Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: Reluctantly we packed up our camp and headed back down the McCarthy Road. We have the feeling that we've turned the corner and are heading for home - today we're driving to Tok, then back down the Alcan to Whitehorse and points south. We stopped for pictures and just to look all along the brink of the Copper River. When we got back down to Chitina we decided to stop and mail some postcards and buy some beer. It was pretty early (9:30 a.m.) and we had the definite feeling that the residents of Chitina are not on a real strict clock. When we stopped in front of the store several locals were milling around out front. We asked if the store was open, and the guy said "Well, no, but we could be - what do you want" - we said "Beer" and - bingo - the store is open. I picked up a copy of the 1993 subsistence hunting guide in the store (along with the beer and some ice). It was pretty interesting reading - how many of each kind of available critter you can "bag" depending on your area of residence. As romantic as moving to Alaska sounds, I'm not sure I could trap or shoot a muskrat, skin it and eat it. I'm a super-market kind of girl. I guess if I move up here I should probably live in Anchorage - not in Chitina! We meandered back down the Edgerton Highway to the junction with the Richardson, stopped to eat at Gulkana (again), then made our way to the Tok Cutoff. We waved as we drove by the Gakona Road House... warm memories of that place, for sure! The Tok Cutoff is a diagonal road between the Richardson and the Alcan connecting Glennallen with Tok. The road goes right through the Alaska Range, and the scenery is absolutely fantastic. This is the kind of scenery that sells the tours. One of the things we purchased to take to Alaska was a series of old radio shows - "Mystery Theater" - "Bob & Ray" and "Duffy's Tavern". We had been enjoying these at various intervals on our long driving days. As I was scanning the map for the next stop, I found a road house called Duffy's Tavern! Well, we decided we had to stop there! As it turns out, this place was in the middle of a very long (25+ miles) construction zone, and we were ready for some relief from the long string of cars that had built up behind the escort vehicle! Normally in the construction zones on these roads, you're sort of on your own - the flagperson tells you to watch out and how long the construction zone is going to be, then you just sort of wind your way between the enormous earth-moving vehicles. This stretch of road must be more traveled or something because there was an actual caravan system happening. We had a forgettable lunch at Duffy's Tavern and decided that we shouldn't base our expectations on a name! On we went through the Alaska Range - following beautiful rivers and catching occasional glimpses of glaciated peaks and valleys through the clouds. If it weren't for the construction, this would have been a perfect piece of road. It almost was ANYWAY! We rolled in to Tok in the early afternoon. We were real low on clean clothes and we hadn't had a shower for a few days, so we picked a cool little old RV park that had all the facilities in the woods outside of Tok. We spent a couple of hours taking care of house-keeping chores and setting up camp before we headed in to town. We did a little souvenir shopping, had dinner at the Golden Bear, and headed back to camp. By this time it was raining cats & dogs. We turned in early and let the rain lull us to sleep.
Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: It was still raining a little when we were packing up. We did a quick job and headed in to town for breakfast at a local pancake place - right on the Alcan between a big motel and a very large commercial RV park. These places on the main drag are really big and organized - not like the cozy little spots we found off the beaten track. We filled up with gas and hit the trail. This is the part of the Alcan we missed by heading north at Whitehorse and heading for Dawson City. We looped north on the way up, connecting back with the Alcan at Tok. Now we're seeing new country. The Alcan between Tok and the border was VERY under construction. There were places where the detour route went through very slippery mud and places where we weren't sure where we were supposed to go. The sections of the road that weren't torn up were extremely winding and narrow. This was a particularly slow section of the road. After a couple of hours of driving we reached the Canadian (Yukon Territory) border. A native woman border patrolman ransacked the car in front of us - the guy had to take every single thing out of his truck - he had camping gear and all sorts of traveling paraphernalia spread out all over the border station. We were watching all this thinking how neatly we had just packed everything IN to the car, wondering if we were next. She either didn't like his looks, or she only ransacks every other car, because she asked us where we were from, how long we had been gone, where we were going, and waved us through! The Yukon Territory is beautiful. This section of highway goes down the back side of the Wrangell St. Elias Mountains, only over here it is called Kluane National Park. Mount Logan, the highest mountain in Canada is in this range. Alas, the visibility/ceiling was quite low and we were unable to see the peaks. The lower flanks of the mountains were absolutely beautiful. The road wound through green and flowering valleys with lakes and streams everywhere. Toward mid-late afternoon we reached Kluane Lake - an enormous lake of a very unusual glacial color. Even in the stormy weather we could see the turquoise quality of the water. We stopped at Destruction Bay for a look around and a couple of beers. There is a very modern bar and restaurant here, run by very young and efficient people. We enjoyed kicking back for a little