Anchorage Area (June 26 - 28)

Girdwood Ski Resort
Our first full day in Anchorage we spent ... going to Whittier!

Nothing against Anchorage, we just enjoy scenery and wildlife over cities. We especially loved the route along the Turnagain Arm. After a lunch stop in the ski town of Girdwood, we drove up around Alyeska and saw a porcupine briefly as he scurried across the road.
Porcupine (shot through windshield)

Getting in line for the Whittier Tunnel
Whittier lies on the other side of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, or as it is more commonly known, the Whittier Tunnel. The controlled one-lane tunnel alternates directions each hour, and is the longest combined vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America. Whittier is a port for many cruise ships, where many cruise-tour travelers then travel to Anchorage and beyond via rail.

We arrived in Whittier when no cruise ships were in port, so if felt like we had the pretty little town to ourselves.

Prince William Sound off Whittier

Susan taking a break in tourist-focused Whittier
The scenery in Turnagain Arm near Portage Glacier

On the way back to Anchorage, we looked around the Portage Glacier, but were too late to take a cruise on Portage Lake. We also did not see Beluga whales in Turnagain Arm. What we did stumble onto with great luck was the Bore Tide. This relatively rare phenomenon is like a wave that comes into a narrow area at high tide.

Bore Tide coming in

Susan at Earthquake Park in Anchorage
The next day we visited Earthquake Park in Anchorage. Most of the 1964 quake's destruction was felt in Anchorage, and the Park area was left in its natural state. Lunch was at a Subway sandwich shop in town and this is where we saw our first person open-carrying. Technically, only Mike noticed it and wisely refrained from telling gun-phobic me until later.

We then went back to Turnagain Arm to look again for Belugas. On the way we stopped at Potter's Marsh, a great birding spot where we saw our first Red-necked Grebes. We never found those big white whales, but we did see Dahl Sheep, including some young, frolicking up on the steep hillside across from the Turnagain Arm.

Dall Sheep near Turnagain Arm

Mike and Susan at Turnagain Arm

Our three nights at Elmendorf AFB, were great, except for the sound of jets every morning at 8AM! Our functional, clean room was a spacious suite with separate living area, fridge, and WiFi. The washing machines were convenient and free, and we would certainly stay there again if we return to Anchorage. But our space-A lodging was only possible for 3 nights this time, so we made plans to head out in the morning for Seward.

Here's a map of the trip to Whittier from Anchorage.

Denali National Park and Preserve (June 22-25)

Farewell Fairbanks, Denali here we come!

After checking into the Denali Touch of Wildnerness B&B in Healy Monday, we drove down to the Denali National Park and Preserve Visitor Center, made our reservations for the bus tour on Wednesday, then headed out for our first hike -- Mt. Healy Trail. It was short, but steep, and the overcast skies and drizzle didn't dampen our spirits.

Mike on the Mt Healy hike

Susan with sled dogs
Tuesday we did more exploring the Park, although the areas where you can drive your car are quite limited. We drove down to the Savage River area which is about as far as you can drive. Around the visitor center, we especially enjoyed visiting the sled dog kennels and watching the sled dog demonstration.

Back in Healy, we drove the short distance past our B&B to the Stampede Trail, not far from where Christopher McCandless became lost, lived for a time in an abandoned bus, and did not survive the ordeal due to his own ignorance and lack of preparedness. Locals didn't have fond things to say about the man, whose story was made famous in Jon Krakauer's book Into the WildThe book and subsequent movie glamorization has created enough of a buzz that jeep tours out to his bus have popped up.

We loved Touch of Wilderness. Besides being cozy and comfortable, with good breakfast fare, in the evenings there were excellent complimentary presentations held right in our living room. We took in two. One was about sled dogging by a woman who, along with her husband and 2 young sons earned their living transporting climbers' supplies up to Denali north face base camp. Laurent Dick, an accomplished mountaineer and photographer, gave the other presentation on his ascents of Denali. We came home with an autographed copy of his book, Climb Denali: A Reflective Journey.

Our last day in Denali we would spend 12 hours on almost 90 miles gravel roads riding in what was essentially a school bus. Native corporations were the sole concessionaires for the tour deep into the park and our guide was very knowledgeable.

The Eielson Visitor Center was great, and had the best vantage point for viewing Denali, which didn't cooperate and "come out" for us that day, which we learned was not statistically surprising. Most of the trip was wet and at some parts quite snowy, but the weather didn't seem to bother the grizzlies we saw foraging on a snow covered hillside or the grizzly family that sauntered down the road ahead of us. We also saw moose, caribou, fox and coyote.

