(9th -24th September, 2015)
A border crossing is always quite exciting, you hear all manner of horror stories, especially with US border crossings; and you never really know what to expect. In our case, however, we had absolutely nothing to worry about. The two lady officers at the Poker Creek Border were really exceptionally friendly.
Citrus fruit, tomatoes and bell peppers aren’t allowed to across the border into the USA, at least when we crossed. We knew about the peppers; we were a bit surprised by the rest however (not like we didn’t have enough time to research what’s not allowed). The customs officers, as we mentioned, were very friendly and even a little apologetic. We were informed that only the peels of the citrus fruits are not permitted to enter, even if the original origin was the USA. The tomato, however, disappeared then and there in Garys mouth. After the formalities were taken care of, and they found out that I am a Veterinarian, everything from then on seemed to revolve pretty much around their pets. We felt pretty happy to be so nicely welcomed in Alaska and with the late afternoon light set out into the impressive landscape.
It was pretty late in the evening when we finally reach the little village with the funny name of “Chicken”. Apparently the original name was supposed to be Ptarmigan (After the bird) but they couldn’t agree on the spelling so chose Chicken, to avoid embarrassment…well that worked well… We took a little scenic drive around the village before continuing on to the next campground. As we neared the campground we saw something that totally fit with the typical US Clichés: A man in camouflage with a rifle over the shoulder, a second rifle in his hands and to top it all off a pistol on his hip!! Oh My God, what is going on here we thought. That question was promptly answered as we arrived at the campground. Hunting Season was in full swing in Alaska. Actually we sort of expected to have the campgrounds to ourselves this time of year but we were completely wrong! The campground was full and we had the sinking feeling that we wouldn’t find a spot and would have to continue on. But as luck would have it we found the single remaining spot in back corner of the campground, which we immediately reserved for us. Later on we took a walking tour of the campground to see what was going on. Hunting camps were set up complete with animal carcasses hanging on game racks around the camps. The hunters placed their trophies (Elk and Moose Antlers) at the entrance to their camps to show off their successes. We found it all a bit strange and felt quite out of place in the middle of all the hunters; we didn’t need to worry about bears though. Should one however wander into this campground he wouldn’t find it very welcoming place.
The next day we drove south along the Taylor Highway enjoying the route through a landscape of fall colors. The hunting season was not restricted to the Chicken area though; the entire stretch of highway to Tetlin Junction was a single huge hunting camp. Every pullout, parking lot, boat launch, river access or what have you was full with trucks with trailers where 1, mostly 2, ATV’s could be transported. We saw tents and camps directly next to the highway; practically every nook and cranny was used to set up a Hunting camp of some sort. Naturally with the result that not a single animal was seen along the entire stretch of highway, they were probably all hiding deep in the backcountry.
We did benefit a little from the hunting season though not exactly as we expected: We traded a few pleasantries with a gentleman near Tetlin Junction, who turned out to be an Alaskan Native. Suddenly he asked us if we liked Salmon. Of course we do! He then went over to the big cooler he had in the back of his pickup and took out a whole half frozen shrink-wrapped Salmon. “I just caught it last month, enjoy!” We were almost speechless receiving such a huge gift from someone whom we’ve only traded a few sentences with. But we naturally accept the fine gift and rearranged our fridge to make place for it. That evening we had an excellent supper of BBQ salmon, and since it was such a huge fish we ended up having enough for 4 meals!
North Pole – A Visit with Santa
Heading north from Tok, a crossroad between Fairbanks and Anchorage, we arrived at North Pole. It’s where Santa apparently has his post office. When children write a letter to Santa it arrives here in North Pole. We visited the wonderfully decorated Santa Clause House (http://www.santaclaushouse.com/) where you can find all manner of interesting and tacky Christmas decorations and gifts; and of course Santa is there for photo opportunities – a real consumer paradise as you can well imagine, but what we were most fascinated with were all the children’s letters. Pinned to large corkboards throughout the house, and carefully anonymized, were hundreds of Santa letters from all over the world. I had never really though that so many children actually write letters to Santa Clause but it’s actually true! We saw all kinds of letters: from cute little girls and boys that start with “Dear Santa,…”, to rather demanding letters like “Christmas list: 1. Lego box set, 2. Train set, …” and even emotional letters pleading for a family members to get healthy or world peace. Letters from all over the world make their way here; some even apologize for their poor English and hope that Santa can understand them, others simply write to wish the jolly old man a Merry Christmas. We spent quite a bit of time moving from one board to the other reading the letters sometimes laughing and other times getting rather emotional.
That afternoon we passed Fairbanks, which we found to be a rather hectic place after the wilderness of the backcountry. You could almost smell winter coming now, and so instead of driving farther north as was our original plan we headed directly south towards Denali.
