Inside Alaska

Thursday, June 29, 2006 - We left Dawson City and headed for Tok, Alaska via the Top of the World Highway. Only about half of the road between Dawson City and the Canadian/Alaska border is paved and we were able to average about 30 miles per hour over the dirt/gravel sections because of the many potholes. Just as we thought that the road conditions could not get any worse, we crossed the border into Alaska. The section between the border and Chicken, Alaska was terrible and it took us two hours to cover that 40 miles. Here is a representative sample of that section of the highway and the appearance of our rig when we arrived at Tok. I feel that The Milepost was remiss for not providing a better description of this highway, especially the section between the border and Chicken. The view from the Top of the World Highway was not worth the bone-jarring abuse of this highway. It took us about 6.5 hours of driving time to cover the 180 miles from Dawson City to Tok.

We are staying at the Sourdough Campground, about two miles south of Tok. The campground is owned and managed by Ken and Anna. After living and working in the lower 48 for many years, they decided to leave the corporate rat race and return to her hometown of Tok. They purchased the Sourdough Campground and have implemented many innovative ideas to make this a really fun place to stay. Ken is a personable and entertaining guy and he hosts the evening Sourdough Pancake Toss. If your pancake lands in the "buckit", you win a free breakfast. Anna is responsible for the good food in the restaurant which features an all-u-can-eat pancake buffet each morning.

Friday, June 30, 2006 - About ten miles south of Fairbanks is the town of North Pole, Alaska. We stopped at the Santa Claus House and visited Santa and Mrs. Claus. They are working hard to get get ready for next Christmas Out back, in the reindeer corral, was Blitzen, just beginning to shed his winter coat.

We are camped in the Glass Park RV Campground at Fort Wainwright, Alaska for the Fourth of July weekend. We are going to take care of some overdue housekeeping chores like laundry and grocery shopping. I am wearing my cleanest dirty pair of jeans and the cupboard is bare. Prices are very expensive in the remote areas of Canada and Alaska so we avoid buying anything unless it is absolutely necessary. Diesel fuel prices were $4.47 a gallon in Dawson Creek and $4.25 in Boundary, Alaska. In Fairbanks, the price is $2.83, less than I was paying in the lower 48 states.

Sunday, July 2, 2006 - The weather in the Yukon and Alaska can be quite pleasant when the sky is clear and the sun is shining, with temps in the 60s and low 70s. But when the clouds roll in, the temperature drops 15 degrees, often followed by a steady, light drizzle of rain. The Fairbanks Visitor Center has a display that shows historical weather data - an average July is 19 days cloudy, 10 days partly cloudy, and 3 days clear. The average cloud cover for a July day (sunrise to sunset) is 7.3 tenths - over 70% of the sky is covered with clouds.

From Watson Lake, YT to Tok, AK, the weather was cool and rainy. Then two days of sunny weather in Tok and I was running around in short sleeves and shorts. Soon after leaving Tok, heading for Fairbanks, the weather turned nasty again and I was quickly out of my shorts and back into warmer clothes. Besides, we would have looked strange meeting Santa and Mrs. Claus at North Pole while dressed in Florida summer attire.

Sunrise today was 3:17 AM and sunset is 12:31 AM. Yeah, that's after midnight. And it never really gets dark because the sun never goes that far below the horizon.