Red Fox

Caribou herd


Us at Wonder Lake (note mosquito hood)
The former gold mining town Kantishna lie at the end of the road, but it wasn't much more than a place to turn around for us. On the way back we stopped at Wonder Lake, which is a great photo op in better weather.  At one point, an oncoming tour bus had broken down and was blocking the very narrow road. After a short delay, the bus was pushed out of the way and we continued.

In spite of wet weather and clouds obscuring Denali, our visit at the National Park was fantastic. Thursday was time to head south again, so reluctantly we packed up and headed for Anchorage where we had reservations for three nights awaiting us at Elmendorf AFB.

Denali punching through the clouds

It took us all day to drive the 250 miles along Alaska 3 because we had to keep stopping to look at and photograph Denali. Yep, the clouds were lifting and looking northward were outstanding views of the massive mountain. After a late dinner in funky Talkeetna, we finally arrived in the Big City. In full daylight.

Fairbanks and Environs (June 12-21)

Taken after midnight outside "our" home in Fairbanks
An email to our home exchangers: "Our first day here we just sat like lumps and enjoyed not having to be in a car." In Fairbanks our home was in a birch forest, which made for beautiful evening light through the trees. As it was almost Summer Solstice, darkness was virtually non-existent. That takes some getting used to. Even after the sun set, the light glowed through the trees. Wild roses that we had noticed along the Alaska Highway and in British Columbia were also blooming on the forest floor here. Overall, a beautiful, quiet and relaxing setting for us to recoup after so many days on the road.

Detailed notes about the house and locality from our exchangers were greatly appreciated. A couple things were different living in Fairbanks. Drinking water in the area was ever so slightly tainted with arsenic, so although some people chose to consume it, we opted to drink water treated with a reverse osmosis filter. Also popular with locals was Fox Spring water, but apparently that also contains arsenic. Another difference was no trash collection, and we had to drop it off at a transfer station a mile or so south of the house.

Our first exploratory foray into Denali NP

Our second day in Fairbanks, curiosity about Denali drove us to make a scouting trip, since it was only a couple hours away.  Now in retrospect, it seems a little crazy that we got back on the road after just one day's rest!  But we were glad we did because it gave us a chance to better understand how we wanted to see the National Park. We drove down the first 12 miles of the road into the park, which is the only part section which allows private vehicles, and made plans to take the bus all the way in when we returned later in the month. A Northern Goshawk perched high in a treetop along the road had attracted a crowd, so we stopped to take a look as well. We noticed the train running past Denali to Fairbanks, a trip we hope to make someday. Finally we drove past a B&B near Healy, recommended by our home exchangers, and decided it would be a nice area to stay when we returned.

Large Animal Research Station (UofA)

Muskox at LARS
Sunday afternoon we were ready to start seeing what Fairbanks was all about. We spent a lot of our time at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks, which was very close to our home. The first stop was the U of A Large Animal Research Station (LARS). Student guides gave interesting presentations at the large enclosures for Muskoxen and Caribou, but our viewing time was limited in order to minimize the impact on the wild animals and their adorable young.

Next we made a visit to Creamers Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, and saw our first Sandhill Cranes. We came back another time or two before leaving Fairbanks to enjoy the birds and wild iris, and also entered their quilt raffle.

Sandhill Cranes at Creamers Field

Museum of the North
Our last stop of the day was the  U of A's Museum of the North. The ultra-contemporary museum was a great introduction to Alaska. We highly recommend both auditorium shows, Dynamic Aurora and Winter. The Place Where You Go to Listen was also interesting, but was out of order on our first visit.

Monday we headed to Chena Hot Springs for the spa as well as in hopes of seeing moose, said to be common in that area. And moose we did see on the way, but when we got out to take a picture, mosquitoes absolutely swarmed us.

Moose on the way to Chena Hot Springs

Moose and calf at Chena Hot Springs
Fortunately we saw more moose at the hot springs, and there was even a mama with her calf trotting through the grounds. We started off with a tasty lunch at the resort restaurant, which served fresh produce from their organic gardens. On the tour of the geothermal facility, we learned that the Chena Hot Springs Resort is powered exclusively by geothermal heat. Chena is also a great spot for viewing the Northern Lights, another item on our "next time" list. After a dip in the Rock Pool, and a few more photographs of the grounds we headed back towards Fairbanks.

The Rock Pool at Chena Hot Springs

Silver Gulch Brewing; most northern brewery in America
When we reached State Hwy 2, we got curious about the little town of Fox so headed north. I don't remember if we had the Silver Gulch Brewery in mind, but we ended up there for dinner. The most northerly brewery in America served delicious meals in a modern atmosphere and offered tasty brews with fun names like Epicenter Ale.

On the way home we stopped at the Alyeska Pipeline Visitor Center, an interesting pipeline viewpoint, then popped our father's day cards in the mail.

