Road Trip – 21/06/23 Fortuitous Tire Repair Allows Return to Civilization

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/08/06/road-trip-21-06-21-the-mccarthy-road-former-railroad-track/

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Wednesday dawns (once again, a figure of speech since it never got dark) bright and blue. Bonnie brings down more hot muffins and we eat a hearty breakfast before I tackle the flat tire issue.

Morning at Aspen eadows B&B, McCarthy, Alaska.
Morning at Aspen Meadows B&B, McCarthy, Alaska.

Everyone living in remote Alaska needs an array of tools in order to be self-reliant so I’m sure the B&B owners have something as basic as an air compressor. Of course they do, so I drive the van over to their garage building and pump up my seriously deflated tire for the short trip to the flat fix guy’s shop. It turns out to be at one of the local airstrips, the one where aircraft are fueled up.

He’s a little late, so I occupy my time watching the air-related activity. A helicopter pilot is gassing up her 1994 Aerospatiale before rising into the sky (since my first experience in 1981, I’m always a sucker for helicopters) and another pilot accelerates his plane into flight along the gravel runway. When I lived here even some major airports lacked paved runways. In the 1970s, Wien Air Alaska became the first carrier to operate scheduled Boeing 737 jet service onto gravel runways in rural areas. When both aircraft are gone, a fuel truck pulls up to replenish the aboveground tanks of aviation gasoline.

Airplane ready to depart, helo fueling up, McCarthy, Alaska
Airplane ready to depart, helo fueling up, McCarthy, Alaska
I wanna go with you, pleeease.
Aircraft gone, the fuel truck moves in on a McCarthy airstrip.
Aircraft gone, the fuel truck moves in on a McCarthy airstrip.

The tire guy arrives and introduces himself as Kaleb. He gets right to work and when he gets the wheel off the van and the tire off the wheel, we see that, as I thought, a nasty chunk of metal has penetrated the tire. It’s near the edge of the tread, angled in sideways so the interior end of the puncture is very near the sidewall. Normally, repair of such damage would be considered unsafe and the tire would be scrapped. The rules are a little different in McCarthy, though, since I’m at least 300 miles from a shop that might sell my size tire.

Tire puncture extending into dangerous sidewall territory.
Tire puncture extending into dangerous sidewall territory.

Kaleb does a “best practice” repair of the puncture and remounts the wheel. Neither of us knows how long the tire will remain serviceable but at least it’s holding air now. His fee is only $30 — extremely fair considering where we are and that he could name almost any amount and get it from me. In isolated communities, it’s good practice to treat people well because you may need their help tomorrow, although there always seems to be one outlier who abuses everyone.

Whether the repair is permanent or not, the problem is solved for now and the trip can proceed apace. I drive back to the cabin and thank our hosts profusely for their help. We pack up our gear and head back to the McCarthy Road, 3 miles away. Before tackling the 62 mile westbound drive back to Chitina and pavement, we take a short hike up the west side of the Kennicott River toward the icy toe of the glacier.

Susan at trailhead, girded for mosquito attack.
Susan at trailhead, girded for mosquito attack.

The trail is only 1.2 miles long and starts out through a mosquito infested forest. I deal with it by wearing my hat and pulling up the collar of my long sleeved shirt and swatting a lot, but Susan goes further and puts the mosquito net over her hat and head. She’s wearing a skirt, as usual, despite my endless warnings about what impractical hiking garb that is. She really dislikes wearing pants, though, so off we go.

The mosquito-infested forest. "If you go into the woods today, you're in for a big surprise..."
The mosquito-infested forest. “If you go into the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise…”
A message to several million hungry mosquitoes.
A message to several million hungry mosquitoes.

The trail is level and about a quarter mile out emerges from the forest into scrub vegetation and onto a 4-wheeler (ATV) trail. The mosquitoes thin out and Susan removes the head net.

West Kennicott Glacier Trail. You could pass withn 10 feet of a bear and not realize it. The bear knows, though.
West Kennicott Glacier Trail. You could pass within 10 feet of a bear and not realize it. The bear knows, though.

We’re the only people on the trail this morning, which now runs along the base of a high gravel bluff, the lateral moraine debris deposited when the glacier extended down the valley much further than it does now. These moraine bluffs, composed of lightly consolidated gravel, lend themselves to landslides and we cross a couple of major, but old, slide scars where the trees have been wiped out.

Lateral moraine bluffs left after glacier receded.
Lateral moraine bluffs left after glacier receded.

Beyond the bluff, the trail drops down off a bench to a lower level of old glacier bottom. The transition involves a steep section of trail about 50 feet long with loose gravel footing. Susan is very nervous about any steep downhill and this one merits caution. I advise her that she should slide down this section on her butt — no big deal in jeans, but quite difficult in a skirt. After trying to avoid the inevitable, she does the slide, but very awkwardly while attempting to avoid thigh skin-to-trail contact.

The butt slide. The photo doesn't really shw the steepness until you notice the tall, vertical spruce trees at the bottom.
The butt slide. The photo doesn’t really show the steepness until you notice the tall, vertical spruce trees at the bottom.

Once at the bottom, the trail resumes a flat but rocky course toward the edge of the ice and meltwater pools.

The final portion of the trail, a flat and rocky glacial floor.
The final portion of the trail, a flat and rocky glacial floor.

When a glacier recedes, the melting ice exposes bare, soilless bedrock. This area is slowly recolonized by plants. In warmer southeastern Alaska, the progression at sea level from bedrock to mature rain forest takes only about 200 years. Here, up north, at 1400 foot elevation and in a much harsher climate, the succession takes much longer. Low plants and some bushes have taken hold but there are still many exposed rocks colonized by a variety of colorful lichens.

Glacial boulder. When a melting glacier exposes new roxk, lichens are always the first to the party.
Glacial boulder. When a melting glacier exposes new rock, lichens are always the first to the party.

In case you forgot your high school science, although I’m sure it’s still fresh in your mind, a lichen is not a plant. It’s a symbiotic community consisting of a fungus, an alga, and (only recently discovered) a yeast. The fungus secretes acids and can thus absorb minerals directly from rock, the alga photosynthesizes food, and the yeast, perhaps, contributes physical structure to the group. This 3-way partnership benefits everyone and as a result lichens are found almost everywhere there is light.

Glacial moraines often have interesting rocks because most of them have been transported many miles on the ice so one area can display quite a bit of variety.

Glacially transported boulder with quartz outcroppings.
Glacially transported boulder with quartz outcroppings.

Where we’re walking, there’s quite a bit of conglomerate, rock created from ancient river deltas where pebbles of various sorts have been compressed into a matrix of mud or silt. It’s sometimes called puddingstone. I’ve always found these interesting and attractive and Susan is fascinated by the geological history they represent.

Susan and rocks -- a love story.
Susan and rocks — a love story.
Conglomerate boulder droped by melting glacier.
Conglomerate boulder dropped by melting glacier.
Puddingstone conglomerate closeup.
Puddingstone conglomerate closeup.

The sky is almost cloudless and we have an unobstructed view of the Kennicott and Root glaciers as they cascade from the high icefield down a steep slope many thousands of feet high.

End of the trail. Meltwater in the foreground, rock covered glacier behind, icefield and massive icefalls in distance.
End of the trail. Meltwater in the foreground, rock covered glacier behind, icefield feeding massive icefalls in distance.

We also have a clear view of the Kennecott Mill over 3 miles away.

Kennecott Mill seen from the other side of the glacier.
Kennecott Mill seen from the other side of the glacier.

For me, it’s always more rewarding to experience my surroundings off the road. In part, it goes back to my German-rooted belief that if you’re not suffering, you’re missing out on the good experiences. Scenery seen from the car window is vastly inferior to the same view after a hard hike up a rough trail — in a cold rain.

After enjoying our rugged surroundings and expansive views for a half hour or so, we backtrack the same route to the trailhead and the van. By coincidence, we’ve timed our hike just right as the high overcast starts to move in and obscure the blue sky. The 2.5 mile walk yields an epochal benefit — after years of resistance, Susan declares that bluejeans are a necessary accommodation for the outdoors. Hallelujah! The walk is also an important precursor to another long day on the road. Our drive back to the resumption of pavement in Chitina is uneventful. We take it slow and stop to admire various scenes.

The Gilahina rail trestle -- abandoned and deteriorating.
The Gilahina rail trestle — deteriorating but hanging in there for over 80 brutal Alaska winters since abandonment.
Almost back to pavement. Confluence of the Chitina and Copper Rivers.
Almost back to pavement. Confluence of the Chitina and Copper Rivers.
Upstream view of the Chitina River, near Chitina, Alaska.
Upstream view of the Chitina River, near Chitina, Alaska.

The tire holds, as I suspected it would, and we gain confidence that we can proceed as planned rather than shooting straight to Anchorage where car problems can be more readily dealt with.

Retracing the Edgerton Highway from Chitina, we’re treated to dramatic views of some the Wrangell Mountains. They’re no longer totally obscured by clouds as they were on our way in because the overcast is now higher than the peaks.

Clouds lift enough to give us a pretty decent view of the high Wrangell volcanoes.
Clouds lift enough to give us a pretty decent view of the high Wrangell volcanoes.

The highway tees and we turn south back onto the Richardson to make the 86 mile dead end drive to Valdez. The road and scenery will be familiar to me because I drove there many times while I lived in Alaska.

The road follows valleys through the center of the Chugach Mountains. This is the northernmost segment of the Pacific Coast Ranges, which ends rather dramatically at the eastern edge of the flat peninsula occupied by the city of Anchorage. The Chugach range is extensive, 250 miles from east to west and 60 miles from north to south — about the size of all of Switzerland — with peaks ranging to 13,000 feet. Bear in mind these extensive mountains are just a small piece of Alaska as a whole.

About halfway along, the flat valley runs out and the road starts to climb toward a pass.

Southbound to Valdez, the Chugach Mountains rise ahead of us.
Southbound to Valdez, the Chugach Mountains rise ahead of us.

High mountains surround both sides. Even in June they’re sheathed with a lot of snow. Hanging valleys are always above us, many still containing the valley glaciers that carved them. Waterfalls descend from every one. Valdez and its surroundings get a lot of precipitation and today is no exception. We make the transition from high overcast to low clouds and quite a bit of rain. I don’t consider this bad weather because it’s a major part of the area’s dramatic beauty.

Highway to Valdez surrounded by snowy Chugach Mountains -- in late June.
Highway to Valdez surrounded by snowy Chugach Mountains — in late June.

As we climb, a turnoff to the right accesses Worthington Glacier, one of Alaska’s few “drive up” glaciers. Because we want to get to Valdez before the hour gets too late, we take a very quick look and move on.

Worthington Glacier
Worthington Glacier

The road continues to climb to Thompson Pass, only 2600 feet high but the recipient of a prodigious amount of snow in winter, averaging 500 inches. The very important Richardson Highway from Fairbanks to Valdez first carried auto traffic in 1913, but for decades was closed in the winter because the Alaska Road Commission presumed the pass could not be kept clear of snow. In 1950, a freight company foreman took it on himself to plow the road all winter to prove it could be kept open and thus shame the Commission into taking on the job. Imagine how frustrated and angry you’d have to be to go to those lengths. He picked just the right time to set the precedent, too, because 3 years later the Commission had to cope with a Thompson Pass record of 974 inches of snow!

Thompson Pass. Note the height of the snow poles used to show snowplows where the road is.
Thompson Pass. Note the height of the snow poles used to show snowplows where the road is.

In summer, we don’t have to deal with any of that and just enjoy the change from lush vegetation to harsh tundra and back to lushness as we descend.

On the Valdez side, the road goes through Keystone Canyon, a short but impressively narrow cleft with almost vertical walls formed over the ages by the Lowe River. The high walls feature a dozen or more significant waterfalls on both sides draining the high, alpine slopes. We breeze by this, too, in our desire to reach Valdez and knowing we’ll be coming back this way on the way out of town.

Keystone Canyon near Valdez, Alaska
Keystone Canyon near Valdez, Alaska

The last 17 miles into Valdez is through the flat flood plain of the Lowe River, still surrounded by high mountains of which we see only glimpses through the low clouds. Our main concerns right now, after 9 PM, are finding an open restaurant for dinner and a place to sleep since Valdez has never been known for great food and economical overnights. Dinner is procured at an Asian restaurant, because it’s about the only place still open. Fortunately, the food is good and the price reasonable. To Susan’s surprise, their menu includes bulgogi, a Korean dish she hasn’t eaten in many years.

The only late night restaurant in Valdez, Alaska. Much appfreciated.
The only late night restaurant in Valdez, Alaska. Much appreciated.

