August 19, 2004

Trip begins

12/29/2010:  This was the first blog (using I wrote, but is not about the earliest trip I blogged.    It is written in both past and present  tenses.
To make this read in chronological sequence I had to attach external fake dates in caps to it, like "August 19, 2004" above.  Real narrative dates are like "August 11" below.
There are 2 chapters beyond the "Oregon to California" chapter in the list at right.

Links to some of my other trip blogs:

                                                     Dick Dreselly

MY DRIVING HISTORY (added April 2015):
In 1940 I bought my first car and got a Maine license.   Got international and Vietnam licenses later.
Drove own car in 49 states and all Canadian provinces and territories except Nunavut.  Rented car in 4 Hawaiian islands.
Drove in 31 countries including 3 Cold War Communist countries, 26 in my own car.   Countries where the car wasn't mine: Greenland (1950s), Vietnam & Finland (1967), Argentina & Chile (2004).
Drove twice Maine to Alaska, as described in this blog, and a 2004 drive.
Drove Canada's Dempster Highway (1996), Argentina's Ruta 40 (2004), and new Trans-Labrador road (2010).
Drove to furthest north (1996) and furthest south (2004) road points in the Americas.
Circumnavigated (2002) Gulf of Mexico, using brief Scotia Prince Tampa-Yucatan ferry.  Continued to Belize, Texas, Maine.    Drove several times and widely in Mexico and Canada, mostly from Maine.
Drove in big cities:  NYC, Paris & Berlin (1964), Danang (1967), Santiago (2004), Mexico City (several times).  Last was worst, made Boston drivers look like career driving instructors.  Also bad: 1964 London delivery of new USA-equipped Austin Healey Sprite (one of 4 I've bought): rush hour, roundabouts, left side driving.
Was concerned about safety from the beginning.   What, where and how I drove  were not always safe, but since 1958 I've had seat belts in my cars.  At first I had to install seat belts I got from airports.

This trip was much tamer than our 2003 circumnavigation of the Gulf of Mexico or our Journey to Ushuaia.   Unlike those trips, in this one the interstate highways and motels were familiar, corruption and poverty were not visible, and the people spoke English (except in California).    We finally left home on

August 10.    We enjoyed a pretty drive thru ME/NH/VT to a low-quality Quality Inn in Albany.

August 11.   We drove the NY Thruway and halfway across the Ontario "peninsula".
It was interesting to see the historic Erie Canal beside much of the NY Thruway

August 12.   We re-entered the USA in Michigan, continuing a fairly straight line from Maine to South Dakota. However, we found the new high speed ferry across Lake Michigan was sold out, so diverted northward to the eastern terminus of the slower old ferry Badger.

Friday the 13th.   Ferry to Wisconsin.   We shun-piked across most of that state, past many opulent multi-siloed farms like those in Pennsylvania Dutch country.  We stopped at the Oshkosh airport, where the world's biggest gathering of small private planes is held each year.  We crossed the beautiful Mississippi, surprisingly wide so near its source, into Minnesota, and ended the day at Albert Lea.

Each day the restaurants and motels we have found improved.   I was been unable to connect to the Internet until Wisconsin.   Our new Corolla continued to please us.   Travelling through this beautiful lush green prosperous part of the USA reminded me (Dick) again that, although it's sometimes hard to ignore the too-familiar warts of life like phone-voice-response-systems and our universal mortality and the IRS, still, considering how all the people before us lived and how all the people in most other countries of the world live now, we are in a very small group of the luckiest people who have ever existed.

August 17, 2004

Minnesota to South Dakota (SD)

August 14.  After leaving our motel in Albert Lea,  we drove 20 miles south to view about a hundred Dutch-built $850,000 wind driven generators in an Iowa cornfield.   Unlike in the eastern USA, most of the locals seem to like them.   We stop the car occasionally when something makes us curious, but after lunch we realized that our destination for the night was apparently much further away than sunset.   So we set cruise control to the local limit, 75 mph, and arrived at our Hill City motel in southwest South Dakota as the sun disappeared from the clear blue sky.

August 15.   The reason for the accommodation shortage had become clear.   All yesterday afternoon motorcycles, thousands of them, had streamed by us in the opposite direction.   We had never heard of the Sturgis (population 7,000) Motorcycle Rally, but discovered it is world famous, and this year  about 515,000 people attended.   click here for more on the Sturgis motorcycle rally    The bikes were mostly Harley.   On every little road and at every gas station the next 2 days, they were thick like mosquitoes.    The typical biker was male, about 50, out of shape, tattooed, courteous, friendly, had a beard or long locks, and travelled under the speed limit, on a rig costing a lot more than our car.    He and his lady wore grimy black leather, but their Harleys were polished daily to pristine showroom condition.   The outstretched Harley biker below is Flip Wilson in 1996,  a famous comedian who died in 1998.