while before proceeding on our way. This region is quite historic - the Canadians and Americans had a big opening ceremony along the shores of the lake when the Alaska-Canada Highway was first finished in 1942. The weather was starting to clear as we rounded the southern end of Kluane Lake. The river that flows out of the lake goes into the most wild, gorgeous canyon I have ever seen. The memory of the sun shafts stabbing through the clouds, lighting up portions of the landscape is a moment in time that I will carry with me always. The region into which this river flows on its way to the ocean is rugged land that is totally inaccessible to vehicles - feet or nothing!!! As we wound down out of the mountains into the valley, Haines Junction spread out before our feet. This is where the Alaska Highway and the Haines Road come together. It was late in the day, and we decided a motel sounded like the thing to do. We checked in to a nice little place with a gorgeous view of the towering cliffs that surround the town. Haines Junction and surrounding peaks look like the town in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" - a tiny little town, made to look even smaller by the towering mountains closely surrounding it. We went exploring after we took our luggage into the motel. The population of Haines Junction is 536 (according to MILEPOST). The business district stretches out along the highways. The road to Haines was a great temptation - but we had decided that we would approach coastal panhandle Alaska at Skagway - tomorrow! We picked out a cool looking little restaurant and had dinner. We struck up a conversation with some local youths, talking about the local economy, employment opportunities, the outrageous price of Canadian cigarettes, and how they smuggle American cigarettes up from Hyder - the only Canadian American road border crossing without a customs agent. They say it is well worth the two day drive to go down to Hyder and buy cigarettes because they can more than double their investment, cover their trip expenses, and still sell the cigs to the locals for less than the market price of the Canadian cigarettes. (1997 note: I read in Alaska Magazine that this little loophole has been plugged - there is now a customs agent at the Hyder/Stewart border... so much for people's liberation free enterprise!) We drove around after supper - went to a soft ice cream drive in and ate ice cream, even though it was freezing cold - ice cream tastes pretty good after you haven't had it for a long time, even if it is probably only in the 40s! We returned to our rented digs at the Cozy Corner motel, and settled in for the night.
Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: Left Haines Junction around 9 a.m. (after having been adopted by a cat who just strolled into our motel room as we were packing up to leave...). Our destination for today was Skagway Alaska - one of the very few (3) cities in the Alaskan panhandle to which you can drive a car, the other two being Haines & Hyder. It's about 140 miles from Haines Junction to Whitehorse on the Alaska Highway, then about 135 miles from Whitehorse to Skagway on the Klondike Highway. My mom and dad promised to send us a letter to general delivery in Whitehorse, so this was our first stop. It was an easy drive - about three hours on actual pavement with no construction (!). The landscape is beautiful, remote wilderness with only one "town" on this entire stretch of road. In Whitehorse we eventually located the post office to which general delivery items are sent, retrieved the letter, and went in to the Westmark Hotel for breakfast (actually, it was about noon, but we did eat breakfast!). We were anxious to get to Skagway, and headed out with very little ceremony. About 15 miles east of Whitehorse, the Klondike highway takes off to the south. It passes through rugged mountains, past enormous lakes, and through the wonderful scenic little town of Carcross. The road starts out in the Yukon Territory, goes through a little cross-section of British Columbia, then through the customs station into Alaska. We stopped at Emerald Lake (also known as Rainbow lake) to take pictures. The water is a deep greenish blue color, and very clear - the bottom of the lake is visible in many places and is very apparent because it is white, decomposed shells. We decided to catch Carcross on the flip side - too many tour buses here today - and continued up into the mountains to White Pass. This is very historic country - the White Pass & Yukon rail road's original trackage ran all the way from Skagway to Whitehorse. These days, it is only maintained as a tourist rail road from Skagway up to the top of the pass. White Pass is only 3290 feet, but it seems almost alpine. Because of the northern latitude, timber-line is very low, and these coastal mountains are extremely craggy. Even this late in the year, there is still snow on the ground on the northern slopes of the mountains. We stopped at the summit and took a few pictures of the general landscape, the summit lake and the rail road tracks. Down, down, down we dropped into the valley. The customs border crossing is about 15 miles outside of town. This was the most laid back of all the border crossings. Skagway is a great little town built on the alluvial fan of the Skagway River sandwiched in between towering cliffs on three sides, and the Lynn Canal - a long, beautiful fjord of the Pacific Ocean. It is about 4 blocks wide and about 23 blocks long with a very western / frontier feeling about it. Skagway is a deep water port which is visited 3-4 days a week by enormous (5000+ passenger) cruise ships and serves as the northern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway Southeast system. This day, no ships - the tourists in residence had all driven there or arrived previously by ferry. We drove around looking for a place to camp - and