After our meal, 10 minutes of driving around the small town yields an inconspicuous place to park in a large gravel patch adjacent to Mineral Creek. Now that we’re 250 miles south of Fairbanks, there’s at least a pretense of darkness for a few hours, but we’ll sleep through it on our comfortable airbed in the van.

Road Trip – 21/06/22 Twentieth century Yankee ingenuity: the Kennecott copper mine… and a difficult problem in McCarthy.

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/08/06/road-trip-21-06-21-the-mccarthy-road-former-railroad-track/

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We’re up early in our cabin ready to explore the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, 5 miles along the old railroad right of way beyond the little village of McCarthy. Aspen Meadows B&B owner, Bonnie, brings down fresh muffins. These, along with juice, milk, coffee, and other supplies, put the second B in B&B.

Full of breakfast, we drive the 3 miles back to the McCarthy footbridge, again pay the daily parking fee, and hoof it across the Kennicott River. Yesterday was totally cloudy which precluded seeing any of the surrounding peaks. It’s another case of Alaska visitors having to settle for, “Trust me. There are some awesome mountains right there behind those clouds.” We’re in the Wrangell Mountains, which I know from many distant views in the old days are magnificent volcanoes rising to over 16,000 feet. One of them continues to show low level activity to this day. We couldn’t see anything above 6,000 feet yesterday and this morning isn’t any better.

Morning clouds over McCarthy/Kennecott are just at level of modest nearby peaks. High mountains are invisible today.
Morning clouds are just at the level of modest nearby peaks. High mountains are invisible again today.

In Alaska, I assume it’s going to rain or snow. You plan your outings anyway and any more hospitable weather is just a bonus. When I lived in Juneau, where it rains 220 days a year and is cloudy on most of the rest, we couldn’t wait for sunshine to play outdoors because we’d never do anything. We picnicked in the rain, played frisbee in the rain, and kayaked in the rain.

Since the mine site is 5 miles off, today we opt for the van waiting at the east end of the bridge and take the slow, rough, one lane ride to the Landmark entrance, trading stories with the driver all the way. To distinguish myself from the cheechako (anyone who hasn’t endured an Alaska winter) tourists, I invariably mention that I lived in Alaska for many years which generally triggers a narration of competing tales and reminiscences.

The Kennecott mining camp is linear, sandwiched between a steep mountain slope on the east and the Kennicott Glacier on the west. By the way, there’s no spelling typo in the preceding sentence. The glacier is spelled with an “i” but a clerical error in setting up the corporation resulted in the mine being spelled with an “e”. The mill building dominates the camp. The five copper mines are miles away in the high mountains, so ore was brought to the mill by an extensive network of aerial tramways.

Map of Kennecott mining camp showing linear layout, sandwiched between glacier (top) and mountainside (bottom).
Map of Kennecott mining camp showing linear layout, sandwiched between glacier (top) and mountainside (bottom).

Although the local Ahtna natives used copper for generations, its existence near the Kennicott Glacier became known to outsiders only in 1899. Geologists quickly determined that the site had the purest copper ore then known.

The mine ran from 1911 to 1938 and generated $200 million dollars worth of copper ore, more than enough to merit the extraordinary expense of such a remote operation and the 200 mile railroad built to service it. Everything was owned and funded by the Guggenheim and J P Morgan families (contemptuously known by their contemporary detractors as “Guggenmorgan”) and decisions were ruthlessly made on the basis of expected profit. It was a perfect example of the robber baron era. Kennecott’s namesake corporation later expanded with major operations in Utah and Chile that are still operating today.

When the ore ran out in 1938, the entire operation was shut down. Although some valuable and portable equipment was shipped out by train, along with personnel, the vast majority of the mining camp was left intact. The railroad was also abandoned in place.

Kennecott remained a ghost town for 38 years. During that period, the handful of area residents scavenged material and objects from the mill town. In 1976, the area was subdivided and lots offered for sale. Despite the difficult, remote access, a number of lots were developed by their owners.

When Wrangell-St Elias National Park was created in 1980, the Kennecott site became a large, private inholding in the middle of it. Very gradually, people started coming here to access the extensive wilderness and explore the abandoned camp, in which the private lots are interspersed. In 1998, the Park Service purchased most of the Kennecott site, excepting the lots that had been sold. It then began a collaborative but fraught process of preserving the mining heritage and encouraging visitors but maintaining the non-motorized wilderness character of a vast surrounding area, all while coexisting with Kennecott and McCarthy property owners. As you may imagine, this often does not go very smoothly.

Despite their remoteness, McCarthy and Kennecott attract tens of thousands of visitors each year. This is almost literally nothing compared to the hordes visiting Yellowstone and Yosemite but it’s still a large number for an area with such limited facilities. This year, though, because of the continuing closure of Canada to tourists, the visitation is way below normal. Most Alaska car rental agreements prohibit taking cars to McCarthy, so you pretty much need a private car to get here, or charter expensive air transportation. We’re one of very few out-of-state vehicles in Alaska this summer, and far as I can tell, we’re the only one here in McCarthy.

We start our walk through the town and are pleasantly surprised to find lots of interpretive signs that give meaning and context to what we’re seeing. Very substantial construction efforts are also underway to restore some of the deteriorated buildings so they can be safely entered. All the original buildings, except the hospital, were painted red by the mining company. Why? It was the cheapest paint color.

The old post office is now an exhibit hall, with 2 films about the park, a panel of mailboxes, and various artifacts and photographs. By the end, we’re getting a pretty good feel for what life was like for the miners — hard but reasonable. The mines and the mill operated year round. Frigid cold was just dealt with.

Restored 1938 post office.
Restored 1938 post office.
Kennecott post office boxes abandoned in 1938..
Kennecott post office boxes abandoned in 1938.

Our next stop is the company store, which is hardly changed from its operational days. Replica packages of items actually sold there re-create what it must have felt like to walk in. Unlike some company monopolies, Kennecott didn’t gouge its employees although prices had to be quite high just to operate at breakeven.

The Kennecott restored company store.
The Kennecott restored company store.
Replicas of actual products sold in the company store at least 83 years ago. There are many familiar grocery items.
Replicas of actual products sold in the company store at least 83 years ago. There are many familiar grocery items.

Ahead is the small Kennecott railroad station building , where passengers got on and off. Immediately beyond it is a wide wooden trestle, built for heavily loaded copper ore cars, across the rushing waters of National Creek with the town’s centerpiece looming over the far side. This is the 14-story mill structure — where the raw ore was concentrated and made ready for shipment to Outside refineries.

End of the Copper River & Northwestern Railway. Passenger depot in foreground and ore loading area at bottom of mill across trestle.
End of the Copper River & Northwestern Railway. Passenger depot in foreground and ore loading area at bottom of mill across trestle.

The mill is reputed to be the tallest wood building in the world, although it cheats a bit by not being free standing. Built into the steep hillside, it has ground support all the way from bottom to top. Although never demolished, the mill seriously deteriorated over the decades of abandonment. The roof was lost either to storms or salvage, and that allowed much further damage throughout the structure.

Private donors and the Park Service undertook various preservation efforts and now the mill is a major construction site as scads of engineers, workers, and equipment make progress on stabilizing the giant structure and eventually opening it to the public for interpretive purposes.

Kennecott ore processing mill showing restoration scaffolding.
Kennecott ore processing mill showing restoration scaffolding.
The 14 story wooden mill being stabilized and restored.
The 14 story wooden mill being stabilized and restored.

All we can do at the moment is admire its striking size and engineering from various exterior points and learn about the elaborate processes used to separate the copper from the various types of ore rock coming down the tramways in huge amounts. Starting with rock crushers at the very top and proceeding through a half dozen concentrating techniques, we’re amazed to learn that over the life of the mine, the mill extracted an astounding 97% of the copper content on site and sent it south by rail and ship. This was an incredibly efficient operation, designed to wring out every last bit of profit.

Since the rail line was often temporarily shut down for damage repair during winter and spring, much of the ore was stored in 140 pound sacks and loaded onto the next available train.

Leaving the main level, we follow rough roads and steep trails up the side of the mountain, circling around past the top of the mill where the tram-delivered ore was received and began being processed.

Upper level of mill at terminus of aerial trams. Tram cars dumped there loads inside into crushers. Rooves in background are new to protect mill structure and contents.
Upper level of mill at terminus of aerial trams. Tram cars dumped their loads inside into crushers. Roofs in background are new to protect mill structure and contents.

I should mention that wherever you are in town, a glance to the north or west encompasses stunning views of the glaciers and steep mountains. It’s easy to see why people went to great effort to build cabins and houses on the very remote Kennecott lots offered for sale.

Almost every spot in Kennecott features expansive views of glacier and mountains.
Almost every spot in Kennecott, including the main street, features expansive views of glacier and mountains.
Delicate flowers in bloom along the upper road.
Delicate flowers in bloom along the upper road.
Glacier and mountain view from one of Kennecott's upper road private lots.
Glacier and mountain view from one of Kennecott’s upper road private lots.
A private home on the upper road.
A private home on the upper road.

The clouds have been steadily clearing all morning and as we walk the upper road, the sun is quite fierce and the distant views are constantly improving. The whole tenor of the valley changes for us as blue sky prevails over clouds.

The high volcanoes appear as the clouds dissipate.
The high volcanoes appear as the clouds dissipate.
Susan in the newly arrived bright sun on the Kennecott upper road.
Susan in the newly arrived bright sun on the Kennecott upper road.
John on the Kennecott upper road.
John on the Kennecott upper road.

Coming back around and down off the mountain to the end of town, we find signs describing Kennecott family life.

Descending from the upper road back to main camp level.
Descending from the upper road back to main camp level.

Although most of the mine and mill workers were here alone with loved ones thousands of miles away, some of the management and clerical personnel lived here permanently with their families. The solo workers lived in large dormitories and ate in dining halls.

Employee dormitory in the Kennecott mining camp. Mineworkers commuted between camp and mine workings high above treeline via open tram cars, summer and winter.
Employee dormitory in the Kennecott mining camp. Mineworkers commuted between camp and mine workings high above treeline via open tram cars, summer and winter.

The white collar workers, whether or not their families were with them, lived in cottages or apartments.

Despite the focus on productivity, a number of families lived in Kennecott. Note the amount of snow still on the ground on May Day.
Despite the focus on hard work and productivity, a number of families lived in Kennecott. Note the amount of snow still on the ground on May Day.
Interpretive sign describing family housing in the Kennicott mining camp.
Interpretive sign describing family housing in the Kennecott mining camp.

By 3 PM, we’ve had our fill of gawking and reading and learning and walking, so we prepare to leave Kennecott. The clear weather is persisting and I suggest the possibility of chartering a small plane for a flight toward the high peaks of the Wrangell Mountains.

The weather has cleared, the high peaks are out. If only we could afford to charter a flightseeing trip.
The weather has cleared, the high peaks are out. If only we could afford to charter a flightseeing trip.

Inquiries at the office of the only flying service in town result in a determination that the flight pricing equates to an hourly rate of $600. This is absurdly expensive for a small plan, so we abandon the idea despite the good flying weather. We board the shuttle van back to the footbridge and return to our van on the other side. This is where [sarcasm alert] the fun begins.

Returning to the parking lot across the Kennicott River.
Returning to the parking lot across the Kennicott River.

As I begin to pull out of the parking lot. the van’s Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) warning is prominently lit. At least one tire is seriously below its required pressure, and TPMS often signals a fully flat tire. The area now serving as rough, rocky private parking undoubtedly has a rich history of prior uses and I immediately suspect some errant piece of historic metal has penetrated a tire. I guess I should be honored.

I put a gauge on the tires and find the right rear down to about 20 psi — at least it’s just a slow leak. Normally, I carry a 12 VDC tire inflator, but both of the ones I’ve brought have apparently reached their retirement age because they’ve stopped working so I don’t have the option of trying to make it back to civilization with repeated inflations. As I’ve said before, these are run-flat tires and can support the car — for a while — even when uninflated and, thus, there’s no place dedicated to storing a spare wheel. This could easily be the most remote place in remote Alaska to not have a spare (this later turns out not to be true).

I carefully exit the lot and head to a place a short distance away I noticed earlier that sports a “flats repaired” sign. The only structure there is an outhouse-sized shed. Looking inside, I see a note explaining that you leave flat tires on the left side along with cash payment. When repaired, they’ll be deposited on the right side for pickup. This arrangement is useless to us. With no spare, I can’t remove a tire and leave it for some unknown period, and I suspect the proprietor wouldn’t appreciate my demolishing the shed, small and flimsy as it is, in order to park the van so my bad tire is in the correct dropoff position.

