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Published: September 24th 2017
As we approached the Canadian border I glanced across at the clock, it was 2pm on a drizzly grey Friday afternoon. We chose our lane and joined the queue. This time, with both of us in the Rig, we waited for our turn to approach the booth and speak with the Canadian border guard.
The usual questions of where are you from? Is this your vehicle? Where are you going? How long do you want? Were asked and promptly answered. The question of do you have any weapons, was met with our standard reply “No we’re British”. Before we knew it our passports were stamped and we were on our way. I checked the clock..... It was 2.29pm. We were a bit bemused really it was so quick. No fuss, no searching, no fridge inspection, no scanning machine, no waiting in line, that was it. We looked at each other, wondering if we needed to go somewhere to pay or fill in a visa form, but it was a straight road ahead of us, so apparently not.
As we drove through the Peace Arch we passed a sign saying “Welcome to Canada”, ahh, welcome indeed.
A couple of facts I knew about Canada were a) about 82% of the population live within a few hours / miles of the border and b) most of those seem to leave for the winter. We had met lots of them in Mexico and hoped to catch up with a few of these snowbirds.
We contacted and met up with Ron & Cheryl who live in Surrey (there is a Guildford as well). For a couple of days we parked in their reserved RV spot and as we have the same make and colour RV it created a few confused glances as people went by.
Then, you know that wilderness we were seeking I mentioned in the last blog, well, on leaving Ron & Cheryl we set off north towards Alaska to look for it. As we left they said, if you pass this way again look us up......... never say that.
As we rolled along we remembered that Jane and Rainer lived in this area somewhere, we gave them a ring to see if they were nearby. “We are in Kamloops” Rainer said, “its not far
off your route, call by” We looked at the map, they were east of us and we were just about to pass their turning so took it. Not far? It turned out was just an hour and half away......... later we realised that 90 minutes in Canada really is not far.
Another thing I learnt was that, other than knowing where the main cities are situated, my Canadian geography was pretty poor. We had been looking for a better map with more road detail on it. Eventually after much searching and comparing, I realised our one was fine. It was not that there wasn’t enough detail on it, just that there are not many roads in the upper two thirds of the country. Those big empty spaces were.... big empty spaces.
Initially we were going to cruise up to Alaska, but plans change. Then everyone we met said “Oh, you should drive, it’s a great route”. “Well, why not?” we thought, it should be interesting.
Once we decided that was to be our route, the few days of grey and drizzly weather in Vancouver dampened our enthusiasm, apathy set in. We
didn’t fancy spending weeks in horrible weather, and we knew that Alaskan weather was unpredictable, but we were committed, so pressed on. We set off, towards the town of Hope, in hope the weather would improve. We stopped at the tourist information centre and chatted to the man. He assured us that once we were through the canyon the weather would change. He got a map out, drew a sun on it and said head there, so we did. Sure enough as we hit the hand drawn sun area on his map the sun shone.
Whilst there we learnt that Hope was the place where much of Rambo was filmed. We soon found that every town we passed through along the way, no matter how small had some claim to fame.
The beautiful, remote road follows the route the Pioneers hacked out of the terrain. We trundled on passing through areas named 100 mile house, 108 mile ranch, and 150 mile house and so on. It made for really easy map reading. We took in the beautiful scenery of rivers, lakes, trees and more trees. In fact, trees as far as the eye could
see in all directions. We stopped overnight in riverside provincial parks and by beautiful lakes, one so beautiful we lingered a few days. Next was a short detour to visit the town of Barkerville, an isolated, preserved gold mining town and the reasons this road was created in the first place.
In its heyday this remote, and almost impossible to access town was said to be the largest city west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. In its peak days it had a population of approximately 5000. It is named after an Englishman from Cambridgeshire named Billy Barker, who in the late 1850s following the end of the Californian gold rush, decided to head north to try his luck.
In 1862, he decided to prospect in a place named Stouts Gulch. People said he was crazy for doing this, he wouldn’t find anything there. But he was not so crazy after all. He kept digging and 52 exhausting feet later hit pay dirt, pulling out about 60 ounces of gold. That was the good news; the bad news was, it happened just as winter was setting in.
Miners couldn’t leave
a claim unoccupied for more than 48 hrs as it then became “vacant” again. He was several gruelling days travel away from an area where he could register it, so just had to sit it out through the freezing winter months to protect the find. It was well worth it, Barker's claim turned out to be the richest in the area, producing about 37,500 oz of gold. He literally had hit a gold mine. As often happens though, his life turned into the old riches to rags story and in 1894 he died in Australia, penniless.
Not everyone who made a fortune here had to dig for gold. All supplies had to be transported in, either by man, man & mule, or occasionally man and camel. Not a success, because apparently the mules would run off when they saw a camel. It took weeks to months to bring in the goods, so the prices of items were astronomical. An egg could be as much as $83 (In today’s money), wellington boots cost at least $167, and Flour was $363. And, as it was no good looking for gold without a shovel, they retailed for a mere $1007.
Store keepers made their own fortunes, all without lifting a shovel.
As difficult as it was for the pioneer Americans to make this trip, people also came from all over the world. Barkerville had a large Chinese population who were an important part of the community. The Chinese lived a cultured life in a harsh pioneer environment and were very community focused. They built cabins for workers to share, a Tai Ping (the "Peace Room"), the equivalent of a modern nursing home, offered Chinese benevolent associations to provide social services , and also resolved disputes without the use of BC courts.
In September 1868, disaster struck. Barkerville was destroyed by a fire that spread quickly through the wooden buildings. It could not have happened at a worse time, winter was coming. There was discussion about abandoning the town but the community decided to rebuild. They took the opportunity to implement town planning. The new town had wide streets, space between the houses and stores, fire towers were placed every so many yards, the buildings were raised off the ground to survive the floods & snow and boardwalks were added. The building began immediately, and
within six weeks, ninety buildings had been completed. This is the town you visit today and it was a great place to visit.
We met Mr Billy Barker himself, who gave an excellent talk about the origins of gold.(précis version - it all comes from space) He was so good that for a short while I felt I knew enough to take a degree on geology and mineralogy.
We also enjoyed tours of the Pioneers and China town narrated by a citizen giving us a glimpse into their personal daily life there.
We took part in a trial, we were on the jury, and it was a re-inactment of a real life case. It was great fun; unfortunately our deliberations resulted in the hanging of the accused! (Oh well, it was the same result as in real life)
Having really enjoyed Barkerville we set off again, destination Dawson Creek, mile 0 of the Alcan (Alaskan Canadian) highway. We drove past trees, trees & lakes, more trees, more lakes and more trees, lakes and rivers. (I feel that’s a pretty fair description of BC) We passed through tiny “cities,
more a village or hamlet to us, all proclaiming their claim to fame. There was the world’s largest gold pan, the longest skies, the world’s largest tree crusher or, weird one this, the world’s largest wheelchair! Proudly displayed outside the visitors centre was a huge wheelchair about 20 feet high. I never did find out why. And then there was the longest town. This one really confused us as even though we were looking out for it we still didn’t notice when we had driven though it. I later discovered it consisted of about 12 dwellings over about 10 mile. However small though, many of these communities offered really good information centres and museums. When you walk in they appear delighted to see you. So, I was looking forward to passing through the town of Champagne, population 25. Now, if you lived somewhere with a population of 25, that leaves only 24 other people to talk to unless you spend a lot of time talking to yourself, so wouldn’t you like the odd traveller to pass through? Well no, a bypass had been built!
Another day passed and we were still in BC I decided to look
up to see just how big it is
It is 364,764 sq miles. That meant nothing to me until I compared it to Britain. It is approx 3.9 times as large as the UK. We kept on driving.
We continued on our way looking out for wildlife as we went. We were lucky enough to see Buffalo, Black Bears and the elusive Moose. We stopped overnight to soak in Liard Hot Springs (wonderful). Just as we were leaving the campsite, we saw a Bear at the aide of the road, so we pulled over. (Even more wonderful.) He came over to investigate our bus, & walked down the side sniffing, but as he reached the rear, he became a bit uncertain, turned, & disappeared into the trees. I don’t think he liked the exhaust.
The day arrived when we eventually entered the Yukon. We were quite excited. I think the most common fact people associate with the Yukon is that it was the location of the Klondike Gold Rush. Well, that’s all I knew. Again we looked at the map, how big is the Yukon? Not as big as BC but....
It has a land area of 183,287.57 sq miles with a population of 0.2 persons per sq mile. Again for comparison Britain has a land mass of 94,060 sq miles with a population of 660 persons per sq mile. We had no phone signal, no Wi-Fi, no Radio signal.
Alaska was still a long off. We kept on driving.
Eventually we arrived at a town named Dawson Creek. It is mile 0 of the Alcan (Alaskan) Highway.
Dawson Creek was a sleepy little BC town minding its own business until one day in 1942, change was thrust upon it. Thousands of troops, engineers and equipment suddenly descended to set up camp prior to risking their life, limbs and sanity to build the Alcan (Alaskan Canadian) highway.
Today, tourists descend upon it to risk their life and limbs, leaping across the road to have their picture taken at the Mile 0 sign post.
Here we visited the Alcan museum to learn something about the history of the road we were about to drive. Later when we drove along this road we might not have thought much
about it but now we could visualise the hardships and immense effort it took to build.
So, in the land of long, long roads what is so special about the Alaska Highway?
Well, commencing at Dawson Creek “Mile 0” and ending at Delta Junction “Mile 1422” It was the first Trans Canada /Alaskan route.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941 and the Japanese invasion of the remote Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska in June 1943, the US Government became fearful that mainland Alaska could be used as a route to invade the lower 48 states. It was decided a road was needed to enable them to get equipment and troops swiftly to the area.
Now, I don’t know about you but I think I have noted a flaw in this plan....? If there wasn’t a road for you to get to Alaska then there wasn’t a road for the Japanese to get to you? So who thought it a good idea and said, I know, let’s build a road over the most inhospitable terrain which until now had only been travelled by native Indians, plough
through virgin forest, deal with permafrost, snow, swamps, muskeg, rivers, mud, mosquitoes & mountains through the coldest of winters to make it easier for everyone to get around.
President Roosevelt did.
He devised the plan, got the government to pass it, authorised the construction and arranged the Army to build and manage it. Excellent, all set, have we forgotten anything? Well........ Yes they had. They hadn’t obtained a right of way from the Canadian government to build this highway right through their country. Oops. Canada was somewhat suspicious of this plan, but did agree, with the proviso that the US would pay for the construction, and then, post war hand the road over to them. In return Canada would waive all taxes, immigration regulations and supply the construction material along the route. That one was easy, as they used mainly trees..... and they had lots of them!
It took 11,000 American troops, 7engineering regiments and 16,000 civilians to build the road, using 7000 pieces of equipment, most of which is either buried in the mud, abandoned by the roadway or in small museums along the way.
notice for civilian crews read as follows. “Men hired for this job will be required to work and live under the most extreme conditions imaginable,’. ‘Temperatures will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice and cold. Mosquitoes, flies and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm. If you are not prepared to work under these and similar conditions, do not apply.’
The Army went where the Army is sent, but civilians, they had a choice. It’s hard to believe but thousands signed up for this job, just as they would today!!
Dealing with previously unknown terrain & hideous conditions and often lacking equipment (especially the coloured regiments!) They completed the road in 8 months. It was a herculean effort
Until then the area had only been travelled by natives and a few trappers. Their way of life was about to be changed forever. One comment we read said, ‘We were taking goods into the north by horse and dog sleighs the way our fathers and grandfathers had done when we met
. . . a great fleet of trucks as far as the eye could see . . . . Time went ahead more in a few minutes than it had in a whole lifetime. Like the snap of your fingers, we changed from the old to the new.
It was not only the road that changed things, unfortunately many natives died from the introduction of, to us, common diseases and their communities and numbers never recovered.
The scenery along the highway is beautiful. You travel for hours and don’t see another vehicle. We stopped along the way to gaze at glacial lakes, mountains, old bridges, rivers and more.
We continued along the Alcan Highway until we arrived in Whitehorse, mile 910, “Land of the midnight sun” capitol of the Yukon and the only City within a thousand mile radius.
When in these places I often wonder what it would be like to live there. Whitehorse is a nice arty funky place. The scenery is beautiful, there are walking / cycling/ skiing roads around the river, the weather was great (whilst we were there), nearby there were great Hot
Springs. Well, I thought, this could be nice. Then you see that little sign that gives it away. In this case on the leaflet of the wildlife tour it said “the management reserve the right to cancel the tour if the temperature is under – 40 “. Really, just who wants to do a tour at -40? Alongside that information was an advert for the “International Hair Freezing Competition”. Look it up, it’s fantastic, but that’s Whitehorse off my “nice place to live list”.
After enjoying a few days of City life, visit the Hot Springs, enjoy a latte at the most remote coffee shop we have ever seen and, on a pleasant sunny day, take that wildlife walk. We set of again, Next stop........ ALASKA. .
Somewhere along the way we emerged from the communication black hole and checked the news. We were saddened to see that huge parts of the areas we had just driven through were now being destroyed by fire. Places we had stayed were no longer. We called Jane & Rainer, they were OK but the town was filled with smoke and displaced people. It was to be summer
Cargo in SS klondike hold
Now, that's worth waiting for.
of huge fires.
Eventually the Alaskan border came into sight. We were in a queue of two vehicles, it was another easy crossing. Whilst waiting we watched with great interest as a ginger coloured , snazzy collared cat wandered back and forth across the Border area. Is this the feline equivalent of a sniffer dog we wondered, perhaps he only checks for fish?? Now, wouldn’t that be like taking coals to Newcastle. (An old English saying for our N. American friends). The cat, detecting nothing amiss, wandered off. This time the passports were not even stamped. We are very confused about this border lottery.
So, after many days we had arrived, but what did we know about Alaska?
Well, it is big. Correct, it is, at seven times the size of G. Britain. It is remote, also correct. We had driven 2.500 mostly empty miles to get there. We thought of snow and wildlife, mosquitoes, and mountains, and that everyone who has been, says it is beautiful. Oh their vehicle number plates say..... Alaska “The last frontier”.
What we didn’t know was it has 333million acres of public
lands, more than half the parkland, the tallest mountains, most glaciers and the longest coastline in the USA. Only 4% of the land is populated. There are spectacular mountains, remote valleys, forest, pristine rivers, huge glacier lakes, alpine tundra, beautiful wild flowers, volcanoes and glaciers. You can bike, hike, canoe, kayak, raft, camp, fish, rock climb, horse ride, ATV, ski & snowmobile (depending on the time of year)
View bear, caribou, moose, whales, elk, wolves, sea otters (new favourite) puffins, porpoise, salmon, and eagles, to name a few of the native creatures.
All of the above is enjoyed by a population of 742,000 living in 663.300sq miles of beautiful space. That equals 1.3 persons per sq mile. We were looking forward to the experience.
We headed toward Delta Junction, Mile 1422, and the “official end” to the Alcan Highway, and stopped to take that other “must have” photo.
We had bought the essential travellers guide book called “The Milepost “in which it describes in great detail every route you can take. Despite this we still found it hard to get a handle on what / where/ how long
Signpost Forest at Watson Lake
Started in 1942 by a homesick GI, It now has over 100,000 signs
and exactly where our route would take us. There are not many roads through Alaska and many destinations are reached by ferry, boat or plane. Also, people you chat to along the way give conflicting advice. The only way to know is to go and experience it yourself
Each route here is named. There is the Seward Highway, the Richardson Highway, and the Denali Highway etc and then there is the Taylor highway. This starts in the Yukon and takes you into Alaska along the “Top of the world highway”. People like to drive this loop; it is very beautiful and very remote (Remote, It’s not exactly been all that crowded so far) but, I think they also like to drive it because you pass through the town of Chicken, population 23, businesses 3. I think most of their business is selling T-shirts stating “I’ve been to Chicken”. Everyone that passes through seems to have one. How could you resist ....?
Well, we could. Decision day re route dawned; it was horrible, misty & wet. Should we take the turning? The road is meant to be challenging, Alaska is beautiful where ever you go
and currently the Rig was undamaged. We considered it for a brief moment and decided we didn’t need the T shirt, we could get our own. It would read “We chickened out of Chicken”
When we reached Tok we met a couple who had taken that alternative turning. They said it had been terrible, with no visibility. He had to hang out the window to see the side of the sheer drop road edge, whist his wife peered ahead into the mist to see the way forward. Feeling justified in our choice we continues our route towards Fairbanks.
We were now in the world of long-light-22-hour-days. In fact it doesn’t really get dark at all at this time of year. I was not sure how I would cope with that, being a not late night person, but it was great. You don’t ever feel like it is bedtime because it’s not dark, not even remotely dim.
You have a busy day, have supper, look outside, note it is bright and sunny, go for a walk, and then realise its 11 pm. At midnight I sat reading my book in natural light.
It’s really odd to look at the weather report and think oh good more sunshine later today, then realise that it is between 18.00 to 00.00. The sun then sets oh so slowly and oh so briefly some time past midnight. It makes for a lot of time to do things.
Alaska is more about the journey than the arrival. The scenery, space, wildlife & sense of isolation are wonderful and if the small towns at the end of the road are nice then that’s a bonus.
We had been told that Alaska has four seasons, June, July, August and winter, so this was peak tourist season. We wondered if it would be full of RVers and campers, making it difficult to find places to stay. We were very happy to discover the most scenic places to camp were free. A real bonus, as the private “serviced” parks were not either a) free or b) scenic. I suppose it you only have approx a 12 week snow free season you are not going to spend loads of time and effort on the park. Think gravel car park and you will get the picture.
Rig being attacked by praying mantis
Chetwynd is famous for it chainsaw carvings. They are situated all over the town.
We passed through Wasilla where the couple who owned the RV Park we stayed at in Eureka Springs, Arkansas used to live, next door to Sarah Palin. We did look to see if we could see Russia from our window.......... guess what. You can’t. There’s the small matter of a huge mountain range and many miles in the way.
Our next stop was to restock in Fairbanks, it was pretty ordinary. We thought it time for another wallow so took a side trip to Chena Hot Springs. We arrived at the RV Park to find ourselves looking at a large Airliner parked on the end of a runway. Odd, we thought, it must be just for show. I went to book in, then just as I left I happened to ask “Is the runway still in use” Oh yes, she replied, all the time. Time to move and find our space!
We parked up and looked around, there was a lot going on here. It was an environmental community, they made their own power, used hydroponic methods to grow wonderful vegetables, kept hens, goats, donkeys and Caribou, and utilised the natural hot
springs. They also had an Ice Sculpture gallery, hotel and bar. We relaxed in the Hot Springs and then went to experience the Ice Bar. We really enjoyed both these events, but on reflection the Ice bar, then the Hot Springs might have been the better order. Wet hair and ice bar = the ultimate brain freeze, perhaps the hair freezing event had inspired me. However the Appletinni was warming.
Cities out of the way, it was time to visit the national parks. Alaska has the four largest parks in America. Denali, at approx 9500 sq mile checks in at 4th
(that’s about the size of New Hampshire & bigger than Yorkshire).
The park is famous as the home of Mount Denali, formerly known as McKinley. Standing at 20.202 ft and still growing it is a great attraction, and challenge to climbers from all over the world. We just wanted to look at it and hopefully see some wildlife. In summer the mountain is usually covered in cloud. They say that only 30%!o(MISSING)f people who visit during these months see the mountain on a clear day
If it is a
clear day, you can see Denali from many miles away. As we approached we were delighted to see the mountain standing out against a backdrop of vivid blue sky with a few fluffy clouds drifting around it. We hoped it would continue like this for the tour we had booked the next day. Most of the park is remote wilderness, but it has one road you can travel by park bus. Most tourists (including us) take the bus tour to look for wildlife, take some trails, and enjoy the views.
It was not to be. The day dawned....well technically speaking... I should probably say the day started, as it had not actually been dark. It was grey & wet and didn’t really lift all day. It was still a good trip but not what we had hoped for. The next day was bright and sunny so we took a walk and were rewarded by clear views and the best thing of the day, the sight of a beaver dragging a huge tree down the hillside & then across the lake to build a dam at his lodge.
Other than the road trip, what did
we want to experience from Alaska? Well, the glaciers, animals, Bears, boat trips and fishing. All this and more was on offer from the Kenai Peninsula.
When we left Florida Donna said they would love to meet us in Alaska, and to let them know when we were heading that way. So once we got to Canada we thought we would contact them. But we left it too late, by the time we decided to give them a call, after not having a phone signal for days. When we emerged from another lengthy technological black hole, a text popped through, “where are you?” Asked Donna, “can we meet you?” “Already In Alaska” we replied...... could be tricky to make this happen. However a bit of back & forth texting and we had a plan.
The Kenai Peninsula is 9,000 square miles of natural beauty. It is the bit jutting off southern Alaska. It’s defined by its glaciers, snow-capped mountains and wild coastline. Its small towns include Homer, a major fishing destination and a place to see Bears, Seward, gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park & Valdez, the place to take a trip to see
the Columbia Glacier. These were all things we wanted to do and had the added bonus that the road linking them is a scenic trip of a lifetime. This was a great place to meet up with friends. We arranged to pick up Jim and Donna in Seward.
Seward was a lovely little town. Because there were going to be four of us, we decided we would book a park, and the Municipal Park was the only choice if we wanted to be in town. When we arrived we couldn’t believe our eyes. How weird we thought, to have a Municipal Park right on the water with wonderful views of mountains and the harbour, where you could watch cruising boats, fishermen, and my new favourite creatures, sea otters bobbing around, and all for a few $$ fee. Later we discovered it was because, following an earthquake, the area had lost metres of shore frontage and was now a no build zone, due to Tsunami risk. Sad for the people but good for us.
We took a boat trip with Jim and Donna through Resurrection Bay to the Kenai Fiord National Park, to view the
wildlife and Harding Ice Field. The Harding ice field is 300 sq miles and receives up to 60 feet of snowfall a year. It contains many glaciers, and our destination was to the face of the tidewater Glacier. This was our first close up experience with a calving glacier and it was spectacular. We watched for wildlife along the way, it was a beautiful sunny day.
Next stop was Homer where we planned to go Halibut fishing and see some Bears.
Now, as most people know, I am not that fond of flying, and you wouldn’t normally use the words pleasure, flight, & Moira in one sentence. However the calling to see the Bears was greater than the “I don’t like flying” situation. We booked to fly to Katmai to watch the Grizzlies pottering around, catching fish, and doing Bear-like things.
We arrived at the airport and were shown to our plane. We noticed it had one seat sat out on the runway. It also had a propeller each end of the body. Really, I thought, isn’t the propeller usually on the front or wings, and even more questionable, isn’t the
seat usually inside the plane??
The pilot allocated our seats, Donna & I were asked to squeeze into the back, (we reckoned because we were more dispensable), backpacks were piled on top of us, then the others oozed in, Graeme being left to put the front seat in then sit in it. The flight took us over Kamishak bay. We could see the volcanoes, mountain range and coast. It was fantastic, suddenly I had forgotten my dislike and mistrust of flight and decided that I would like to fly all over Alaska. In fact for one delusional moment I thought I might even like to learn to fly! We watched as the coastline appeared and just as I was wondering where the landing strip might be, we swiftly descended and bumped along the beach. I briefly wondered about take off, but decided to put that thought on hold. First there were the Bears to see, and anyway, if anything happened at least I would die happy.
We had our usual “Bear safety tips” lecture. It gets more confusing each time. If a Bear ever came towards us, by the time we had completed the
tick list of identifiers, we would be Bear lunch. So, to recap, if a Black Bear comes towards you, don’t run, speak nicely to him, tell him you don’t want to hurt him, and slowly back away, but.... a big BUT.... if a Black Bear charges, he isn’t faking, so you fight back.
If it is a Brown Bear or Grizzly... stand firm. If he charges, it is usually just a warning!! If he doesn’t. stop, lie down & play dead. He will probably lose interest.....Oh! if he doesn’t, & starts eating you ......THEN FIGHT BACK!
To complicate things, Black Bears can be brown, golden, or black. Brown Bears / Grizzly can be black, golden or brown. Size and shape are good identifiers. But Inland Brown Bears, AKA Grizzlies are smaller than coastal Brown Bears...... and so on. So, quite a lot to consider should you be surprised by a Bear whilst out walking! Oh! & another point to bear in mind....Bears can run at up to 30mph & are very adept at climbing trees!!!!
Our guide said don’t worry, it’s unlikely to be a problem. After all we were only
going to walk through a tidal meadow, where many Grizzlies could be pottering around. What could possibly go wrong?
We set off. It was so exciting to see away in the distance, our first Bear. Cameras started clicking like mad. Suddenly there was another Bear, and another, each a little nearer, until eventually there were approximately 14 bears surrounding us including a mum with new born cubs & another one with her year old offspring. We watched in delight, it was magical. We almost got Bear blasé. Oh leave that picture, it’s just another adult Grizzly.
We sat on a log eating our sandwiches keeping an eye on the Bears, whilst they kept an eye on each other. Because there is so much food here they are less territorial and tolerate each other. And because they feel safe they are not interested in humans, after all salmon is much tastier. It was a wonderful few hours and the only thing was, we hadn’t seen them fishing.
Reluctantly we had to leave. We walked back along the beach towards the plane, and I had just got in when I noticed Graeme pointing
behind me. It was bear slowly strolling past the plane towards the ocean. Suddenly with more purpose, he sped up then broke into a loping run. Pinpointing a spot in the sea he headed straight into the water and with no hesitation, plunged his head in and came back with a salmon in his mouth. A perfect end to the day. Actually the flight was pretty good as well.
Time to get back on the road; we headed around the peninsular to Valdez. The direct route is about 230 miles but the only road route is 520. It can take a few, or many days to do this journey as there is so much to see. We trundle along stopping wherever something caught our eye. A view, a glacier, an information site, waterfall, river, eagle ...........The trouble with these routes is that you could stop every ten minutes to see something. It could take forever to do.
We had been watching the weather for Valdez. It had been wet, very wet, but the weather on the journey was perfect. We viewed glittering rivers, glacial mountains standing out against blue sky, empty roads, stunning vistas
It has improved a bit. (Photo from the Alcan museum).
and, when we arrived it was the hottest day they had had this year. It was also their festival weekend. We were set for another great experience.
You may never have heard of Valdez but it is (in)famous for several reasons.
It was the area the Pioneers landed when following the route to the Alaska gold rush. It turned out to be one of the greatest hoaxes in gold rush history. But before they found that out they had built a town at the foot of the glacier. But for the shipping and transportation industries, it might have just disappeared like many of the other pioneer boomtowns. Instead it flourished. That is until 1969 when it got wiped out by point 2
On Good Friday, 1964 it suffered the second largest earthquake ever recorded measuring 9.5 on the Richter scale, resulting in a tsunami that devastated the old town. The new town was built four miles up the road, where it remains today.
On Good Friday, 1989 the Exxon Valdez oil spill created a terrible environmental nightmare. To this day they are still dealing with the consequences
It is a good base to access the Columbia Glacier, which we were going to see.
It was once known as the Switzerland of the USA. But now it could be known as the town that doesn’t really want tourists
The gold rush came and went, the fishing fluctuates. The tourist stopped coming when the cruise ships changed ports but Oil........ Well, it came to stay. We were talking to a shop owner, his store was packed full with hundreds of expensive and interesting items, and it was almost like a museum. Whist chatting I asked him if, when the cruises stopped coming it had made a financial impact on the towns businesses. “No” he said, “we didn’t mind, because it had been far too busy here”. “Oh, Ok but what about the tourist taking boat trips, didn’t that hurt the fishermen’s livelihood?”. “No” he replied, “the locals had to wait to go fishing, so it’s better without them.” “So, you don’t miss the tourist income then?” “No, not really”, he replied. “The oil pipeline finishes here and then they ship it out. Valdez
generates an income from every barrel that leaves the terminal. It is rich, very rich. In fact we have several hundred million in the bank and don’t know what to do with it.” Wandering around the rather shabby (not in a Chic sort of way) looking town, we could have made a few suggestions. Having a decent bar would be a good start.
It may have been hard to find a bar in the town and even harder to find a restaurant, but not hard to spot a bunny. You suddenly notice a rabbit on the road side. It looks like an escaped pet. Then you notice another, and another, & you realise they are everywhere. All different colours, all look like pet bunnies. This situation is dividing the town. Some people want them gone, others don’t mind. It is considered either a pet bunny boom, or feral pests, depending on your point of view.
In the local paper it reported that, the Police officers can’t do anything about them as they have not received any 911 bunny related calls. In fact the only complaints they have received are from rabbit lovers complaining that
people were illegally killing rabbits. The very tame bunnies that once populated the Post Office in Valdez have disappeared. A postal employee reported that people with large fishing nets had been seen in the area.
So the feral rabbits of Valdez are now the subject of a city report, that people hope will satisfy both bunny huggers, and those that would like to see the population dissipated in a stew
Always interesting these small town politics.
We visited the Valdez museum. It was a bit of a schizophrenic display. On one side were all the displays, films and information about the Exxon Valdez disaster, and the impact it had on the environment. On the other side was all the info about the benefits of the oil industry. I guess that’s a work life balance?
I remember watching the Exxon Valdez disaster and its environmental impact with horror. I never thought one day I would be sailing past the exact area it happened.
As in most disasters it takes more than one thing to cause it. The tanker was carrying 53 million gallons of oil. The
Captain was having a post drink snooze and left the third mate at the helm. Perhaps the ship would never have collided with Bligh Reef had he looked at his collision avoidance radar. Or perhaps it would have, because even if he had looked, the radar was not turned on. In fact, the tanker's radar had been left broken and disabled for more than a year before the disaster, and the Exxon management knew it.
To make matters worse, at that time tankers only had a single layer hull. Put those two facts together and you had the makings of a disaster of a (then) unprecedented scale.
11 million gallons of oil spilled into the sound, contaminating 1,300 miles of shoreline. It was estimated that the spill killed “250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.”
Though it is the one of most famous oil spills in history, the Exxon Valdez disaster is not even close to the largest, ranking in at about 35th.
In 2010 the Deepwater Horizon spilled 2100 million
gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.
The initial clean up took four summers and cost approximately $2billion, Exxon pledged to thoroughly clean up the entire spill.
But there remain thousands of gallons of oil in Prince William Sound. It will take decades or centuries to disappear entirely
The punishment?....... well .......
Exxon were fined .........They reached a civil settlement with the U.S. government and the state of Alaska, in which it agreed to pay $900 million in payments, a $25 million criminal fine and $100 million in restitution over years.
Did they accept their responsibility in this? Well what do you think? They appealed and appealed again, and again, to get the amount reduced. They also tried to sue the State of Alaska and the coast guards, blaming them for the accident.
The Valdez was renamed and banned from ever entering these waters again. Not a problem, the damage was done
We took a cruise on a beautifully restored boat “the Lou Lou Bell “to view the Columbia glacier .This was a smaller more personal tour then the one in
Seward. Their advert information said it would take 6, 7 or 8 hours depending on the wildlife and ice conditions. This boat gets as near to the face of the glacier as you possibly can, and Captain Fred won’t bring you home until you had seen everything you possibly can.
It was a grey foggy day but in an odd way that was OK. Glaciers look bluer on grey days and it was a contrast to everything else we had seen. In the swirling mists we passed by the oil terminal, the “Most dangerous catch” ships, parked up for the summer, stopped to watch the small fishing boats heaving in vast amount of salmon, saw sea otters, porpoise, and whales.
Captain Fred has been taking this cruise since 1979 and knows a lot about this region. He talked continuously for about 7 of the 8 hours, delivering endless anecdotes and information. That’s a lot of information, but one useless fact I learnt is that Orcas, Killer Whales – are actually dolphins, and a victim of poor translation. Basque sailors noted that the Orca would attack Whales, so named them Ballena Assasina which translates to
“whale killer” but when translated by English speaking people it became Killer Whale. They have been misunderstood ever since.
Sailing through the wonderful glacial waters that were teaming with wildlife, watching the porpoises playing alongside the boat and the Sea Otters munching on their crab lunch, Orcas putting in an appearance here and there, salmon leaping, it makes you shudder to think of that thick oil slick.
