A Homecoming

When I was very young we lived just outside Anchorage, Alaska. Back then it was a thirty minute drive to the city and when Mom would take us berry picking she always wore her .357 in case of bear or an angry moose. It was a very rural area. But going back now some thirty years later we discovered time waits for no man. Even Alaska experiences urban sprawl so today thanks to the freeway now the city is just a short drive away, grocery stores are just a short hop in the car down the road and while the moose are still plentiful many feel safe enough from the wild animals to tromp through the woods with only a bottle of water—at least within this area.

Only in Alaska?

Only in Alaska?

Can you really go back home? My memories of the childhood home, school, etc. allowed us to find my way to the house. But it was different, after all these years, the roads are paved, the homes look aged, and the surrounding birch trees are no longer saplings but instead stand tall lining the road.

One of my fond childhood memories was when we kids would walk down to the swamp and following the animal trails clambering over mossy green hummocks as we played. It seemed an idyllic place. I took the family down to the swamp, which was still there—only to discover a dark, dank area, filled with stagnant water harboring hungry mosquitoes that we awoke when we walked past. Is it a memory dashed? Or maybe it’s that I don’t see through those rose colored glasses of a five year old. It makes me wonder, maybe my mom couldn’t believe that we kids found the swamp an entertaining place to play.

My mom let me play in this?

My mom let me play in this?

But many of the memories still are the same. The birch trees still have soft velvety leaves. The summer sun still remains high in the sky at midnight. And giant caribou or moose antlers (or often both) still adorn many of the homes in the area. And some in the family still live in their original homes. It is also funny to hear others date major events in their lives on whether they happened before or after the ’64 earthquake. Obviously this event had a huge impact on everyone’s life.

Speaking of family. What a great opportunity to see the kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews all grown up now. Of course, somehow it still seems strange those kids I remember playing with are now grown, many having grandchildren of their own, while the adults of my childhood are now seniors…or nearly so.  For the next few days we will enjoy getting catching up and spending time together.

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There is no good reason to share this picture except for its craziness.

The Rain, Mosquitoes and ‘No Flush’ Toilets

north to alaska 138Last night, still smug from our perfect day at the park we finally headed for bed. It wasn’t quite the record breaking temperature we’d seen the past few days but still it was warm. So warm that we left the rain cover and door to the tent tied open with only the mosquito netting between us and the outside world.

About 2:30 I woke to a strange sound. A pitter pattering on the tent and the wind rustling. Suddenly, a sprinkle hit my face and I realized what I was hearing. Clouds had rolled in after midnight and now the rain was coming down.

AHHHH!!!!

Worse, I tried to wake Bob so that he could take care of things while I stayed snug in my sleeping bag but he was snoring loudly across the tent. By the time he woke up I realized we had to work together to get our little igloo enclosed from the elements so both of us dashed outside to untie all the tethers and zip back up all the parts. Once back in the tent we remembered that everything had to be moved so that it wasn’t touching the tent wall, wicking up the rain. In the end, everyone was awake as we scurried around.

Once again our inexperience has left us wet. Though thankfully, it was only us, not all our belongings.

On the plus side, we discovered mosquitoes don’t like rain.

It’s not that I’m complaining about mosquitoes but we’ve all wondered about God’s plan when he invented these nasty, buzzing, swarming, and especially, biting pests. Poor Matthew especially hates my knee jerk reaction of swatting all mosquitoes, especially when he thinks I’m slapping him. I think I told you yesterday about how all the stores are out of OFF. Luckily, we brought several cans, including some half used ones that we’ve collected over the years (we do have a mosquito/no-see-um season though it lasts only a few weeks in Arizona). We have noticed on this trip that in the three seconds it takes to pull off the side of the road and roll down the window for a picture the mosquitoes had discovered us. Rebecca and I originally laughed at the nerdy looking people who were wearing mosquito netting but now we’re rethinking it.

Oh no, another No Flush toilet!

Oh no, another No Flush toilet!

Oh, speaking of Rebecca. I was reminded again today about her dread of the ominous no-flush toilets. I had warned her about them but this city girl has managed to avoid using outhouses until this trip. Yesterday she informed me that we have stopped at six no-flush toilets. Really? I had no idea we were keeping count. I explained to her we were lucky these outhouses all looked like toilets… with toilet seats … and had toilet paper and that it could be worse.

I don’t think she heard me.

Upcoming: Family and Friends in Anchorage.