Our only other option is to drive carefully back to our cabin and ask the owners for assistance. They’re, of course, happy to help and since McCarthy is a tiny place they know the person who operates the dropoff tire service. Reaching him at home during dinner, they arrange for me to meet him face to face at his shop at 8:30 AM to repair the tire. This is a wonderful outcome as it severely lessens the chance I’ll have to pump up the bad tire as high as possible and tear along at least 50 miles of rough road in hopes of making it to the next possible tire fixer.

With nothing left to do until tomorrow morning, we make dinner and spend our second and, we hope, final night in the comfortable cabin.

Our hobbled van parked in front of our cozy cabin.
Our hobbled van parked in front of our cozy cabin.

Next post: https://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/08/12/road-trip-21-06-23-fortuitous-tire-repair-allows-return-to-civilization/

Road Trip – 21/06/21 The McCarthy Road, former railroad track.

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/08/02/road-trip-21-06-20-we-head-south-across-the-alaska-range/

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We’re up and driving by 6 AM, covering the last 10 miles of paved highway to Chitina (the second “i” is silent: CHIT-na). Before dropping down to the historic village, we skirt a series of picturesque rock cleft lakes.

Third Lake above Cjitina, Alaska
Third Lake above Chitina, Alaska

It’s cold, windy, and raining but we stop at the Chitina Wayside to have breakfast under its picnic shelter.

Rainy start to the day in Chitina, Alaska
Rainy start to the day in Chitina, Alaska
Breakfast at Chitin Wayside. Cold and wet but out of the rain.
Breakfast at Chitina Wayside. Cold and wet but out of the rain.

Chitina has some interesting buildings from its long ago bustling past but, at least early Monday morning, very little activity.

Lodging in Chitina.
Lodging in Chitina.
Defunct general store, Cithina, Alaska
Defunct general store, Chitina, Alaska

We’ve been paralleling the Copper River, one of Alaska’s major salmon spawning routes, all the way from Glenallen, but we’ve rarely seen it from the road due to intervening terrain. Here, where the Edgerton Highway ends, we join the route of the old Copper River and Northwestern Railway. This prodigious engineering feat, completed in 1911, ran 200 miles from the coastal port of Cordova to the Kennicott copper strike, through forbidding terrain. The $25 million project cost paid off as the mine generated at least $100 million in profit before closing in 1938, when the railway was shut down but left in place.

One of the many engineering accomplishments was spanning the wide, fast, and variable flow Copper River just past Chitina. The rail trestle sustained severe damage every year, to the point where the railroad preemptively pulled up the track before the spring breakup, rebuilt the pilings after the floods, and replaced the track. After abandonment, the next flood permanently destroyed the structure in 1939.

In order not to strand residents along the rail line, the Alaska Road Commission assumed maintenance of the track and a 1930s aerial tram that allowed people and goods to cross the Copper River where the bridge used to be. Private companies ran rail-converted automobiles along the track.

As the tracks deteriorated, summer travel along the route became limited to bulldozers and other rugged equipment. After statehood, in 1959, the new highway department seriously considered converting the railbed to a McCarthy Road. Contractors pulled up the steel rails and made a very rough one lane jeep trail. It took until 1971 for the state to build a new, permanent highway bridge across the Copper River at Chitina — to this day it’s the only functional bridge along the river’s 300 miles. McCarthy’s few residents and others along the route were once again, however crudely, connected to the highway system. Well, almost. The road ended across the Kennicott River from the tiny settlement because there was no money to replace the washed out railroad trestle. A half mile walk punctuated by two hand operated tram cars across glacial rivers was the final segment of the journey.

This was the state of things when the McCarthy Road first caught my attention. I brought an old Jeep Wagoneer to Alaska when I arrived in 1975 but it was never reliable enough for the off road adventures of which I dreamed. I had renewed hope when I acquired my first Subaru in 1977. It was gaining popularity in the US but my 4-wheel drive DL wagon was still a novelty in Alaska. Detailed inquiries, though, convinced me it didn’t have the ground clearance necessary for the trip. As well, the remaining trestle crossing was so hair raising that many travelers were said to give up at that point and turn back. To my everlasting regret, I never attempted the 62 mile journey before I left the state. It would have been a great adventure.

Now is my delayed chance for redemption, although the road has been greatly improved to where any vehicle can make it. Leaving Chitina through an old railroad cut (it used to be a tunnel but the covering rock was removed after maintenance workers were killed inside by falling debris), the road curves down toward the long bridge.

McCarthy Road uses an old railroad cut, formerly a tunnel. Chitina, Alaska
McCarthy Road uses an old railroad cut, formerly a tunnel. Chitina, Alaska

This is our first broad view of the Copper River in many miles. Some of the most prized salmon in the state are caught here as they swim upstream through the opaque water to breed in various small, clear tributaries.

The salmon are running and many people are trying to catch their limit, after which they’ll race home to clean, filet, and freeze them to last through the winter. City and rural, Anglo or Native, to many Alaskans the king salmon runs are a highlight of the year. Here on the Copper River, only two methods are permitted: a fish wheel (mostly used by Alaska Natives) and dip net (used by everyone). Both depend on the silty, opaque water to catch salmon blindly navigating upstream to spawn. If the water were clear, the fish would simply evade the wheels and nets.

Fishwheels are the more technological approach. A large wheel with baskets pointing downstream is anchored in the river. The downstream flow turns the wheel, whose baskets may scoop up salmon swimming upstream into their path. Dipnetting requires less elaborate gear: a large net at the end of a 10-40 foot aluminum poll and quality chest waders.

Dipnetting, however, takes skill and strength… and it can be fatal if mistakes are made. Dipnetters wearing waders walk downstream, chest deep, parallel to the shore, holding their nets perpendicular to it on long horizontal poles. They have to move fast enough for the net to billow out upstream instead of downstream where the current tries to push it. Any salmon coming upstream and running into the net may get tangled in it and be caught.

Picture the situation. You’re walking above your waist in near freezing, fast flowing, opaque water. Should you lose your footing and the river water overtop and fill your waders, you could be lost in a matter of seconds unless someone is right there to try to grab you. If your body goes under the surface, you’ll immediately disappear from sight while you’re weighed down and swept downstream.

At the end of each traverse, you walk up on the beach, remove a salmon if you’re lucky, and wade downstream again with net deployed. You have to really love salmon to be a dipnetter in Chitina.

Dipnetting for salmon in the Copper River, Chitina, Alaska
Dipnetting for salmon in the Copper River, Chitina, Alaska
Dipnetting is rewarding but not for the faint of heart.
Dipnetting is rewarding but not for the faint of heart.
Got one!
Got one!

Proceeding across the Copper River bridge, the road turns to gravel and we begin the 62 mile journey to McCarthy. A warning sign tries its best to discourage going further.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter. We'll excuse the typo.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter. We’ll excuse the typo.

The road is built on the old railbed but it starts out uncharacteristically steep for a railway. How did trains make it up from the river? Not easily. Eastbound trains generally had to be split in two so the locomotive could pull the first half to the top, return downhill for the second, and reassemble the full train before proceeding.

As advertised, the road is in good shape. It’s wide enough for opposing traffic to pass although the shoulders are often several feet above the surrounding terrain. Let your right wheels go just a few inches beyond the road surface and you’re in serious trouble in the woods below the road — if you avoid a full rollover! Sure enough, along the way we pass two vehicles abandoned after just such a mishap.

On the McCarthy Road, careless drivers pay the price. The 70 ile tow truck callout is apparently more than the car is worth.
On the McCarthy Road, careless drivers pay the price. The 70 mile tow truck callout is apparently more than the car is worth.
This guy fared even worse.
This guy fared even worse.

Every so often, where the road is wearing down, we see evidence of railroad ties poking through the gravel. In the early years, accidents caused by driving over railroad spikes were not uncommon, By now, encountering one is very rare.

Original railroad ties poking through the gravel, McCarthy Road
Original railroad ties poking through the gravel, McCarthy Road

There are no services anywhere between Chitina and McCarthy — except for one flat fixer.

The only service between Chitina and McCarthy -- but an important one.
The only service between Chitina and McCarthy — but an important one.

Sixteen miles in, we come to the Kuskulana Bridge. Here, the railroad spanned a 525 foot valley, 230 feet above the river, on an iron structure. Later, this was crudely converted for automobile use by installing parallel planks on the railroad ties as wheel paths with flimsy wooden “curbs” attached to the outsides. When they heard tires screeching against either curb, the driver knew they weren’t centered on the planks. This daredevil arrangement served for many years, but by all accounts it was a hair raising crossing.

More recently, the bridge has been converted to a safe one lane road with a wood plank driving surface and guard rails. As we arrive, though, traffic is blocked in both directions while a bucket truck moves slowly across with engineers inspecting the original steel substructure. We’re told this is the beginning of a project to build a two lane road across the former one track bridge. Let’s hope they know what they’re doing.

Kuskulina Bridge engineering inspection, McCarthy Road
Kuskulina Bridge engineering inspection, McCarthy Road

After about an hour, the inspection is completed and normal one way at a time bridge traffic resumes.

Driving across the Kuskulina Bridge, McCarthy Road.
Driving across the Kuskulina Bridge, McCarthy Road.

As I mentioned, the current road is no great challenge and we proceed slowly along, stopping to gawk at whatever looks interesting.

Ducklings, McCarthy Road
Ducklings, McCarthy Road
McCarthy roadside flowers.
McCarthy roadside flowers.

About halfway along, the road leaves the old right of way to bypass the Gilahina trestle. Long abandoned and visibly sagging, the 880 foot long, 90 foot high, wooden trestle’s main claim to fame is being built in just 8 winter days in 1911, using half a million board feet of timber. I doubt any construction crew today could match that feat.

Abandoned Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road, 880 feet long, 90 feet high, 8 days to build in 1911!
Abandoned Gilahina Trestle, McCarthy Road, 880 feet long, 90 feet high, 8 days to build in 1911!

As we approach McCarthy, it becomes obvious there’s no public land along the last portion of the road where we can sleep in the van. The one National Park Service trailhead is clearly marked “No Overnight Parking”. Our choices are to pay a lot for a private campsite or pay even more for a cabin. We decide to splurge on the latter and after a number of inquiries at places with no vacancy or no human beings, we find Aspen Meadows B&B. The owner is kicking back after hosting a large group but she graciously offers to forego her rest and clean up one of the cabins for us. We accept her offer and agree to come back in the evening after spending the day in McCarthy.

Driving back to the end of the road, we see that reaching the village requires parking in the private lot and walking across the modern footbridge. It crosses two channels of the Kennicott River and was built by the state highway department in 1997 to replace the two hand powered aerial trams used for the prior 15 years. Although the bridge is prominently marked “No Motorized Traffic” ATVs and motorcycles use it freely, along with bicycles and pedestrians.

McCarthy footbridge across the Kennicott River.
McCarthy footbridge across the Kennicott River.

From the far end of the bridge, it’s a short walk to town, so we pass up the van shuttle offering transportation. There’s an exhibit of a kluged together, one of a kind truck built in the 1950s (long before there was a vehicle road) and nicknamed the Rigor Mortis. Its owner used it locally for about 35 years. You know what they say, “Necessity is a mother!”

Rigor Mortis, homemade truck used in old McCarthy
Rigor Mortis, homemade truck used in old McCarthy

A short walk past old railroad relics and overgrown structures brings us into McCarthy. The community sprung up as a Sin City during the mining era, 1911-1938, to supply all the services prohibited on the property of the nearby Kennecott Mine — alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. When the mine closed, McCarthy became a virtual ghost town until young people seeking adventure and alternate lifestyles started arriving in the 1970s.

The creation of Wrangell-St Elias National Park in 1980 slowly allowed McCarthyites to make a living from adventurous visitors arriving on the rough but passable road. Tourism businesses were started and the summer population grew. Only a couple of dozen people stay through the winter, but today most of the remaining original buildings are in use as hotels, restaurants, and stores. McCarthy is still definitely off the grid, but nowhere near as much as before.

As an “end of the road” locale, the town has borne the brunt of some tragedies perpetrated by disturbed characters at the end of their road. In winter 1983, a part time resident suddenly went on a shooting spree, killing 6 and wounding 2 of the 23 people in town.

With the nearest police 100 miles away by air, the killings were only stopped when one of the wounded managed to knife the murderer, causing him to leave the area on a snowmachine before being apprehended late that day.

In 2002, a patriarch and 10 of his children unexpectedly arrived in town in two pickup trucks. For anyone to drive to McCarthy in January was highly unusual, much less a big group in two open trucks. This was the Pilgrim family looking for a new home away from bad influences. The deeply religious group made a good impression in McCarthy and in the spring they returned full strength to take up residence, 2 parents and their 15 children. Over time, the initial support of other townspeople weakened. The family operated almost as a cult. The father, known as Papa Pilgrim, prevented his children from socializing with anyone so as not to have them ruined and was the face of the clan to the outside world. He ran afoul of the Park Service, often seen as the enemy by rural Alaskans but attitudes toward the family gradually turned mixed. The culmination came in 2005 when, despite their isolation from other townspeople, a family blowup exposed that for many years Papa had brainwashed and terrorized his wife and children and was having an incestuous relationship with a teenage daughter. He was sent to jail and died in 2008, leaving his giant family to figure out a new life for themselves after years of trauma and without his domineering presence.