The rally ended the next day, but most of the bikes were still there.

This day we visited the Crazy Horse Monument, a mountain-size statue in the making, of a prototypical Indian who died under a truce flag from a soldier's stab in the back.
Then we drove slowly through Custer State Park, where we saw hundreds of buffalo, as well as pronghorn antelopes, deer, scads of prairie dogs in colonies, and a few bighorn sheep.   The old-timers killed all the wildlife except the coyotes and prairie dogs.   Beaver, which brought the mountain men here, is not among the reintroduced species.   Burros stopped traffic, looking for handouts.

As some insist, should I have said "bison" not "buffalo" ?  Then we'd have Bison NY, Bison Bill, the bison nickel,  "Well, I'll be bisoned", Bison soldiers (the famous post-Civil-War Black Cavalry), and
"Bison gals won't you come out tonight, and dance by the light of the moon?".   Click on that, then click on "Listen to this song".

Monday August 16. We "did" Mount Rushmore, famously awesome, and learned a lot about the sculpture of the four presidential effigies.

We continued on a scenic tour which included the ghost town of Aladdin, Wyoming, population 15 and some ghosts, with a seedy dark very-general store/post office/bar seemingly right out of a movie.

Tuesday 8/17.   Marge, especially, was very tired, from doing the weekly laundry and having insufficient sleep.   So we took turns driving and sleeping just 3 hours to a Comfort Inn (again "free" with accumulated points) in Pierre, South Dakota.   Tomorrow Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (what a nice alliterative sound !).

Here are our impressions of South Dakota after 4 days.   Except for the pretty forested Black Hills, from Interstate 90 this state seems mostly rolling brown prairie, treeless except in gullies and around homes.   The tourist industry is counter-productive: rampant billboards touting countless "attractions", and too many casinos, not confined to Deadwood.   A sign proclaimed, "Car Wash and Casino".   Worth seeing: Missouri River, museums regarding Indians and the 1803-6 Lewis & Clark expedition, buffaloes, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse statue project.   Away from I-90, SD's great agricultural engine is impressive.   But South Dakota does not inspire a return visit.

August 16, 2004

SD to ND to Edmonton, Alberta

 August 18.  Pierre SD to Minot ND.

A good afternoon and night rest brought us back to normal.    Today we toured the State House in Pierre.   It is an architectural triumph, especially considering that it was built in 1910, when the West was primitive if no longer Wild.    The exterior is domed like the USA Capitol, but smaller.   The inside is spectacularly ornate, with floors of imported tile, Italian marble, and appropriate statuary. 

Here I am seated in the Senate President's chair
The basement walls were lined with photos of previous governors, whose names mostly indicated their Scandinavian origins.

Then we drove north to the capital and capitol of the other Dakota, the North one.    This capitol was built in 1930, so not surprisingly is 18 floors of art deco.   Here the basement walls were lined with photographs of famous North Dakotans, of whom I can remember only Angie Dickinson and Lawrence Welk and Theodore Roosevelt.   The legislative chambers were locked.

Outside, the flowered grounds were beautiful.   A statue of Sacajawea reminded us of how crucial that 16-year-old mother was to our country's history.

The weather, road, and our condition
were all excellent, so we continued to Minot for the night.

TECHNOLOGY:   This year, this trip, we've been coping with things that are complicated on the way to making life simpler... maybe.   Our first digital camera is a marvel, and finally seems to be OK after 3 trips back to the Kodak factory.   Our palm-size GPS has an amazing number of functions, and shows nearly all the roads we travelled in Latin America and are about to travel in the sub-Arctic, and will work even better after I reverse a few surprise enhancements installed by my grandson.   Our Corolla has amazing electronic refinements new to us, for safety and monitoring and entertainment, and we hope backwoods mechanics can make any necessary repairs.   This afternoon (August 19) we realized that we couldn't reach our reserved room in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, before darkness and exhaustion set in, and we wouldn't get to a phone booth before the 4 PM cancellation deadline, so we were surprised and pleased that we were able to cell phone to an 800 number and get our reservation changed to Regina.    I (Dick) am making slow progress in mastering the alleged simplicities of this Apple Powerbook 15" G4 laptop, and this evening received an email from Apple saying its battery could be dangerous, and to arrange to have it replaced right away.    Free, but under the circumstances not possible.

