are not sure what breed he was other than BIG, with unusual markings.
Friends Richard and Linda, whom we'd worked with at Desert Haven earlier in the year, stopped by for a quick visit on their way to Homer. They workamped at a Tok RV park for most of the summer and were doing a little sightseeing of their own before they headed back to the Lower 48. We all drove out to Arness Dock to watch the sunset and lucked out in seeing some set netters up close and personal as they hauled in their evening catch. Richard swears that is the longest drive he's ever made to watch the sun set!
And finally, it was our turn to leave. After eleven weeks in the Kenai area, which went by so quickly, we said our final goodbyes and hit the road heading for Anchorage. We stayed at Elmendorf AFB for a couple of days while we fueled up the truck, our propane tanks, and our cupboards from the facilities available on the base. We then continued north towards Fairbanks, with stops at two different Denali parks.
The first, Denali State Park, is often bypassed for its more famous neighbor, the national park. Denali View North, one of the state park’s pullouts, which doubles as a campground in the evening, overlooks the braided Chulitna River, as well as the Alaska Range across the river. Mt. McKinley could be seen amongst the peaks across from the park.
After overnighting there, we continued north to Denali National Park, catching glimpses of Mt. McKinley’s peaks to the west. Mt. McKinley is the highest mountain on the North American continent--20, 320 feet above sea level. Denali National Park covers six million acres, larger than the state of Massachusetts. We arrived around lunchtime, soon found a site and were set up. The park has no hookups but there was plenty of sun to power our solar panels. There was a lot of smoke, though, from fires within the interior of Alaska, that pretty much obscured most views of the mountains. We found out that the smoke was keeping a lot of the wildlife from making appearances. Fires during this time of the year are not uncommon and are actually beneficial to both the forests and the animals that live there by clearing out dead brush, thus encouraging growth of tasty shrubs and plants on the forest floor.
We signed up for a bus tour of the park’s sled dog kennels, visiting the dogs, and observing the rangers and dogs working together to demonstrate a traditional mode of travel. We were encouraged to pet the dogs as they approached the fences and to play with the two 13-week old pups, something we didn’t have to be told about twice! Denali does not allow any motorized vehicles on its off-road trails so in the wintertime, the rangers hitch up the sled dogs to periodically make the rounds of the park, checking out the cabins, looking for poachers, helping break trails for cross-country skiers. The Alaskan husky is not a thoroughbred dog but is a recognized breed. They are bred for their stamina and typically are slender, have long legs, deep thick fur, bushy tails and should be friendly with both people and other dogs. The demonstration was fabulous. The ranger explained the different parts of the sled, talked about how the dogs are cared for, and then, along with some of the kennel attendants there, hitched up a team of seven dogs to pull a traditional sled on a short gravel track. To aid the sled’s movement, the sled is outfitted with rear wheels. It is hard to describe the joy exuded by the dogs – they live to run. Not only were those hitched to the sled excited, but so were their kennel mates. We learned that even as pups, they want to run and pull and don’t need training to do that. They have to be trained to stop and make turns.
There were fabulous ranger programs both evenings we were there. The first night, Ranger Don Picard explained how animals at Denali adapt to the cold winters. They leave, hibernate, or go through some unbelievable changes to survive the cold. Some examples: the heart rate of the ground squirrel slows to two beats per minutes. When the weather starts to cool, the ground squirrel dashes around storing nuts and snacks. When it is time for him to ‘hibernate’, he lowers his heart rate so all functions stop or slow down. About every three weeks, he wakes up, starts to shiver to get his heart rate back up, eats some of his stored goodies, does other squirrel-y functions, then goes through the heart-slowing process again, continuing this cycle till spring thaw. A frog, nicknamed the frogsicle, actually freezes almost solid. Scientists have studied this frog and applied the knowledge to keeping human organs viable longer for transplants. Amazing!
A second night, we learned about the 70-Mile Kid (Harry Karstens), an enterprising young man who saw opportunities during the gold rush, stayed on to start the first postal delivery service, became a guide, tracker, and musher, became the first guide to lead an expedition making the first ascent of Mt. McKinley, and ultimately became the park’s first superintendent.
One afternoon, we hiked the Savage River loop trail and spotted one Dall sheep (a ram), a ground squirrel and three ptarmigan. The sheep had just come down the mountain and was munching on something in a small cave right on the return trail. What a fabulous opportunity to see a Dall sheep so close!
