With the smoke and the fire and the stars at night

Up again in the morning bright

With nothing but road and sky in sight

And nothing to do but go...

—old hobo poem

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Finding Another Piece of My Home

An old army truck used to build the Alaska Highway during WWII. The 1500 mile highway was built in eight months by over 30,000 military men and civilians.

After spending some time with my family near Fairbanks at Harding Lake, I decided to head on down the road.

I immediately started getting into smoke, and before long, it was so thick I couldn't see any of the countryside. I drove through this for over 60 miles, wondering if just ahead the highway would be closed.

I kept thinking I would soon see flames jumping through the sky, but the smoke lifted a little after Delta Junction. At the time of this writing, Alaska has over 240 wildfires burning.

Budget police presence in the town of Teslin, Yukon,  home of the Tlingit people. I wonder if this guy is related to Lucky the Dumb Cop in Lakeside, Montana.

I had intended to drive the Top of the World Highway, then go on up the Dempster to Inuvik (site of the Ice Truckers show), but I was told by a station attendant that the smoke was thick that way. 

No point in driving a long ways to see nothing but smoke—it seemed I was already doing that. I decided to continue down the Alaska Highway.

I stopped to let the dogs out for awhile, and it was then that I realized we were all getting road weary (I ended up putting over 8,000 miles on my car). 

I was missing the desert, and I'll be the first to admit that camping alone in the vast and truly wild country of Alaska and Canada wasn't quite as carefree as camping in the deserts of Utah in my regular hangouts. 

I decided it was time to head home. I could come back anytime I wanted, but I suspected I would fly next time.

A young black bear keeps an eye on two scary and possibly very dangerous sandhill cranes near Fort Nelson.

It took five days to reach the U.S. Border, and I was quite surprised when I saw the sign that said "You'll soon reach the U.S. Border" (or something like that—I was pretty tired). 

Muncho Lake in B.C.

I had cut from Calgary over Crowsnest Pass to the ski town of Fernie and had no idea where the border actually was, having never come that way. 

Crowsnest Mountain at the top of Crowsnest Pass.

I went that way because I wanted to see the Frank Slide, which wiped out an entire town in 1903 and was Alberta's worst landslide in history. It was a grim sight, seeing all the massive rock.

I was feeling sleep deprived again, and I have to admit that I felt a sense of relief when I saw that the border was a mere 20 or so miles away. 

When one visits the Nuxalt people of Bella Coola, they'll remind you that the entire earth is our shared home. They say, "Coming here as you have, you've found yet another piece of your home."

RVs at Dawson Creek, B.C., the start of the Alaska Highway.

Even though we all share one planet, most of us feel more at home in some places than in others, and for me, it's where I was born and raised—the high desert of the Colorado Plateau.

As much as I love Canada, and as similar as the culture there is to ours, the comfort and familiarity of being in your own home country can't really be described. I had seen many pieces of my home, but I was ready to go back to the desert.

What started it all, near Calgary.
Being home gives you a sense of relief, knowing that you understand how things work and know the rules, even if you choose not to follow them.

Failing to find a suitable camp spot in Kalispell, Montana, I bent the rules and drove down this road across from Costco, finding peace and quiet.

I spent the night in Kalispell, marveling at the lack of mosquitoes. The next day, I drove to Lakeshore State Park on Flathead Lake, one of my favorite campsites.

I set up my tent and slept the afternoon away, the dogs snuggled up to me on my cot. They seemed happy to take a break from driving. When we left and I took down the tent, the main pole broke, making me feel grateful it hadn't happened in the Land of the Midnight Mosquitoes.

In Bigfork, Montana

We would spend several days at the state park, resting up and revisiting some of my favorite haunts around the lake, then continue south. 

We were only a mere 1,000 miles from home, but I was getting a second wind and decided to go see Yellowstone, the Tetons, and drive over Beartooth Pass.

But as the novels say—alas, it was not to be. 

Flathead Lake

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Lakeside Respite

Some cool antennae at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks—probably used to track reindeer and such.

