Aug 10, 2015

Dispatch from the North for the week Aug 2 thru Aug 8

An Ice Rose Globe... all from solid ice.
The Fairbanks area was our focus for the first half of the week. As we began our southeasterly trek on Wednesday it really felt like the beginning of our trip home. The next few days had us camping in a series of government campgrounds both in Alaska and Canada.

Sunday, August 2 - Fairbanks (day 57)
Tanana Valley Campground

Stayed home today and worked on blog and photo stuff. Sometimes you just gotta have a “down” day to recharge the batteries (both the camper’s and mine), loose yourself in the pages of a book, and experience a little solitude.

Monday, August 3 - Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs (day 58)
Tanana Valley CG

Decided to go up to Chena Hot Springs today. Some travel guides say this is a must do in the Fairbanks area.

The hot springs are northeast of Fairbanks on a good 50 mile long road that dead-ends at the destination... about an hour and a half drive with a few stops along the way. Because there's minimal traffic, especially on a Monday, it was an especially relaxed and enjoyable drive.

Chena Hot Springs is really a complex complete with lodge, restaurant and cafe, activity center, an ice museum, air strip, reindeer herd, it's own power plant... all in addition to swimming pools, hot tubs, and a large rock-line outdoor soaking pool where we spent much of our time.

Besides a soak and long hot shower... we had lunch and then did the ice museum tour. A couple from the area (ref) have a workshop in the building and create these large and intricate ice carvings. These are true art pieces and these two are real artist. The results are nothing short of spectacular. Because this art must be frozen (obviously), sublimation (ice changing directly from solid to gas... skipping the liquid phase) is an issue. But due to the museum's policy of limited entry and consistent temperature and humidity, it's a slow process. Our guide pointed out two longer term items... one 5 and the other 11 years old. Both have had a few finer features (like a finger) replaced due to sublimation.

Dar at the "ice bar" in the ice museum.
Everything in the museum was made of ice including two ice motel rooms; an ice bar (where they served real appletinis in carved ice glasses); and an ice altar where couples can (and do) get married once in a while. The two ice artists made it for their own wedding. These ceremonies tend to be sh... shh...ort. For some, it's appropriate that their life together starts out chilly. For the tour, the museum provides one-size-fits-most coats, Tour lasts about an hour and costs $15.

On the way out to Chena Hot Springs we had checked out a couple state campgrounds, which were neat, maintained, and perfect for our needs. But we also learned there's a number of other places where we could drive down to the river (the Chena River, of oourse) and camp on a gravel bar. And that's what we did. Tonight, we're hard on the banks of the North Fork of the Chena River, across from the Granite Tors campground.

Tuesday, August 4 - Chena River camp to Fairbanks and North Pole (day 59)
Gravel bar on North Fork Chena River off Chena Rd.

Getting cooler at night. Saw 46 early this morning. But the same clear sky that let the heat escape will make for quick warming as the sun climbs this morning.

We drove back to the Fairbanks area on Chena Hot Springs Road but made a slight detour a few miles north on the Steese Hwy to a Trans-Alaska Pipeline viewpoint. Could wander around and under a few hundred elevated feet of the beast that was built in the mid 1970s. It was quite an engineering achievement as provision had to be made to keep the hot oil (about 100 degrees at this point on it's 800 mile trip south) from melting the permafrost. Wherever the pipeline traversed permafrost it is above-ground and supported on structures designed to dissipate heat and keep the ground frozen. The 48" pipeline itself is wrapped with insulation too. Due to the normal production decline over time of oil wells, these days the line is currently at less than 50% of it's full capacity.

After a foiled attempt to have lunch at the Silver Gulch Brewery (didn't open till 4pm), we next headed to the University of Alaska Museum of the North. An informative and entertaining experience, we immersed ourselves in geophysical, cultural, and historical aspects of the 49th state. If you're at all inclined to seek out mind broadening things like this, I'd highly recommend stopping.

Burdened by that parched throat one tends to get after a couple hours in a museum environment, we sought, and found, Hoo Doo Brewing's brewhouse and taproom. It didn't open until 4pm, but we're slightly surprised when we drove in and had a tough time finding a place to park. It's situated in an industrial area and their parking lot has room for maybe a dozen cars or so. Others must park alongside area roads and walk to the "hoppin" (intended) joint. Despite the crowd, it didn't take long for them to pour a couple of their finest craft creations and we found a spot at a large cable reel table to kick back and relax. I was assured by the staff that this was not an exceptionally large crowd. The place really gets going on weekend nights. Definitely one of the places to be in Fairbanks.

Time to find camp. Dar had picked a state recreation area near North Pole called the Chena Lakes Project to check out. This was a COE project constructed after the Chena River flooded big-time in 1967... almost wiping out all of Fairbanks in the process. As the COE tends to do, in addition to all the diversion channels, lakes, and dikes, they included serveral recreation areas for the public. This included two very nice campgrounds. We found a spot in the Chena Lakes CG and dropped anchor for the night.

Wednesday, August 5 - North Pole to Big Delta on the Alcan (day 60)
Chena Lakes CG

First on the agenda this morning was a stop at the Santa Claus House in North Pole. I did not go in, preferring to wait in the truck, work on my blog post for the week, clip my fingernails, and think a little about income tax strategies for 2016 .

Rika's Roadhouse
This part of the Alcan isn't it's most scenic. Low wet marshy areas and tree-lined forested areas kept the camera shutter cooler today. The road follows the Tanana River through here. We stopped at the Big Delta State Historical Park where the road, now and historically, crosses the river. There's a preserved roadhouse here called Rika's Roadhouse that assisted travelers with lodging and supplies for many years. It was also the location of a communications facility used my the military in the 20s and 30s. We lingered, perused the roadhouse and surrounding grounds, and found a piece of pie to fill that afternoon craving one gets from exploring.