Time to head north once again, to Fairbanks. About 25 miles south of Fairbanks, we ran into construction where the road was actually down to bare dirt, lasting for about 20 miles. Just towards the end of this stretch, a construction worker pulled up along side of us to let us know that our bikes were trying to fall off their rack. We pulled over as soon as we were back on pavement and found that the bikes had jumped out of their carrier, were lying down and supported by a single strap. We also found that the toaster oven had jumped out of its holder and was lying on the sink. Wotta mess and wotta road!
While in Fairbanks, we stayed at Fort Wainwright’s military campground right in town. Fort Wainwright was originally named Ladd Field, built to test aircraft operation in artic conditions. When war broke out with Japan in late 1941, Ladd Field became a critical link in the Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease route. From 1942 until 1945, American crews flew almost 8,000 aircraft to Ladd Field, where the planes were turned over to Soviet aircrews for the continued flight east, eventually being used by the Soviets against Germany. In 1961, the Army assumed control of Ladd Field and renamed the installation Fort Wainwright. It continues to provide support to several military units – both combat and airborne regiments.
A must-do in Fairbanks is taking the Riverboat Discovery tour, rated the #1 boat tour in America and run by the third and fourth generation Binkley family. The tour on this authentic sternwheeler isn’t just a boat ride but an educational trip, experiencing genuine Alaskan cultures. While chugging along the Chena River, we learned the history of this riverboat tour that started in 1950 as a way to show visitors true Alaskan Native traditions. We docked at an authentic Athabascan Indian Village and took a guided walking tour. We learned about Indian/Eskimo cultures on one stop of the walking tour – saw a typical cabin that the natives lived in, saw the various types of animal skins they hunted and their purposes; on another part of the tour, we met Dixie Alexander, a renowned Athabascan who is famous for her beadwork and skin work (clothing made from animal skins). One of her beaded jackets now hangs in the Smithsonian. The last stop was a demonstration by Jessie Royer, four years winner of Rookie of the Year in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, talking about her sled dogs and answering questions.
From the boat, we watched a salmon being filleted in the traditional way on shore and learned that nothing went to waste. Fish wheels would catch the salmon, and then the whole family helped in harvesting the catch.
Another highlight was watching Susan Butcher, four-time Iditarod champion, and her husband, as they demonstrated their sled dogs in action. Once again, we got to see the dogs’ excitement as they were hitched up (this time a 12-dog team) to an ATV. What fun to see them effortlessly pull Susan and the ATV around an approximate ¼ mile track around their pond.
We also saw an Alaskan bush pilot in action as he took off, did a fly by, and then landed on the Chena River. Bush pilots have been and continue to be an integral part of the transportation system in Alaska, due to its wilderness and climate. Bush pilots are probably the best pilots around, thanks to the terrain they have to navigate in and around.
We witnessed the ‘wedding of the rivers’ as the clear water Chena flows into the Tanana River, the world’s greatest glacial-fed river. You can actually see the glacial silt as the rivers meet.
Overall, we rate the boat tour an A-Plus. There was very little commercialism. The stops were well coordinated and planned. Other than the one stop to the village, all sights were seen from the boat with several large television screens throughout the boat showing live what is being seen outside so everyone gets a great view. From our guides, you sensed pride in their heritage and culture. Complimentary coffee and donuts were served during the tour, as was smoked salmon spread and crackers. Back in the gift shop, we had an opportunity to handle and photograph one of the sleds Susan Butcher used in a past Iditarod race.
About eight miles north of Fairbanks is a small pullout from which you can view a portion of the oil pipeline running above ground at that location. The pipeline is an engineering marvel. We were amazed to read that the oil leaving the North Slope runs at such a high temperature, that the pipeline underground has to be well insulated so that the heat transfer does not melt the frozen tundra.
From Fairbanks, we headed to Delta Junction, the end of the Alaska Highway--a portion that we had missed on the way up because we turned towards Anchorage then, rather than Fairbanks. After a quick photo stop, we then drove to Tok, the last ‘major’ stop in Alaska, where we picked up our mail, then drove on to cross the border at Beaver Creek, Yukon. We stopped at the border to take a few pictures since we missed them in our hurry to enter Alaska in May. No problems crossing the border into Canada this time, thanks in part to Shelley! The inspector spotted her huge head, asked us to roll down the rear window so she could see her better, then proceeded to spend most of the time talking about Shelley and how the inspector hoped Shelley’s shot records weren’t up to date so she could keep her, joking of course. After some basic border crossing questions, we were quickly on our way.
We overnighted at the Kluane River Overlook East rest area, along with four other RVs with similar budgets. If salmon had been running, we would have seen bears and eagles catching the salmon from the Kluane River below.
We experienced some of the roughest and messiest sections of the road over the next couple of days. First up was the construction around Kluane Lake. Stopping at the Sheep Mountain interpretive center afterwards and spotting several Dall sheep far up on the mountainside was our reward.