On a Clear Day…

I forgot to mention the heatwave here! It has been record breaking temperatures since we arrived. Nearly 90 in Fairbanks (need I say we took the room with working a/c) and high 80’s here at Denali Park. Who would have guessed we’d need our shorts for this leg of the trip? Well, we aren’t wearing shorts because the mosquitoes are so thick. Today we are especially glad to have multiple cans of OFF. We were told that the lead story in Anchorage was that the state is in a mosquito crisis and shelves are bare of all bug repellent. For those who remember before we left I had asked about the best repellents. For what it’s worth we have decided that only the real toxic stuff keeps those pesky mosquitoes away more than five minutes. Alaska mosquitoes are impervious to anything less.

That is Mt Mckinley in the background. Still 70 miles from the mountain.

That is Mt Mckinley in the background. Still 70 miles from the mountain.

For the bus tour we chose to ride a shuttle bus rather than the tour bus. The tour bus charges more than three times as much and doesn’t go the whole length of the road. The shuttle bus drivers are not ‘professional tour guides’ but our driver was super. He talked most of the ride and pointed out any wildlife, stopping to let us take pictures.We, or I should say Matthew, also made friends with a couple on the bus with us. Daniel and Margriet are visiting from the Netherlands. I think they said they have now been to all 50 states. As you can imagine one bit of attention from them turned into a whole day of Matthew showing off all his treasures. New friends, a well seasoned bus driver guide and $$ saved… I say, use your savings for a night at the lodge and ride the shuttle bus.

As I said, we took one of the earliest shuttles, hoping to see more wildlife. It turned out to be a great choice. We saw caribou, moose and a fox and of course, the scenery was amazing. But to our great delight, the haze of yesterday that limited visibility to McKinley was gone today. It turned out to be a picture perfect day. I think, not only were we in the 30% but in the 10% who really see the highest peak completely without clouds. It was truly amazing. We had super views of the entire mountain from the first moment until we headed back. But by the time we reached the park center clouds were rolling in and once again the mountain was at least partially covered.

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What a super day! We celebrated by roasting marshmallows over the fire which the kids had been waiting to do.

Rebecca and Matthew checking out moose antlers.

Rebecca and Matthew checking out moose antlers.

PS I think we’re at page 13 of Harry Potter.

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Next: We forget the Boy Scout’s motto of ‘Be prepared.’

Onward to Denali Park

Today we needed to stock up on groceries and discovered the beauty of Fred Meyer. They are part of the Kroger chain, of which our local Fry’s is also part. However, this Fred Meyer was nearly twice the size of our Fry’s store and complete with a clothing and garden department. I’ll just sum it up with: WOW. Yes, we were very surprised to find such a large store in the relatively small city of Fairbanks. So we bought our groceries and a ton of souvenirs and then headed over to see one of the original paddle wheel boats along the Chena River. The sun was shining and the day beautiful and if we’d had more time we would have taken one of their river cruises. It looked like lots of fun. Instead we had to be content with looking at everything and then managing to finagle a photo op with an Iditarod winner and his top sled dog.

Then it was off to reach Denali National Park. It was only a two hour drive, but as we are discovering, summer means road work in Alaska and this stretch was no different. Several stops waiting for a pilot car with no real idea how long the delays would be. All I can say is at least were able to contain ourselves and didn’t have to jump out of the car to pee in front of the tree in front of us like one lame guy.

More road construction.

More road construction.

So we finally made it to the park. When I was very young (no, I won’t say how long ago, suffice it to say Alaska was already a state…) we camped at Wonder Lake at the end of the park road. Back then you could drive out there but today only select few are allowed to drive the road. The rest of us have to take a bus. We had reserved a spot because I read that, while they take walk-ins, one might have to wait a couple days to get in. I recommend making the reservation. After we got checked in we took advantage of the daylight and drove out to the farthest point we could go in the hopes of seeing McKinley. Though the day was bright it was too hazy to see so I am worried about our tour tomorrow. They say only 30% of the visitors actually get to see the top of Mt. McKinley.

Sorry, I am really rambling. My point is that because it was so light we drove out the road and guess what we saw? Yes, a giant moose. And, super close up.

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Okay, an early morning so that we can catch our 6:45 bus. It seems like we’re sleeping in daylight but each night we’re tired enough that we all fall asleep within minutes. (Did I tell you Rebecca isreading Harry Potter? So far I’ve only hear the first three minutes each night before zonking out.)

A little warm here.

A little warm here.

Tomorrow: Will we see the mountain???

We reach the North Pole!