Alaska Pipeline near Fox, AK

Susan at the Georgeson Botanical Gardens
Early Tuesday afternoon we spent about an hour strolling through the U of A's Georgeson Botanical Gardens where we learned about arctic gardening techniques while enjoying the plants & flowers. With 24 hours of daylight, plants grow like mad in Alaska summers, producing famous giant cabbages. We were too early in the season to see them at their peak.

We took a short drive to the nearby berg of Ester but it didn't take long to see the former gold mining camp. We got bad tar on our car from chip seal repairs after the recent earthquake.

Entering the Nenana Ice Classic lottery
Still in exploring mode, we went a little further south to the town of Nenana.  Located the confluence of the Tanana and Nenana Rivers, the little town has hosted The Nenana Ice Classic, a lottery to predict the  date of the river's spring breakup, for almost 100 years. We bought two tickets at the visitor center, choosing our respective moms' May birthdates. We didn't win, but there is always next year...

Nenana Ice Classic tripod
Wikipedia reports that "This lottery began in 1917 when a group of surveyors working for the Alaska Railroad whiled the time they spent waiting for the river to open and boats with supplies to reach them by forming a betting pool. Interest in the pool continued and spread through Alaska. This lottery has paid out nearly $10 million in prize money with the winning pool in recent years being near $300,000."

From the visitor center we went out to find the tripod that we hoped would move either May 2 or 9th. A local museum contained a lot of Ice Classic memorabilia as well as Athabascan cultural information, and we also stopped in a little railroad musem.  An hour and a half later we were on our way back to Fairbanks, with Mike once again amused by the signage for a local pub called Skinny Dick's Halfway Inn.

The last stop of the day was an overdue car wash. We found a place which guaranteed to get your vehicle clean. We went through twice and the car was still filthy, but at least we could better see the nasty spots of tar Mike had to scrub off!

Susan on campus at U of Alaska
Wednesday we scheduled tours of the Geophysical Institute and the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center (ARSC), both located on campus. At the ARSC Discovery Labs we participated in a 3-D virtual reality demonstration. While we had a chuckle over the, hopefully tongue in cheek, Redoubt Volcano Level of Concern Color Code chart (made of colored construction paper with a brad holding the arrow pointing to orange), the Geophysical Institute was quite impressive. We had the opportunity to visit with an Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) scientist who monitors volcanic activity. He played the audio from the 1989 near plane crash of KLM Flight 867 due to volcanic ash from Mt Redoubt (simulation), a convincing example of the importance of the AVO. The scientist's attitude was "take that, Bobby Jindal." He also compared human efforts to try to control global warming to fleas trying to control the direction of a dog.

Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska
Thursday we went to Eileson Air Force Base to do some shopping, and got a kick of getting a windshield sticker from the most northerly USAF base. A stop at the Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska was fun in spite of being touristy. The tradition started over 60 years ago when a local man put on a Santa suit for kids in the small community.

Unknown First Family in Fairbanks

Back in Fairbanks, we strolled around the town center and checked out the Unknown First Family sculpture by the Chena River. Later that afternoon, with only 4 days away from the Summer Solstice, we headed out the Steese Highway towards Circle to the most northern point we would experience. Surprisingly, you can see the road in street view Google Maps! We headed back to Fox for another tasty dinner at Silver Gulch.

On and off we had discussed the possibility of going up to Prudhoe Bay. The Dalton Highway, or Haul Road, is a 360 mile service road for oil operations. It is very rough and the risk of vehicle damage is high, particularly when passing big trucks, so we didn't want to take our car. The option that appealed to us the most was taking a bus up and flying back, but the weather for flying was iffy and ultimately we didn't make the trip. Prudhoe Bay has been added to our "next time" list.

Our last few days in Fairbanks were spent restfully revisiting spots we had enjoyed previously, taking walks, and generally looking around appreciating this place we had called home for 11 days. Without darkness to signal the days' end, we often found ourselves up quite late. Our sleep schedule was often unusual, but Kirt Glassman, an Estes Park friend who'd lived many years in Alaska said,
"Try to forget about time, you're in a place in this world where it doesn't matter. Sleep when you're tired, eat when you're hungry, just enjoy the experience. Do your best to do away with time schedule and personal habits. Dusk from 1am should be experienced."
Good advice. 

Prickly Rose

We also started thinking about where to head next. On the drive up it had worked well to stop when we felt tired. But now we would heading into the more populated areas around Anchorage and the southeast, and with the July 4th weekend approaching, we (especially me) worried about availability, and so we decided to make some plans. From the downstairs office/library where we also enjoyed our home exchangers' extensive classical music collection, we spent a fair amount of time planning our itinerary and making reservations for accommodations through July 9th.