We stop in at a bakery/gift shop. Although their food offerings are almost non-existent, we have a long conversation with the young woman working the counter. Like most people in town, she’s here only as a summer job and will return Outside (the Lower 48) long before winter.

Way more art than bakery, McCarthy, Alaska
Way more art than bakery, McCarthy, Alaska

We decide to have dinner at one of the two restaurants, sitting outdoors in the cool air. The food is quite good but, understandably, expensive in this remote location. For dessert, we buy the 2 cinnamon buns still on the bakery shelf. Nibbling on them as we walk down the road, we determine the friendly atmosphere is way better than the product.

At the end of the street is the old railroad station, now the McCarthy museum. The volunteer inside is helpful in interpreting the exhibits and artifacts. It’s what I call an “attic museum”, a very modestly curated collection of items, photographs, and clippings haphazardly dredged up from various locals. Still quite interesting, though, if you take the time to study the pieces and ask questions.

Motorized railroad work car, McCarthy, Alaska
Motorized railroad work car, McCarthy, Alaska
Corset, McCarthy Museum.
Corset, McCarthy Museum.
Kitchen miscellany, McCarthy Museum
Kitchen miscellany, McCarthy Museum
Kitchen items, McCarthy Museum
Kitchen items, McCarthy Museum

After checking out the remaining few yards of the street, including a period hotel and the world’s most unsatisfying grocery store, we walk back to the footbridge.

Golden Saloon, McCarthy, Alaska
Golden Saloon, McCarthy, Alaska
Lobby of Ma Johnson's Hotel, McCarthy, Alaska
Lobby of Ma Johnson’s Hotel, McCarthy, Alaska
Half of the restaurants in McCarthy, Alaska
Half of the restaurants in McCarthy, Alaska

Retrieving the van, we drive the few miles to our pleasant cabin. Tomorrow will be our major sightseeing day in the area, so we call it an evening relatively early despite the endless daylight.

Cozy cabin at Aspen Meadows, near McCarthy, Alaska
Cozy cabin at Aspen Meadows, near McCarthy, Alaska

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/08/10/road-trip-21-06-22-twentieth-century-yankee-ingenuity-the-kennecott-copper-mine-and-a-difficult-problem-in-mccarthy/

Road Trip – 21/06/20 We Head South Across the Alaska Range

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/07/30/road-trip-21-06-19-arctic-weather-forecast-changes-our-route/

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Thanks to the sun merely dipping below the northern horizon, last night’s Birch Lake sunset has morphed into an equally beautiful sunrise. Our roadside snooze was only 5 hours long. In Alaska, no one sleeps much during the long summer days, which is not to say that doesn’t take its toll on the body.

Long Alaska days mean sleep deficits
Long Alaska days mean sleep deficits
Sunrise at Birch Lake, Alaska
Sunrise at Birch Lake, Alaska

As we crawl out of the van, we’re greeted by the cheerful song of an Alaska robin…

Robin early AM at Birch Lake, Alaska
Robin early AM at Birch Lake, Alaska

…and a patch of blooming wildflowers.

Morning wildflowers, Birch Lake
Morning wildflowers, Birch Lake

As we resume driving, the road converges again with the Tanana River, affording us a view to the south of the Alaska Range. 20,000 foot Mt Denali lies 200 miles to the west along the arcing spine of the range but we’re seeing more “modest” peaks, rising only to about 12,000 feet. We plan to cross those mountains through a low pass later today.

Eastern Alaska Range across the Tanana River
Eastern Alaska Range across the Tanana River

Dawdling along down the Richardson Highway, we take the time to explore a side road to Quartz Lake. Here, Susan gets the first of many views to come of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which has been paralleling our route between Fairbanks and Valdez, its terminus.

Susan's first view of the Trans Alaska Pipeline
Susan’s first view of the Trans Alaska Pipeline

She also gets her first glimpse of an Alaska moose as it slips into the forest at our approach.

Cow moose seeking privacy, Quartz Lake, Aaska
Cow moose seeking privacy, Quartz Lake, Aaska

Shortly thereafter, we reach the big bridge across the Tanana River with its adjacent span carrying the pipeline across.

Paired bridges, highway and pipeline, acros the Tanana River
Paired bridges, highway and pipeline, acros the Tanana River

The Tanana is high volume, swiftly flowing, opaquely silty, and very cold thanks to its glacial meltwater origins. Standing too close to the water is likely fatal if the mudbank under your feet should collapse at the wrong moment. I’m always conscious of that in this situation and I explain the danger to Susan, too.

Heed the Tanana River safety warning!
Heed the Tanana River safety warning!

The Richardson Highway was the first route suitable for wagons, and then trucks, to bring goods into interior Alaska from ocean ports. It started out as 400 mile pack trail to the gold fields in Eagle, Alaska and by 1910 the US Army upgraded it to a wagon road connecting Valdez and Fairbanks, Because the trip was slow and arduous at first, a substantial number of roadhouses were established to supply food and shelter on the long journey.

One of these is Rika’s Roadhouse, preserved in the Big Delta State Historical Park here along the shoreline. Until the first bridge across the Tanana River was built in the 1940s, the Richardson Highway required a ferry crossing here, making the riverbank a lucrative place for a roadhouse. Rika Wallen was the last operator and when Rika’s closed around 1950, she continued to live there until her death in 1969. Due to the short time span, the property was relatively easy to preserve and restore as an historical attraction ten years later.

Rika's Roadhouse
Rika’s Roadhouse

Today, you can tour buildings, grounds, and artifacts in an environment somewhat similar to the active roadhouse days. We’re here early in the morning, so the buildings are closed and the park deserted, but walking the grounds and reading the interpretive signs, you can really imagine how it was.

Old truck at Rika's Roadhouse
Old truck at Rika’s Roadhouse

An interesting episode occurred starting in 1935. The only competing route to Fairbanks was the federal railroad from Seward. By that year, trucking up the Richardson was substantially faster and cheaper, so the railroad was losing a lot of money. To compensate, the feds instituted fees per ton for the highway. Truckers refused to pay, so the fees were collected as the ferry fare. This caused the truckers to use the ferry without permission. After some years of this, a US Marshal traveled to the Tanana in 1940 and arrested 14 men. While they were in court, other truckers took away the shotgun of the marshal left to guard the ferry, locked him in the scale house, and transferred 10 loads of cargo across the river. When done, they released the marshal and his firearm. The sympathies of Fairbanksans were clearly on the side of the truckers — a grand jury refused to indict the marshal’s captors and a trial jury found the first 14 truckers not guilty. In 1941, the truckers built and operated their own “pirate” ferry to avoid the tolls. The government then built a toll gate 12 miles north of the river to collect tolls there. Truckers pulled down the gate! Some of that same renegade spirit is still evident today.

As the highway improved, cutting the travel time to Fairbanks from nine days or more to just two, most of the roadhouses were no longer needed and went out of business or tried to cater to tourists.

Leaving Rika’s, we’re really getting hungry so we stop at the IGA market in Delta Junction and find good pastries for sale at their coffee counter. While eating at their outdoor picnic table, we strike up a conversation with another coffee drinker who turns out to be a Swiss glaciologist who’s spent years in Alaska researching the mechanics of glacial flow. Almost everyone you encounter in Alaska has an interesting story of some sort.

Chance breakfast with a Swiss glaciologist, Delta Junction, Alaska
Chance breakfast with a Swiss glaciologist, Delta Junction, Alaska

So far we’ve been heading toward the Canadian border, but now we turn due south toward Valdez. This is one of my favorite Alaska highways (the state only has about a dozen major ones) and I drove it many times in the old days. We’ve been paralleling the Alaska Range but now we head straight for it. Shortly after the turnoff, we pass Fort Greely. Founded in 1942 shortly after completion of the Alcan Highway, its airfield was one of a series along that road used to shuttle military aircraft and supplies to the far east of the Soviet Union (USSR). The Russians were our allies against the German and Japanese in World War II.

With the war over and the Cold War with the USSR taking shape, the military understood that it was vital to develop cold weather combat capability. Situated in one of coldest, road-accessible areas in wintertime Alaska, Fort Greely was designated in 1946 as the center for testing polar combat techniques and equipment. This testing and training continues through the present day. Now, it may come to prominence again as a site for the new generation of missile interceptor missiles designed to counter North Korea’s advancing ballistic missile technology.

We can’t visit the base of course so we pass the entrance on our left, heading up the broad, glacial Delta River valley. The Trans Alaska Pipeline is frequently in view from the highway and crosses it periodically.

Trans Alaska Pipeline heading for the Alaska Range
Trans Alaska Pipeline heading for the Alaska Range

With the distant snow capped Alaska Range becoming more dramatic as we approach, we pass Donnelly Dome, a free standing hill along the highway. This was the scene of a memorable, actually notorious, 1976 camping trip. After driving 300 miles from Anchorage to camp for the weekend without facilities, we discovered I had packed everything we needed — except the sleeping bags. We had a very makeshift couple of nights staying warm in the tent and I never lived down the embarrassment.

Donnelly Dome, south of Delta Junction, Alaska
Donnelly Dome, south of Delta Junction, Alaska
Approaching the Alaska Range along the Richardson Highway
Approaching the Alaska Range along the Richardson Highway

At one pullout, formerly (for reasons I’m about to explain) signed as “Black Rapids Glacier” we turn off to a view eastward across the broad north-south Delta valley to an almost as broad one issuing westward out of the mountains. This valley was formerly filled by the Black Rapids Glacier, a surge-type that periodically moves up to 100 times faster than its normal “glacial” (get it?) pace. In 1936-37, it moved so fast that it garnered the nickname the Galloping Glacier and there were fears it might advance far enough to dam the Delta River and flood the main valley to the south causing substantial disruption. In my Alaska days, it was no longer advancing but was very prominent from this viewpoint.

Valley that used to filled with the Black Rapids Glacier
Valley that used to filled with the Black Rapids Glacier

For those unfamiliar with glacial dynamics, some explanation might be of interest. At any rate, interested or not, you’re getting it: All glaciers are rivers of ice. They flow down hill at very slow speeds, similar to water rivers but thousands or millions of times more slowly. If a glacier goes over a rock cliff, it forms an icefall instead of a waterfall. If its valley turns a corner, a circular flow may form, just as an eddy can form at a river bend.

A big difference between glaciers and rivers is the type of landscape they create. A river, relative to its valley, is basically a thin thread. Flowing water is a powerfully erosive force so it carves its valley more or less vertically downward in a single line. Rivers form V-shaped valleys. I’ll skip explaining why they’re usually Vs instead of simple vertical canyons.

A glacier, by contrast, fills its valley with ice. As it flows downhill that massive, slow moving mass grinds away at the sides and bottom of its valley, picking up gravel and plucking giant rocks from the bedrock. This material gives the glacier even more erosive power.

Glaciers carve large U-shaped valleys because they’re very efficient at quickly scouring large amounts of rock simultaneously from both sides and the bottom of the valley.

So if all glaciers flow downhill, what is this talk of “glacial retreat”? It’s simple to understand once you realize that what’s retreating is the face of the glacier, not the glacier itself. Near the top, where snowfall is heavy and temperatures average well below 32 F, far more ice forms than melts every year. The weight of this ice forces the glacier to flow downhill.

But every glacier, even those in Antarctica, eventually gets down to an elevation where the weather is warm enough to melt more ice than arrives from uphill. At any given time there’s a point where exactly as much ice is melting as is arriving from above. That is where the face of the glacier forms. If conditions don’t change, the glacier is still flowing downhill but the face stays right where it is.

Now, suppose the average weather along the glacier is warming over the years, as we’ve been seeing in many parts of the world since the Industrial Revolution. Warmer weather down low can dramatically increase melting. If the weather up top does not supply additional ice, or supplies less than before, the lower glacier melts faster than can be replaced and the face retreats up the valley. — even though the ice is always moving downhill.

If the weather warms enough so the face retreats to the very top of the glacier, poof — no more glacier!

Black Rapids glacier could some day start surging again, but the warming climate would likely offset that surge with increased melting. Since I last saw it in 1983, the face of the glacier has receded several miles up from the valley mouth and around a bend and is no longer visible at all from the road.

OK. End of lecture.