Okay, not the actual North Pole. But apparently, we found Santa’s home. It’s just outside of Fairbanks. The road from Whitehorse to the Alaska border was the most challenging thus far. Back in the far recesses of my mind I remembered traveling on roads affected by frost heaves. Frost heaves occur when there is melting below the roadway and above the permafrost. They cause the road to buckle and rise up and down reminiscent of Magic Mountain’s best roller coaster ride. Or as Rebecca called it: stomach churning. After a few miles of this crazy road Bob allowed me to drive. Not that he thinks I’m a better driver…or more experienced…but because he knows I am a firm believer that the faster you go the less time your tires are on the road, thus smoothing out the ride. So, it maybe didn’t work out quite that way but we did get across this wild and wooly stretch. I’ll try and video a segment on the return so you can share in the fun.

Our first grizzly.

Our first grizzly.

Just after I started driving we saw two Grizzly bears! Rebecca managed to capture one looking at us rather fiercely before it headed off into the woods. Wow! We have seen eleven or twelve bear already! (So here’s what I learned today. Black bears come in other colors besides black. But they are distinguished from browns by their lack of a shoulder hump. Brown bear and grizzlies are the same bear. Grizzlies live inland while browns are found along the coast and are primarily fish eaters. So, we likely saw grizzlies. In any case, they were a LOT bigger than the black bear we had been seeing.)

But first, I have to tell you about last night. As you recall, we had a rainy tent and a cool evening. (In fact, it was 41F when we left this morning.) But after the whole hoopla was settled we all jumped into our sleeping bags. (Oh, and I figured out the solution for Matthew’s and my claustrophobia of being zipped up in a bag. We zipped two together, making a double bag with plenty of room for both of us. It worked great. I wished that I’d remembered this option before.)

The beautiful Kluane Lake just outside Haines Junction. It is HUGE!

The beautiful Kluane Lake just outside Haines Junction. It is HUGE!

Anyway, back to my story. Rebecca has been entertaining us with her rendition of the first Harry Potter book. We all enjoy it and it’s a nice way to end the day. Last night, as Rebecca noted, there was no need for a reading light as it was still very light…even at ten at night. By the time she finished Bob was already sound asleep. I have been telling the family about the midnight sun. I know they hear and understand what I’ve been saying, but to actually experience it is completely different. About 1:30am I hear Bob sit up. I tried to get his attention but he didn’t hear me. I thought maybe he heard somebody trying to steal our prized coffee pot, which was sitting on the table outside. Slowly he moved over to the tent door and I watched him carefully open it just high enough so that he could slide out. He looked very much like a beaver scooting out from underneath his home or maybe the Grinch who, you remember, slithered and slunk around. Anyway, I didn’t hear anything further except for some people talking so I figured I didn’t need to assist against the burglar. A few minutes later he slunk back in and returned to his sleeping bag. This morning I asked what he was doing and he sheepishly told me he woke up and saw it was so light so he wanted to get the coffee made for me. Then he saw some people and asked one what time it was only to learn it was truly the middle of the night. Ha.

It could be that we are becoming road weary as this afternoon Rebecca hollered out that she saw a ‘mule’. Well, having seen many mules before none of us paid any attention to her until she said it again…when she realized it was really a moose that she saw. Of course, I won’t tell you about the person who made reservations for the hotel in Fairbanks only to learn that the reservation was for the next night… (You’ll be interested to know that the Solstice is a very busy time for hotels when you’re so near the Arctic Circle.) And yes, thank you Best Western for working with us to find a room, which in the end, turned out to be the King’s Suite.

No wonder we're tired. This looks like a long stretch. Whitehorse to Fairbanks.

No wonder we’re tired. This looks like a long stretch. Whitehorse to Fairbanks.

Tomorrow: The Great Land…Better Known as Denali

Whitehorse, Klondike and a Near Disaster

We drove the rest of the Cassiar Highway without incident. We had heard from several friends that this road was challenging. While we did run into a few patches of gravel road we did find it mostly paved. As I said yesterday, we did find it desolate and an accident or breakdown could mean a lengthy wait. I don’t think there was any cell service either. Still, it was truly a beautiful drive and I would recommend it. BUT. You must not let your gas tank get under half full (an old Alaskan rule) and you must carry a spare and know how to change a tire. The rest of the rules for remote driving also apply. When we were at the closed gas station we talked to a family headed south also looking for a fill-up. The man was very distraught to know that the last station we had seen was more than 100 miles ahead. The gas station pumps are mostly the old fashioned kind without a place to prepay with your credit card. The station has to be open to get gas. So…there’s my warning. Travel prepared.

Beautiful, but isolated cabin along the Cassiar Highway.

Beautiful, but isolated cabin along the Cassiar Highway.

