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ALASKA - part 2

8/29/2007

It was quite cold in the morning.  After a hot oatmeal breakfast, we headed out toward the Atigun pass of the Brooks Range.  This is the highest pass in Alaska at a mere 4,800 feet.  As I was riding over the mountain pass a canine-like animal caught the corner of my eye at the side of the road as it was about to run across the roadway toward my bike.  It was startled by our motorcycles and turned back away from the road.  Darren got a better look at it than I had and thought it was a wolf.  On the north side of the Brooks Range the fall colors were remarkable, although the bright reds and oranges that I am used to seeing were missing.  The cold weather comes across so quickly that the trees seem to turn from green to yellow very quickly.  It was very cold riding and once again we were grateful for the the heated vests and gloves.  The mountains were actually not very high, but the tree line was very low, making the rocky cliffs appear to rise sharply from the surrounding landscape – especially on the north side of the range where the tundra begins.  The tundra landscapes begin with small brushy bushes across fields of mushy short green grass that seems to grow like a fungus over the moist soil.  The soil underground here is frozen year-round (called permafrost) and only the top layers are thawed in the summer.  There were quite a few caribou hunters traveling in old trucks and RV’s camped on gravel turnouts.  We only saw one group of 4 young caribou crossing the tundra.  Further north we saw a group of Musk Oxen in the distance.  These are unbelievable animals that look like throwbacks to an ancient time.  They were too far from the road for a photo and we were eager to move north, so continued to ride past them.  We stopped at the Happy Valley airstrip where small planes could land to search for water.  A few people were finishing the construction of an amazing igloo-shaped structure.  They said it would be the home of some scientists who would be gathering data out in the ice fields in the winter, when the temperatures can get down to –40*F and even lower with a wind chill factor.  A group of hunters were sorting through gear that had been flown in on a small plane and we asked them where we could find drinking water.  They told us that the river nearby had fresh water that was fit for drinking, so Darren filled the camelbaks.  We stopped about 50 miles short of Deadhorse along a short gravel road surrounded by tundra where some hunters were also camped along the road.  You can see from the photo below how barren this land it.  It was very cold and we built a good fire in a large fire pit before going to bed early.  There was definitely a bear danger in the area, but we felt relatively safe with the hunters nearby and our bear spray.   

8/30/2007

It was very foggy and very cold when we emerged from the tent.  We had hot oatmeal again for breakfast before packing up.  Even with our electric heated jackets turned up very high, it was very cold on our face and hands.  We were glad to have our sealskin socks to keep our feet dry in the wet fog.  As we approached Deadhorse the road had been treated with more calcium chloride in order to reduce the dust stirred up from the large trucks.  This made the road surface a bit slippery when wet fog.  I can imagine it would be much more challenging in a hard rain. 

Deadhorse is not really a town.  There are no permanent residents, but there are approximately 5,000 workers there at any given time – each working 2 or 3 week stretches for the major oil companies.  Workers are provided meals and lodging, as well as flights from Anchorage to Deadhorse for their work period.  Then they are flown home to enjoy a couple of weeks off work before returning.  The building were all miserable-looking prefabricated buildings that appear like huge poorly maintained trailer-homes.  Even the expensive hotel in Deadhorse was built like this.  I was glad that we didn’t bother shelling out the $180 to stay there.  It was such a depressing place to have to work.  There is a joke that employers would tell new workers that there was a naked woman hiding behind every tree in Deadhorse, but when they arrived they would find out that there weren’t any trees – since the whole place is built on the tundra. 

While waiting for our tour to begin another couple who were riding 2-up on a motorcycle arrived.  They had come north from Los Angeles and joined us on the tour.  The tour was a huge let-down.  Over the phone they explained to us that we would not be allowed to actually swim in the Arctic Ocean because there were 6 active polar bears in the area, but we would probably be allowed to walk to the shore and place our hands in the water.  When we got on the bus for our 10am tour, we were told that the 8am tour had actually seen two polar bears!  Unfortunately we were not so lucky as to see a bear, but we were also not allowed to even get off the bus to get near the ocean.  We had to suffice with taking pictures of the ocean from inside the bus…in many ways the tour was a waste of money.