At the viewpoint, we meet a couple where the husband is an Alaska Native and the wife a Floridian. They flew up on vacation and are paying the horrific rental rate on one of the new RVs I saw being shuttled up the Alaska Highway a week ago. It’s their only option, since rental cars are in very short supply, and thus very expensive, after companies sold off much of their fleets during the Covid lockdowns. It makes me very glad I managed to get my van up here through Canada despite the border closure.

Couple on an RV vacation, Black Rapids Glacier
Couple on an RV vacation, Black Rapids Glacier

We’re now approaching Isabel Pass through the Alaska Range. Although the pass is at a modest 3,300 feet elevation, the road runs above treeline for about 80 miles. This far north, 1000 feet of elevation yields a substantially different climate. Frigid temperatures, drifting snow, and isolation can make this stretch of highway particularly dangerous in winter despite heroic levels of plowing.

Careless RV driver near Isabel Pass, Alaska
Careless RV driver near Isabel Pass, Alaska

On the other side of the pass are Summit and Paxson Lakes, popular summer boating and winter snowmachining recreation areas.

Above the treeline at 2200 feet, SUmmit Lake, Alaska
Above the treeline at 2200 feet, SUmmit Lake, Alaska

Finally, we descend back below treeline as we drop down toward the Gakona River. Here we pass one of my favorite roadside stops, the historic Sourdough Roadhouse. When I lived in Alaska, they offered all you can eat sourdough pancakes, all day long. This is where I learned to appreciate sourdough cookery. On several occasions I drove up to 70 miles out of my way to chow down at the roadhouse. Forty years later, to my disappointment, although the “Sourdough Roadhouse” sign is still displayed, the building is clearly a private residence.

Nothing functional left of this historic roadhouse except the sign
Nothing functional left of this historic roadhouse except the sign

A further 30 minutes brings us to the small junction town of Glenallen, where we can turn right for Anchorage — not today — or straight on to Valdez, which is a 120 mile dead end unless you put your vehicle on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry. Susan finds a Thai restaurant in Glenallen and that means a mandatory stop for Thai iced coffee. I don’t get why it’s so special, except for the high price, because it seems to just be coffee, evaporated milk, and sugar. I can do that at home but Susan is surprised and happy to have found it in rural Alaska. We’ll be coming through here numerous times this summer and I joke that she’ll be recognized as a regular and just order “the usual”.

We start down the road toward Valdez, but first I have a special side trip in mind. 90 miles to the east of the highway lies McCarthy, a tiny town adjacent to the immense but long abandoned Kennecott Copper Mine. For reasons I’ll explain in the next post, I never visited McCarthy when I lived in Alaska. This is my chance.

The first step is to drive the Edgerton Highway, 33 miles of now modern road that ends in Chitina, a native village and former railroad town. We turn off the Richardson Highway and proceed east. The first portion is the original alignment which has been bypassed by a newer paved road. It’s raining rather heavily, so the unpaved version we’re on is quite muddy but not a problem with careful driving. Rejoining the paved version, we move along uneventfully through typical forest terrain. We should be seeing views of the very dramatic Wrangell Mountains to the north, but the rainy weather precludes those.

Although we’ve only covered 260 miles today, we’ve dawdled and gawked and been distracted by the wildly varied scenery, so it’s time to sleep for a while. Just when we decide that, we happen on Liberty Falls campground. It’s namesake falls are gushing out of a bedrock slot, dropping about 20 feet with the flow divided in two by a large outcrop that hasn’t yet succumbed to the falls’ erosive power. It’s very picturesque and powerful so we wander around to various perspectives and appreciate the scene. There’s a campground here but since we’re sleeping in the van there isn’t much point to paying the fee.

Liberty Falls along the Edgerton Highway, Alaska
Liberty Falls along the Edgerton Highway, Alaska

After an hour or so, we proceed a few miles along the highway and find a secluded road stub that gets us out of sight of the pavement. Here we work quickly to get ready to sleep, but still allowing a hundred or so mosquitoes to join us by the time the doors close for the night. The first half hour is spent watching and listening for the little buggers so we can slap them down before being bitten all night long. Success largely achieved, we get some rest, waking only occasionally when the dread hum of a remaining mosquito buzzing our eardrum strikes momentary terror and foul language as a further effort to squash the intruder ensues.

Next post: https://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/08/06/road-trip-21-06-21-the-mccarthy-road-former-railroad-track/

Road Trip – 21/06/19 Arctic Weather Forecast Changes Our Route

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/07/28/road-trip-21-06-19-together-again-susan-flies-in-to-fairbanks/

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I’m up by 8:30 at Billie’s Backpacker Hostel to prep my buckwheat sourdough pancake breakfast for everyone while Susan sleeps off her jet lag. I had promised a 9 AM breakfast, but after yesterday’s late evening, I’m going to miss that by an hour or so. I mixed up a mess of sourdough starter yesterday and this morning it’s suitably bubbly and foul smelling so I add all the requisite ingredients to make the batter. I have no idea how many people will be eating and how big their appetites will be so I just pick an arbitrary amount and hope it will be about right.

Susan appears at about 10, just as I’m finishing up cooking all the pancakes. Dee, another hostel guest, has contributed maple syrup and fresh blueberries, so breakfast is quite a feast. About 8 of us enjoy pancakes as early departers and late risers miss out.

Susan really gets into the social life of the hostel and we spend the morning talking to travelers of all kinds. We’d gladly stay another night but Billie is booked solid and can’t squeeze us in anywhere. She does offer to let us use the house if we choose to sleep in the van out front, but in any case, we have to vacate our room.

Billie's Backpacker Hostel
Billie’s Backpacker Hostel

Today is the Summer Solstice Celebration, in the form of a street fair in downtown Fairbanks. All packed up, we head there in early afternoon. It’s several blocks of vendors, music, and performers.

Everyone is in a good mood, free of oppressive safety measures and intense social distancing. Fairbanks still has its share of outlandish characters so there’s a sprinkling of quirky outfits among the revelers.

Fairbanks summer solstice street fair. You don't need an occasion to dress up.
Fairbanks summer solstice street fair. You don’t need an occasion to dress up.
Fairbanks summer solstice street fair. There's only a short season here for exposed skin.
Fairbanks summer solstice street fair. There’s only a short season here for exposed skin.

Overall, Alaskans were vaccinated early, although there are a lot of anti-vax assholes screwing it up for everyone. Those of us who are now protected are no longer wearing masks, along with an unknown number of the unvaccinated.

I call my friend Will to arrange a get together and he says he’ll join us shortly at the fair. There’s plenty of street food for sale, along with clothing, art, and useless junk.

Fairbanks Summer Solstice street fair vendor. Give a diabetic enough rope...
Fairbanks Summer Solstice street fair vendor. Give a diabetic enough rope…
Fairbanks Summer Solstice street fair vendor.
Fairbanks Summer Solstice street fair vendor.

At the performance area, we see that Fairbanks is generating acrobats. A variety of young women successively display their skills holding on to suspended aerial rings and silks. I wouldn’t have guessed that pool of talent existed in the far north.

Acrobat on a suspended sash.
Acrobat on a suspended sash.
Acrobat on a suspended sash.
Acrobat on a suspended sash.

Will arrives during the performance and we spend the next several hours together. We have 40 years to catch up on and Susan is meeting him for the first time.

John Gunther and WIll Schendel in Fairbanks, 40 years after last contact
John Gunther and WIll Schendel in Fairbanks, 40 years since last contact

After the acrobats, the stage is given over to belly dancers. About half a dozen women do their routines, some with swords. By virtue of having all their extremities intact, it’s obvious they put a lot of time into rehearsals. Well maybe not — one woman did dance with her arm in a sling.

Fairbanks belly dancers looking sharp.
Fairbanks belly dancers looking sharp.

With the shows over, the three of us buy some street food and then retreat a few blocks away to the quieter surroundings of an indoor/outdoor bar to continue our conversation.

Fairbanks Summer Solstice Street Fair. Where else can you by Mock and Cock?
Fairbanks Summer Solstice Street Fair. Where else can you by Mock and Cock?

Despite being the second largest city in Alaska, Fairbanks is a small town so we’re coincidentally joined by one of the hostel guests, a young Utah woman visiting Alaska for the first time, solo. Will is a lawyer who spent many years representing workers in employment matters. He started out in Fairbanks as a legal aid attorney, so most of his career has been spent on the white hat side of law. He’s heavily into music, with weekly sessions of up to 25 people at his home where non-playing audience is strictly excluded — musicians only.

Our final activity is back at the street fair music venue to hear friends of Will perform jazz in front of the crowd.

Jazz duet at street fair.
Jazz duet at street fair.

At the end of the set, we part company with Will and start working our way back to the van. As we pass the other music stage, there’s an energetic rock group blasting away. Atypically, they have a female drummer.

Rock band at the Fairbanks street fair.

Downtown Fairbanks is still fairly recognizable from its 1980s appearance although virtually all the old businesses have been replaced. Notably there’s still a hanging sign for Tommy’s Elbow Room, a legendary 1970s hangout for construction workers on their week off during construction of the Alyeska Pipeline. Many a worker arrived in Fairbanks on a Friday with a couple of thousand dollars in their pocket and found themselves busted flat by Monday morning, sometimes happy, sometimes rueful, and sometimes blank as to how the weekend transpired. The site hasn’t been a bar since 2003 but the sign lives on, albeit with “Tommy’s” thoroughly whited out.

Tommy's Elbow Room bar is long gone but the sign lives on.
Tommy’s Elbow Room bar is long gone but the sign lives on.

There’s a lot of street art in town, mostly in the form of colorful murals. During the long dark winter, these help preserve people’s sanity.

Susan strikes up a conversation with an Alaska Native who’s bought a piece of local art as a birthday gift for his son.

Alaska Native gentleman showing off his gift purchase.
Alaska Native gentleman showing off his gift purchase.

Leaving downtown, and with Billie’s Hostel unavailable to us, we decide to head north on a long journey up the Dalton Highway (formerly the pipeline haul road). It’s the only vehicle access to the Brooks Range, an impressively austere line of mountains stretching all across Alaska above the Arctic Circle. As we’re gassing up the van, we take a thorough look at the arctic weather forecast and see that rain and clouds are all that’s expected for the next 10 days, with temperatures down to 35 F. Upon consideration, we postpone that trip for later in the summer and, instead, decide to head south along the Richardson Highway to Valdez.

The first leg heads southeast out of Fairbanks toward Delta Junction. I drove this same road three days ago to get here, so this is a partial backtrack for me but brand new for Susan. 25 minutes out of town, we pass North Pole, Alaska (its official name).

North Pole, named by its developer in 1952 in hopes of attracting a toy manufacturer to site there, was famous for many years by virtue of a single enterprise. Merchant and fur buyer Con Miller would arrive in remote villages wearing a Santa suit at Christmas time. When North Pole was being formed, he and wife Nellie built a trading post there which they named Santa Claus House. With its incorporated postal station, Santa Claus House served as the community center for the new village. When the Richardson Highway was improved in the 1970s and tourists travel increased, Con and Nellie started carrying Christmas products all year. With increasing notoriety, Santa Claus House gradually lived fully up to its name, attracting busloads of visitors each day. Offspring of the Millers still operate the store.

Santa Claus House, North Pole, Alaska -- over 50 years of Christmas kitsch.
Santa Claus House, North Pole, Alaska — over 50 years of Christmas kitsch.

Although it’s closed when we arrive (in the daylight) at 9 PM, Susan gets to see the exterior, along with the adjacent 42 foot Santa statue. She’s determined to return at a later time to buy gifts.

42 foot Santa statue, North Pole, Alaska. That would put the fear of Christmas in me. Is that an evil clown under the suit and beard?
42 foot Santa statue, North Pole, Alaska. That would put the fear of Christmas in me. Is that an evil clown under the suit and beard?

Proceeding a bit further, we take a side trip up to Chena Lake Recreation Area. Fairbanks, situated along the banks of the Chena River used to suffer serious floods in some years. A large project was conceived to construct a new channel upstream to divert flood waters across a drainage divide directly into the Tanana River, thus sparing the city. The recreation area is a byproduct of that project. We pull into a parking lot to walk along the Chena at about 10 PM (not dark, remember?). We do manage it, but the mosquitos are so plentiful that we abbreviate our stroll to avoid excessive blood loss.

The placid Chena River can also be an angry torrent.
The placid Chena River can also be an angry torrent.
Birch forest along the Chena River.
Birch forest along the Chena River.
Holding the pose is secondary to swatting the mosquitoes.
Holding the pose is secondary to swatting the mosquitoes.

Proceeding southeast, we pass a shop whose front yard boasts a typical Alaskan art display, chain saw burl art. Burls are the rounded growths that sometimes appear on tree trunks. They’re prized as the basis for wood sculptures.