It's been awhile since I posted, as I haven't had any internet connection in the Alaskan wilds, so I'll try to bring you up to date in the next few posts.

After basking in the intimidating grandeur of Denali, I made my way to Fairbanks, where I immediately (and quite accidentally) discovered the Alaska Coffee Roasting Company, which made the whole trip worthwhile, moskies, sleep deprivation, and all. (I'm beginning to think that Toyota built an espresso-seeking gadget into the hood of my car, the way it always ends up at espresso cafes, but I'm not complaining.)

I think I got a bit carried away there (probably a case of E.D., or Espresso Deprivation), as I ordered a large iced latte along with a half-dozen pounds of their specialty coffee. I kind of wondered if Amundsen felt the same when he reached the tiny outpost of Eagle City, Alaska after being part of the first expedition to reach the North Pole in 1926. It's hard to describe, but it's a feeling of relief, that one maybe will survive after all. 

I then drove to my aunt and uncle's townhouse, which is near the University of Alaska. I managed to barely catch them, as they had just returned from three weeks in Tuscany and were on their way to their house on the shores of Harding Lake, about an hour south of the city. They were somewhat surprised to see me, as I was arriving early and hadn't been able to contact them.

The Museum of the North in Fairbanks

I wanted to see a bit of Fairbanks before going to their lake house, so they headed out after telling me that I absolutely had to visit the Museum of the North at the university. 

This is definitely not the bear I'm looking for...
I'm not much of one for museums (unless they're filled with rocks and fossils and such), but when my uncle said they were having a special dinosaur exhibit, I headed up the hill to the campus. I could see Denali in the far distance, somewhat like a dream, its peak hovering above a thick low wall of smoke (or maybe moskies).

Polar bear paws are not something to be messed with.

I watched a film in the auditorium about the Aurora Borealis (Fairbanks is the best place in the world to view the Northern Lights), then wandered around aimlessly, checking out the ivory collection, stuffed animals (including a huge brown bear named Otto and a polar bear), as well as Inuit tools, boats, and clothing. 

I always feel sorry for the critters that got stuffed and ended up in a museum, thinking in this case that maybe they would prefer to be alive and down at the Alaska Coffee Company drinking espresso. I'm pretty sure I would feel that way, if it were me.

A rare caribou-polar bear hybrid

Finally, I found the dinosaur display, which was in a room through the gift shop, where I found some cool geology t-shirts that I just had to buy. (Good marketing on their part to make you walk through the shop.)

After checking out the dinos, I felt disappointed. The display seemed pretty small and insignificant, especially for a special exhibit. However, it did make me realize how truly amazing Utah and Western Colorado are for dinosaur finds. 

Sometimes disappointments can make you feel lucky, and it did make me feel lucky to live where I do, being a fossil aficionado. I'm spoiled and now realize it, which is a good thing to be aware of, I guess. It makes you feel more special or something.

I monkeyed around a bit in Fairbanks, getting lost (which is hard to do there) and ending up at the airport (sigh, not again). When my parents travelled, my dad would usually get lost in whatever city they passed through, ending up at the rail yards (he was a train fanatic). My mom always accused him of doing it on purpose, which he always denied. 

Must be genetic.

I was soon at my relatives' house on the lake, where I spent several days visiting, eating fresh-caught salmon, and enjoying the beautiful weather, as well as seeing a momma moose and her tiny baby. 

This photo was taken from my aunt and uncle's deck. The house two over belongs to my cousin and her husband, who spend their winters in Tucson. The houses are really close together, as lakefront property is hard to come by.

I hadn't planned on being near the Arctic Circle on the summer solstice, but there I was, and it was interesting to watch the sun barely go down for only a couple of hours, then rise again over the lake. 

Summer solstice sunrise over Harding Lake

Fairbanks has the Midnight Sun Festival on the solstice, which is a major event, but I decided I'd rather stay at the lake. I'd met a guy at the museum earlier who had flown in from Seattle for the event, and he said over 30,000 people attend. I think this would be about 70 people fewer than the entire population of the city (32,070).