found a great little campground right next to the Whitepass & Yukon Rail Road tracks - The Back Track Camper Park. We figured this would give us a great view of the tourist trains heading for the pass (we were right!) Because we had a tent, we were able once again to take advantage of camping at the fringes in the trees. We pitched our tent in a little circle of aspen trees on a soft grassy surface. We were close to the showers, and the tracks - gee - could life get any better than this? After the camp-pitching was complete, we headed for town. We immediately fell in love with this town! We parked the car and wandered up and down the streets - in and out of the little shops and bars. It was obvious to us that the infrastructure here is built for a lot more people than were in town today! We went down to the water front and looked around at the rail road station, ferry dock, the public docks and the cruise ship docks. We had read in the MILEPOST about the existence of a water taxi between Skagway and Haines. Remember this morning we were in Haines Junction? The "junction" there is the Haines Road and the Alaska Highway. These two towns, Skagway and Haines, are only 13 miles apart, but to DRIVE from one to the other, one must travel 359 miles! The water taxi was pretty cheap - only $29 per person, round trip. We decided to go for it, and purchased tickets for tomorrow. We treated ourselves to pizza for dinner at the Northern Lights Pizza Parlor.
Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: We woke to dreary cold weather and decided that sour dough pancakes sounded like a good start for what promised to be a cold day. We found a pancake place that advertised that their sour-dough starter is over 100 years old. Hmmmmm... I don't know if that is good or bad! Today is one of the days the cruise ships come in. We were on hand when the influx of blue-haired humanity in polyester leisure suits hit the docks. The helicopters were waiting to sweep interested parties up to a fly-over of the near-by glaciers - the taxi's were waiting to drive the lazy a block to town - the train was simmering in the station ready to take the historically minded up the White Pass narrow gauge route. The majority, however, seemed to be headed straight for the curio shops waiving their VISA cards in the air - power shoppers! We were glad to be heading for Haines - Skagway is going to be a nut farm today! We located the water taxi berth on the public dock and boarded the boat. It seats about 25 people inside--and there is an upper deck for the brave who want to be in the elements. It was a very interesting ride - the captain pointed out various rock formations, water falls, and drove us up close to the seals sunning themselves on the rocks. As we traveled west, the storm began to break up. By the time we reached Haines, it was an absolutely beautiful day. The sun came out and the air was crystal clear. The surrounding snow-capped peaks provided a stunning background against the fjord. We had 2-3 hours to look around in Haines, and set out immediately to find something to eat! We had lunch at a nice little restaurant near the wharf then proceeded to walk around town and have a look. We had the opportunity to take a taxi/bus out to the movie set of "White Fang", a Disney production that had been filmed in this area a couple of years before. We decided that we would rather entertain ourselves, and proceeded to wander around town. We walked and walked - Haines is the site of an old military installation Fort William H. Seward. Many of the old buildings on the base have been turned into private homes, bed & breakfast hotels, restaurants and little shops. We continued our walk back toward the docks - all this exercise can't possibly be good for us - let's find a place to have a beer! We went back into the restaurant where we had lunched, and enjoyed a couple while we were waiting for our departure time. We finally had to stop ourselves from taking more pictures - everywhere we looked was another photo opportunity! The scenery is magnificent. (I feel like I'm running out of superlative adjectives!) Near Haines, in January, one can see large flocks of Bald Eagles roosting in the trees. Oh, to be in Haines in January. The average temperature is 17 degrees (in January) - which, compared to interior Alaska, is almost balmy. So far, everything we've seen makes us want to see more! On the return trip to Skagway we passed a couple of the big cruise ships coming out of Skagway - these are enormous floating cities, but are dwarfed by the landscape. The weather was still fairly nice and we spent most of the return trip topside with the wind in our hair - soaking up the scenery. Our return to Skagway was to a much calmer place than we had left in the morning due to the departure of a couple of the cruise ships. We got to watch the BIGGEST ship (Princess Cruise Lines) cast off and maneuver around in a tiny tight little space and get turned around heading back for the open waters. It was very interesting to watch them finesse that enormous liner in such tight quarters! We drove up to the other end of town and poked around in the White Pass & Yukon Rail Road yard, photographing all the rolling stock, looking into the engine houses, marveling at the ancient rotary snow plough and generally enjoying the RR yard ambience. Next, we drove over to the "air port" (air strip) and watched the planes taking off and landing. This is active, live entertainment! Alaska operates on planes - I think I read somewhere that there are more planes per capita in Alaska than anywhere else. This shouldn't be a real surprise considering how few roads there are, and how much area there is! This is the transportation form of choice. We spent the evening wandering around town - even though we're a couple of months past mid-summer, the days are still very long, and evening is a well lit experience.
Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: For the past couple of days we had noticed a lanky, blonde kid hanging around the campsite next door to ours. Dick (being a magnet to kids and dogs) struck up a friendship with Eli from Tacoma, Washington who was touring Alaska with his grandfather. We had the serious feeling that grandpa was drunk most of the time, and that Eli was touring Alaska anyway. He was about 15, and seemed to be enjoying himself, although he also seemed to enjoy having someone to talk to! He had been wearing a really ratty looking hat, and Dick decided to give him an "Alaska" hat he purchased yesterday in Haines. Eli was really excited about this gift! Many days ago we decided that once we got to Skagway we would go to an old time photographer and get our picture taken. We just had the feeling there would be one here - we have seen these establishments in most of the tourist towns we've been in (Virginia City, Jerome, Old Town Sacramento, etc.). Sure enough, we located one on the main drag of Skagway and dressed up. Dick was a Mountie - and I was some sort of velveteen hussy. We chose our backdrop and costumes and sat for the photo - they do the processing on site and have the picture ready in a couple of hours. This is foolish tourist sentimentality, but we loved it, and the picture is in an ornate wood frame in the living room to this day. We spent the rest of the day wandering around Skagway, doing a little grocery shopping, a little beer shopping (love that Alaska Ale!), and doing some major league souvenir shopping - most of the places we've been have not really been geared to this activity. We were nearing the end of the trip and Skagway is loaded with t-shirt emporiums (or is that emporia?)! We did a little laundry, and generally just relaxed before beginning the long trek home. While we know we will see much beautiful country between here and home, we have the definite feeling that the rest of the trip is the journey home. There seems to be some strange forward momentum that strikes the returning traveler! We followed our earlier routine and packed everything except the tent & sleeping gear into the car before turning in for the night.
Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: It rained hard in the night, but when we woke up, it was clear. The tent was sopping wet - I really hated packing it up wet!!! We broke camp, and drove out of town. We had really enjoyed Skagway, and hated to leave! We enjoyed the scenery going out of Skagway as much as we did coming in - it is absolutely spectacular! We stopped at Carcross and had a look around, but there were still too many tour buses. If there is one thing we can't deal with it is tour buses! We got out fast! We drove through beautiful scenery on the cut-off road to the Alaska Highway (sort of a "Y" arrangement - new territory!), and decided to stop for breakfast at a road house where this cut-off road joins the Alaska highway at Jake's Corner. Because it was mid-morning, there was no one else around (or so we thought). While we were eating, a disturbed young woman approached us demanding that we buy her breakfast. We politely declined and she proceeded to tell us what she thought of selfish rich people (us?) who wouldn't even buy her something to eat or a pack of cigarettes. The restaurant staff removed her from the premises, but we kept an eye on the car, just to make sure she didn't take her retribution out on it! No matter - we get to drive off into the gorgeous Yukon Territory - through the rolling hills and river valleys between here and Watson Lake. This is one of the very few instances where we are traveling the same road twice on this trip (there really isn't any choice!) - but we don't care at all because it is so beautiful! We retraced our steps back past Teslin, Nisutlin Lake, the Swift River, Rancheria, and the Upper Liard River. Even though the Stewart Cassiar Highway takes off south before Watson Lake, we decide to go back to visit our sign (it's still there!), gas up and camp over night in Watson Lake. The Stewart Cassiar is a very remote highway with very little in the way of tourist services along the way. Also, we haven't really experienced camping in this lovely region because we "motel-ed" it the first time through. All our camping gear was soaking wet from having packed up in the rain over night in Skagway. We hoped that the early stop (3 p.m.) and the sunny weather would enable us to dry everything out! We found a large grassy tent site in the Gateway to the Yukon RV Park in Watson Lake. We spread everything around on picknic tables, trees, clothes lines, etc. to dry, and just kicked back to relax. It is nice to see the sun and enjoy the wind in the trees. Toward evening we ventured back in to town to see about buying some beer (we always seem to be out - what can I say??!) We went back to the Watson Lake Hotel and learned that we could buy beer from the bar to take away with us - not something you can do in California! We're quite surprised by this given the very strict liquor distribution laws we've encountered in other parts of Canada. We're half-amused, half-awestruck by the electrical cord/plugs sticking out from under the hoods of all the local vehicles - amused because it looks so strange to us, and awestruck to consider living where your car won't start unless you plug in the block heater for a period of time before trying to fire it up! What an incredible existence these people lead! Back at the campsite, everything is dry, and we pitch the tent and pack up the car for an early start. If we can do it, we're going to try to make it to Hyder tomorrow over an only partially paved thoroughfare known as the Stewart Cassier Highway.