After the tour we gassed up at the most interesting gas station we have encountered.  It was a little shack with two barrels outside with nozzles cut into them for the pump handles.  The actual gas pump was located inside the shack with a credit cad station for payment.  You had to park on a yellow park pad to prevent any gasoline spilling into the gravel.  Then we headed to the post office/ general store/ Napa auto parts shop – all housed in one building – where we took photos of the famous ‘Welcome to Deadhorse’ sign.  It felt like we had achieved a great accomplishment by making to our northernmost destination, however, we were both very ready to get back south again ASAP!  So after a candy bar and soda, we quickly made some time southbound on the Haul Road. 

We stopped to photograph the Musk Oxen, walking out onto the tundra.  The mushy, uneven feeling under our feet was a very different sensation that I find difficult to describe– not like slippery sinking mud, but more like a foaminess.    The scenic views were definitely better heading south.  We stopped at a turnout before the Atigun pass to have lunch with the LA couple that we had met on the tour. 

Riding along over many bumps and potholes, my lowered motorbike gets a real work-over.  A few days ago, after one particularly hard-hitting pothole, I had noticed a louder rattling sound - but after a quick inspection, nothing appeared out of place.  Then today after a long stretch of nicely paved roadway, I felt a funny slipperiness in my back tire and pulled over again to investigate.  My exhaust pipe had actually rattled three bolts out and had dropped down to touch my tire – burning the rubber.  I would assume the rattling I had heard before was after one of the first bolts had come loose.   

We met a couple of KTM riders (one from France and another from the U.S.) heading north.  After a short chat we found that they were heading to Argentina as well (only much faster).  Hopefully we will see them again down the road!  We crossed back over the Brooks Range and headed to Coldfoot again for gas.  This time we stopped for a short visit to their fancy visitors center – a clear signal that at least this part of the route will eventually become a well-paved scenic drive for tourists.  Then we backtracked 5 miles to Marion Campground again.  About 1 mile before the camp, Darren saw a Grizzly Bear cross the road – a very real reminder of the wilderness around us.  As we were settling into camp, we noticed what ‘termination dust’ on the mountain-tops near us.  This is a light dusting of snow on mountains that are only a couple thousand feet above our elevation.  The gold minors would call it termination dust because it was a signal to terminate the mining work and move south before the weather got really nasty.  Once again we were glad to be moving south! 

8/31/2007

A coyote was standing out on the roadway and as we approached, it stopped to stare at us before turning back into the high brush along the road.   We stopped again at the Yukon river camp and shared an expensive burger before making the final stretch back to Fairbanks.  We arrived early in the evening and were reunited with Jerry and Judy just as Sue was packing her things to fly home to Kalispell.  After setting up camp, we celebrated with some drinks and stayed up late watching for the northern lights – which Darren saw.  Every time I crawled out of the tent to watch, they stopped moving and left only a steady green haze…

9/1/2007

After enjoying much needed hot showers, we rode south along the Parks Highway (Hwy 3) to Denali National Park.  The first 15 miles of the Park Road is open to vehicles and bus travel is provided for free – the rest of the park is closed to motorized vehicles and requires visitors to pay for the bus tour.  Considering it was later in the afternoon and our tight budget, we chose to ride the free bus to its furthest point – Savage River – and return while eating our lunch en route. Unfortunately we didn’t see any animals except some while specks on a mountainside – Dall Sheep.  The famous Mount McKinley was, as usual, hidden in a shroud of white cloud.  It was, however, a nice way to enjoy lunch in some great scenery.  We continued southbound a few hours before beginning to search for camping.  While crossing a bridge over the Susitna River, Darren noticed a collection of RV’s parked on the riverbank below and we went to investigate.  The river provided a wide sand and rock beach where campers were using their ATV’s and celebrating the Labor Day holiday.  We found a good spot for our tent and, much to Darren’s discomfort, gunshots continually rang out in the forest behind us.  It sounded like there was a shooting range nearby where shooters were practicing or competing.  Darren built a fire and cooked dinner.  As darkness fell, the shooting ceased just before the fireworks began over the river…