The Knotty Shop. Burl mosquito.
The Knotty Shop. Burl mosquito.
The Knotty Shop. Burl bison.
The Knotty Shop. Burl bison.
The Knotty Shop. This a little too burly for me,
The Knotty Shop. This a little too burly for me,

As midnight approaches, we decide it’s time to rest so we park in a pullout along Birch Lake and crawl onto our comfortable airbed to the accompaniment of the extended subarctic summer sunset.

Sunset at midnight over Birch Lake, Alaska
Sunset at midnight over Birch Lake, Alaska
2 hours later,the ever-changing sunset continues.
2 hours later, the ever-changing sunset continues.

Next post: https://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/08/02/road-trip-21-06-20-we-head-south-across-the-alaska-range/

Road Trip – 21/06/18 Together Again — Susan Flies in to Fairbanks

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/07/19/road-trip-21-06-16-fairbanks-welcomes-me-back-yeah-right-after-40-years-away/

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I’ve spent the last two days exploring around Fairbanks. It has grown and modernized enormously since the 1980s. Most of the streets outside the small downtown have been completely transformed by national chain stores and new construction. The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) campus is many times bigger than it was. It takes me a while to find one recognizable portion, the original quad where my boss’s office used to be. The wooded area on campus where I used to camp in the summer to save my $80 per day tax free per diem has been totally developed. Fairbanks now has expressways in lieu of some of the old streets. It’s amazing how much has changed. After all, I’ve only been away half a lifetime. Almost nothing matches my memories.

Billie’s Backpacker Hostel has been great. It’s really well managed yet she’s avoided the irksome rules that many hostels use to moderate the behavior of their often immature guests. The walls and shelves are filled with art and museum quality antiques. Both Billie and her son, Art, are very congenial, as is the rotating cast of hostel residents. Dee, a fairly young man from Syracuse NY, has been a guest for some months as he reorients his life with big, carefully progressing plans to establish himself in the state.

There’s the usual hostel information interchange, with more experienced travelers offering advice and cautions to the cheechakos (Alaska newcomers). I have to balance my urge to impart my Alaska experience with the knowledge that, dating back almost two generations, much of it is worthless.

Today, I put up a sign that I’d be making buckwheat sourdough pancakes for all comers in the morning. Billie walks into the kitchen and when she leaves, my sign is gone. A few minutes later she comes back, apologizing, and replaces the notice on the wall. “I’m so annoyed by people taping up scolding signs like ‘Do the dishes’ or ‘Stop leaving food on the counter’ that I automatically take them down. I just noticed that yours is an invitation, so I put it back.”

Susan’s flight doesn’t come in until 12:30 AM. She’s agreed to stay in the hostel tonight, which is a major concession. Her accommodation tastes run to king size beds and en suite private bathrooms, although we’ve spent many traveling nights under more spartan conditions, including sleeping in the front seat of the car in front of a remote Bolivian, sulfurous fumarole at 16,000 feet above sea level. Now, I appreciate her willingness to be introduced to the hostel experience. I love it for the social interaction, the cooking facilities, the intergenerational contact and, too, the reduced expense. To ease the culture shock, I’ve booked one of Billie’s few private rooms, with an adjacent bathroom shared with only one other person. I don’t want to drive Susan over the edge by asking her to sleep in a coed dorm room.

As the afternoon moves into darkless evening and darkless night, I drive over to the airport, discovering that the old 2-lane Airport Road has been bypassed with an expressway. The Fairbanks airport has a new terminal designed, apparently, by the same architect who’s done every modern airport in the country — although at least it’s still small enough not to need the standard two level car access separating arrivals and departures.

Terminal of Fairbanks Airport in the 1 AM daylight
Terminal of Fairbanks Airport in the 1 AM daylight

I really miss the pre-9/11 informality of flying and terminal behavior. It’s this transformation that makes me willing to drive cross country rather than be treated like a potential terrorist at airports and on planes. I reserve flying mostly for places to which I can’t drive.

I wait in the cell phone lot and when I see the Alaska Airlines jet pull up to the gate, I park the car and go into the terminal. The baggage claim area has a planeload of passengers but, not seeing Susan, I focus on the arrivals exit hallway. As expected, Susan enters sedately as one of the final passengers off the flight.

Susan arriving in Fairbanks at 1 AM
Susan arriving in Fairbanks at 1 AM

On the drive back, the sky is typically dramatic with clouds and sun at 1 AM. Susan quickly begins to appreciate what attracts me to Alaska, even though prosaic Fairbanks itself is physically not the stuff of romantic landscapes.

On arrival at the Billie’s, a group of travelers is standing outside, actively discussing UFOs at almost 2 AM. This is Susan’s intro to hosteling and after my tour of the house and introductions to the late night prowling guests, we retreat to our room for a solid night’s sleep. Susan has had 15 hours in transit on 3 airplanes.

Next post: https://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/07/30/road-trip-21-06-19-arctic-weather-forecast-changes-our-route/

Road Trip – 21/06/16 Fairbanks Welcomes Me Back (yeah, right) after 40 Years Away

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/07/16/road-trip-21-06-14-alaska-at-last/

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I’ve kicked back for two nights at the Alaskan Stoves Hostel in Tok and I’m very rested. I took advantage of the bathtub to wash clothes, using my “trampling out the vintage” technique of walking back and forth over them in lieu of a washing machine agitator. The building is very small and would have been quite crowded with its full complement of 9 people but I’ve had it to myself since I arrived. At one point the owner appeared and chided me for spreading out from my single dorm bed into the rest of the building. I pointed out that there was no one else there, to which she responded, “But someone could arrive at any moment!” I reassured her I would retract everything into my bed within 5 minutes of such an event. She wasn’t satisfied but really had no choice. I’m sure the stress of having very little revenue coming in for two tourist seasons is a factor in her attitude.

Respite after the drive: hostel in Tok, Alaska
Respite after the drive: hostel in Tok, Alaska

With some rest, I’ve gotten over being miffed at Susan for backing out of the drive up with me — a day after we had set out. She didn’t want to participate in my bit of Canada border deception, even though I designed it so she could claim almost total ignorance of what I was presenting. In retrospect, I’m glad she stayed back because I couldn’t have imposed the same forced march conditions on her that I was willing to tolerate myself. Traveling together, it would have taken more than the 7 days in which I drove it and likely would have involved hotels, restaurants, and a sane travel schedule.

Having calmed down, we agree that she’ll fly to Fairbanks to join me. No one should miss experiencing Alaska. I had ten years of it and we’ll be here all summer this year instead of the typical visitor’s two week stay or, even worse, the 7-day cruise ship experience.

The process of getting her a flight becomes an ordeal for a number of reasons. I’ve been an ardent T-Mobile fan for over ten years but in Alaska their service is very constraining. They have no network in the state so it’s all domestic roaming, which has severe limits. Outside (ie in the “Lower 48”) their network is very good so if you do end up roaming, it’s only for a few hours. In Alaska, it’s going to be three months straight, which isn’t going to fly. I must add, though, that after complaining some days later they’re giving me a generous monthly credit to offset the cost of getting accounts with one of the local carriers during my stay — something they’re clearly not obligated to do. Now though, having already used up my high speed roaming allowance for the month, phone internet is at absurdly slow speeds which makes most most apps think they’re not connected at all. Thus my attempt to make a Delta Airlines reservation is frustrating. I’ve already tried parking outside of the buildings whose wi-fi passwords I’ve collected, but although I can connect to networks, the town of Tok’s connection to the internet is apparently down so wi-fi is of no benefit whatsoever. After some hours sitting in the car in midday sun, I finally get the flight confirmed and set off on the 200 mile drive to Fairbanks.

The highway from Tok to Fairbanks largely follows the Tanana (TAN-an-ah) River, Alaska’s 5th largest, 3rd longest, and a major tributary of the mighty Yukon River. The Tanana is fed by the meltwater streams of many glaciers in the Wrangell Mountains and Alaska Range and is thus very milky with glacial flour (silt particles so fine they never settle out of the water). Due to its glacial origins it’s also a braided river, with many ever shifting gravel bars and flowing channels. Crossing such a river on foot can be quite dangerous because some of the channels can be deep and swift. A standard ploy while hiking in Alaska is to make river crossings early in the day before the sun on the glaciers increases melting, resulting in heavier afternoon flow downstream.

Gerstle River with its braided channels
Gerstle River with its braided channels.

Traveling northwest, I reach Delta Junction where the Alaska Highway officially ends. The road continues to Fairbanks as the Richardson Highway, the earliest vehicle route in the state, used to transport goods from the port of Valdez (VAL-deez) to the interior since 1910.

Northern terminus of the Alaska Highway, Delta Junction
Northern terminus of the Alaska Highway, Delta Junction
Preserved pioneer cabin, Delta Junction, Alaska
Preserved pioneer cabin, Delta Junction, Alaska

Delta Junction has a large outdoor display of roadbuilding equipment used in the 1941 highway construction project.

Power shovel and 6x6 truck used in original Alaska Highway construction, Delta Junction
Power shovel and 6×6 truck used in original Alaska Highway construction, Delta Junction
Scraper used in original Alaska Highway construction, Delta Junction
Tractor-scraper used in original Alaska Highway construction, Delta Junction

I’m only a 100 miles from Fairbanks now and I’m getting excited to see the old place for the first time in over 40 years. As the road parallels the river downstream, I check out a variety of state campgrounds and parking areas. One difference I notice is economic. When the state was flush with oil cash, these areas were open without charge. Now, parking to hike, fish, or picnic costs $5 and camping is typically $20 per night. Boat launching, an almost sacred Alaskan activity, is charged at $25!

45 miles short of Fairbanks, the Tanana River and Richardson Highway turn due west for a while and almost ahead of me is the distant Alaska Range including Denali, at 20,310 feet the highest mountain in North America and the 3rd most prominent and isolated in the world (this is based on how much it towers over its surroundings). Many visitors to Alaska never get to see the mountain because it’s often obscured by clouds, and my view today is only partial but it’s still a thrill. Even living in Alaska, you never ho-hum a good view of Denali, no matter how many times you see it.

My first glimpse of the distant Alaska Range, seen across the Tanana River. The upper slopes of Denali are in the clouds.
My first glimpse of the distant Alaska Range, seen across the Tanana River. The upper slopes of Denali are in the clouds.

Rolling into Fairbanks, I drive directly to one of the two hostels, initially bypassing the main parts of town. Billie’s Backpacker Hostel, run by elderly Billie, whose husband built the original version in 1971 as a dormitory for pipeline workers, is a charming place, very social and homey.

Billie's Backpacker Hostel, Fairbanks, Alaska

Son, Art, manages the place during the summer season and he’s also very friendly and helpful. He quotes me a price for a dorm bed and I respond that I had seen a substantially cheaper price online. He answers, “Oh, for that you have to sleep in the gazebo outside and some people don’t want that.” My response, “I can sleep outside? Let me see!”

“Outside” turns out to be a 6-bed, glass-roofed, hexagonal, former greenhouse in the garden. Looking it over, I consider it the best bedroom in the house and quickly snap up one of the beds. I can imagine some people having problems sleeping there in the perpetual daylight of Fairbanks summer (we’re only 5 days from the solstice) but I can sleep under any conditions and I love it.

Gazebo of Billie's Backpacker Hostel, Fairbanks, Alaska
Gazebo of Billie’s Backpacker Hostel, Fairbanks, Alaska
My bed in the gazebo of Billie's Backpacker Hostel, Fairbanks, Alaska
My bed in the gazebo of Billie’s Backpacker Hostel, Fairbanks, Alaska

Moving my stuff in, I begin my search for people I knew in the old days. I never lived in Fairbanks but I was there a lot during the years I worked for the University of Alaska. From 1977-1980, I worked in Anchorage but at a statewide position that required travel to the many far flung rural campuses. My boss was in Fairbanks, so I flew and drove up there a lot and had many friends and contacts there.

Most of my Alaska friends have left the state as they aged, decamping to the Alaska-lite cities of the Pacific Northwest like 2Seattle, Washington and Portland Oregon, whimpering about, “Too much snow, too cold, too dark…” I’m not in a strong position to criticize their choices since I left the state at the tender age of 35, but at least I didn’t do it because of the climate, so I remain stubbornly sanctimonious toward those who beat feet southward in their dotage.