Monday, July 3, 2006 - The housekeeping chores are done and reservations have been made at Denali for camping and the tour bus trip into the park. Now we can play tourist. This morning, we visited Pioneer Park in Fairbanks and most of the exhibits are free or cost only a dollar or two. There are some excellent dioramas aboard the restored steamer S.S. Nenana which plied the waters of the Yukon River and its tributaries from 1933 until 1952. In the afternoon, we took a four-hour cruise aboard the Riverboat Discovery down the Chena River and into the Tanana River, the largest tributary of the Yukon River. Along the way, we visited the home and kennels of Iditarod Champion Susan Butcher and saw her dog team in action. Boy, those dogs love to run. This tour also visited an Alaskan native village and introduced us to their culture. If you are in Fairbanks, don't miss this tour.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006 - A beautiful day in Alaska - blue sky and sunshine. We took a tour of the El Dorada Gold Mine and were shown the operation of a real working placer mine. We were then shown the fine art of panning for gold, then given a pouch full of pay dirt and allowed to pan our own. We were then directed to the weigh station and were told that, between Carol and I, we had panned $22 worth of gold. Nearby were beautiful gold necklaces and earrings that would hold and display our gold. Carol lined up, along with the rest of the gals and half the men, and it soon became clear just exactly where the gold mine was located. But it was a lot of fun and I highly recommend this tour.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006 - We are in Riley Creek Campground at Denali National Park. If you plan to stay here, make reservations at least a couple of days in advance. It is a nice campground but has no hookups. Sites are angled for easy back-in and spaced far apart for privacy. The campground consists of three loops in a spruce forest, a total of about 146 sites with 21 sites set aside for rigs longer than 31 feet. Some sites are big enough for a 40' motorhome but you may have to park your toad in the overflow parking lot.

Thursday, July 6, 2006 - We took a tour bus for the trip inside the park. With few exceptions, private vehicles are allowed only on the first 13 miles of the park road. If you want to go further than that, you have to take a tour bus or a shuttle bus with prices ranging from about $20 to over $80. We took the Tundra Wilderness Tour which I recommend because the driver/commentator is also a naturalist with extensive knowledge about the park and the location of expected wildlife sightings. On our trip today, we saw seven grizzly bears at four different locations. This was very unusual since grizzly sightings occur, on average, about one of every three visits. We also caught a rare glimpse of Mt. McKinkey which is hidden by clouds about two-thirds of the time. Here are some photos of Denali. Note the blonde color of the Denali grizzlies.

For such a remote place, Denali sure is busy. Over 350,000 visitors show up each year and most of them are here only during the four-month summer season. It is probably a good thing that the interior road is closed to the public. With that many people and their cars, the animals would likely pack up and leave. Tour bus visitors are restricted to the bus except at rest stops. Shuttle bus riders can leave the bus and hike and then return to another shuttle bus.

One campground, Teklanika River, is 29 miles inside the park and provides a unique camping experience. The possibility of wolf encounters is so high that only hard-sided RV units are allowed. This campground is so popular that reservations for the 53 sites must be made two years or more in advance and your stay must be for a minimum of three days. It is not unusual to see grizzly and moose walk through the campground. Camping inside the park is one of the exceptions that allows private vehicles into the park. But your road pass is good for one trip to the campground and one trip out. During the remainder of your stay, your vehicle is restricted to the campground.

Friday, July 7, 2006 - Denali National Park has the distinction of being the only national park to have its own sled dogs. Back in the early days of the park, sled dog teams were the only way to patrol the park in the winter to discourage poachers. Today, there is little or no threat of poaching and aerial surveillance can handle that (snowmobiles are banned, even for park rangers). But the dogs remain and free tours are available. These dogs are some of the most gentle and loving and the visiting public has access to them during the tour. They are still used during the winter, but are pretty much on vacation the rest of the year. They never fail to impress me with their eagerness to run and pull a sled.

Saturday, July 8, 2006 - We left Denali early and headed for Anchorage. We had hoped to get a good view of Mt. McKinley as we passed south of it but the weather was some of the worst yet with visibility less than a mile in most places. That is the one thing that has been discouraging about the Alaska trip so far - the lousy weather. Either the clouds block the view or the rain makes it wet and muddy. We arrived at the RV park in Fort Richardson. It's nice to have hookups again. After setting up camp, we rode over to the FamCamp at Elmendorf Air Force Base to check it out. We are glad that we followed the advice of our friends, Bruce and Aloma, and camped at Fort Richardson. The FamCamp looked a little shabby - not up to the usual high standards of Air Force FamCamps.