9/2/2007

We chose to bypass Anchorage since most of the bike shops were closed for the holiday and neither of us wanted to deal with big-city traffic.  Heading east on Glenn Highway (Hwy 1), we passed through forests with snowcapped mountains to the south.  This highway follows the braided Matanuska River for over half its length.  Further along the highway, the glaciers were closer.  There are outfitters here that provide glacier hiking tours with cramp-ons for your shoes – an activity we would have tried if we were traveling with more time and money.  Turning south at Glennallen onto the Richardson Highway (Hwy 4), we rode through glacier-topped mountain passes toward Valez.  The Richardson Highway was Alaska’s first highway – beginning as a pack trail in the late 1800’s.  The highway winds along the turbulent Lowe River in Keystone Canyon.  These sheer canyon walls contain countless waterfalls and interesting rock formations.  Stopping for a short break, we walked out along a rocky cliff overlooking a steep, deep gulch with mountains surrounding us.  The views were amazing and difficult to capture on camera.  As we approached Valdez, the forests engulfed us again until we turned the last few curves into town.  The campground had a surprising number of tent campers and we chatted with a travel writer who wrote articles for various magazines, including Rider – a motorcycle publication.  Later, a fire was built and we enjoyed conversation with a couple from The Netherlands.

9/3/2007

In the morning, the majestic surroundings at Valdez seemed unreal to me – you could see glacier-covered mountains in every direction.  This place was my image of Alaska.  Valdez is often referred to as mother nature’s year-round playground – with spectacular glaciers, miraculous rain forests and inspiring mountains in a temperate climate that supports various recreational activities throughout the year.  We took the day off from riding and became the typical tourists.  Boarding the Glacier Spirit of Stan Stephens Glacier Cruises, we enjoyed a seven hour tour of Prince William Sound.  In Alaska there are 30,000 miles of glacial ice – covering 5% of the state.   Sea Otters with gray bearded faces waved at us with flippers while floating along on the their backs.  These amazing creatures are known as the “Old Man of the Sea’ and are the largest members of the weasel family in North America – with males weighing up to 100 pounds.  They carry a favored stone with them inside a pouch to crack open shell fish on their bellies as they float along eating.  This is a rare example of mammals using tools.  They were extremely curious about us and almost seemed to be performing for us.  

The crew served us clam chowder and bagels with cream cheese for lunch.  As we came closer to Columbia Glacier there were sea lions and seals resting on the icebergs.  The boat carefully moved through the sea of blue ice sculptures floating all around to get close views of the glacier.  Glacial ice is blue because the physical properties of the water molecule absorbs all the colors in the spectrum except blue – which is transmitted outward.  Columbia Glacier is the last of Alaska’s tidewater glaciers and it is receding rapidly.  It began retreating in 1978 and within five years it had moved off of its terminal moraine.  By 2002, it had retreated 7.5 miles.  It has now retreated over 10 miles and it considered ‘history in the making’- as it will soon reach bedrock on shore and there will no longer be any tidewater glaciers left in Alaska.   It was a real experience and well worth the expense of the tour ($95 per person).  On the return trip we were unable to go toward an area where whales are usually seen because of rough waters and stormy weather, so we took a safer route where we saw lots of bald eagles in trees and in flight.  At both the beginning and end of the trip, we passed by the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  The pipeline we had seen running down from Prudhoe Bay is 800 miles in length to reach Valdez where an average of 52 tankers are filled in Valdez each month.  All this oil is presently being shipped to American ports.  The Stan Stephens cruise lines proclaims that Prince William Sound is almost back to normal after the disastrous 1989 Exxon Oil Spill – although many environmental groups would probably disagree.  In the written tour guide, the tour company does disclose that it does not visit areas that are still contaminated with oil (because they are protected from the seas actions) and that these areas are still undergoing a recover process that will still take years to complete.    We met a couple on board from Amsterdam who spoke english with thick British accents (from time living in London) and the four of us enjoyed dinner together after the cruise. 