Ice cream Vs Denali
We arrived at Denali National Park in the afternoon, which actually was our goal for the day and actually for the next several days. Though as we arrived we noticed that there was a lot going on. The nearby town was full of tourists despite that it’s now the middle of September. We parked at the huge visitor center and asked for information about prices and hiking routes, and were not particularly impressed. The campground at the entrance of the park was boring and expensive, and in order to actually get into the park you have to ride an overly expensive bus. We saw the mainly fat tourists waddling around with their souvenir bags and Denali baseball caps talking loudly about their adventurous bus tour and we felt somehow completely out of place. We wondered if this was the type of adventure that we wanted to participate in. Besides the weather for the next few days wasn’t supposed to be all that good and somehow this whole set up here just didn’t fit into our ideal. Meanwhile back in the little town the wonderful fragrance of freshly baked waffle cones had set our mouths to watering and a constant stream of people with ice cream walked past us. So we followed our nose, quite literally, to the ice cream shop. Since the weather had turned out so lovely, sunny and 15C, we simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to treat ourselves to an ice-cream. And while we were at it we stopped by a shop selling “home-made” fudge and picked up a sampler. So there we were sitting in the sun enjoying our fudge and ice cream when it hit us; we just paid the exact same amount that it would have cost us to simply set a foot inside the park, we couldn’t do anything but laugh at the thought. The park is most definitely beautiful, and the backcountry hiking and camping excellent, but it simply didn’t fit into our plan. We decided to leave Denali behind, and Mount McKinley (now Denali Mountain) shrouded in clouds, and camped wild along the road. The next day low-lying clouds blanketed the mountains and an icy rain turned slowly into snow; we definitely made the right decision we thought, as we allowed ourselves a small piece of our calorie rich fudge for breakfast — after all winter is coming and a little fat reserves couldn’t hurt. We also declared the end of the tenting season; from now on we would be sleeping inside the Landy.
Kenai Peninsula – Alaska’s Playground
After a short stop in Anchorage to get some information we continued on toward the Kenai Peninsula. It was still raining buckets, but at least it had stopped snowing. Since we had driven quite a bit south we were kind of able to experience fall though backwards. From deep oranges and browns, and with sometimes no leaves on the trees, we watched the entire nature show in reverse. Suddenly we began to see trees with more and more leaves to the point were they were once again green! In the evening we arrived at a campground near the start of the peninsula and were pleased to find that the state run campgrounds here are similar to those we saw in the Yukon, though a bit more expensive; they also didn’t seem to have a standard price. Though, since we were at the end of the tourist season we discovered to our pleasure that we soon wouldn’t have to pay. Depending on the area they close most of the campgrounds between the middle and end of September. What’s nice is that quite a few of the campgrounds don’t have gates, and those that don’t have gates don’t actually close, they simply post a sign saying “No Fees, No Service”, which means you can camp for free, though you have to take your garbage with you and bring your own toilet paper. Of course there is no real way to know which campground doesn’t have a gate so it’s kind of a hit or miss; we found it pretty cool that something like this even exists in the first place! Like at the beginning of our trip we are once again confronted with “closed for the season” signs, but we definitely enjoyed it. Little traffic, few tourists, we can pick just about any camping spot we like, and we think that Alaska is worth the visit, especially this time of year.
Seward and Exit Glacier
It’s not without a reason that the Kenai Peninsula is called “Alaskas Playground”; the landscape here is really stunning and offers possibilities for just about every type of outdoor activity imaginable. Huge mountains packed with glaciers, turquoise colored lakes, rivers and fjords, and an amazing wilderness. It’s really quite spectacular and we were able to enjoy some of the many hikes.
Our first stop was Exit Glacier, which has a nice daylong hike along its flank. Since this was supposed to be the only rain free day for the entire week we headed directly to the trail head, even though we had arrived at noon. The glacier was really impressive! The higher we climbed the larger the glacier seemed to get – until we saw an entire sea of ice that seemed to have no end. Being so late in the day we didn’t manage to make it to the end of the trail, and see the entire Harding ice field. Pleased with our hike we took the long way back and passed the foot of the glacier experiencing the Katabatic wind (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katabatic_wind) that is so typical for glaciers. We found a spot to camp for the night; it was actually a free walk-in campground just down the road from the glacier. It’s meant for real tenting only but we decide to conveniently ignore that specific rule so late in the year. We joined the few other campers at the covered picnic tables and enjoyed their company and the warm crackling bonfire.
