Monthly Archives: July 2021

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/