Inside Alaska (part 2)

Monday, July 17, 2006 - Since halibut fishing was too expensive for us, we decided to go looking for bears. Friends of ours, Bruce and Aloma, spotted some along the Russian River when they we here last year. We passed through that area yesterday morning on our way to Homer and it was a pretty setting. If the salmom fishermen haven't taken all the camping sites, we will stay in the area of Cooper Landing for a couple of nights.

Here we are at the Russian River campground. After spending four days at Seward and Homer, this campground was a welcome relief. It was quiet and peaceful and the sites were spaced far enough apart to provide a sense of privacy. It is a Forest Service campground but it has paved interior roads and sites which can handle big rigs. Make reservations and plan to stay no more than three days during the salmon season (15 June - 20 August). We were lucky and got one of the last three sites. Along the way, we stopped at the town of Kenai where the Kenai River flows into Cook Inlet. Hundreds of anglers were lined up along the river hoping to bag their limit of salmon.

We came looking for bear and we found one. At the confluence of the Russian River and the Kenai River, a fisherman had left his backpack and cooler on a sandbar while he fished a few yards downstream. Of course, he ignored almost every rule about fishing in bear country and the bear took advantage of this. There is a tragic story behind this bear.

This bear is known as Gimpy by the locals because he walks with a limp caused by a gunshot wound. A year ago, Gimpy was just a cub when he and his mother were shot by a fisherman, killing the mother bear. The fisherman claimed it was self-defense but eyewitness testimony by others on the scene did not support the shooter's story and he was prosecuted for killing the bear and wounding Gimpy. Without his mother, one of Gimpy's two siblings did not survive the winter, but Gimpy recovered with the help of his remaining sibling who was observed catching fish and giving them to Gimpy. But this is not the end of the story. Because of human carelessness, Gimpy has associated food with humans and his behavior has become aggressive as shown in the photo. When this happens, too often the bear is killed by the Forest Service. I hope that doesn't happen to Gimpy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 - We are now back in Anchorage at the Elmendorf Air Force Base FamCamp. Similar to the campground at Fort Richardson, the FamCamp sites do not have sewer hookups but are a couple of bucks cheaper and the sites are angled for easy back-in.

I was just doing an analysis of our camping sites and realized that, of the 84 days that we have camped since leaving home, 30 days have been without hookups of any kind - strictly dry camping. In some cases, we chose to stay at primitive sites to enjoy the scenery and the peaceful, quiet setting. Sometimes, it was the only practical option - no other campground was within a reasonable distance. A few times we were forced to camp at primitive campgrounds because we normally do not to make reservations and the preferred campground was full - that was the case at the Grand Canyon. But most of the time, it was simply to save money - the full service campgrounds were just more than we wanted to pay.

My truck is clean!!! I had my wheels rotated and balanced at Johnson Tire Services near Wal-Mart and they have a car wash at the side of their building. For $19.95, you get a human pre-wash, machine wash, and then a human wipes down the exterior, vacuums and wipes down the interior, and cleans the tires. For a large vehicle like a full-size pickup, this is worth the price, especially since I had a month's worth of Canadian and Alaskan mud and dirt on my truck. They do a pretty good job, too.

Friday, July 21, 2006 - We decided to backtrack up towards Mt. McKinley with hopes of getting a view of this majestic mountain. We came through this area on July 8th but the visibility was less than a mile. Within Denali State Park (not the National Park) along the Parks Highway, there are two scenic overlooks - Denali View North and Denali View South. Each overlook has a large, paved parking lot and plenty of RV parking. Camping is allowed in the RV parking spaces for $10.00 a night - no hookups. So we are going to stay at Denali View South for a couple of days and hope for a break in the clouds which now cover the highest peaks.

Saturday, July 22, 2006 - Boy, did we get lucky! Our decision to return to Mt. McKinley was rewarded with a million-dollar view. Yesterday, the clouds hid Mt. McKinley with only a glimpse of the tip of the mountain. But this morning, around 9:00 AM, the sky was blue and the few clouds drifted away and revealed the mountain and neighboring peaks. A state park employee said that was probably the best view one could expect during the summer. He is the camp host during the summer and said that he gets a good view like that maybe a dozen times the entire four month season. That is, on average, one day out of every ten.

We left Denali View South and headed for Valdez with an overnight stop at the Northern Lights RV Campground in GlennAllen. This RV park is pretty nice by Alaska standards. Free Wi-Fi with a signal strong enough to reach our campsite. Some trees and landscaping and a level, pull-thru site.

Sunday, July 23, 2006 - We left GlennAllen and arrived at Valdez a little after noon. The drive was the most scenic since our arrival in Alaska. Barely a cloud in the sky and temps in the high 60's, we had the Wrangell-St. Elias mountain range to the east with peaks exceeding 16,000 feet. The highway followed the mountain valleys with a gradual climb to Thompson Pass. The first 6 miles of the descent from Thompson Pass was a 7% grade, but I had no problem keeping my speed down. About 20 miles from Valdez, the road passed through Keystone Canyon where several waterfalls flowed down the steep canyon walls. There is a large paved pullout for more leisurely views and the opportunity to take photos.

