Tuesday, June 30, 2015

So, What'ya Say We Go South for the Summer

Midnight in Inuvik. 
We spent four days and four nights in Inuvik, which, this time of year, look pretty much the same. After four nights, and days, and if you're out there mingling and talking with the locals, eating in their restaurants and cafes, shopping in their stores, touring their town... something changes. You start to feel, a little, like I know this place... I'm starting to fit in here... I like this place. It becomes a part of you... and you of it. That happened to me during four days and nights in Inuvik.

But we must move on. And where does anyone with a truck and camper go from Inuvik? South, of course. It's the only answer. You get on that one thin physical ribbon of connection with the outside world, the ONLY road that goes somewhere else from there, and head south on the Dempster. Four hundred and seventy miles of gravel road, a handful of bridges, and two ferrys. That is the only way to the rest of our days in this part of the world.

We feel we did a pretty darn near complete Dempster experience. We saw the best of the Dempster on warm sunny days, we had to change two tires (in fairness, only one was a traditional Dempster Flat), we drove through fresh road repairs, water and chloride mud, pot holes that could swallow a VW Beetle, and rain. But much of it is an amazingly smooth road that allows 50 or even 60 mph speeds in relative comfort. We saw a bunch of wildlife including moose and squirrel (what'ya say Rocky and Bullwinkle?), a family of dahl sheep, some playing baby fox, but no bear... not this time.

The Dempster becomes a different animal when it rains. And so it seems do the people driving it. On the way north we thought, for the most part, other drivers were relatively courteous. Most would move over and slow down as they pass going the other way. But during the last 120 miles or so today, during rain and with road turning into a slick muddy affair, we had a big dose of other drivers who, for whatever reason, didn't think it necessary to slow down when meeting other vehicles. By the time we reached Dawson, the truck was a total mud-ball, and so were our spirits.

But don't let that color our experience. It was a wonderful week of new experiences, meeting new people, and seeing new things.

After pressure washing the truck in Dawson, picking up a few provisions, perhaps a little laundry... we'll be back on the trail and heading into Alaska for the rest of our summer.

Ferry at the Peel River Crossing

How I'd like to remember the Dempster

The ugly side of the Dempster

It's just dirt. It washes off. But life-long memories.



Monday, June 29, 2015

Inuvik Notes

Miscellaneous notes from our 4 days in Inuvik.

The sun doesn't set here for 57 days this year.

I'm up at 3am. Of course it's bright outside, but the thing that gets me are the sounds of people... outside, partying, talking, moving around, whatever. It sounds and feels more like 9pm on a Friday night. Perhaps we all have the same need to socialize, play, party. Down south, in the land of daily darkness, we tend to spread things out. Up here, it feels like they're making up for the days during the winter when the sun is nowhere to be seen.

Satellite dish antennae look like they're pointed at the tree across the street, or the neighbors house. Studying a globe shows that a direct line to a geosynchronous satellite over the equator does indeed require an almost flat shot at the horizon up here. Take that flat-earthers... how do you explain that?

The warmest weather we've experienced on our trip has occurred at the highest latitude. When we arrived in Inuvik yesterday, it was 81F degrees, a much warmer than usual temperature. As I write this at 3:30am, it's 64F. We've been disappointed by the amount of wildfire smoke in the air that's hampered visibility. On the way up yesterday, often we could see the outlines and shadows of what was sure to be spectacular scenery... but the smokey haze left us, sadly, with only those outlines and shadows. I'm sure we missed some more distant views altogether.There's a glimmer of hope that the weather pattern will change in the next few days, bringing winds from the north and clearing out this stagnant air. We certainly hope for that. It would make the drive back south so much more interesting.

This visit to Inuvik is our first, and , considering all the other travel we want to do, it could be our last. Both the expense and the ordeal of getting here are substantial. It's not the kind of trip one does on a lark. But I wouldn't have missed it either. It has, so far, been a trip of lifetime memories.

A few miles outside of Inuvik the surface of the road suddenly turned from gravel to asphalt. Slow down Bunkie, turns out that's not necessarily a good thing. While I'm sure the residents of Inuvik take pleasure in the lack of dust and dirt provided by the asphalt surface, and they probably like being able to keep a car clean for more than just a few minutes after a washing, I don't think they like the undulating wavy up-and-down asphalt pavement. Permafrost beneath the town makes paved roads susceptible to frost heaves and a generally unreliable roadbed that unpredictably sinks over here and rises over there. Those last 5 miles or so of beautifully paved road was the wildest ride of the 460 miles.