After a few days at the lake, I decided to head south. I was still feeling sleep deprived, Alaska was beginning to feel overwhelmingly big, and I was feeling the call of the desert. I was tired of fighting moskies and vowed to return with a better camping setup, something like a pickup and camper.

In retrospect, trying to car camp was hard, as there was really very little shelter from the mosquitoes and endless light, and I hadn't counted on the heat, either. And yet I was glad I wasn't driving a motorhome or pulling a trailer, especially after following them along stretches where the frost heaves and potholes had slowed them down to unbearably slow speeds. I figured they took about twice as long to make the trip as I had, and I heard plenty of horror stories about broken hitches and axles. In general, the roads are good, except for places where they aren't (like Destruction Bay).

Not sure I would want to take this old Chevy RV in Pocatello, Idaho up to Alaska, though maybe if I were more of the mechanical type...

Before long, I would break down myself, another disappointment that would make me feel lucky. But more on that later...

The Alaskan pipeline in Delta Junction. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

First Insanity—then Paradise

Another good reason to travel on—smoke from the Sockeye Fire in Palmer.

After a week in Palmer, I kept having this old classic go through my mind, so I decided to get out of town and head north to look for the Great One (Denali—or Mt. McKinley, if you're from Ohio). I'd heard that the odds are about 30% of actually seeing the big peak, as it makes its own weather and is more often cloud covered than not.

I decided to take my chances with the Parks Highway being open, and I lucked out. It had been closed off and on, but this day they were taking vehicles through with pilot cars for safety. Places along the road were still smoldering. Seeing the devastation first-hand really hit home.

It was a beautiful clear day, and I had decided to switch a trip to Homer with Denali, given the odds of it clouding up soon. Homer would still be there (assuming no more earthquakes).

Denali used to be 20,320 feet tall, the highest mountain in North America. It still is highest, but it's now a mere 20,237 feet, as the 1952 estimate using photogrammetry was a bit off. It has a base to peak rise of 18,000 feet, making it the highest in the world for rise.

I thought I caught a glimpse of it going through Willow, but I finally got to the little town of Talkeetna, and coming down the hill into town, what a surprise! Even though it was a good 40 miles away, Denali was breathtaking, as was the range that held it like a crown jewel in a tiara of beauties.

I'd just read Art Davidson's Minus 148 Degrees, and I was able to trace the climbers' route with my binoculars. It's hard to describe how a mountain that large makes one feel, but fairly insignificant would be a beginning.

The short pontoon-like things are for landing on glaciers.

After hanging around Talkeetna's airport and watching all the flightseeing and glacier planes, I decided to head on down the road. I needed to find a good camp spot.

I finally stopped at a small campground called the North Denali Viewpoint, where camping was allowed, though one had to line up on a paved parking lot. But I noticed the spot for the camground host was vacant, and being a generous type, I figured that surely they would appreciate a volunteer host for one night, so I snagged it. It was private and quiet, though I found out the next morning it backed onto a small pond which was a mosquito paradise.

And so the torture began. Even though I had meticulously engineered screens for my car windows, the little buggers were finding a place through, yet I couldn't find where. And some of them were literally the size of deer flies—these really made me wonder if one had enough blood to survive an onslaught.

My fears had been legit. I had wondered if I weren't being paranoid with getting the dogs bug jackets and all, and now here, in all their glory—Alaskan moskies. These same moskies (or relatives) were responsible for the recent death of a bush pilot who left his prop running to fend off the little bloosuckers while he loaded the plane. The plane started moving and killed him.

But the views at the lookout were a mountain-lover's paradise—how could I leave? This photo of Denali was taken at 10 p.m. As you can see, smoke is starting to drift north from the big fires.

Finally, it was midnight. The sun had set, but it was still light enough to drive without your lights. At about 1 a.m. a group of 4 guys had come into the campground and prepared to go backpacking, making lots of noise. They soon disappeared into the shadowy trees, off on adventure. 