The original town of Valdez was destroyed by the 1964 earthquake and the current town was built four miles away on more stable ground. Across the fjord from Valdez is the terminus of the Alaska pipeline with its loading piers and storage tanks. We have a waterfront site at Sea Otter RV Park with a gorgeous view of the fjord and the mountains on the other side. We have seen several sea otters feeding and playing on the surface of the water.

Monday, July 24, 2006 - The weather today is fog, low clouds, and a light drizzle. We were scheduled for a 1:45 PM departure aboard the Lu-Lu Belle, a 5 to 7 hour cruise to Prince William Sound, but with the weather like this, we may have to postpone until tomorrow.

There is a fish hatchery beside a stream on the other side of the fjord, near the Alaska pipeline marine terminal. Pink salmon are hatched and grown using the water from this stream so they naturally return to this stream to spawn. The salmon are diverted from the stream to a fish ladder that brings them right inside the hatchery. Today, they were returning and assembling at the entrance to the fish ladder in a mass so thick it seemed to be a carpet of fish. A short distance away several seals and sea otters were having a feast.

Tuesday, July 25 2006 - The weather was worse this morning, so we cancelled our trip aboard the Lu-Lu Belle and left town. This was another example of the Alaska weather ruining what would otherwise have been a very nice experience. I was also hoping to see a supertanker arrive to fill its belly with oil, but, if one did, I could not have seen it through the fog.

Soon after leaving Valdez, we stopped at the Worthington Glacier. Like Edge Glacier near Seward, the public has access to the face of this glacier after a short, easy hike. If you look closely at large version of the photo, you can see five people at the face of the glacier

The road from GlennAllen to Tok was the second worst one we have been on since our trip began. The road from Chicken to the Canadian border was the worst one. The first 50 mile section contained many frost heaves, limiting my speed to 45-50 MPH, sometimes as slow as 35 MPH. About halfway to Tok, the road consruction started and frequent short sections were gravel and speed was limited to 25-35 MPH. One ten mile section before Tok was gravel and mud. Boy, I was so glad to turn into the Sourdough campground and get off that road. My truck and RV are filthy again. Today was not a good day.

Wednesday, July 26 2006 - Carol went to the restaurant at the Sourdough Campground early this morning for their all-you-can-eat sourdough pancake buffet. But they were closed! Nothing to explain why. Ken, the owner and pancake cooker, was in the restaurant last night and made no mention of being closed this morning. There were a lot of disappointed folks outside the restaurant door this morning.

We drove down to Haines Junction and it was another miserable Alaskan/Canadian day. The Alaska Highway, from Tok to Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory, was one long series of frost heaves, limiting my speed to an average of 40-45 MPH. It was cloudy and rainy, hiding the scenery and turning the highway construction areas in to a mud bath for my truck and RV. What the heck - it was already dirty from yesterday's trip.

Just before we got to Haines Junction, a mama moose emerged from the trees and stopped at the edge of the highway. She was huge and easy to see and we slowed down to a crawl about a 100 yards away. She paused long enough to scan the highway and then she proceeded across and into the brush. When she did that, her calf ran from the trees and across the highway, pausing just before entering the brush and glancing back at us. Then the calf joined mama moose. What a treat it was to see that!

Thursday, July 27 2006 - We left Haines Junction early under cloudy, rainy skies but it was a pleasant drive down to Haines. The road was in great shape and the scenery was some of the best, even though the clouds hid much of it.

As you approach Haines, the first campground you come to is Haines Hitch-Up RV Park. This is by far the nicest RV Park we have seen in either Canada or Alaska. The campground and individual sites are grass! Can you imagine that - grass in Alaska? Neatly mowed and very pretty. The inside roads have a thick layer of gravel with no mud or potholes. Everything is neat and clean, from the laundry to the bathhouse. On the negative side, they charge $5.00 a day for Wi-Fi. Since the campground charges top dollar for their sites, I was surprised that this was extra. This is the first campground where the Wi-Fi was not free.

At the recommendation of the campground desk clerk, we visited Chilkoot Lake, an easy 10 mile drive north of town. This area is known for its bald eagles and we saw seven within a short period of time. These are magnificent creatures and I cannot understand why old Ben Franklin wanted the turkey as our national symbol. Chilkoot Lake is very pretty and empties into Chilkoot River for a short one mile trip to Chilkoot Inlet. A kayak tour was at the lake and it looked so inviting to paddle a kayak over the smooth waters of the lake.

Carol and I are considering a visit to Skagway. Option #1 is a round-trip ferry ride for $45 per person and takes an hour each way. Skagway is only 16 miles away. But we wouldn't see White Pass or any of the scenery between Skagway and Whitehorse. Option #2 is driving to Whitehorse and then taking a day trip down to Skagway. Option #3 is taking our truck and RV on the ferry to Skagway and then driving to Whitehorse. Cost would be $226 plus gas to Whitehorse as opposed to about $175 for gas and campground fees for option #2. Plus, option #3 avoids an 8 hour drive to Whitehorse and down to Skagway.

Friday, July 28 2006 - We woke up to a beautiful sunny day and drove out to Chilkat State Park for a good look at Rainbow Glacier and a pretty waterfall created by glacial meltwater. Of all the small Alaska towns that we have visited - Seward, Homer, Valdez, and Haines - I think Haines is our favorite. It is not as busy and noisy as Seward and Homer and I think the scenery is a bit better than Valdez.

Haines, Alaska to Great Falls, Montana