Although it had called for rain we were lucky enough to be granted a few hours of sunshine the next day so we used the break in the rain to explore the idyllic little town of Seward. At the end of a rather adventurous road we discovered a hiking trail that lead to the sea. Although we had missed the height of the Salmon run there were still plenty latecomers still trying to make their way up the rivers. We saw their eggs in just about every river and stream, and most were now choked with their remains or many in their last throws of life. It really is a remarkable lifecycle. On the return we suddenly saw a group of youths tearing down the path in our direction. At first it was only a few sporty youths and then more and more of differing age groups; some excusing themselves politely as they blew by, others calling back warnings about “hikers” to those that follow. Cross country club training session was our first thought, but as it turned out it was simply a combined gym class from the local school. Not too shabby – here we were not wanting to set a foot in the woods without our can bear spray, and panting a bit when it went uphill – and the kids have their gym class out here in the awesome nature. The question how they got here was also answered when we got back to the parking lot and saw the school bus; it must have been quite an interesting ride in the bus over the potholed road that lead here. We were a bit jealous of the youths at having such a cool gym class; we would definitely have loved to have something like that when we were growing up. Although they probably see it quite differently as was evident on some of the faces as they jogged by…
During our afternoon stroll along the Seward marina we discovered, to our amazement, an otter! The little guy was so close we could have reached out and petted him from the pier. He was busy munching away on fresh muscles that he gathered from the underwater supports of the pier. Every so often he would dive down, gather another “arm load” and come back up floating on his back and crack them open with his teeth. A small crowed had even gathered to watch and take pictures. We could have watched the scene for hours and as a little girl begged her father to stay just a little longer, we too didn’t have any desire to leave any time soon. The otter didn’t seem to mind all the attention at all; in fact he was comfortable enough with the attention that he always seemed to pop up at exactly the same spot after every dive.
Homer – at the end of the road
Our discovery tour of the Kenai Peninsula led us to Homer far to the south. Mountains, ocean and glaciers dominate the skyline and are even more impressive with the layer of snow that now covered the higher areas. We made camp at the quaint little city run campground ($8 USD) and decided then and there to spend a few days. The weather finally kept its promise: It rained and was supposed to stay that way with the exception of a single day. But we weren’t left out in the rain by Homer – we found a cute little café “Two Sisters” where we spent the entire day drinking coffee, eating treats and writing our blog. Gary took advantage of the only sunny day to search for the short-circuit that had been plaguing us since Dawson. It took him almost the whole day to find the bloody thing, apparently the garage forgot to reconnect two ground cables that they disconnected when replacing the clutch…
We wanted to take advantage of the latest break in rain by doing another hike on the Kenai Peninsula. The Siklak lookout tour looked to be a good option at least in length. Since we can’t really buy a hiking guide for every region we visit we often have to take what comes along not really knowing much about the hike or the area. This time however we really got lucky. The hike was wonderful, it followed the edge of a hillside overlooking Siklak lake up to the top of a hill with a spectacular view of the area. The path meanders through tall stands of Fireweed that this time of year is full in seed almost like dandelions. With every breeze the air is filled with the seeds almost as though it was snowing. The whole hike overlooks the turquoise waters of the lake; surrounded by snow-covered peaks. It was absolutely fantastic! The higher we climbed the more the amazing panorama unfolded until we are presented with an almost indescribably beautiful view of the entire area. The icing on the cake of our hike was the golden hues of the late afternoon sun creating rainbows as rain showers drifted by on the other side of the lake. We were rather lucky where we were as the rain did not come to our side, that and we had front row seats for the nature show. To top off the day we found another free campground (No Service, No Fees) at Hidden Lake where we set up our camp for the night. The temperatures were starting to regularly dip below freezing during the nights now and as we climbed out of the Land Rover we could see steam rising from the lakes waters into the cold morning air.
After a visit to the idyllic little village of “Hope” we said goodbye to the Kenai Peninsula after almost a week touring around, definitely a too short a visit!
A Sky full of Lights
It’s one of those days again where we didn’t break camp early enough. We normally haven’t had to worry too much about it getting dark since we are so far north, and even in September its stays light pretty late. But that’s starting to change now and it’s dark at 9pm. On this day though we were later than normal with our start, which in turn meant we were still looking for a spot to camp and it was starting to get dark. At some point we saw a dried out riverbed where several other campers were parked. It looked like a pretty good spot to stop, but for some unknown reason we passed it up. It ended up being pitch black outside and we still hadn’t found a spot, somehow we just haven’t learned not to be so picky when it’s already late in the day. Anyway we drove and drove some more without finding anything remotely better and at some point we found a pullout next to a lake along the highway and come hell or high water we are staying put. To add insult to injury there was already someone there in a big pickup with the motor continuously running. Great, we thought, we were just going to have to grin and bare it.