ECONOMICS:   We've read that the USA Great Plains are losing population, because young people don't like prairie life, and because farms are being consolidated into ever bigger ones.   Local farmers told us the same thing.    That's like Walmart and its technological efficiencies killing off smaller businesses.   Our 2 day drive from I-90 north to the Trans-Canada Highway have been on zigzag 2-lane roads, through small or tiny towns where shuttered businesses remind one of old Route 66.   Therefore it was a surprise to see the apparent greater prosperity on the Canadian side.    Big shiny new hi-tech grain silos, construction activity, long trains all indicate Canadians are having better luck with their share of the Great Plains.   The many oil rigs on their side of the border contributed to the difference. 

SCENERY:    All the above makes our trip over nearly flat country a lot more interesting than one might think.    Through North Dakota we drove for miles with yellow sunflowers on the left smiling at us and the rising sun, while on the right they all had their backs to us.

WEATHER: A strong northwest wind has blown for days, so steady that the wings of a landing cropduster did not wobble.   During our night in Regina the temperature went below freezing, damaging a lot of crops.   It is sobering to realize that this is mid-August, and we will be far to the north a month closer to winter.    Until an hour before Edmonton the weather was beautiful for us tourists, which means the long term drought in middle America continues.    Since that rain it has been overcast, cool, and damp.

We are in the Mayfield Hotel in Edmonton for 2 nights.   Either the city has grown a lot since we were here in 1996, or our brains have shrunk, or both.   However, the Edmonton (indoor) Mall, where we shopped and ate today used to be the world's largest, but is no longer.

August 21.   For the next 7 days we probably will be out of touch with phone or Internet.   Three days north to Yellowknife, capital of the province of Northwest Territories, 2 nights there, and two and a half days southwest to Fort Nelson, British Columbia, on the Alaska Highway.   Yellowknife to Fort Nelson is 600 miles, half of it on a gravel road opened in 1984.    Until then the Indian (Acho Dene) villages where we will stay were quite isolated, and even now many of the people use many of the old ways, like trapping, say our books. 

August 12, 2004

Edmonton to Yellowknife

We left Edmonton a day early, in the rain.   We'd serviced car and laundry, and it seemed better to spend a trip day in the far north rather than around a big city (population 700,000).     As we drove north habitation and infrastructure gradually gave way to a long flat 2-lane road through stunted forest, out of the rain.   We enjoyed our first-ever CD player, listening to a talk about the Alaska Highway, including the recorded voices of Robert Service and workers who built the road in 1942.   We are not on that Highway, but will connect to it near Fort Nelson in a week.   We had planned to drive the 940 road miles from Edmonton to Yellowknife in 3 days, but are doing it in 2.   Technology makes the remote seem not so.   Our near-new Super 8 Motel here at the half way point of High Level, Alberta, is our fanciest yet, with satellite TV, free high-speed Internet, friendly people, and an excellent Boston Pizza restaurant next door.    Our next 3 nights will be in Yellowknife.

August 23.  We drove 450 miles from High Level, Alberta to Yellowknife, capital of Northwest Territories (NWT).   We had left agriculture behind, so all vegetable products and most meats, except buffalo and fish, have to be imported.   Some wood buffalo have brucellosis and tuberculosis, so the government inspects every one killed for human consumption.   The trees, underlain by permafrost, were steadily shorter and more anorexic as we approached their northern limit, just beyond Yellowknife, which is where the vast Barrens begin.   Sometimes the road was completely straight for 10 miles, with no other cars in sight.   We chatted with the lonely lone man at the tourist information post at the Northwest Territories border, the 60th parallel of latitude.   Soon after, we crossed the Mackenzie on a free ferry.   The river, which drains Great Slave Lake and thousands of square miles around it, here flows at 18 knots as it is compressed to a narrow width.   It's the shortest crossing for the ferry, the bow of which is pointed about 45 degrees to its path.   From here the river flows more than 1000 miles northward until it empties into the Arctic Ocean near Inuvik.   Northern rivers, especially the two biggest, the MacKenzie and the Yukon, were vital paths before the airplane, and are still useful avenues.   Heavy equipment originating in Canada is trucked up to Great Slave Lake, then barged down the MacKenzie and along the Arctic coast to Prudhoe Bay and exploration sites.   North of the MacKenzie we passed many buffalo-beware signs, and a few small groups of grazing buffalo.   We began to see many inukshucks, which are aboriginal rock cairns used to mark trails, locate things, and assert "we are (Dene, etc.) and this is our land". Like this: 