Noteworthy Stops & Scenery: This morning we got going early (for us) - with breakfast at the Watson Lake Chevron station (they have a restaurant - don't worry), then heading back down the Alcan to the junction with the Stewart Cassiar Highway. This road was completed in 1972. It is the route of commercial truckers headed north of the 60th parallel. It is several hours shorter than the alternative Alaska Highway route. Many many miles of its 456 mile length are gravel or dirt. The road runs down the "back side" (inland side) of the coastal mountains which are tall, steep and rugged. Over the mountains lies the Alaska panhandle, which is not accessible by road at all except at Skagway & Haines (at the north end) and Hyder at the south end. We were filled with the sense of adventure as we turn down highway 37. The weather was getting crappy again, but we could still see many lovely vistas as the road winds and rolls through the countryside. This is gold and jade mining country, very sparsely populated, filled with lakes and rivers and beautiful scenery. We noted with interest that the advertisements in MILEPOST for the various guest ranches, motor inns, and services along the Cassiar (particularly in the middle third) do not list telephone numbers, but Mobile Radio numbers... this is really the boonies! There are many places worthy of stopping and staying a week! About 150 miles south of Watson Lake we stopped for gas at Dease Lake. The more remote the road, the more interested we are in using the gasoline out of the top half (or third) of the tank! Along the route we see float planes taking off and landing on the road-side lakes. In a couple of places, the highway doubles as an air strip, with many warning signs that the air craft has the right of way -- it reminded us of the plane sequence in the movie North by Northwest (rent it). We did a little exploring off the road and found a beautiful picnic site next to a river. The clouds were hunkering down, hiding the mountains, giving the landscape a less grandiose, more intimate feeling. We wanted to stay forever, but we were being pulled south by our homing instinct. We reached Mezadine junction, and left the main highway to head to Stewart & Hyder. The MILEPOST makes reference to the "hanging glaciers" along this road. These glaciers are truly hanging - and an amazing sight to behold. They cling in the crevices of the rock - enormous robin's-egg-blue ice masses that never go away. They are only a couple hundred feet above the road - one could easily walk/climb up to them in very little time (with lots of effort!) - but I couldn't quite get past the feeling that it might fall on me at any minute (silly girl...). We stopped many times in a very few miles---it is only 41 miles from Mezadine Junction to Hyder, but this valley is full of wonders! About half way out we stopped at Bear Glacier - an enormous swath of ice that is the headwaters of the Bear River. We stood and watched as chunks of ice the size of Chevies dropped off the face of the glacier into the small lake that is formed at the base. The Bear River flows out of this lake - and makes its way to the ocean only about 20 miles away. Short river, but spectacularly beautiful. It flows through a narrow canyon (that also contains the road and a beautiful forest) from the glacier down to Stewart/Hyder at the head of the Portland Canal. Stewart is in British Columbia - has a population of about 1700. We learned that the town's electricity is completely provided by a central generator for which fuel has to be trucked or shipped in by the road or the canal. The Portland Canal is a long inlet of the Pacific Ocean - part of the inside passage fjord system. The "Misty Fjords National Park" is nearby. Past Stewart by about 2 miles lies the Alaska border and the town of Hyder. We were anxious to check this out. The town was pretty run-down (quaint?) with a population of 85. We were surprised to learn that this AMERICAN community uses CANADIAN currency - it makes one wonder if they shouldn't just re-draw the borders to include Hyder as part of Canada! The weather had been pretty awful all day, we had driven over 400 pretty demanding miles this day, and we were pooped. We decided to check in to the Sealaska Inn and have dinner and turn in early. Big mistake. We had a nice dinner and watched a couple of Alaska Videos on the big screen TV in the restaurant (which we enjoyed), but by the time we were heading for bed, the bar crowd showed up and there was no rest that night! It seemed like the entire population of Hyder (all 75 of them) decided to whoop it up in the bar.
On To Week 5 Travelogue
If you'd like to see other travelogues from Jim and his friends...