August 07, 2004

Whitehorse to California




September 18:   The eastward drive on the Alaska Highway from Whitehorse to Nugget City, population 7, just before Watson Lake, was necessary but made no progress toward warmth.   Our cabin and supper that night were simple but adequate, but how Beaver Post got 4 Canada Select stars we don't know.







September 19.  We headed south on the Cassiar Highway for 2 reasons.   The next 300 miles or so of Alaska Highway through the Rockies to Fort Nelson had just received waist-deep snow that made driving without chains difficult or dangerous.   Besides, we had long wanted to drive the Cassiar.  

We set out with heavy photogenic snow on the trees roundabout, but in 10 miles left winter behind. 

Our GPS and signs said we had crossed to the south of 60 degrees latitude, the border between the Yukon and British Columbia.   The road still has a reputation for difficulty, which we think undeserved. Yellow aspens, beautiful mountains white above 3000', and excellent pavement, a small part of it dirt, continued our whole day.   We had been in the beautiful colors of the northern autumn for most of our travel since arriving in Alaska, enough to justify our travel in shoulder season and cope with the first signs of winter.   Occasionally we passed by an Indian village with an English title, occupied by a "Nation" with a seemingly unpronounceable name.   But not as difficult as UQQRMIUT SANAUGAQARVINGAT in Nunavut.




We spent the night at Bell II, reputedly the best of the few hostelries on that road. It is a winter center for heli- (helicopter transported) skiing, with packages starting at about $4,000 US per week.   There are no utility lines to it, so satellite phone use by guests costs about $3 US per minute.   However, the room, with walls of peeled Douglas fir logs nearly 2 feet in diameter, was reasonable in price, as were our meals.  We had electric heat, but the Swedish soapstone wood stove was more fun.







September 20.   In a day we had gone from taiga with permafrost and stunted trees, to big tall trees and intensive logging.   Maps and specialized trucks and helicopters indicated we were in an intensive mining and exploration area.   A little further south significant agriculture would begin.

We left the Cassiar route, and went 40 miles west to the sister communities of Stewart BC and Hyder Alaska.    Hyder, at the extreme southeast corner of the Alaska panhandle, is a weird place.  Click here for some Hyder details   Once a silver mining boomtown, Hyder now has fewer than 100 residents, ex-hippies reportedly predominating.   Statistics report the majority have an income below the poverty level, though it's doubtful if residents report all of it.    Most of its buildings have fallen or seem to be falling, so that its main street, muddy with no defined edges and pocked with watery potholes, is like a twisted mouth, unshaven, with big gaps between bad teeth.   The few little businesses accept or prefer Canadian currency, because the last bank closed in 1926.   Only the post office requires USA money and observes Alaska time.   Mail is taken to the outside world by float plane twice weekly, if Ketchikan visibility permits.   Side alleys are lined with big rusting paint-peeling mining machines, penetrated by trees that nearly hide them.   Apparently here is the only place you are allowed to enter the USA without going through Customs and Immigration.   The only road leading into Hyder continues, gets even worse, and ends in 20 miles at huge Salmon Glacier back in British Columbia.   At the Stewart/Hyder border there is a Canadian sign saying you won't be allowed back in without passport or the equivalent.   One can imagine a Canadian or American forever confined to Hyder, sort of like the man who had to ride the MTA forever.   The cold rain falling through the overhanging dark trees is the norm for this coast.   So it was not surprising that 3 times a local resident of adjacent Stewart saw our Maine plates and told us Bangor is Stephen King's home.   This would be a great set for one of his movies.   The Stewart-Hyder website lists among its suggested activities, "getting Hyderized", which the little tourist office defined as "getting stinking drunk".    We drove 5 miles toward Salmon Glacier, but turned around at the bear-viewing place on Fish Creek.   The salmon that migrate to here average 3 feet in length.   This was the end of the spawning season, so the gravel shoals were partly covered by thousands of rotting dead fish.   A few salmon near the end of their spawning and of their lives occasionally moved a little upstream, and surfeited gulls occasionally pecked at a carcass.   No bears appeared, so we left. Back in downtown Hyder a black bear ambled across the street.

We left the next day in a heavy cold rain.   The 40 miles back to the Cassiar was in a flat floored valley framed by black cliffs down which hundreds of temporary waterfalls tumbled.   Fog tendrils descended to earth, and the cliff walls converged so there was room only for our narrow road and the newly roaring torrent.   It was dark and eerie, like Hyder.   A few miles later the road goes near receding Bear Glacier, where a few decades ago it was under it. 

n hour later the rain had stopped and blue sky gradually replaced grey.   Our way reminded us of Norway, with small farms of crops and animals.   Occasionally we examined a small town (like Hazelton and Stewart), which upon brief examination took us back to the 1950s, with neat houses and lawns, small businesses with no chain stores, small museums, and obvious pride.   We phoned ahead to reserve a motel room in VanderhoofNunleys tell us that this is DoukhoborEndako Mine to count the cars of a slowly moving freight train.   There were 137.    Later I used Google to research Endako Mine, and found far more than we could have in person.   It's a huge open pit molybdenum mine, with most of the product exported to Asia (China ?).