**  MINING.   Only those products with a high value per pound are worth the high cost of extracting and shipping them south.   There's so much copper along the Coppermine River up north that the "Copper Eskimos" (that's Inuit: Eskimo is an offensive word to them) extracted and used it, but copper from Chile is far cheaper.   Yellowknife had three waves of prosperity in the last 2 centuries: beaver skins, gold, diamonds. The last gold mine closed last year, but diamonds had arrived just in time. Diamond deposits were discovered in 1991, the biggest claim rush in Canadian history ensued, and production/extraction began in 1998.    In Canadian dollars, production last year was 1.7 billion, quadruple that of 2002.   Since GE-made diamonds and cubic zirconia are just as pretty, Yellowknife's economy rests on vanity, imagination and hype.   Of course the DeBeers cartel has offices here.   Other minerals are mined, and they've recently found emeralds.
**  GOVERNMENT.   In 1999 this province split in two, with the greater area, including all the islands of the high Arctic, and peopled almost entirely by a few thousand "aboriginals", becoming the new province of Nunavut. The national and NWT governments still have to oversee 1.3 million square miles with 65,000 people. That's about 20 square miles per person. I remember that about 40 years ago when Canada's big neighbor- us- sent our first ice breaker and oil tanker across the Northwest Passage, Atlantic to Pacific, Canada was impelled to pay more attention to its far north.
MacKenzie is freezing in the fall, and the 3 weeks of breakup in the spring.   Then lettuce etc. comes in by air.   What's not imported: lake fish, the principal ingredients of CONCRETE (sand, gravel, water), and buffalo meat.   Gasoline is about $3 US per gallon here.   However, Canada has tremendous reserves of fossil fuels.   Work has begun on the 2000 (?) mile MacKenzie pipeline, from Inuvik (where we saw the many capped wells in 1996) on the Arctic shore to the existing grid in the south.   In northeast Alberta are the Athabaskan Tar Sands, more petroleum than in Arabia but up to now too expensive to extract.  (PS: By 2009 extracting petroleum from the tar sands was a huge business).     On two (I remember from the 1950's) Nunavut Arctic islands oil seeps from the ground, too remote to harvest yet.   East of Inuvik the whalers found smoke from smoldering coal seams, which still slowly burn.   Halfway betwixt Yellowknife and Inuvik is Norman Wells, where the Canol Project started producing oil in WWII just as it was no longer needed or worth the expense.   From revenues of its oil fields nearer the USA, Alberta has just paid off all its debt and is running a 9 billion dollar annual surplus.   But the earth's supply is finite: a recent National Geographic headlined, "The End of Cheap Oil".   Ethnicity: On Yellowknife's streets, it's about 40% Dene (Indian) and Inuit (Eskimo), 40% Caucasian, 10% Asian, and virtually no blacks.   The legislature has an aboriginal majority, as do the mine workers.    I wish we had time to write here about the many friendly helpful Canadians we have encountered.

August 11, 2004

Yellowknife to Fort Nelson

August 26.   Yellowknife was the northernmost point we will reach on this trip.   About 3 hours drive south after leaving there we bought what might have been the last gasoline available for 150 miles, viewed the old Catholic church at the village of New Providence,

cautiously photographed a buffalo bull so close we were ready to duck into an adjacent shed in case of belligerence, ferried across the MacKenzie one last time, and turned west on a long lonely dirt road, of excellent 60 mph quality.   On arrival at Fort Simpson for the night, we discovered why it had been easy to make a reservation at "The Only Full Service Hotel in Fort Simpson" (population 1237).   It was the only hotel, and the quality was not high.   The hotel restaurant and the Chinese restaurant had closed early.   The hotel's "Joe" suggested the adjacent grocery store might be open, but we convinced him to sell us soup and sandwiches.

August 27.   Ice coated the car, and we told the clerk our room had been only a little warmer than the car.   He said that last year new thermostats had been installed, backwards.   Of course the wires could have been reversed at 5 minutes per thermostat, and oral or posted notices could have been provided.   We adjusted the thermostat without result, and the clerk admitted the heat hadn't been turned on at all.   We had come there for a charter flight to Nahanni National Park, a World Heritage Site, legendary to kayakers and hikers, but quit the hotel and decided to leave town.  However, we checked at the airport, found there were luckily two flight seats available, and there was a superb B&B near town.   Our Cessna 206 on floats held the Quebec pilot and Dick in front, Margery and a young Mountie next behind, and his mother in back.