At check-in, the camp host showed us a recent photo, taken at one of the sites, of a black bear sniffing around the picnic table. Also, when we arrived at our site, there was a sizable deposit of moose poop less than ten feet from our door.

You may have noticed that I have not included photos of our last three campgrounds. That is because they all look pretty much the same as the one in Dawson City - spruce forest with gravel/dirt roads and sites.

Sunday, July 9, 2006 - After taking care of some housekeeping chores, we went to Earthquake Park. As most of you probably know, the largest earthquake in recorded history to hit North America struck near Anchorage in March, 1964. Estimated at 9.2 on the Richter scale, it devastated southern Alaska. Prior to the earthquake, the park was an affluent neighborhood on a bluff overlooking Cook Inlet. During the earthquake, a section of land behind the bluff, 1200 feet deep amd 8000 feet wide (over 200 acres), simply collapsed and slid into Cook inlet along with 85 houses of the neighborhood. Today, the area is mudflats and forest and there is no sign that a neighborhood existed.

After bad-mouthing the Alaska weather, the clouds went away around noon today and blue sky and sunshine appeared. But, by 8:00 PM, the clouds and rain were back.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 - We spent the morning at the Alaska Zoo, which was a little disappointing. In the afternoon, we saw Portage Glacier. That was money well spent. For $29 per person, we took a one-hour boat tour to within 300 yards of the glacier face. A hundred years ago, this glacier covered what is now Portage Lake and has receded five miles since then.

On the return trip from Portage Glacier, we stopped at the viewpoints along Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. We timed this part of our trip to arrive at Beluga Point just after low tide to observe the tidal bore. This is a wave, sometimes six feet high, that rushes up Turnagain Arm with the incoming tide. Today, it was maybe one or two feet high but it was eerily impressive, nevertheless.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - I found a 30 amp receptacle for my RV at West Marine here in Anchorage. Cost me $65. Another expensive lesson to remind me to use and follow my checklist.

Thursday, July 13, 2006 - The trip to Seward was pleasant and scenic. The first 40 miles was along the Turnagain Arm, this time at high tide. The tidal range is almost 35 feet in these waters, second only to the Bay of Fundy. The rest of the drive was through mountain valleys with no steep passes to climb. A nice easy drive. The weather has been really good (by Alaska standards) the past three days. Lots of blue sky and a balmy 71 degrees when we left Anchorage.

We arrived early enough to take a trip out to Exit Glacier. Only ten miles from Seward, this glacier is only one of many glaciers that are fed by the same massive ice field that covers about half of the Kenai Peninsula. It is an easy one-mile hike from the parking lot to the face of the glacier.

We are camped at the Air Force Recreation Area campground. It is a big gravel lot with electrical hookups and the sites are packed together as close as any private campground. But, hey, we have free Wi-Fi and the surrounding mountains are pretty. There are no water hookups, but one of the campground potable water faucets is right behind my RV. And the Dragon Lady is only two sites away.

Twice this afternoon, a kid stopped at the faucet and got a drink, putting his mouth on the faucet in the process. I am sitting here at the rear picture window of my RV, typing this web page and can see the faucet five feet away. We told the kid to stop that and he left. A few minutes later, the campground desk clerk came around to remind me that the faucet could be used by all campers and was not exclusively for my use. Obviously, the kid, and maybe his mother, were telling half-truths but I explained what had happended and the clerk returned to the office. Less than 30 minutes later, the second kid came to the faucet and repeated what the other kid had done. His mother watched him a few feet away. To make a long story short, she was the mom of both kids and I think she was there to show me that I could not reprimand her kid without a challenge. She then proceeded to wash the hands of kid #2 at the faucet, and, of course, the little guy got his hands and soap all over the faucet. I am glad I filled my tank before the Dragon Lady and her brood arrived.