The day before we left we opted out of the Summer Solstice festivities and instead cleaned, did laundry and packed up. Anchorage, Seward, Homer, Kenai, Valdez, Palmer and Chitina would soon be more than dots on a map.

Watson Lake to Fairbanks (June 10-11)

Wednesday morning we were not anxious to leave beautiful Watson Lake, but we still had 860 miles to Fairbanks!

Less than an hour after we left Watson Lake, we had our first experience with Tina's OnStar system. The car bucked and jolted, an alarm sounded, and an info message appeared saying something about the all-wheel drive system. Mike pulled off to the side of road, but left the engine running, not sure what was happening. This would be a very remote place to have car trouble. We decided to press the button to call OnStar, but since neither of our then-AT&T iPhones had any cell coverage, we weren't hopeful. But within seconds, we had a very helpful OnStar customer service rep on the car's speakerphone. Score one for OnStar's cell coverage! After a couple of questions, the rep escalated us to a tech department. The guy asked permission to access the diagnostic reports from Tina's onboard computers and after analyzing them explained that the problem could be reset by turning the car off and back on. So we did, the problem cleared, and were were on our way, newly impressed and comforted by OnStar's cell/phone coverage and capabilities!

The Klondike sternwheeler in Whitehorse
We knew the next two days travel would not be easy miles, particularly after Whitehorse. Back on the road again, we drove through the provincial capital, a supply center for northern communities as far away as Haines Junction, we later learned. We saw our first sternwheeler at the SS Klondike National Historic Site, mailed a few postcards and got lunch at Subway, as I recall, before getting back on Yukon 1.

Lots of gravel roads during repairs
As we headed west, and for most of the rest of the way to Fairbanks, the jaw dropping scenery was non-stop. Massive mountains with glaciers, and too blue to be real glacial waters were everywhere we looked, mile after mile, on and on. The roads became less predictable, and frequent road construction made the ride more "interesting" as we passed large construction vehicles with little room for clearance. Frost heaves started to show up here and there. Gravel, dust and dirt covered our car.

The "Muffin" in Haines Junction
We spent our last night before Alaska at The Raven in pretty Haines Junction, a delightful little inn and gourmet restaurant. Since we didn't have reservations when we checked in around 8:30PM, we weren't able to dine at the Raven. It was full daylight and everything stayed open late, so we walked around the cute village. After admiring the Village Monument, usually known as "the Muffin," we got a tasty light meal at the Village Bakery, and finally checked out the nearby Kluane Visitor Center. Here we started learning about the Kluane / Wrangell-St. Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek World Heritage Site and Mt Logan, Canada's highest peak. It was still daylight when we went to bed, and the sun was up long before we awoke, but thanks to room darkening curtains we got a decent night's sleep.

Thursday morning, after an unexpectedly elegant white tablecloth breakfast buffet at the Raven, Yukon 1 would take us past remote Kluane Lake. At this point the Alaska Highway was completed in 1942. The ALCAN highway was built hastily in sections radiating out from population centers, and thus ended up being quite a zig-zag route. Many sections have been straightened out since then, and so some of the mileposts are not historic mileposts. The ALCAN has been completely paved for many years, but as mentioned above, harsh winters and permafrost heaves require considerable repair every summer and long stretches of gravel road are still common.

We were traveling almost due north, with breathtaking Wrangell-St. Elias on our left. Only two stops before Alaska! First was Burwash Landing, a tiny village of under 100 people with signs in English and Tutchone Athabascan. Then came Beaver Creek, the most westerly town in Canada, where we noticed a huge selection of products to deal with mosquitoes at the Mini Mart. Across the street was a very nice visitor center, staffed by typically polite young Canadians. All through Canada we had noted how friendly, wholesome and 1950's "All American" the people seemed.

Lots of road repairs in the summer

Next stop - Alaska. Just before two in the afternoon, we made it! Trumpeter Swans greeted us on a little lake to the right of all the Welcome to Alaska signage. The AlCan Port of Entry a mile or so down the road had no lines, and we were soon on our way to tick off the last 298 miles to Fairbanks.

Significant road construction delays around Tok slowed us down. We had dinner at Fast Eddie's before reaching the official end of the Alaska Highway at Delta Junction around 7PM. Milepost 1422 was a great photo op spot, which included giant mosquito statues, pipeline displays, and information about extreme cold winter temperatures.

But it was warm and sunny on June 11 as we headed on up the Richardson Highway towards Fairbanks. After another hour and a half we passed Eielson AFB, and rolled into Fairbanks about 7pm local time. Seven days and 3,118 miles after leaving Colorado, our cozy home in the woods looked very welcoming!

The end of the Alaska Highway at Delta Junction (but not our trip!)
 Our route from Estes Park to Fairbanks -- 3,118 miles: