Along the highways (no byways here) to Anchorage

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June 23rd 2017
Published: June 23rd 2017
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Denali 11 June to Anchorage 23 June 2017

I was so keen to post the last blog (knowing we would only have wifi that night and not again until we reached Valdez) that I think I should have explained a little more about Denali National Park & Preserve. As you might guess from the name it prohibits hunting and any contact between humans and animals. So there is no feeding of animals or any attempt to interfere with the balance of life in the area. There is a scientific research centre which monitors and studies the flora and fauna but in theory does not intervene. The Park was established under a different name in 1917 so has it's centenary celebration this year. We could have had some birthday cake but we went walking when it was being distributed!

I explained about the shuttle buses and the Park Road but did not explain the timescales involved. Although the road is only 90 miles long, to do the whole journey to Kantishna and back from the visitors Centre is a full 12 hour round trip. This slow pace is dictated by the speed limit of 35 miles maximum per hour, the
Santa lives in North Pole, a village near Fairbanks.Santa lives in North Pole, a village near Fairbanks.Santa lives in North Pole, a village near Fairbanks.

They changed the name of the village and created an industry. Letters to Santa all go there.
precarious road which in places requires speeds between 15 miles and zero, the hold ups when buses need to pass on narrow stretches and the unpredictable amount of time viewing wildlife. We were very lucky with our wildlife spotting for two reasons, the weather was good, and we travelled one day to Eielson Centre at mile 66, (8 hour return trip) and the second day over the same ground but then further on all the way to Kantishna, so 18 hours in total on the road. This gave us the best chance of seeing wildlife.

We had had to plan our food shopping carefully before entering the park to make sure we had enough to eat and drink for 5 days and the right kind of foods to be able to take picnics on the bus each day as there is nowhere to buy food in the park.

We left Denali reluctantly on the 11th but our sadness was counterbalanced by our desire to have a real shower and wash hair. We had been 5 nights without amenities as conserving propane meant that we washed rather than showered. Without electricity we had to conserve energy to be able to last out our days in the Park without draining the battery. We could use our generator but that consumes petrol which we also needed to eke out, so hygiene was not up to our usual standards.

The day we left and travelled up to Fairbanks it rained all day long and the cloud was very low so we saw nothing. We knew there were mountains up there but they were buried in the mist. As our time elsewhere had been blessed with good weather we could not complain. In Fairbanks we checked in to a fully serviced site with main drains, mains fresh water and electricity all connected directly to our van but as it was late and still pouring down outside I am ashamed to admit we postponed the showers until the next morning. However, come 6.30am the next day we burst into action and by 11am we had both showered, washed hair, washed and dried clothes in the superb camp laundry, cleaned the van, fully charged our devices, done a big food shop to replenish stocks, filled up with fuel and even propane and were on the Richardson Highway heading south on the first leg of the journey to Valdez. We were so proud of ourselves! Oh, I nearly forgot that we had also stopped to see Sandhill Cranes at a field in the town before leaving but they were a distance away and the weather was still murky so I could not get a good photograph, but at least we saw them.

The journey south from Fairbanks was uneventful so we covered some 200 miles quickly. The cloud base lifted a little so we could see more of the mountains. We reached the junction of the Richardson Highway and the Denali Highway (yes, that returns the shorter way to Denali rather than going up to Fairbanks. but as most of it is unsurfaced we are not allowed to use it). We checked and saw that the first 21 miles is surfaced and there is an amazing look out rest point at 7 miles so decided we would risk it that far. We reached the lookout which was awe-inspiring as we were on top of a ridge looking out across a vast valley to another range of mountains. I prepared a meal, we ate it and as we sat we could feel the temperature falling. It was so high and exposed we realised that if we stayed it was going to be an uncomfortably cold night. So we switched on the engine and drove back down into the valley. A good view is great but after our busy day we needed to sleep somewhere above freezing.

The next day we continued through Glenallen, (looks big on the map but hardly anything there apart from fuel), stopping at the Wrangell & St Elias National Park and Preserve Visitor Centre , which had some pleasant walks, fascinating information about the traditional people of the area and showed a video about the Park. The photography in the video is wonderful and the statisics given were mindblowing. The Park is larger than Switzerland and has 9 of the 15 highest mountains in North America. As we drove on the scenery became more and more overwhelming as we crossed a couple of high passes through the mountains and finally reached Valdez.

At various points on the road down from Fairbanks we caught glimpses of the Trans Alaska Oil Pipeline which carries oil 850 miles south from the Arctic coast town of Prudhoe Bay, across three mountain ranges and numerous rivers to Valdez where the oil is piped straight into tanker ships or storage tanks. They started building it in 1974 and pumped the first oil through in 1977. When I first read about it I thought it boring - a pipeline is a pipeline. Having read more and seen exactly where it runs I can now appreciate that it is a great engineering achievement. The climate and terrain create horrific challenges, as most of the land is permafrost that it crosses. This meant that it had to be raised above the ground as the oil flow warms the pipe, that would have thawed the permafrost and the pipeline would sink into it. They also had to create a design that would be earthquake proof!

Interestingly, in the autumn each year all Alaskan residents (I am not sure if there are rules about who qualifies and if so what they are) receive a payment, their income from the pipeline profits. It can be enough to pay student fees, enable people to go travelling somewhere warmer for the winter, or just pay the everyday bills. In some communities it causes problems as some recipients start drinking alcohol when they receive the check and keep going until there is nothing left.

Valdez was more unspoilt than expected. In the Lonely Planet it is described as a non touristy, industrial town. It may be in terms of how income is generated (oil and fishing mainly) but it is very pleasant, overlooked by even more mountains and the oil depot does not spoil the outlook. There is also a salmon hatchery which sends out many millions of salmon to the sea each year, then they return a couple of years later to spawn where they were 'born', thus creating a huge income for the town. When the salmon return the bears come along the seafront to catch them. Unfortunately we are a few weeks to soon to see that. These bears are black bears, not the brown grizzly, and they are much bigger because they obtain so much protein from the fish. What surprised me is that when salmon return and spawn they die, and then their rotting bodies fertilise the water and surrounding ground. The number of fish is so great the process is critical in helping support the vegetation and the wildlife.

From Valdez we travelled back up the Richardson Highway as far as Glenallen again, then turned west onto the Glenn Highway. We enjoyed the scenery on the Richardson but the Glenn was even more breathtaking.. I can only describe it by saying that in most beautiful parts of the world you drive to a lookout through perhaps average or good scenery, then at the lookout there is an 'Ohhh' moment, before you return through less interesting parts. In Alaska the 'Ohhh' moment never ends as mountain range after mountain range unfolds before you, the snowy peaks jutt out above numerous glaciers slowly scraping their way down the mountains, creating the characteristic wide U shape valley, and allowing the run off melt water to 'braid' it's way down to the sea or into lakes. This 'braiding', the water running down in many small streams and fanning out across the wide valley floors, separating and rejoining, winding together in the way that hair plaits are made, can be seen everywhere. The lower slopes are covered by forests pixilated with bright and dark green colours reflecting the variety of trees, black spruce, white spruce, birch, aspen and willow bushes. Black spruce is the hardiest and grows on the higher slopes but where the permafrost is near the surface the trees cannot send roots through it so they have to absorb surface water which limits their growth. Then they are stunted and spindly and even fall over. I would love to see the autumn colours here because many of the trees are deciduous. Photographs really can't convey the scale of the landscape.

At the end of the Glenn Highway we turned towards Anchorage and drove through to the coast along the Turnagain Arm. From here you look across to the northern coast of the Kenai peninsular where we toured almost two weeks ago. We saw a couple of black bears high up on the mountainside above Bird Point on the Turnagain Arm.

One day we stopped at Potter Marsh reserve to check the boardwalk for birds. As we started walking from the car park a guy passed us and said that there was a Bald eagle nest at the end of the path. As we walked we could hear non stop shooting as there is a practise range next door to the reserve which seems like a strange neighbour for a wildlife area . Anyway , we carried on to the end of the path and saw the eagle, then a few minutes later the same guy turned up and told us a few things about the area. Then somehow he started talking politics. He is a fanatical Trump supporter. We tried to stay impartial (and calm) but he was so extreme it was difficult. A woman was hovering a few feet away as if she wanted to join in so I asked her what she thought and she said that she only wanted to say that not everybody felt as he did. She hovered a little longer then moved away. Our conversation was going nowhere as this guy was so extreme, "the best thing that has ever happened to the US" was how he described the Trump presidency! Thankfully at that moment the eagles returned to the nest so we managed to get on to an easier subject. By this stage we had realised that he actually knew nothing about birds despite saying he came every day. We think he was in fact visiting the range.

On returning to the car park we spotted the woman again and she came across. She said she had gone to find her husband to 'rescue' us as she was not good in discussions so was afraid to say anything but did not want us to think the other guy was representative of Americans in general. Her husband came and joined us and we had a lovely conversation. He has just retired from teaching and they explained how horrified they are about what is happening in Washington. Michael explained that he hoped the checks and balances in their system would come into play to moderate Trump but they were both very fearful. Relatively passive democrats normally they said they have already decided that they have to take an active role now and start preparing for the next Presidential campaign. Interestingly they said they firmly believe that the impetus which put Trump in power is racism, and that it is growing as Trump's actions are legitimising extremism and creating a culture of increasing fear and threat. So it was good to hear their views but worrying that there seem to be parallels with what is happening in the UK. If politicians don't challenge and denounce the use of threatening and intimidating behaviour what use is democracy?

Before we returned the van we revisited Potter Marsh again and were excited to see King salmon heading up the stream and I had a brief view of a beaver! However there was also some shocking news. At the weekend there was a race up one of the mountains, an annual event, and a sixteen year old boy took part. He was spotted by a black bear which then went after him. The advice given is not to run away from bears as they then perceive you as prey. It seems that is what happened. The boy phoned his family as he was being chased, unable to escape. What a horrifying situation for all of them. Police found his body later with the bear guarding it, so they shot the bear but it escaped. The following day a couple of hundred miles away two men who were working out in the bush were also attacked by a black bear. One man was killed and the other injured. Before these events it was a long time since anyone had been killed by a bear.Usually if you mak a noise and they hear you they move away.

After returning the van to the rental company we settled in to a hotel in Anchorage situated between the airport and the downtown area. The 'PeopleMover' bus made it easy for us to travel around the town and after resting for a day we had a museum day, visiting the Anchorage Museum in the morning and then taking the special shuttle bus to the Alaska Native Heritage Centre. The A.M. was worth visiting but many of the exhibits were similar to what we had seen previously, however the A. Native Heritage Center was wonderful, a very different kind of experience. It has been established by a consortium of the various Native groups representing all of Alaska. They are working to restore and preserve their cultural heritage, not an easy task as the government for many years banned the use of Native languages as well as any tribal activities or rituals. so some languages have disappeared completely, others have very few, mainly elderly speakers so the Centre is desperately gathering as much data as possible while it is accessible.

Everyone in the centre is totally committed to their task and there are three strands to their strategy. During the summer they open the centre to visitors to explain the different cultures and help people understand their traditional ways of life. This generates an income which helps their other activities. In the winter they provide schooling to young Native people (in addition to the standard 'American' education) as a way of helping them develop knowledge and understanding of their own cultures as well as instilling a huge sense of pride. It was the sense of pride and joy in the skills their ancestors used to survive in such a harsh environment and respect for their predecessors that made the visit so enjoyable.

Within the centre there is a stage where the role of dancing is explained and demonstrated. We have seen dancing in many countries but this is the first time we have seen dances where the dancers don't move! Well, they do move but on the spot. The living space was so limited, often in shared houses built into the ground for protection from the weather and wild animals, that their movements were very retricted. They stand in one place and move arms and head, waving 'fans' made of fur and feathers. Each dance tells a story and the different fan movements convey meanings. All their history, myths and traditional practices were shared and taught in this way. It is a slow form of communication but there was a lot of time in the long dark winters. It kept the dancers warm and entertained others. Their only musical instrument is the drum and they use the phrase 'moving to the drum' to mean living their life through their traditional values. In the summer everyone is too busy hunting, gathering and preparing food for winter storage to dance.

The young men demonstrated what they called their 'games' but using the word as one would talk about the Olympics as the games. In fact they participate in the Native Peoples Olympics which I had never heard of. You have probably noticed my use of 'Native'. That is the preferred label the groups wish to use as well as their individual group name such as Aleut, Tsimshim, Tlingit, Inupiat, Chupak and many others. I was curious about the label Eskimo because I believed it was not acceptable. One of the speakers explained that Eskimo means eater of raw meat. The groups in the north of Alaska eat raw meat as there are no trees in their region, and driftwood is too valuable to burn. Honestly, even in that harshest of climates in the very north inside the Arctic Circle they do not use fires to keep warm, they just use body heat and furs in a small living space. Unbelievable! Of course groups in the south and east where there are huge forests have different life styles.

But back to the games. This is amazing. Again limited space dictated the 'games' they could practise in the winter. The most popular ones they demonstrated for us were the single and double leg kick. It requires the player to balance themselves on one hand on the floor under their body and then with what looked like a superhuman effort they leap from that position (still only one hand supporting their whole body) and kick upwards with either one or both feet to kick a seal skin ball hanging from a frame above their heads. If they are successful, the ball is then raised higher. The world record for men is 9ft 9inches, and for women about six and a half feet. They say height is irrelevant and certainly watching some of the young men who are serious athletes and go to regular meetings and Olympics, that seemed true. It is truly amazing to watch!

Our last full day in Anchorage we hired bikes to ride the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. The path is surfaced all the way and it is a beautiful ride but I have to admit that the steep incline became too much for me (in my defence I have to say my gears were dodgy ) so we did not reach the end before turning back. We did manage to spot another beaver in the ponds and enjoyed the views and exercise.

A few final comments on our van. The freedom it provided was wonderful, despite the cold , short nights!. We loved the very basic but scenic National Parks and the opportunity to free camp although we are still not sure if it is entirely legal. I spoke in an earlier blog about how prospectors, or stampeders as they are called here, rarely made any money from the gold mining partly because the people providing services to them, like food supplies, accommodation etc, really fleeced them. They were the people who ended up making their fortunes out of the stampeders. Well I have to say the skill of fleecing is still very evident but now it is tourists who are the victims! We needed to spend a night on commercial campsites after a few nights without electricity and I can only say they were awful. Not only do they charge 2 1/2 to 3 times as much as the Caravan Club at home, the facilities are dire. Showers and toilet facilities look as if they have not been updated since the 40s, but worst of all they make no effort to make the sites attractive. It is like being on a second hand car lot with vehicles parked jammed up against one another. I could have shaken hands with neighbours to the sides and rear if we had all opened windows. They feel like slums and close proximity like that is very dangerous as if one vehicle catches fire all of them would go up in seconds with so much propane gas in use. We sometimes mock the Caravan Club for having rigid rules - I swear I will never do that again! Their sites are truly wonderful in comparison to what is available here. Thankfully we managed to get by only staying on them 4 nights (with 10 nights in Parks or free camping) but that was more than enough and would put me off coming back to use an RV here again.

Tomorrow we fly to Juneau for our last stop in Alaska. I hope you catch up with us again there.

Additional photos below
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Ice worms live in glaciers, like a 12 mm long thread.Ice worms live in glaciers, like a 12 mm long thread.
Ice worms live in glaciers, like a 12 mm long thread.

Scientists don't understand how they survive but one town has the Ice Worm Festival each February when people dress up like the worms. Well it is a long dark winter here!

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