There are some holdouts, though, and I’ve lost contact with all of them over the decades. I put my internet skills to work and find an old university colleague on the second phone call! He seems pleased to hear from me — at least he doesn’t immediately hang up. His house is under renovation so we agree to meet up later in the summer. I locate a second ex-colleague in Virginia on my first call. Since his retirement, he drives his van there for the winter but returns to his permanent home in Fairbanks every summer. Due to the Canada border closing he hasn’t set out for here yet, so I inform him — with my recently acquired firsthand experience — that as an Alaska resident he should have no trouble transiting Canada. It’s a little late in the season for him to make the 8,500 mile round trip drive worthwhile but I may see him in a few weeks. My third target, Will Schendel, was always a very private person and, sure enough, he’s left a very light internet footprint. I can’t find any contact info for him and I’m almost at the point of walking into various law offices (he’s an attorney) and asking if anyone knows his whereabouts. Finally, I find one obscure reference to a street address, so I drive over there and knock on the door. It’s Will who answers and when I pull down my mask his jaw literally drops. Very satisfying. We agree to meet in a day or two.

I settle into the hostel’s social circle and will spend the next two days exploring the “new” (to me) Fairbanks until Susan flies in late Friday night.

Next post: https://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/07/28/road-trip-21-06-19-together-again-susan-flies-in-to-fairbanks/

Relic of the old Tok architectural style: -- quonset hut deco

Road Trip – 21/06/14 Alaska at Last!

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/07/09/road-trip-21-06-13-continuing-my-mandated-race-through-canada/

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I wake up in the rest area at 4:30 AM, ready to continue onward. I have to check out of Canada by 1:30 PM to meet the Yukon Territory’s 24-hour transit mandate. That’s about 6 hours further up the road, so I’ll make it with hours to spare.

Traversing the Yukon, On, On, and On.
Traversing the Yukon, On, On, and On.

After a beautiful drive along the shore of Marsh Lake, I arrive at Whitehorse, the territorial capital. Normally, I would stop and see whether the town retains any of its cheerful, frontier persona of the 1980s but, despite being vaccinated, I’m not allowed to leave the highway so I gas up at an unmanned service station on the bypass and press on.

Beyond Whitehorse, the Alaska Highway is still paved but much rougher. Lots of frost heaves have damaged the road, making it quite a roller coaster in many places, interspersed with a generous selection of potholes. I have to slow down quite a bit because it’s very difficult to judge if an oncoming dip is a mild roller coaster thrill or will fling me into the air for a suspension killing return to earth — I’ve got a van, not a jeep or Subaru. And I have that large plastic cargo box on top. Even though it’s firmly attached to the roof rack, it could crack from the force of a hard landing, of which I have several in my effort to compromise speed and dip handling. Short sections of seriously damaged pavement have been torn up in many places and filled with gravel. The road is much more rugged than in Alberta and BC, but still way tamer than when I drove it in the old days.

Severely frost-damaged sections of highways in the Yukon are often temporarily graveled over.
Severely frost-damaged sections of highways in the Yukon are often temporarily graveled over.

The Yukon is a beautiful part of North America. Lots of long, deep lakes, with the road running along the shore. And then you get to Kluane Lake which is just magnificent, one of the great places in the north.

Kluane Lake. Yukon Territory
Kluane Lake. Yukon Territory

It was here in the winter of 1981, I saw the best display of northern lights in my life. It was about -10 F. A friend and I were driving across the Yukon to Haines, Alaska to catch a ferry for Juneau. The aurora was multicolored and simply stunning. We stopped the old Subaru, got out our pads and sleeping bags and lay on the ground as long as we could stand it, just staring up at shimmering curtains of dancing lights. I’ll never forget it and I’ve never seen lights like that since.

Today, in the unrelenting daylight there is no chance of seeing the aurora borealis but I dawdle along the shore admiring things big and small.

Thus far unidentified flowers growing prolifically in Kluane Lake gravel
Thus far unidentified flowers growing prolifically in Kluane Lake gravel
Old alignment of Alaska Highway right along Kluane lakeshore.
Old alignment of Alaska Highway right along Kluane lakeshore.
Another old Alaska Highway section
Another old Alaska Highway section

At one stop, a raven alights next to the car, staring at me patiently, doubtless hoping for a handout. Ravens are very adaptable and intelligent birds, found all across the north country.

"I'm a raven. I'm smart. I know you have food in that car. Give!"
“I’m a raven. I’m smart. I know you have food in that car. Give!”

The highway along Kluane Lake is eerily deserted. Normally this is a major thoroughfare and by now there would be a steady stream of tractor trailers, RVs, and passenger cars. Far fewer goods are hauled by truck in recent years because most Alaska goods now arrive by ocean container ship or air cargo. Tourist vehicles are currently banned, of course, so traffic is very sparse. Many of the services along the way have gone out of business due to the absence of tourists, as I mentioned earlier. Owners I’ve spoken with are livid at Justin Trudeau for being so unyielding at this point. But the scenery is still incredible.

I’ve been seeing new-looking recreational vehicles in groups of 2 or 3 heading toward Alaska. Encountering one of the drivers at a turnout, I find out why. A rental company in Anchorage has bought a fleet of 260 new RVs in Indiana and drivers, usually retired couples, are being paid to shuttle them to Alaska, after which the drivers are flown home to pick up another RV and do it again. The couple I talk to have no interest in sightseeing. They just want to get to Anchorage and catch a flight back home to Indiana.

By 11 AM, I reach Canada Customs in Beaver Creek, positioned about 30 miles from the actual U.S. border. Normally, you wouldn’t stop there as you exit Canada, but until restrictions are lifted travelers must check out and turn in their transit paperwork. That done, I proceed to US Customs 30 minutes farther along.

I manage to get through there without totally pissing them off. When I have the time and can afford to be held up, I generally make it a point not to let myself be quizzed in order to gain re entry to the United States. My feeling is if I present my passport and fill out the customs form, I’m entitled to go in without being hassled. And that usually doesn’t happen. In this case, a very nice woman in the booth asks me what my business is, where I’m coming from, etc. I explain to her, courteously, that as a matter of principle, I don’t want to answer those questions. She must be new on the job because she gets quite flustered and doesn’t know quite what to do with my attitude. She talks to her boss, comes back out, and hands me the same customs form you get on US-bound airplanes. I fill that out and then she asks me to park the van and come into the office. Typically, this is the beginning of one to three hours of waiting, questioning, and a thorough search of my vehicle.

The supervising agent comes out and turns out be a really nice guy. I explain to him that, as a returning American citizen I don’t want to answer extraneous questions. The obvious point of these is an attempt to trip me up and figure out that I’m an ISIS terrorist. I’m sure no border agent gets promoted for efficiently processing people into the U.S. Likewise, I’m sure there’s no career penalty for being officious and dickish, but if a bad guy were allowed in, the agent who passed them through would certainly feel the effects.

This senior agent explains to me that another reason for the questions is to help them judge how much of an inspection to do. That’s something I’d never been told or understood before. So in that regard, I may be more willing in the future to respond to the ones relevant to whether they decide to tear my car apart or just let me through. Even though I’ve refused to answer questions, he and his associate accompany me outside, politely ask me to open the back of the van and the hood, spend about two minutes looking inside, and say, “On your way”. We shake hands and it ends up being a nice interaction, despite my bit of defiance.

I continue along the Alaska Highway but now, finally, in Alaska. The post-border landmarks are quite familiar despite my long absence but the road continues to be deserted.

Finally, on Day 7, the Alaska portion of the Alaska Highway!
Finally, on Day 7, the Alaska portion of the Alaska Highway!
Across the Alaskan border but still a long way to go.
Across the Alaskan border, yes, but still a long way to go.
This is how I feel after my 7-day "forced march" from New York to Alaska
This is how I feel after my 7-day “forced march” from New York to Alaska
Fireweed -- the emblematic flower of Alaska
Fireweed — the emblematic flower of Alaska

On this side, too, most of the lodges, restaurants, and gas stations are closed up or obviously abandoned and decaying. I stop at a visitor center in the Tetlin Wildlife Refuge that didn’t exist in the old days. I take some photos from the deck and look at the exhibits inside.

New Refuge Visitor Center
New Refuge Visitor Center
View of the expansive Tetlin Wildlif Refuge
View of the expansive Tetlin Wildlife Refuge

The center is staffed by local Alaska Natives from nearby Northway Village, an Athabaskan community off the highway but with a road to it. I speak to the greeter, who is 78 years old. We have a nice conversation about my experience in the old days and her experience as a younger person in the village in the same period. While I’m talking to her, I realize that in 1975, I designed a diesel generator for her village. I didn’t go there because I wasn’t involved in that installation, but it’s interesting that I have a long forgotten connection to her home. She says they now have a power line connected to the grid but there’s still a generator for backup power. Could it be the same one?

I’m no longer on any sort of schedule as I proceed onward. There’s no place to eat until I reach the first town which is quite a ways up the road. I stop at a nice, lakeside campsite and take a nap. I really need food and a shower, so I decide not to camp there.

The Taylor Highway (Alaska Route 5) is a more remote, summer-only route to the Yukon but its border crossing has been closed since March 2020.
The Taylor Highway (Alaska Route 5) is a more remote, summer-only road to the Yukon but its border crossing has been closed since March 2020.

Toward evening, I reach Tok, which in the old days was a… How do I describe it? Oh yes. It was a rip off joint. Back in the 70s and 80s this was a remote area with the roads mostly uninhabited — except for the junction town of Tok. I was always sure they had people scanning the highway with binoculars and when they saw somebody break down, they would radio each other and say, “Hey, we got one in trouble here,” and the vultures of Tok would circle, sucking every dollar you had out of your pocket before letting you leave.

Now it’s much more civilized. Wide highway, cell phone service, separated bike path, and a variety of businesses with only a few persistent echoes of its isolated, pioneer days.

Relic of the old Tok architectural style: -- quonset hut deco
Relic of the old Tok architectural style: — quonset hut deco

I look online and see there’s a hostel here with the curious name Alaskan Stoves. I guess that must have been what the proprietor originally sold, but now they have a campground and a hostel — and the hostel looks surprisingly cheap. I drive over there and find it, but the building is deserted. The rates are, indeed, just $30 a night for a dorm bed. I call the number on the door, getting a woman who is currently far away in Fairbanks. She says yes, that’s the price but as a means of controlling costs, they don’t provide internet. I take it anyway because I really want a bed and a shower to rest up after seven hard days on the road. I have my phone for internet and there’s also a restaurant a couple of buildings down that’s very generous with their wi-fi policies. She gives me the door combo so I can let myself in and it’s really a very pleasant place. It accommodates nine people but for my $30 I have the house completely to myself. Others could show up at any moment, but with the highway so restricted, it’s not very likely. Home, sweet home!

Next post: https://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/07/19/road-trip-21-06-16-fairbanks-welcomes-me-back-yeah-right-after-40-years-away/

Road Trip – 21/06/13 Continuing My Mandated Race through Canada

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/07/07/road-trip-21-06-12-its-beginning-to-look-a-lot-like-wildlife-everywhere-i-go/

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About 3 AM, I wake up, unplug my laptop from the car wash building and continue beyond Fort Nelson. I decide to push on through the night to Liard River Hot Springs, in the old days my favorite stop along the Alaska Highway, and take an early morning bath, badly needed after 5 days and 3,500 miles of hard driving. This far north and this close to summer solstice, of course, there is no darkness, just a substantial twilight during the 5 hours the sun dips below the horizon. Driving at night is thus not much different than driving during the day.

3 AM in Fort Nelson BC, 8 days before summer solstice
3 AM in Fort Nelson BC, 8 days before summer solstice

Taking advantage of the sparse traffic and roadside vegetation, wildlife of all sorts is foraging near the pavement. In the course of the night, I get closeup views of elk, caribou, moose, porcupine, and even stone sheep which typically frequent steep, alpine slopes. Few are particularly interested in the fact that I’ve stopped a few feet away to ogle them.

Porcupine along the road
Porcupine along the road
Caribou along the Alaska Highway
Stone Sheep grazing along the Alaska Highway

The highway is now crossing the Rocky Mountains, which are petering out this far north. They’re a far cry from the high peaks of Banff and Jasper to the south but still rugged and especially dramatic in the low light.

The Rocky Mountains near Summit Pass BC
The Rocky Mountains near Summit Pass BC

There’s no serious climbing and after two hours I reach the uninspiringly named Summit Pass. At 4,100 feet, this is the highest point of my trip to date.

Despite having very high, rugged mountain ranges, Canada and Alaska do not have the sort of dizzying roads found in the Andes and Himalayas. The highest I can get by car in Alaska is only 4,700 feet at Atigun Pass in the far northern Brooks Range, which I plan to do in a few weeks. Currently, even in midsummer, at 59 degrees latitude, Summit Pass’ modest altitude is not very summery. There are substantial patches of snow not far above the road.