That reminds me of another town we wanted to visit near our route, Kitsault, but didn't.   It was for sale, because the molybdenum deposit that is its reason for being isn't worth mining any more  . Illustrating that "location, location" are essential ingredients in real estate pricing, here's what you can get for the asking price of $7 million Canadian (it's down from $23 million, and descending): 90 furnished well-tended homes, 7 apartment buildings with 202 suites, a hospital, a shopping center still loaded with goods, underground TV and utility lines, 2 recreation centers, 8000 feet of waterfront, 320 acres, snowy mountains around it, and more.  It's had a fascinating history:  click here.  We drove 700 miles from Vanderhoof to Seattle, with an overnight at Kamloops.   The road was a beautiful piece of engineering, allowing continuous 110 kilometers/hour posted speeds in spite of gorgeous, sometimes spectacular, mountain valley terrain.   Of all this trip, the area we want most to revisit is the southern half of British Columbia. We are staying 4 weekend nights at a Residence Inn suite by Lake Union in Seattle. Through the Internet and some finagling we got an excellent rate, over our budget but cheap for a   city. This is for 2 rooms with full kitchen, 3 phones, 2 TV's, big varied breakfast with enough take-out food for lunches, free van service, in-house laundry, high speed Internet service, super-nice personnel, and more.   Here we're enjoying supper at the revolving restaurant atop the Space Needle, with Mt. Rainer on the horizon.


We also enjoyed the big farmers-fisherman market, a local train trip, an Imax movie.   We wanted to use the monorail built for the 1962 World's Fair here, but it's closed, because in May it may have become to monorails what the Hindenburg was to dirigibles.   There was an electrical fire, injuries, and no way to escape the capsules and descend to the ground.   From now on this blog will be more brief, because our trip will be just an American lower-48 road trip.   We'll visit friends and family near Riverside, California.   We and our Toyota Corolla are doing well.   We expect to be home by Election Day, before the pills run out and the pipes freeze.


September 27.   We took the ferry across Puget Sound heading for Olympic National Park, which just 8 years ago we couldn't enter, because of a recent windstorm.   We stayed 2 nights in motels, the 3rd in the excellent and friendly Miller Tree B&B.  There is an extreme variety of climate in the Park, from the eastern semi-desert with 20 inches of annual precipitation, to one of the world's few temperate rain forests on the southwest side, with 140   We drove a spectacular high dry 9-mile narrow dirt road along Hurricane Ridge, and later drove into Hoh Rain Forest.    There the ground cover is so lush that new trees can't compete with it, so they succeed mostly along the trunks of fallen giants, and old trees are in groups aligned along trunks that fell and rotted away centuries ago.   We were walking a trail in damp gloom when we heard an elk bugling, and Marge spotted huge antlers half hidden nearby.   Because stags may be aggressive during rutting (mating) season, I carefully approached him from behind a tree until the last minute, and took good flash photographs.   Soon we saw 3 more, one nearly on the trail.   Since bushwhacking through "jungle" to avoid him would have been difficult, we sidled by him cautiously.










Later in the roadside dusk we saw a black-tail deer, and a black bear on a river bank.    The amount and thoroughness of clear-cutting in northwest Washington state exceeds by far anything we had seen in Maine.    So many hillsides were as bare as shorn French poodles, with all the roots and stumps piled for burning, the brown uncultivatable ground being prepared for the next mechanical harvesting.   The local majority seems bitter about "Spotted Owl Environmentalists" and therefore votes Republican.   The timber companies they work for are more subtle, and owned by Japanese companies.

October 1.  Mount St. Helens was on our priority list ere we left Maine.    Of course we were quite interested in the increasingly strident headlines about a possible eruption.    We were blessed with a cloudless blue sky. Near noon we suddenly saw through the windows of the Visitors Center a "POOF !" above the summit, a minor eruption but the first in 18 years.  The highest parking lot was crowded with media vans, and a single helicopter was aloft, so you probably saw the results on TV.  The picture below, looking up into the crater, shows the remnant of that eruption smoke puff.   The second picture shows the remains of trees knocked flat by the 1986 eruption.

 

This is written in Portland, Oregon, which was named by a fur trapper from Maine.     Its population exceeds that of all of Maine.     Its infrastructure and neighborhoods remind us of Toronto.   Eleven thousand miles and 53 days so far, and about half that to go.

October 4.  We drove a counterclockwise route, ending in an eastern suburb of Portland.   Our drive included beautiful conifer and fall-colored deciduous forest, spectacular Pacific coast,
 and two perfectly preserved technological miracles performed by a nation awakened from Depression torpor by the War.   In Tillamook sits a blimp hangar big enough for dirigibles, now a museum of military aircraft.    I went inside a back door only long enough to marvel at the vast gloom.   I remember an old Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" saying that the Lakehurst NJ dirigible hangar was so large it could rain inside, which was perhaps the reason for a smaller tarpaulin roof over the exhibited planes.