 We crossed a hundred miles of swampy scrub and suddenly were in surroundings of such beauty that neither I nor Google nor pictures can make much progress in conveying its magnitude.   Morning fog had vanished, leaving clouds around 5,000 feet and new snow on the jagged peaks above 4000 feet.   The Cessna approximately followed the many twists of the Nahanni River below, banking so close over ridges that we could see the mountain sheep below.   We came in low over Virginia Falls, which is twice as high as Niagara and spectacularly split by a buttress, and landed above the falls.
We walked about a mile on a boardwalk and difficult tundra where the boardwalk will soon be extended, to the top of a cliff directly above the falls, and a little beyond.   Wow !   On the way back to the plane Marge caught her foot on a root, and so injured her leg that it was difficult to walk.   I Dick am writing this, and say I have a very courageous partner.   Perhaps the fall was due to hurrying, because the weather was deteriorating. The pilot took off and flew in light rain at 3000 feet descending to 2000 feet, more closely following the river, with the canyon walls high on both sides, and often with an apparent closed white wall ahead. This resulted in a longer flight path than our approach, so when we landed back at Fort Simpson the 2 gas tank, one registering empty and the other below 1/4.   The pilot agreed that "Pas beaucoup d'essence ?" (not much gas).   We asked and were given a $100 (Canadian) rebate because the worsening weather had prevented a scheduled landing at an especially beautiful lodge location.   We have never seen a more beautiful place, and only regret that we couldn't travel it at 2 mph not 120 mph.   Our B&B was delightful, an architect's dream, with the confluence of the Liard and MacKenzie rivers outside our bedroom window.  (can't erase these sudden underscores put there by capricious Blogger).

Then we ferried back across the Liard, drove 38 paved miles, and 136 dirt miles. Recent rain kept the dust down, but made mud and filled potholes.   We went about 50 miles without seeing a car or any structure except occasional "emergency shelters", each with a door, wood stove, and bench.

We saw many buffalo, alone and in groups.   Once when they blocked the road we got some good pictures.

   We went 3 miles on a side road to Fort Liard, population 588 of mostly Dene.   We had almost switched to that place for our previous bedding and flight, and wanted to check the details.   The Nova Scotian proprietor of the general store said that the town's only restaurant had closed, so although he had simple rooms for $135, we would have to bring our own food.   At the airport we found the pilot charged almost as much as we had paid for the previous flight, and would provide a much shorter flight. There we saw our only bear so far, a black one.  So that will be our last visit to Fort Liard

We had made no reservation at Fort Nelson, since the peak of tourist season was past, and booked 2 nights at the nearly new Super 8, nearly the best motel we have ever used.   We were told that the town is mainly a support center for the mining and oil industries, that heavy truck traffic surges through late in the year when ice roads start to be usable, and AK Highway businesses that cater mostly to tourists are apt to shut down September 1.   And we were headed north.

Sunday August 29.   Marge washed laundry, and Dick washed much of the Northwest Territories from our car, turning it from brown back to silver.   We visited the local museum, a very informal display of artifacts worthy of a much larger town or city.   That's apparently the result of more enthusiastic support than money.   About 30 people were holding a supper, to which we were warmly invited.   So we ate, and met several very nice folks, with stories to tell.   We met the founder and chairman, who sported an old-timers long beard and had contributed several of the 20 cars from the '20's and '30's.

August 09, 2004

Fort Nelson to Anchorage

August 30.   The 307 miles from Fort Nelson, British Columbia, to Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, is perhaps the most beautiful section of the Alaska Highway.   The Highway keeps getting shorter as they minimize curves.   In those places the contrast between the present 60-mph road and the WWII Highway is night-and-day.   As when we drove to Alaska in 1996, about 5% or so of the road is under construction, to repair permafrost damage and to improve the few segments of the road that are unchanged since they first were paved.   We saw many Stone (a subset of Dall) sheep, caribou and buffalo, and of course photographed a few close up.

At Watson Lake we were the only guests at a bed and breakfast run by the man who pumped gas into our Cessna N3850V in 2000, and by his wife.   Gloom and Doom, the mechanics who told us how to fix the gasoline that dampened our headliner as we flew over vast wilderness, were still there.   The huge hangar, a logistics miracle built in 1941 when there was no Highway or other road, and quite flammable, may be fitted with sprinklers next year.

August 31.   In 1942 a GI posted a sign pointing to his home town, others followed, and now the Sign Post Forest of 50 thousand or so signs, steadily increasing, is famous.   Dick stood on the car roof and fastened with stainless lag bolts a red sign he had routed.   It's about 9 feet up, 6 poles from the tourist office.  "& 2004" should be "& Corolla 2004".
                                        Click here for more on the Sign Post Forest

Along the whole AK Highway there were new little ma-and-pa businesses in long woodsy stretches, each offering the rudimentary essentials: gasoline, food and bathrooms.   There were also many shuttered buildings which hadn't survived the competition.   However, the remaining oases and the paved road made this part of the drive less of an adventure than our trip to Yellowknife.    It would have been a nice day's drive to end at Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon, where 2/3 of the 29,000 people in this vast territory live, but Canada's Senior Olympic Games were beginning there, so we had to continue 100 miles to Haines Junction.   Our motel was mediocre but the nearby restaurant was "one of the best in Canada".