As planned, I arrive at Liard River at opening time. The hot springs were made accessible by the US Army in 1942 during highway construction and although the area was made into a park in 1957, when I was last there in 1977, there were no controls or facilities beyond a rough boardwalk from the road to the hot pools. Now it’s much more civilized, with campsites, changing rooms, and a modest day use fee. Unfortunately, the springs have also had some tragic episodes. In 1997, a female tourist was killed by a bear right on the boardwalk in front of her two children. Several samaritans trying to save her, including her young son, were also mauled, one fatally, before the bear was shot. After this incident, the more remote, lower pool was closed for years. This year, the park has been enclosed with an electric fence to minimize human interaction with wildlife.

Today, I pull up to the booth, where a very friendly young woman delivers an unexpected blow: I’m not allowed in because, due to Covid, the park is restricted to British Columbia residents. Although the parking lot is empty at this time of day, she cannot make an exception. Even residents of adjacent Alberta and the Yukon are being turned away which must lead to some angry scenes. Thwarted, I park on the highway shoulder and sleep for a while until the hot sun forces me to wake up and get moving again.

A small sign leads me down a side road to a view of the impressive Smith River Falls. I’m tempted to walk the half mile trail to the base of the falls but decide to forgo it. I’ve warned people for years about solo hiking, where a mishap that would be trivial with a companion can be fatal when you’re alone. Social animal that I am, I almost always hike with others, sometimes shepherding a group of novices up a trail. It’s just more fun for me to share experiences. Now I’m solo in bear country and I start hearing my own advice in my head. Plus, a sign clearly informs hikers that the last portion is a steep slope that used to have stairs which burned up in 2008 and as of 2012 have not been replaced. The thought of a difficult down and up scramble reinforces my inclination that a closer view of the falls isn’t worth the risk, so I drive back out to the highway.

Smith River Falls BC

Just a few miles further, I encounter a herd of over 100 bison grazing both shoulders and blocking the traffic lanes. After watching these impressive but potentially dangerous creatures for several minutes, I edge the car through the herd and continue.

Herd of of about 100 Wood Bison calmly taking advantage of the Alaska Highway

Not long after, I stop at Coal River Lodge for gas and internet. Much of the Alaska Highway is off the electrical grid and the lodge runs on its own generator. Without power lines, there are also no cell towers for these long stretches. With the highway devoid of tourists for 15 months and counting, many travel-dependent businesses have gone dormant or belly up.

Ordering pie and coffee for breakfast, I ask about using their internet. Apologetically, they say they have it but an overnight guest used up almost all of the monthly data allowance. To avoid an expensive surcharge for more data, they have to save what little is left for credit card transactions and phone calls. While dawdling over breakfast, I have some lively conversation with the staff, three Utah Mormons who hired on to run the lodge during the summer for its American owner.

I also banter with a local truck driver, who lives here year round, and he recommends a scenic viewpoint along the way and tells some colorful stories about delivering fuel along the highway in mid-winter. Since my progress through Canada is substantially faster than my 4-day time limit, I’ve had time yesterday and today for stops and short side trips. Leaving the lodge, I follow a sign for Whirlpool Canyon into a pleasant riverside campground, where a sharp, narrow bend of the river creates a powerful eddy in a rocky corner. During floods, the water throws piles of trees up onto the shore. There’s quite a jumble of dead wood there. It’s an interesting spot and I spend a few minutes sitting in a random chair enjoying the scenery.

Whirlpool Canyon BC with its observation chair
Flood stranded wood at Whirlpool Canyon
Flood stranded wood at Whirlpool Canyon

The next stop is the place the truck driver mentioned. Indeed, it is a beautiful observation point above a bend in the Liard River looking up and downstream, with picnic table, bench, and a stone monument to the 1942 Alaska Highway surveyors.

Liard River from Allen's Lookout
Liard River from Allen’s Lookout
Allen's Lookoit with Surveyor plaque
Allen’s Lookoit with Surveyor plaque

Cleverly, the plaque is produced with the same hand stamped letters used to label individual survey markers.

Plaque dedicated to 1942 Alaska Highway surveyors
Plaque dedicated to 1942 Alaska Highway surveyors

I’m almost out of British Columbia now and I stop at Contact Creek where a historical sign denotes the point where Army crews working up from Fort Nelson met their counterparts working down from Whitehorse, both racing to get the first, primitive version of the road completed. The sign reminds me again of how monumental and unprecedented a task was planned and executed in just a year.

Alaska Highway, Contact Creek link up plaque
Alaska Highway, Contact Creek link up plaque

Another 45 minutes brings me to the Yukon Territory border. A series of signs seem to imply the Yukon motto is, “Forget lax British Columbia. There’s a new sheriff in town.”

At the Watson Lake weigh station just across the border, all drivers must fill out Covid forms and receive instructions. The Yukon has more stringent requirement than other provinces. You get 24 hours to drive the 560 miles of Alaska Highway across the territory. You must use only services directly on the road and not leave it. No side trips, no entry into villages, no entry into downtown Whitehorse, and no entry into provincial parks, which eliminates all public campgrounds. I’m startled to see an instruction on the form exempting vaccinated travelers from the isolation requirements but when I ask the official about it he informs me it only applies to Canadians — my momentary hopes are dashed.

I’m not particularly low on fuel yet, so I proceed about 15 miles, reconsider the remote stretch immediately ahead and backtrack to Watson Lake to gas up and buy some juice before continuing. The 24 hour exit requirement means I can’t really enjoy much except the views from the road.

Fifty miles further on, getting tired, I pass a very tempting campground along a little lake. But there’s a big reminder sign right at the entrance, “Off limits for transit travelers,” so I pull off on a little spur road that goes down to the Rancheria River and take a nap there. An hour or so later, feeling refreshed, I continue another 160 miles to a roadside pulloff opposite Squan Lake. There, around 11:30 PM with sunset finally approaching, I park in a group of trucks and crawl in the back to get a longer sleep, ready to start again in the morning.

Interesting Yukon sky
Interesting Yukon sky
Late evening sky in the Yukon
Late evening sky in the Yukon
Almost midnight, 7 days before summer solstice, Nisutlin Bay BC
Almost midnight, 7 days before summer solstice, Nisutlin Bay BC

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/07/16/road-trip-21-06-14-alaska-at-last/

Marker at the original start of the Alaska Highway, Dawson Creek, BC

Road Trip – 21/06/12 It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Wildlife, Everywhere I Go!

Prior post: https://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/06/27/road-trip-21-06-10-another-long-driving-day-but-featuring-a-solar-eclipse-and-getting-into-canada/

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Yesterday was, frankly, boring. I drive 740 miles across the Canadian prairie, cruising northwest across Saskatchewan and Alberta, got an oil change and ate a meal in Edmonton and completed the torturous required “Day 1 in Canada” mandatory Covid test. This has to be done under the video supervision of a nurse and when I go to the website (apparently designed by a high school slacker during video game pauses) I’m told I’m 350th in line. Mercifully, the number decreases pretty quickly and after only 2 hours or so I’m able to make the nasal swab, seal up the envelope, and drop it off at a nearby ship point. All of that uses up the day.

On Saturday, though, things get a little more interesting as I move into rolling hills and true north country. From my improvised sleeping spot northwest of Edmonton (it was a gratifyingly cool 46 F when I awoke), I continue up Alberta Highway 43 which, along with a stretch of British Columbia Highway 2 brings you to Dawson Creek BC and the official start of the Alaska Highway..

Unlike the “old days”, Hwy 43 is completely modernized, transformed from a gravel road into a divided 4-lane highway with breakdown lanes, a wide right of way, and plenty of services. In other words, boring.

Alberta 43, so modern they've taken all the fun out.
Alberta 43, so modern they’ve taken all the fun out.

I’m surprised, though, to still see microwave relay towers along the route.

In the pre-satellite, pre-fiber optic 1980s when I lived in Alaska, the only means of long distance telephone transmission was via microwaves. Long chains of line of sight towers were constructed over thousands of miles of remote territory. A dish antenna on one side picks up the signal from the prior tower, the signal is processed in the hut at the base, and retransmitted on to the next tower in line. Most towers were off the electric grid so they had their own diesel generator and needed regular fuel deliveries, generally by airplane or helicopter. There was no alternative across these vast stretches of often roadless northern territory. Now, with more advanced technology, I’m surprised to see such antique transmission still in use, but there the towers are.

Line of sight microwave relay tower along the Alaska Highway
Line of sight microwave relay tower along the Alaska Highway

By early afternoon, I reach Valleyview, Alberta, notable mainly because it’s where the two primary northern routes diverge. If I bear right, I would eventually arrive in Wrigley, deep in the Northwest Territory, along the banks of the mighty, north flowing MacKenzie River.

Divergence of two major Canadian Northwest routes
Divergence of two major Canadian Northwest routes

Instead, I stay left continuing on Highway 43 toward the Yukon Territory. The divided highway continues for another 90 miles, turning into a still very modern 2-lane route for the last 30 miles to the British Columbia border, which persists the rest of the way to Dawson Creek.

Dawson Creek was the start of the Alaska Highway, the initial version of which was built by the US Army, 1700 miles slashed through forbidding terrain in just 8 months. Although contemplated for many years, the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent declaration of war with Japan made it a strategic priority. When first completed it was a very rough route, suitable mostly for heavy military vehicles. Although the highway became very important in opening Alaska to the “Lower 48” states, ironically, it was not of great immediate strategic importance as most wartime goods were shipped by sea from Seattle when it became apparent that the Japanese didn’t project much naval power to those sea lanes.

Downtown Dawson Creek is still pretty recognizable since I last drove to Alaska in 1977, but the town has sprawled into the surrounding area. The “Milepost 0” monument is unchanged.

Marker at the original start of the Alaska Highway, Dawson Creek, BC
Marker at the original start of the Alaska Highway, Dawson Creek, BC

Even as it opened, the highway was being improved, a process that continues to this day. Over its 80 years, over 300 miles have been cut by straightening out its contour-following, “just get it done” original alignment. In many places along the road, you can see earlier versions of it either as abandoned stubs or local byways.

Just 21 miles out of Dawson Creek is a good example of both “version 2” construction and abandoned alignments. The original route involved a difficult fording of Kiskatinaw Creek. Within a year or two, a 100 foot high, curved, wooden trestle bridge was built to cross the steep valley. This was in use for about 35 years despite the fact that vehicles exceeding the bridge’s 25 ton limit still had to use the old ford through the creek. In 1978, a new all-traffic road was built that bypassed the bridge, which was still used for local traffic. In recent years the bridge was closed entirely and now serves only as an historical attraction.

The 1942 curved wooden trestle bridge along an early alignment of the Alaska Highway
The 1942 curved wooden trestle bridge along an early alignment of the Alaska Highway

A bit further on I turn off toward something called the “Site C Viewpoint”. This turns out to be the public relations overlook for a large BC Hydro dam site. The parking area has nicely designed displays touting the indigenous heritage of the local tribe and paying lip service to its importance. Turn your head and you see an enormous construction project transforming square miles of forest into concrete, which will then flood a large valley. I’d say the indigenous people are sacrificing a lot.

BC Hydro honors local tribes on a display sign...
BC Hydro honors local tribes on a display sign…
...but hydroelectric production is the priority.
…but hydroelectric production is the priority.

I proceed northward into rainy weather and less populated terrain, the road undulating over gentle ridges and bridged across the low lying rivers.

Rain ahead on the Alaska Highway
Rain ahead on the Alaska Highway
Scattered showers. literally. ahead near Taylor BC
Scattered showers. literally. ahead near Taylor BC

There aren’t many people, but lots of roadside wildlife. I first spot a brown bear, shy enough to amble into the forest when I stop the car, but over the course of the day I see four sets of black bears and several large porcupines, all unperturbed when I stop within yards of them.

Grizzly bear along the Alaska Highway
Grizzly bear along the Alaska Highway
Black bear foraging roadside grass along the Alaska Highway
Black bear family along the Alaska Highway
Black bear family along the Alaska Highway

As evening sets in — by the clock, not by any approaching darkness — I stop in Fort Nelson BC for gas. The station insists on full service, a nice change of pace from pumping my own fuel. It’s time for a rest so I drive to the town’s A&W intending to buy a drink and use their internet service. A sign on the door says that due to staff shortages they are only serving at the drive through and I find that closed a few minutes ago. I decide to lurk in the vicinity and use their internet from my car once they close down, but even that doesn’t work because their cleaning person never leaves and apparently sleeps there. Eventually, I pull up anyway and connect, but the next frustration is their outdoor AC receptacle doesn’t work so I can’t charge my laptop.

Throwing up my hands, I drive to the adjacent, deserted car wash and successfully plug into their outdoor receptacle but, of course, I’m now a little too far to pick up A&W wi-fi. I give up and go to sleep while the laptop tops up. It’s been a long day on the road.

Next post: https://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2021/07/09/road-trip-21-06-13-continuing-my-mandated-race-through-canada/