Eventually we arrived at the face of the Columbia glacier. It is the fastest moving and most rapidly changing glacier in the world. Over the last three decades it has retreated 12 miles and lost about half of its total thickness. But the face is still 200 – 400 feet tall and the body covers 400 square miles. Currently it calves 13 million tonnes a day. Again Alaska was good to us. The rain stopped, the clouds parted, in this strange grey / blue and white world we watched and listened to the calving of the Glacier. It was a totally different experience to our trip in Seward.
These few weeks were possibly one of the most unique experiences we have had. We could
have lingered longer. There were so many other things to do. But that short summer season was coming to an end. It was snowing in Denali, & rain was forecast for the Kenai Peninsula. It was to time to leave. We had to retrace our steps, re enter the Yukon and then take the road to Haines USA ( a three day journey) to catch the ferry southbound through the inside passage.
Haines is another little isolated town, which until 1946 was only accessible by sea or trail. Again the journey was spectacular, one long empty road with stunning scenery. We drove through the Wrangell – ST Elias National Park which consists of 13.2 million acres, making it the largest of all the USA national parks. We stopped overnight in rest areas with wonderful views. Here we met a couple from Quebec, and got chatting. Originally he was an IT techie but now was a clown and she was a dancer. They travelled around filming her performing ethnic dances in beautiful locations. They showed us some film footage, it was stunning. It is always interesting finding out what takes people on the road. .
At Haines we stayed in a campsite overlooking the sea. That night when I stepped outside the Rig, something struck me as a little odd, it took me a minute to realise what it was. It was dark, properly dark, with stars twinkling in the clear night sky. I realised it was the first time for weeks that it was actually “night”. Somehow I felt cheated.
The evening before we left, over a crab supper, someone at the campsite asked us if we had seen the Bears up the road. “No” we replied, “where?” We were told if we went up to the Salmon Weir the Bears just hang out there catching the fish. This we had to see. Our ferry was not until the evening, so on the way we decided to check it out.
The weir is where they can calculate the number of Salmon returning to spawn. It’s a low tech system. A Park Ranger sits by a gap in the weir, and literally counts the fish going through. From these numbers they calculate the amount of fish the fishermen can catch. Naturally not all the Salmon make it home, but
here a bigger percentage don’t because the Bears use it as their easy catch sushi bar. They just wait at the weir and scoop them up, very resourceful and a sight not to be missed. Even better though was watching a young bear trying to break into the fish-counting Ranger’s truck.
Alaska was everything we had hoped for and more, we understood now why people can’t really explain it, (I certainly can’t) you just have to go and see for yourself. Happy with our last Bear sightings, and taking wonderful memories with us, we set off to catch our Ferry.
Unfortunately, wonderful memories were not all we took. We had a stowaway. An Alaskan mouse had sneaked on board......... that is mouse not moose, a moose would have been easier to catch.
You know this is not going to end well for one of us don’t you .................. next blog.
We really enjoyed the natural beauty of Alaska but there is the history of its indigenous people as well. The name "Alaska" derives from the Aleut
, meaning "mainland" (literally, "the object toward which the action of
the sea is directed)
There are 22 indigenous tribes in this land, each with their own language, traditions and skills, all had adapted perfectly to living in this harsh terrain. There are Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Aleut and Athabaskan to name a few. Along the way we visited their museums and education centres. I find their understanding and respect for the land and the animals they use to support their way of life, inspiring. Their art work is distinctive and striking.
At the time of contact with Russian explorers in the mid-18th century, Alaska was occupied by approximately 80,000 indigenous people. They suffered badly under Russian rule. The most devastating effects were from disease. During the first two generations of contact, 80 percent of the Aleut population died from Eurasian diseases.
In 1867 Russia sold Alaska to America for the sum of $7.2 million. For the next three decades the United States paid little attention to Alaska, until 1896 when major gold deposits were discovered in the Yukon and Alaska became the gateway to the Klondike gold fields.
This impact on the natives was substantial and irreparable, disrupting or
destroying their perfectly balanced way of life.
Things have improved a bit. Now the tribes have reclaimed control & ownership of some land. They have merged into modern life, whilst retaining or renewing their traditional ways. But now global warming is having huge impact on them.
Driving away from Alaska we took time to reflect on this part of our journey. Alaska is a land of overwhelming scale and contrast and a land of extremes. You don’t just get to see one huge glacier, there are many. You can walk, fly or sail to see them up close. There are mountain views at every turn in the long empty roads. Bears are abundant, Eagles are as common as sparrows, marine and land wildlife abounds everywhere. Daylight is all or nothing. You see so many extraordinary sights you almost get blasé. Only later, when reflecting on our time there, did we realise how unique an experience it is.
We thought due to the distance and timescales we would probably never go back to Alaska. But only a short time after returning to the busier areas, we were already pining for its remote
wilderness. Maybe one day we will return after all.
PS. Yes, I know there are rather a lot of pictures, but I just couldn’t choose x
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