There were also a couple of rough sections of construction south of Haines Junction. We were really glad to get into Whitehorse, Yukon Territories, mid-day and get off the road and the bumps. Right after we got set up, we saw that friends Sam and JoAnn were also staying there – a bonus to see them again.
Based on Ballentines’ recommendation, we had the halibut fish and chips at the Klondike Salmon Bake and BBQ in Whitehorse. We still haven’t got our fill of salmon or halibut yet and thoroughly enjoyed the huge portions they served, with enough left over for another meal.
From Whitehorse we drove to Watson Lake, staying at the same campground that we stayed at on the way up. Soon after, Sam and JoAnn pulled in – more time for us to visit before we go off in different directions. While at Watson Lake, we hung up our sign at the Signpost Forest. When we visited the ‘forest’ in May, there were several empty posts awaiting this year’s crop of signs. Three months later – we had a hard time finding them – they were filled with 2005 signs. We managed to find an area large enough to hang our sign, joining the 55,000 plus signs throughout the ‘forest’. We took in a show at the Northern Lights Centre, learning more about these lights, also called the Aurora Borealis. Typically, they are seen on clear nights, easier to see when not surrounded by streetlights, and found in northern region skies. The viewing screen was unusual in that it was like looking up into a huge bowl. Seats were arranged so that you were almost reclined. We were so relaxed at the end of the presentation.
Back on the road again, stopping for the night at Strawberry Flats Provincial Park right on Muncho Lake, British Columbia. Last May, we had pulled into this park and photographed the ice still floating in the lake. No ice this time but the lake is still a beautiful green. A bonus to being parked at the lake was viewing the Northern Lights around 1:30 the following morning, just before the clouds rolled in and the rains came.
Shortly after getting started the next day, we passed two herds of buffalo, roaming the highway around Liard Hot springs. We also spotted several caribou and stone sheep. We were beginning to despair of not seeing any wildlife on the return trip – our wildlife viewings on this one day made up for the earlier shortages.
Our last night on the Alaska Highway was spent at Prophet River Provincial Park, another familiar place. The final leg of the highway brought us back to Dawson Creek. We have now driven the entire length of the Alaska Highway, all 1422 miles and bazillion bumps and frost heaves!
The Northern Lights RV Park in Dawson Creek allows RV washing so Larry took advantage of the opportunity to wash both the RV and truck, cleaning off several pounds of road dirt and grime – we can see out our bay window again!
After a quick two day stop, we continued heading east. We had no sooner crossed into Alberta when the windshield got hit by a rock. The road was paved—we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. What irony to have driven the length of the Alaska Highway, almost round trip, just sustaining some tiny dings. After a call to our insurance company, we arranged to have the windshield replaced when we get to North Dakota early September.
We stopped for the night at the Lions Club RV Park in Whitecourt, Alberta, convenient to the highway but a nice park with treed sites and lots of room to walk Shelley.
Across the street from the RV park is the Whitecourt and District Forest Interpretive Centre and Heritage Park, also housing the Chamber of Commerce and Visitors’ Center. We initially stopped to pick up a map of the Yellowhead Highway but were fortunate to meet John Dahl, founder of the Centre. He gave us a personal tour of the recently restored church that will be dedicated 9/11, as well as a family’s cabin and trapper’s cabin and the displays in the museum itself. He honored us by giving us a pin that is being sold to help defray expenses and show support for four Mounted Policeman killed this year when they were trying to repossess a truck that hadn’t been paid for. Not since the mid-1800s have that many Mounties been killed at once.
We left the museum around noon, headed towards Redwater, Alberta, where Amy (daughter of friends Ron and Linda) lives with her family. We got there about 3 pm and had a pleasant visit with her and daughter Jessica. Husband Allan was out of town on business so we missed seeing him. Their home is being renovated so we got the tour – lots of work to do and they are doing it all themselves. It will look fabulous when finished.
After a fuel stop outside of Edmonton, we picked up the Yellowhead Highway, which will take us east towards North Dakota. We continued to drive till we got to Saskatchewan, stopping in a small town, Lashburn, parking overnight in their Community Hall parking lot. We were surprised and delighted to see the Northern Lights again, along the horizon for several miles and for almost an hour before we stopped. By the time we stopped, they had faded and what little remained was being overshadowed by the town’s streetlights, so we never did get a picture. What a dramatic finish to the month of August!
September: Grand Forks, North Dakota; factory tours in Minnesota and Iowa; meeting up with the Ballentines in Illinois before we head on to the Escapees’ Fall Escapade in Du Quoin.