We did arrive in Whitehorse late in the afternoon. Just in time to visit the MacBride Museum, a small museum dedicated to the local history, including the gold rush, some natural history (Matthew’s favorite) and a whole section on the poet Robert Service. When I was growing up we loved to listen to some of his most popular poems and in particular one called, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”. It’s a rather morbid story about a prospector who found the Klondike too cold and was always complaining until he caught cold and was near the end. He asks his friend to cremate him on the shores of Lake Labarge. The poem is really more fun than morbid. I’ll share it if I can find the YouTube version. You’ll like it. We learned that there really was a Sam McGee. He was a friend of Service and we got to see his real one room cabin. All you homeschoolers, notice how we added History and Language Arts to our trip.

Sam McGee was a real person and friend of Robert Service.

Sam McGee was a real person and friend of Robert Service.

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After we picked up some groceries and long johns (to keep us warm at night) we found a campsite just out of town. Bob, Matthew, and Rebecca began setting up the tent while I worked on supper. It appeared the three of them were poking around with their job so I told them it was going to rain in three minutes and they’d better hurry up. Well, I was wrong. It began pouring, a hellacious downpour, just moments after the words left my mouth.

Oh my word.

All our stuff was sitting outside waiting to be put in the tent. The food was all outside on the table. Just about everything we owned was outside the truck. It poured and instantly we were all soaked. I yelled at Rebecca to get the packaged stuff back to the truck while I helped Bob. It didn’t matter. everything was filled with water…and sand from the campsite. Finally we got the tent up and emptied it of water, got the rain cover over it and it quit raining.  We reheated the food, found dry clothes and then made some hot chocolate because our hands were frozen and finally made it to bed. Thankfully, it did not rain again but we decided we need to pay much closer attention to those threatening looking rain clouds blowing in. And yes, we were grateful for those warm unders.

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Finally: North to Alaska

We’re in Alaska…Already? Check Your Map!

Yesterday’s drive was long and tiring prompting some discussion about whether we should try to shorten our journey. But, after some calculating by the calculus tutor Rebecca announced it would be less than four hours difference if we took Yellowknife Yellowhead Highway to Cassiar or if we went directly north to Dawson Creek from Prince George. The benefit of taking the western route was that we had the opportunity to visit the southernmost point of Alaska. Through a democratic vote we decided to continue our plans to see Hyder, Alaska. What a great choice!

Yep, in Alaska already :)  At least for a half hour.

Yep, in Alaska already 🙂
At least for a half hour.

The Yellowknife is a beautiful road sprinkled with small towns every 50 miles or so. It was easy to drive and though more rural we felt it was well traveled.But then we turned onto the Cassiar Highway. Suddenly towns and, more especially, gas became rare. Still. The drive was amazing. The day was perfect. We drove out of Canada into the teeny town of Hyder and the temperature was a balmy 80. Of course, we were loving it but the residents thought it was a little too warm.

Hyder is the southernmost town of Alaska, making it onto the map by the teeniest margin. They boast 100 residents, and it appeared one high school graduate (they were having a town party while we were there). Students go to the Canadian town close for school and residents shop in Canada. The only place in the town that insists on US Dollars is, of course, their Post Office. We talked to one local who had been there for 18 years. He loved the place. They have no police and monitor themselves. They rely little on others and most appear to have a strong dislike for a big government. The guy we talked to was wearing a “Don’t Tread on Me” cap. I’m guessing many residents lean towards Libertarian. A very interesting little place. I loved it!

Along the way into Hyder we saw our first close up glacier!

Salmon Glacier

Salmon Glacier

We were too early in the season to see bears fishing for salmon but our day was very exciting because we saw at least seven black bears just minding their own business! They were just right along the roadway, munching on raspberry bushes. They, the bears not the raspberries, were just beautiful and looked so plump and soft. I expected they would be more scrawny and shedding.

A beautiful black bear munching on branches.

A beautiful black bear munching on branches.

The Cassiar Highway is absolutely lovely…and absolutely remote. Several times we drove a hundred miles without seeing another car. So when we reached Dease Lake and found the gas station closed we decided to stop for the night and stay in the lodge there.

Today we listened to Hatchet. It’s the story about a twelve year old boy who survives a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness. Everything from the chilly damp weather to the swarms of mosquitoes were more real as we could experience it along with the lad. This is a tween’s book that Rebecca and Bob loved and was made into a movie which you’ll like too.

This picture might make my 'Road Less Traveled' series.  No cars. No road markings. Just us...and the rain.

This picture might make my ‘Road Less Traveled’ series. No cars. No road markings. Just us…and the rain.

Fraser Lake to Dease Lake, with a short detour into Alaska.

Fraser Lake to Dease Lake, with a short detour into Alaska.

Next: Into the Yukon and Sam McGee