September 1.  Above the left shoulder of the AK Highway rose steep cliffs that were the edge of Kluane National Park, its endless convolutions and glaciers stark in the sunshine.   There had been ice on our car that morning, but by noon temperatures were in the 60's.   At the international border the plate of each approaching car is scanned and its credentials inspected by computer.   The customs officer leaned out his window, and asked, "Did you cross at Calais and get lost ?"   He was from "BANGr" and made our crossing swift and pleasant.   We stayed at the Westmark Inn in Tok, which caters mostly to tour groups, and would close for the winter a week later.   The reservation rate was lowered $30 by friendly persuasion at the desk.

September 2.   We headed north on the Taylor "Highway" to Chicken and Eagle.   The first 50 miles of that side road were through a black Hell, the remains of vast forest fires this summer.   Errant smoke clouds and scattered smoke plumes from places still burning underground had caused decreasing visibility since Whitehorse.   Some locals and travellers had told of being slowed to 10 mph, or being diverted hundreds of miles.

In 1996 Marge and I had driven the dirt road aptly named the Top of the World Highway, from Dawson in the Yukon Klondike to Alaska.   On the USA side the road is named the Taylor Highway. On it is Chicken, population 37, with no phones or indoor plumbing.   There we met Robin Hammond, postmaster, who persuasively explained that the post office is the heart of Chicken.   She told us that without enough stamp sales the post office would close, and sever communication year round, and eliminate supplies delivered by mail and ski plane when the road is closed by snow for months.   Similarly, Maine island communities die when schools close, although in Chicken the few students are home schooled, with spectacular success.   We could, she said, buy our stamps from her at no extra cost by using free USPS envelopes.   Since then we have bought our stamps from Robin in $50 increments, and so can you, by writing Postmaster, Chicken AK 99732.   Robin and her 2 teenage daughters are travelling in Egypt at the moment.   Her husband is a gold miner.   Back in Brunswick we had been trying to reduce decades of accumulations while we can still do so.   Neither the local libraries nor anyone else wanted our National Geographic magazines and maps, but Robin enthusiastically accepted our offer thereof, for the adjacent town library.   We brought and unloaded there about 150 of each: heavy !

Gold has been extracted by various methods in this area for more than a century.  One method is the dredge, which floats on a shallow pond which travels with it, as ore-bearing gravel is excavated in front of it,  processed, and deposited behind it.  A few deteriorating old dredges remain, like this one near Chicken.           Click here for more on gold dredges

The 75 miles from there to Eagle, which smoke had prevented us from visiting by Cessna in 2000, took 3 hours.   The narrow dirt road twisted and clung to cliffsides, and all around, near and far, were the brilliant yellow and orange of aspens and the red of high bush cranberries, all at the peak of color. That was interspersed with still-green birches, green conifers, black cliffs (signs warned "Beware Falling Rock"), and flashing streams far below

   Fires had been left behind.   There were many hunters seeking caribou, but later we learned the fall migration of the great herd had diverted to the northwest.   We arrived at the end of the road, Eagle, population 182, on the mighty Yukon River, at 8:15 PM.   The only restaurant had closed at 8:00, but the owner of the little motel and restaurant opened up to serve us the "daily special".   The motel floor sloped, the walls were rough boards, there were no door locks, or nails on which to hang the single towels, or sink stopper, or drawers, but perhaps to show the priorities of our society there was super satellite TV.   No credit cards, either, and no jail.

The next morning we were given a tour of the little town.   It is rich in history (Billy Mitchell, Amundsen, gold miners...) and has a splendid collection of buildings and artifacts.

The rain that started as we arrived the previous night continued, so much of the road back was slippery mud.   Nevertheless it was poignant to realize that as each beautiful view disappeared behind us, probably we would never see it again.   We stopped briefly at Chicken, and continued on pavement the remaining lonely 75 miles to the next house and the Alaska Highway.   Because of the rain there were no more smoke plumes, though only winter would end all underground hot spots.   As the road rose to about 3000' altitude, snow and dense fog enveloped us.   Three inches of wet snow on the pavement made for very tricky driving.   We were concerned that we might be trapped in a dip between two 8% grades, but after 15 miles we were back in clear air and on clear pavement.

September 4.   After another night at the Tok Westmark, we washed our Corolla back to silver again, and headed west towards Anchorage, while the Alaska Highway continued northwest towards Fairbanks.  The 6 hour drive to Anchorage was in constant view of nearby peaks, with new glistening white snow above 3000' or so.

September 5.    We are in Anchorage, population 260,000,  6900 miles and 25 days after leaving home.   Gasoline is down to $1.97/gallon.   Here is the world's highest ratio of planes to population, with many of them parked on the water in front of opulent homes.  We are spending 2 nights at an excellent hotel here, then 2 nights at a better but cheaper one, each hotel with half price coupons.    Between chores, we've been visiting Steve Widmer, a pilot who operated the airport at Norridgewock Maine for 2 years, and is a social worker and retired peace officer.