Sometime in the middle of the night someone knocking on the window startling us awake. The police? We didn’t see any “no camping” signs or was there one and we missed it? Oh boy, we were probably going to be chased away. Or perhaps it was something else? Who would knock on the window in the middle of the night other than the Police or some bad guys? We carefully opened the door a crack and discovered it was the guy with the truck. “Uhm”, he said rather apologetically “you’re from Europe right?” “Yes” we answered hesitantly while trying to figure out what this was all about. “Well, uh, I thought about it for quite a long time whether to wake you guys or not, but I figured, you know, that you probably haven’t seen anything like this before, and probably wouldn’t want to miss it.” He said kind of rushed and then pointed up to the sky. We looked up and our jaws dropped – Northern lights filled the sky! Still a little muddled we climbed out of the Landy into the frigid night air. It wasn’t the first time that we saw the Aurora Borealis on this trip, but never like this! The entire sky was filled with the dancing lights in all manner of forms and shapes! We had experienced something similar in 2011 in northern Norway and since then had hoped some day to experience it again. We thanked the truck guy, who introduced himself as William Briscoe, for having the guts to wake two complete strangers in the middle night. Apparently he was not there just by coincidence, he was here to film the night sky as he had some information that said the northern lights were to be exceptional. He had a number of cameras installed around the pull out and was doing time-lapse photography the whole night. If we hadn’t parked there, at that spot we would most probably have missed the entire show. Everything has a reason or purpose, we though and smiled as the lights danced above in the night sky.
Our cameras are unfortunately not good enough to photograph something like that, but since William filmed it all you can see what we experienced https://youtu.be/z9MHW3M4iD4. Not only that he has a number of other films from Northern lights on his youtube channel.
On the way to Valdez (yet another town at the end of a road) driving east on highway 1 coming down from a snow-covered plateau we did a double take. Were those snow-covered mountains ahead or clouds? After a peek through the binoculars we discovered that they truly were mountains, and huge ones at that. The mountain range of Wrangell St. Elias National Park lay directly ahead of us and the huge mountain that dominated our attention and seemed to rear up from the horizon was the 3661 meter tall Mt. Drum. We were only able to snatch glimpses of the magnificent peak before the surrounding clouds once again swallowed it breaking its mesmerizing hold on us.
As we arrived in Valdez we had only one thing on our minds: A shower! Of course most of the private campgrounds were closed at this time of year and there didn’t seem to be any public showers either. We did get a tip to ask at the Harbormasters office, apparently they have token operated showers, but of course there was no one there when we went by. At the only still open city campground we would have had to have paid the full overnight price in order to be able to have a shower, better to go another day without a shower, we thought, than pay those outrageous prices for an outrageously ugly RV Park. Then we remembered that we saw an RV park just outside of town and so we drove out to the park with the intention of asking if we could pay to use their showers. A sign indicated that they too were closed for the season but we saw numerous campers still in the yard and thought to ask the manager, but unfortunately no one was home. The bathhouse was unlocked, warm, and with un-metered hot water… Hmm… So instead of waiting who knows how long for the manager to come back we figured we would quickly take a nice hot shower. Sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission… We didn’t dawdle with our shower as we had the feeling we were doing something bad and were most likely to get caught by an angry manager at any moment. We peeked cautiously out the door when we were finished – still no one in sight. The Landy was parked at the back of the building out of sight, just to be on the safe side. Sparkling clean we quickly jumped into the Defender and took off… Well that worked out well!
We ended up finding a spot to camp on the outskirts of town near a river and stayed two days to catch up on some other necessities that we couldn’t put off any longer. Sadly there isn’t much in the way of hiking trails available although high mountains and glaciers surround Valdez. It is, however, supposed to be real ski and snowboard paradise in winter. Speaking of winter, we got an early taste of it on our way out of Valdez in the form of a frigid wind coming down from the mountains. We camped that night pretty high up on the Richardson Highway just before Thomson Pass, the wind howling around us without pause. With the continuous icy wind the possibility of cooking breakfast the next morning was slim to none so we packed up and headed across the pass. At the Worthington Glacier we managed to find a sunny and protected area out of the wind where we were able to cook up some porridge to warm us up before doing the small hike to the foot of the glacier.
We were constantly asked how long we were planning on staying in Alaska and every time we answered the same “until winter chases us away” and that’s exactly what happened. Where the thermometer usually hovered around 10-12 C during the day as we arrived, it appeared to be now stuck at around 1.5 C. We tapped the thermometer a few times to make sure, but that didn’t seem to help any – its simply cold. So it’s time to move on since we aren’t really set up for real winter camping. Arriving in Tok once again to complete our loop of Alaska we treated ourselves to a nice dinner and camped at the parking lot where we given the Salmon. We spent far to little time in Alaska, there is so much more to see and do in this amazing stretch of land. But the circumstances of our trip dictated the allotted time so that our visit would be on the short side. We will definitely be coming back, and next time for much longer.
We really want to thank William Briscoe for have the guts to wake up too strangers in the middle of the night. We definitely wouldn’t have wanted to miss the natural wonder of the Northern lights! Also a very hearty thank you to the unknown gentleman at Tetlin junction who so very kindly gave us the Salmon, we definitely enjoyed every morsel!
More Photos on Flickr: Alaska