I knew trying to sleep was a waste and decided to leave. I would get an early start for Denali National Park and maybe see some wildlife (I saw only one grizzly).

I quickly organized a few things and hit the road just in time to almost run over a huge moose crossing and heading for the camphost's site. He must have decided to take over in my absence. He would make a great host, for who would argue with someone weighing 1500 pounds and with a huge rack ?

I was miserable, suffering from sleep deprivation, plus it had been so hot that the dogs couldn't stop panting. I checked the car thermometer—85 degrees.

And now, one of the stranger things I've seen—it was 2 a.m., and the sun was rising! But not only was it rising, but it was rising in the northwest. I kept thinking I was going the wrong direction, but there was only one highway, and it went north. Later, my brother explained it all as being due to how far north I'm at. 

The beauty of a sub-arctic sunrise close to the solstice made me forget all about the moskies from hell. I spent two hours taking photos of the Alaskan Range as the sun slowly rose. It was truly paradise. 

Morning alpenglow on Denali's north side at 3 a.m.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Waking Up to Moose and Fire

It was kind of an unusual day, here in Palmer, Alaska.

First, the dogs woke me early, and I wasn't sure what was up until I saw a shady moose looking in my window. He paused long enough for me to take a photo, then walked around to the back of the house, where he resumed grazing, unaware of the mental chaos he had left behind in Weezee and Cassie's little Blue Heeler brains (and in my puny human brain, too—these guys are huge).

After I managed to take a few photos, he rambled on. I then had a cup of Tundra Mud (coffee) and opened the doors to the house, as the windows are fixed and it's been really hot here. The first thing that happened was a small bird flew in one door and out the other, maybe to say good morning, but for sure giving us all a start. When I first saw the movement out of the corner of my eye, I thought, "Uh-oh, Moose!"

I fed the dogs and then lazed around a bit, finishing John McPhee's Coming into the Country, a classic about Alaska. I was ready to start Minus 148 Degrees, Art Davidson's account of the first ascent on Denali (Mt. McKinley), when I asked myself why I was reading about Alaska instead of out seeing it for myself. After all, it was right out my front door (and maybe some of its wildlife still right out my back door).

So, I decided I would go to Talkeetna, a little railroad town about 100 miles away where one can get a good glimpse of Denali. Tom had listed some good places to see the mountain, and the weather's bound to change before I can get all the way up there, as I'm heading to the Kenai after this. Only 30% of Denali's visitors actually get to see the mountain, as it creates its own cloud cover.

A sign at the Palmer Airport
By the way, Alaska has been fighting for years to get Mt. McKinley changed to Denali, its native name (Great One), but the representatives from Ohio keep blocking legislation (Ohio was the home of President McKinley, who never laid eyes on the Great One). Alaska did succeed in getting the national park renamed Denali. 

Denali's many climbers, who base out of Talkeetna, refuse to call it McKinley and consider it bad luck. To date the mountain has claimed over 100 of them, and I wonder if there's any connection, though my pragmatic side says not.

A half-cocked photo of a Bering Air plane. The company is based in Nome and will deliver pizzas along their route if you order ahead.
But I'm getting sidetracked again. I checked a few things on the internet, only to find that the Parks Highway (the main highway from Anchorage to Fairbanks and thereby Denali N.P.) was closed due to wildfire. Rumor had it that cars were backed up for over 10 miles.

I had been keeping an eye on the Sockeye Fire since yesterday, when it grew to 6500 acres in less than a day. It was close to Willow, the center for dog mushers, and today saw some heroic kennel evacuations.

I decided to go ahead and go north to Wasilla, where I wanted to buy some Inuit-made gifts at a local store. The smoke was horrendous, so I didn't last long. It was hot with high winds, and smoke looked like it was drifting to Anchorage.

So, instead, I ended up at the Palmer Airport, where I watched hotshots arriving to fight the fire. 

We'll see what tomorrow brings, but a new fire has just been reported on the Kenai, which is supposed to be my next stop.

A hotshot crew arriving at the Palmer Airport