Slow as she goes... decided to make camp tonight a couple miles north of Rika's at Quartz Lake State Recreation Area campgound.

Thursday, August 6 - Big Delta to Tok on the Alcan (day 61) Quartz Lake CG

Rained overnight. At times, heavy. But despite all the overnight commotion, we woke to clearing skies and some sun. I like this rain schedule... more or less clear during the day with rain at night. All right.

The big wildlife sighting today was just outside the Quartz Lake campground where a large cow moose strolled out of the woods and right in front of the truck. "Moose!!" She began trotting ahead of the truck in an effort to get away from us and eventually angled back into the cover of the woods. A second cow, a little smaller than the first, could also be seen just on the edge of the trees. Of course this all happened so fast Dar could only get a couple quick shots of the first one. But it was, I believe, the closest and best moose sighting during our time in Alaska.

Stopped at the visitor center in Delta Junction... at the official end point of the Alaska Highway and took a few pics. The historic Sullivan Roadhouse is right there too, and we paid a short visit there as well. We missed a big section of the Alcan on the way up a month ago, between Whitehorse YT and Delta Junction AK, when we went north on the Klondike to Dawson City. But our intention is to drive every mile if we possible can.

The 100 miles between Delta Juction and Tok went by quickly, but an old nemisis plagued us again today. Just as the last time we were in Tok, smoke from wildfires was fairly heavy. It degraded the great views of the Alaska Range of mountains to the south of the road. Some day, we'll actually get to soak in these views on a good crystal clear day. Based on what we could see through the smoke today, it must be awesome.

In Tok, we refueled ourselves and the truck, and then headed for another State campground... this one was Tok River SRA. Found a good site along the river and made camp for the night. During the day the weather cleared even more, the wind picked up... brisk out of the northwest, and the temps dropped a few degrees. Should be a good sleeping night.

Friday, August 7 - Tok to Destruction Bay on the Alcan (day 62) Tok River SRA campground

On the Alaska/Canada border... note the alley of
cleared trees in the center of the pic. That's the border
and it's a cleared alley for as far as one can see.
From Tok to the border, the road is decent, about what we've come to expect from the Alcan. But after our border crossing into Canada things changed. From Beaver Creek to Burwash Landing it's a mess. We were glad we made the decision to bring the little camper on this trip... here again, it can't be enjoyable to pick and swerve a big rig around potholes and rough areas of construction. So many people have told us we did the right thing to bring the small rig.

There's a long term project, partially funded by the US, to completely rebuild the Alcan from Haines Junction to the border. Apparently, it's going kinda slow. There were many miles of gravel road in the "constuction zones"... but many of those miles hadn't been worked on for a long time, and areas of potholes and very rough gravel surface were common. Even though we had to wait up to a half hour for a pilot car to lead us through some long stretches, we didn't see evidence of much work going on. It was the most nerve rattling and frustrating area we've encountered on the Alcan.

By the time we reached Destruction Bay we were ready to make camp. A good source led us to Congon Creek CG a few miles south of Destruction Bay... and they were right. Perfect for us. Set up camp, lit a campfire (free firewood!!), and settled our nerves.

Oh, along the way today, we stopped at a visitor center in Beaver Creek, where we met two of the most enjoyable hosts we've run into in a long while. Free with the "insider" information, we got the straight skinny on all the nearby goings-on. They even offered their outside water connection to us to top off our fresh water tank.

Saturday, August 8 - Destruction Bay to Kathleen Lake south of Haines Jct. (day 63) Congdon Creek CG

Woke to a chilly 42 degrees this morning. We think we've been seeing a little early fall color, and maybe we are. The fireweed is sprouting seeds in some areas, and the legend goes that once the fireweed is done seeding, winter is not long off.

On the drive today we drove along Kluane Lake, a spectacular many miles long lake. Actually, our camp at Congdon Creek last night was also on this lake. Near the southern end we stopped at a visitor center for the Kluane National Park and also visited Soldier Summit, the point of the official ribbon-cutting ceremony that opened the Alcan Highway in November of 1943. Since the highway has been realigned since that time, getting to the actual site of the ceremony involved a short hike. We get a kick out of historic places like this and walking along the now abandoned original route of the highway. It may have been primitive but it got the job done. Almost 1500 miles of road made usable in less than one year.

Had thought about extending another night at Congdon Creek, but after running into Destruction Bay for fuel and a light lunch, decided to hit the road again. It was just too nice a day to not travel. The splendid mountain scenery led us ever further southeastward.

We've been considering our options for the Haines and Skagway area. We could, on the one hand, drive the 150 miles from Haines Junction (on the Alcan) down to Haines, see what's going on, and drive the 150 miles back up to Haines Junction to continue our journey. Or, on the other hand, we could take a ferry from Haines to Skagway, which means we'd drive the South Klondike Hwy back up to the Alcan near Whitehorse. With option one we'd be able to say we've driven every mile of the Alcan when our trip is over. With option two, we'd be saving about 250 miles of driving (think gas, wear and tear, etc.). As this is being written, a decision has not been made. Stay tuned to next weeks post for what we decided.

From Haines Junction we headed south toward Haines and a campground Dar had identified as a possible camp for the night. Kathleen Lake CG in the Kluane National Park of Canada seemed to hit our sweet-spot, so we made camp for the night. We've not stayed in a Canadian National Park before this. It was similar to the Yukon Territorial campgrounds, with one slight twist: they had a flat charge of $8.80C for firewood. For that fee, you could use as much wood as you could burn. Since we started early, we had a grand fire.

The weather really cooperated with us today. It was one of the best in recent days.

As always, there are more photos from our week in our online albums.

Beyond Branson; Pondering Future Travel

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