Cozying up to a community campfire, I was privileged to meet Florine Hirsh – an amazing woman who moved to live in an extremely rustic cabin (no electricity or running water) in the Alaska wilderness with her husband in 1984 (and still lives there!).  This was after raising 5 children on a farm in New Hampshire!  She then wrote two books about her experiences entitled ‘In Search of Alaska’s Lost Gold Mine’ and ‘Why Why Alaska?’.  Her and her husband was then featured on a couple of cable television shows – ‘Alaska Adventures’ and ‘On the Road Again with The Hirsh’s’.  Florine is a true gold digger – watching her talk to Darren about mining opportunities in Australia, I could see her eyes light up with a passion not often found in a woman of her age.  It was inspiring to meet her and I hope we can stay in touch.

9/4/2007  Valdez to Chicken

On our way out of Valdez, we stopped to view salmon spawning- a remarkable sight of nature as these fish move upstream to lay their eggs and then give up their lives forever.  Heading north again on Richardson Highway, through the mountain passes, we took the cutoff back to Tok (on the Alaska Highway).  There were increasingly untamed forests are we made our way closer to the Eastern border with Canada.  After stopping in Tok for groceries, we carried on across the Taylor Highway (also known as the ‘Top of the World Highway’) to the infamous town of Chicken, Alaska – where we were rewarded with free camping under a covered shelter after fueling up in their only gas station.  Chicken is a gold town – first discovered on Franklin Gulch in 1886 and again ten years latter on Upper Chicken Creek.  At least 700 miners were thought to be working in the area between 1896 and 1898.  The town was named by it’s early settlers who were unable to spell ptarmigan and simplified the situation by calling the bird - and the town - Chicken.  A post office was established in 1903 (making it an official town) to serve a resident population of 400 people.  In 1953 F.E. Company bought the townsite and turned it into a camp for their gold dredging operations, using the ‘Pedro Dredge’ until it was put out of service in 1967.  In 1998, after sitting idle for 31 years, the million pound dredge was moved in one piece to its present location at the Chicken Gold Camp and Outpost – where only 6 people are counted as year-round residents in the cold, harsh winters of this unforgiving land.  Although it still attracts some serious gold seekers, it main attraction is now tourists.  After a steak dinner, we walked down to the Chicken Saloon – a tiny place with shredded bits of underwear and bras hanging from every wall and ceiling – along with pins, business cards, patches and anything else a tourist wanted to leave behind in Chicken.  The shredded undergarments are a Chicken Saloon specialty – the locals enjoy packing a small cannon with an undergarment and blowing it to smithereens before securing it to the wall or ceiling with a staple gun.  There was just enough room for a pool table in the back of the bar; a jukebox, one small table and a wood-burning stove along one wall and the bar along the other.  Most of the other patrons were already very intoxicated when we arrived.  Most were of native decent and worked as diamond miners who spent 6 of every 8 weeks working in a mine.  They were terribly desperate for women and booze, although they obviously made very good money.  There was a family of gold-diggers (parents with two teenage boys) that had spent the summer in the area.  Darren spent much of the evening speaking with a relatively normal fellow that lived 30 miles from Chicken- into the Alaskan forest.  He drove a massive piece of old mining equipment that was originally used on the North Slope up in Deadhorse.  It only moved about 6 miles per hour, but was immensely powerful with a huge arm on the back to move things around.  Later in the evening another couple of travelers arrived on bicycles.  We drank too much and I danced with ‘Chief’ – an older Native Alaskan miner who was certainly the most gentlemanly person in the room.  When the bartender pushed everyone out at the end of the night, we hitched a ride on the mining equipment to get back to our camp.  Chicken – what a experience!

9/5/2007

It took most of day to recover from our night out at the Chicken Saloon.  When we finally got moving we rode across the Top of the World Highway (known among Yukoners as the ’60 mile’)– an unpaved 100 miles of winding road cut along the crests of mountains - providing impressive vistas of the surrounding forested hills.  Gold mining was the origins of these hills and we passed a few old gold dredges along the way.  There were few other vehicles.  Coming around a corner, we found the most remote border crossing into Canada and passed through onto paved roads with little fanfare – Now we would truly be heading south!

 

 

 


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