August 08, 2004

Anchorage to Whitehorse

September 8.   We drove in fine weather from Anchorage to near the entrance to Denali (Mt. McKinley) National Park, to start a 3-day all-expense package with  (click here) Denali Backcountry Safaris .   We usually shun the inflexibility of packages, but because of the imminent seasonal shutdown of park accommodations and their popularity, this was the only way we could travel the one road into the park, ending at Kantishna, near the center of it.

After supper we each were given a bottle of water in case the pipes froze that evening, 2 nights before the lodge closed for winter.   We left a faucet dripping, and the temperature only descended to 22 degrees, so there was no problem.   We were told that a previous group had left the faucets on full blast, so they had no water left in the morning.   After ablutions and breakfast we were herded into a small bus at 6:15 AM: ugh.   The sun rose soon after we were under way, and the erudite driver told us to call "Stop, stop" if we saw wildlife, and that each was allowed three "Sorry, it's a stone" stops.   Thus it took 7 hours to drive the narrow sinuous dirt track.   We counted 6 brown (grizzly) bears, a dozen ptarmigans (Alaska state bird, "chicken"), 2 Dall (bighorn) sheep, and 12 moose.   Alaska meece are much bigger than Maine mooses.    The bears browsed an average of 100 yards from us, as we tourists were cautioned to only whisper as we climbed over each other for vantage points at the windows.

At Kantishna Marge and I spent the afternoon indolating on porch chairs, facing a beautiful rushing stream, golden aspens, and the glistening white McKinley panorama beyond.  (Picture taken next AM).

We were told that only about one day in 50 was as clear as that day.   The smoke haze from the combustion of 1,300,000 acres of Alaska timber that summer had temporarily blown away.   That evening a professional photographer showed us slides of bears and Northern Lights.   The 3 of us had an interesting discussion earlier.   He had experienced only 2 "bluff charges" in his career.   In these the bear runs at you, then stands on his hind legs and roars, trying to scare you off by looking ferocious, which for a half-ton omnivore is not difficult.   How does one distinguish between a bluff charge and lunch time ?   The answer was fuzzy....

I mentioned Timothy Treadwell, who tented each summer among the giant Katmai variety of grizzlies, telling the world in his books that they were misunderstood, until he and his girlfriend were found half eaten the previous year (2003):  click here for more on Treadwell.   In 1996 Marge and I, with some apprehension, had helped him break camp and get into our hired float plane.  He told us that in the unlikely event his furry friends killed him, it would have been worth it.   We wonder if he changed his mind in his last few seconds.   The photographer was quite critical of Mr. Treadwell.

Signs were posted at the lodge stating that if a certain signal were sounded, we were all to stay in our rooms until the grizzly was chased away.   The next morning, September 10, Marge and I, with the encouragement of the staff, walked a half mile to a beaver pond.   In mud we found a grizzly paw print, a big moose print, and some wolf scat.   On our bus ride out that afternoon we saw about the same number and variety of beasts, plus 4 caribou and a pika.   We were told that caribou have the biggest antlers in the deer family for their weight. The only difference betwixt caribou and reindeer, we were told, is that the latter fly on Christmas eve and have red noses.   Our package ended after the next breakfast.

We headed east on the Denali Highway, the east-west 85% paved 134 mile road that connects the Anchorage-Fairbanks highway to Route 4, which follows the Valdez - Prudhoe Bay pipeline. We'd read and heard various opinions of the quality of this road, the last one being that we should carry 2 spare tires.   We have only the Toyota "toy tire" spare, but had no trouble. The route was at least as beautiful as all had told us.   I made compound errors in arranging a room for the night.   I had booked, then cancelled, a coupon-half-price room at the deluxe Princess Lodge at Copper Center, because I mistakenly thought we couldn't make it, then found the place full when I tried to re-book.   We settled for a friendly but more expensive hotel,  our worst accommodation since El Salvador.   We used the few square feet of non-bed floor space in our bedroom partly for storage and partly for careful stepping.   Three demented dogs had free run of the place.

Here's a link to a superb article in the magazine we just received (Jan. 7, 2011)  from the National Parks Conservation Association.  It supplants and is better written than what follows, and has excellent links to other sites, but I don't have the heart or time to shorten the text and pictures below now.   click here

Jan. 9, 2011:  And here's a link to even more information, and some excellent photos, not otherwise in this blog or the link above.  Go to the entry posted today, The Kennecott Ruins, in:  click here  

The semi-ghost towns of McCarthy and Kennecott in the Wrangell-StElias National Park was our destination the next day....  For millennia Ahtna Indians in the high glaciated mountains between what now are the Alaska Pipeline and the Canadian border had made weapons, tools, and ornaments from pieces of nearly pure copper they found there.   About 1900, the story goes, a chief told 2 white prospectors about these deposits.   The ore was so rich, 50% to 90% copper, that in some places the ground surface was green like grass.   J.P. Morgan and friends started the Kennecott Corporation, and a 163 mile railroad was built in formidable terrestial and climatological conditions, at a cost of 23 million 1911 dollars, to the new town of Kennecott (spelling varies).   100 million dollars of copper was shipped out, until the operation was abandoned in 1938 because of the Depression and exhaustion of the rich ore.   Kennicott was a model company town, where decorum was strictly regulated so that families of officials could live there.   The town of McCarthy, five miles distant, was a typical mining town, where routine commerce and the usual iniquities flourished.   Both towns are still there, semi-ghosts, on private land in the middle of the Wrangell- St. Elias National Park, the nation's largest.

Surface approach to the two towns is on a 58 mile dirt road "recommended for the adventurous motorist" (per The Milepost, the Alaska motorist's bible), on the bed of the former railroad.   The track is therefore nearly level, often one-lane with steep dropoffs and no guard rails. Every source warns that tires are apt to be impaled by old railroad spikes, which rise to the surface in the spring like rocks in Maine fields.   In the picture below the road diverts from the old rail bed and its ties for a short distance.

Of course the road also diverts from the several old railroad trestles.  Notice snow coming down to lower elevations on the mountains, as winter approaches.
A seasonal van service and bush planes are available for the curious but cautious. We drove, averaging 25 mph, and had no trouble.   At road's end we parked our car, carried our gear across the long footbridge over the turbulent Copper River, and waited for the car we had summoned. Until 1997 we would have had to sit in a seat suspended from a cable and pulled ourselves across.   Only the cars of the few residents are on the far side of the bridge: they got there in the winter on an ice bridge.

We stayed 2 nights in the small McCarthy hotel, a former brothel, in another tiny room with bath down the hall. 

A concentrator mill was built up the side of a mountain,  14 stories high, the world's tallest ghost town building.   It was connected to by tramways to copper mines above it.   One of the few surviving structures in Kennicott,  its fame has attracted Federal funds to restore and preserve it.

A young woman offered to guide us through the structure, so Marge and I ascended with her the 280 intricately constructed inside stairs to the top, admiring the complicated abandoned machinery.   Animals could come and go through big holes in the building exterior, so bear scat  was on one of the landings.  Following the photo of Marge on the stairs is one of some old rock-crushing machinery and one looking out one of the big holes in the walls.

Outside, our guide showed us that the road gravel was rife with pebbles of blue azurite and green malachite the size of wooden match heads.   We gathered a few, though they are too small for polishing into gemstones. More treasure remains in the mountains: aerial magnetometers have located 4 sites at least as rich as the original deposits, but these are untouchable in a National Park. 

We hired a small Cessna to fly over some of it.   The mountains are not as tall as Mt. McKinley, but great in number, and mingled with vast untrammeled glaciers.   It was awesome, as our grandsons also would say. We were fortunate that was our last clear day for a week.  The second photograph shows one of the mine headings (which one, Art ?) that fed ore by tramway down to the concentrator in Kennecott.


The people who are attracted to work in those two towns in the summer are not the same as you and we, and winter residents are even fewer and more different.   One category is open and friendly, mostly young people who have backpacked the world and some gays like those that ran our hotel.   The second category is not open.  Its 50 people in a circle of 50 miles diameter may include those in the witness protection program, and the local family with 15 kids and at war with their "neighbors".   Part of their income is the one to three thousand dollars that very Alaskan living soul is paid annually from oil revenues.

We stayed the night at a bed-and-breakfast in Tok. Like all USA B&Bs the owner seemed more interested in showing her superior taste than in guest comfort. We had hardly any shelf space, giant ornamental pillows had no place to be moved so the bed could be occupied, a giant teddy bear held the toilet paper, etc. However, nearly all Canadian B&B's we've used seem to be the opposite.

The final day in this segment we drove the Alaska Highway back to Whitehorse. Enroute we saw snow on steadily lower elevations: on mountain tops, on adjacent tree tops, on shoulders, then on the road. Temperatures gradually declined to 29 degrees, and we went many apprehensive miles without seeing another car or building.   Finally the road descended, the pavement turned black again, and we arrived at the capital of Yukon Territory, where we stayed 3 nights.   The first was at Hawkins House, which must be the best B&B in the world: physically worth an Architectural Digest article, with hospitality and food to match.   Because the city was hosting yet another convention, we had to spend the final 2 nights at High Country Inn, where we had superb facilities and a half-price coupon was accepted cheerfully.

More blogger problems.    The rest of the trip story should appear below, but instead, to get it  you have to 

  click here for Rest Of The Story