One of my goals, when we reached the Kenai Peninsula, was to find a good halibut restaurant as often as I could and chow down. I received several recommendations for the restaurant in Thorns Showcase Lounge in downtown Seward but was warned that it was a smokey place. We arrived, it was smokey, and the drinkers outnumbered the diners, so we got a takeout of their large Bucket of Halibut for $20.95 and brought it home. The halibut was cut into one-inch nuggets and lightly battered before being cooked. It was huge and delicious, well worth the price. Carol and I could not eat it all.

Friday, July 14, 2006 - Today was the high point of our trip so far. We took an 8-hour tour of Kenai Fjords National Park aboard a modern state-of-the-art 80-foot cruise ship. The ship had heated seating areas with large picture windows and plenty of space on deck for viewing. A Park Servive Ranger was aboard to provide commentary. The wildlife viewing was phenomenal. Minutes after getting underway, we came upon a sea otter playing on the surface. We saw numerous bald eagles and one huge nest, harbor seals, many groups of sea lions, porpoise, nesting colonies of sea birds, and several sightings of humpback whales. We entered one small bay and came upon a bait-ball of small fish just beneath the surface and, much to our surprise, two humpback whales were feeding on this bait-ball. We were able to view this from a distance of about 50 yards. The highlight of the tour was a visit to the face of Holgate Glacier. We were within a few hundred yards and could hear this massive column of ice thunder as it slowly made its way from the ice field above. The height of the glacier face is 300 feet, the length of a football field.

The "wow" factor was very high on this tour. And, if the wildlife and glacier viewing were not enough, at 2:00 PM, we were served a salmon and prime rib dinner. It was all-you-can-eat and delicious. At 6:00 PM, we were served dessert and it, too, was all-you-can-eat with cheese cake, fudge brownies, carrot cake, and fruit. Complimentary coffee and hot tea were served throughout the cruise. This tour was offered through Major Marine Tours and the cost was $119 per person for the tour and $15 per person for the optional lunch. This was a first-rate experience and, if it fits within your budget, don't miss this tour and meal. I thought Denali provided some great wildlife viewing, but this tour surpassed even that. Here is a small sample of the wildlife we saw.

Saturday, July 15, 2006 - If you are not a fisherman, it is difficult to appreciate Seward. The fact that the main road was under construction didn't help. The scenery around the town is pretty but the town wasn't. But, hey, it's a small town and the winters take their toll. To illustrate how Seward caters to fishermen, our campground has a large indoor fish cleaning station and when the wind was right, the smell was sickening. If you are not here to fish or take one of the boat tours to Kenai Fjords National Park, you might want to go somewhere else.

Sunday, July 16, 2006 - Some of the things I said about Seward applies in spades to Homer, the halibut capital of the world. There is a tour that leaves Homer to do just about anything that can be done in Alaska but fishing is the primary draw. If you plan to come here during the summer, make reservations for lodging and fishing. This place is a zoo in July.

Homer is not a pretty town. The average campground charges $35 for a full-hookup site and it is nothing more than a gravel lot. But they were full. Heritage RV Park had available sites for $75 a day. That left Homer Spit City camping for $15 a day - no hookups, fishermen coming and going at all hours. Along the spit, we saw a custom-built motorhome with an optional back porch. Notice the snow chains on the rear tires. Not too far away is a Homer Spit houseboat which looks like something out of the Kevin Costner movie, Waterworld, except this boat rests on dry land. These two items have too much character to be labeled as junk. The view across Kachemak Bay is much better. The photo at left shows Homer and the spit at low tide and the photo at right is the Grewingk glacier.

The primary purpose for our visit to Homer was to fish for halibut. But a one-day trip cost $200 per person plus the cost of the fishing licenses ($20 per person). I should have called ahead, not only for the price, but for reservations as well. The first available boat is Tuesday. A year and a half ago, I went on a half-day fishing trip in Key West, Florida for $30, so I was a little shocked at the price here in Homer. For $440, we could eat a lot of restaurant halibut.

Inside Alaska (part 2)