In 1947 eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes flew for one mile his colossal "Spruce Goose" airplane, mostly constructed of birch wood and powered by 8 engines.   The war had ended and the plane was no longer needed, but fortunately he capriciously spent a million dollars a year to preserve it, until he died in 1976.   Disney preserved it a few years more, then quit.   Later, dedicated volunteers had it shipped in pieces by barge and truck to its present home in McMinville, Oregon, where we touched and entered it.    It looks as if it were in flying condition, and sculpted from a huge piece of black plastic.   Because of sloth, unexpectedly sinuous back roads, distractions and construction we arrived at the museum 15 minutes before closing time, so we were not charged a fee.


October 5, 6.  We spent the next 2 nights at a Sleep Inn, our favorite in its price range.    With advanced ergonomics, included breakfast, friendly personnel, and high speed Internet, we paid $50 plus tax.    Because this autumn they gave a free night for every 2 paid nights, that's equivalent to $33.   From there we made a circular drive to the east, through Columbia River Gorge with its splendid waterfalls, and up to 6000' around Mt. Hood.











































In the Gorge we came across the Bridal Veil post office, the size of our living room.    It's the last remnant of a lumbering town named after the nearby two-stage waterfall, and exists mostly to process annually about 200,000 wedding announcements and invitations with its distinctive cachet.










Bridal Veil Waterfall-->


























After Portland we spent 3 days zig-zagging through the awesome geology and scenery of the Cascade Mountains.   From an overpriced motel in Sisters we drove through many miles of still-barren lava beds from an eruption about 200 AD.   We drove 120 miles on roads that would soon be closed by snow, with curves where tires squealed at 20 mph, and without any gas stations.   Marge's underpinnings are improving, so we walked a couple of one mile trails to beautiful high waterfalls.    We drove 2/3 the way  around unique Crater Lake, where snow was predicted that night.   We escaped to lower warmer altitudes, but because of delays caused by the allure of interesting things, had 90 miles of difficult night driving in heavy rain to our next motel.

At a gas station in southern Oregon we found that state law prohibits car owners from pumping their own gasoline, so we drove to the next town, in California.   Big mistake: gas is much cheaper in Oregon, and Alaska.... For all our fretting about fuel prices, it's still costs less than generic bottled water, and gas in Europe.   When we complete this 3 month trip of about 17,000 miles at about 6 cents per mile for petrol, that will total about $1,000.   That's about $11 per day: not the biggest trip expense.   With 70 set on the speed control we zipped southward on Interstate 5 as it left the mountains and entered California's agricultural cornucopia.    Autumn leaf colors, the peak of which we had followed from northern Alaska, were replaced by summer green and autumn brown.   Big trucks, safely separated, continuously occupied the right lane.   We read that the number of big rigs has doubled in 11 years.   We were going to stay 2 weekend nights (October 9 and 10) in Sacramento at the usual Residence Inn weekend rate.   However, when we told the desk agent that we'd like to stay 4 nights, he gave us the "government employee" rate, which is about half the usual. Since that includes a studio apartment, free high speed Internet, a guest laundry, breakfast, which can be expanded to lunch, and a light supper with beer and wine, and other amenities, it was a pretty good deal.    We wanted those 3 full days there to rest from unrelenting travel, do chores, and see the city. Sacramento would hardly have gotten our attention, but we have realized it is important to our nation now, and significant in its history.    Its population is half the size of Maine's, and its real estate prices are double, and up.   Two things prevented us from "doing" as much of the city as we had intended: ambient heat in the 90's, and too many doors locked on Sunday and Columbus Day.   Previously in this blog we've mentioned the many nice people we have met (it's time to remove "arrogant" from the description of the Mountie from Nahanni) but haven't written of the many colorful persons among them.   Here are 3 from Sacramento:
* * A garrulous young waiter, a self-proclaimed polymath, e.g. "an etymological curiosity: the world's strongest creature, proportionately, is the rhinoceros beetle". We found that to be true:
             click here
**  The apparently lonely bartender, where we sought information and spent not a cent. "Let me tell you the best walk through the history of OldSac (the Old Sacramento district): it will only take 5 minutes". It took at least 10.
**  The waiter in an authentic "Persian" restaurant, who said he spoke 4 languages until he left Europe 5 months ago and started learning English. He said Iran would never be a democracy, and told of common atrocities committed by local authorities. He unsuccessfully tried to convince us that Arabic script is easy, by writing "Richard" phonetically, right to left. Actually I look pretty good in Arabic:
                                       ريتشارد
                                     
October 14.  We drove from Bakersfield to Riverside.   Near Rosedale we picked a cotton boll, two almonds, and a huge rose, each from a mega-farm of the product.   Near Tehachapi Summit we saw thousands of modern windmills whirring.   At Mohave Airport we were unable to get beyond the front office of Scaled Composites, which built the only plane to fly around the world without adding fuel, and the plane which recently won the prize for reaching the fringes of space.













We drove 65 curvy miles along the crest of the San Bernadino Mountains, where we had been blocked by a landslide 4 Aprils ago.   Then we entered congestion and smog which we can tolerate for a few days.  We have been visiting family and other friends, and will leave Riverside for Grand Canyon on Tuesday October 18.

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

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