Just up the street from our campground is a little restaurant called Alestine's. Not something you'd expect in a more urban place like Beaver Dam, it's a tiny building with 5 tables downstairs, a few tables on the upper deck, and a few more scattered about on the yard of the owners home in a residential area of town. Who needs zoning anyway? The owners, Brian and Pam MacDonald, are fulfilling their dream of having a good non-chain restaurant that serves as much local food as they can get their hands on. They offer local fish, including fish tacos to die for, reindeer chili, Eskimo donuts, and a few other offerings I don't remember as I write this. It quickly became our favorite restaurant in town, and other locals we talked to feel the same. Oh, I forgot to mention that they do all the food preparation inside an old retired school bus that's parked on their front yard. You know, something this quirky and "out there" might just work in Portland OR, our other favorite weird town.

There's one big store in town... Northern something-or-other?... that is the go to spot to shop for everything from soda crackers to outboard motors and snowmobiles... and just about everything in between. I'm not up on prices down south for such things, but I do remember a 40 hp outboard motor going for almost $8,000. Food prices are higher than down south, as you'd expect, but it's not uncommon for things to run double what I'm used to seeing in large competitive stores in the States. There's a price to be paid for living up here.

Because the town is built on permafrost, all houses are built on pilings that isolate the ground from the heat of a house. Cold air must be able to circulate beneath the house in order to keep the permafrost solid. Dawson, down south, has examples of what happens when a building is built right on top of the ground. Over time, the permafrost melts a little here, and a little there... and the house starts to settle, slowly sinking into the ground, uncontrollably, like a torpedoed ship in slow motion. Permafrost also keeps them from having a successful system of underground water and sewer pipes. First, the relative warmth of the material inside the pipes would melt the ground and cause the system to sink and break. Second, the permafrost would also freeze the material inside the pipes, which is never a good thing considering the importance of keeping whats inside moving.

We also found a little cafe near the library called Cafe on McKenzie, where we spent hours savoring their coffee, homemade scones, and pretty awesome free WIFI. A couple times we also used the WIFI at the library across the street, but they limit visitors to two hours per day. Sometimes that's not enough.

Tuk

Dar with pilot Zach.
One of our main reasons for coming this far north was to visit the village of Tuk. It's actual name is Tuktoyaktuk, but for obvious reasons, most people just say "Tuk".

At this point the only way to get to Tuk in the Summer is by boat or by plane. There is no all season road. In the Winter, there is a winter ice road scratched out on a branch of the frozen Mackenzie River. And they are in the process of building a new all season road over the tundra and permafrost that's supposed to be done in a few years. They can only work on it in the winter, so it's hard to say exactly when it'll be done. And, with a number of companies offering Tuk tours, there are at least some people who aren't real crazy about seeing that new road completed.

So what's the attraction in Tuk? Well, it's further north than Inuvik. Among the people who come to this corner of the world, being north is a big thing. The other attraction is that Tuk is situated on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. There are only a handful of places in North America where a regular guy and gal can get in their pickup truck, drive close to the Arctic Ocean, and dip their toes (toe dipping is another big thing up here). The Dempster to Inuvik is one. Another is the Dalton Highway in Alaska, aka "The Haul Road", that runs up to the vicinity of Prudhoe Bay. The problem with the Dalton is the amount of truck traffic related to the oil industry.

So, we booked a tour to Tuk. You talk to the tour company, you pay the not-insignificant charge, and you show up at the appointed time (in our case 6pm) when they van you out to the airport and load you into a workhorse Cessna 207 for the 45 minute flight to Tuk.

From our perspective, the flight was the real highlight of the tour. The late day low light (remember, 24 hours of daylight), illuminated the massive Mackenzie Delta system which is stunningly beautiful. An unexpected treat. The pilot also points out a Dew Line radar station that was used to keep an eye on the Russians during the cold war, and a number of Pingos, pop-up tundra landforms that result from successive cycles of freezing and thawing.

In Tuk, a native resident took our group around the village. I must be careful here. People around the world live in varied and sometimes extreme conditions, and in ways that many of us in the USA would consider crude. I'm sure many of the residents of Tuk are happy. It would be difficult for me to be happy there. I saw a poor village, abandoned and vandalized houses and other buildings, dirt streets, a museum-like collection of broken and rusting snowmobiles outside every house, mosquitoes so thick it was hard to be outside, mud. Because of the permafrost on which the town is placed, there can be no water or sewer system. Instead, trucks run from house to house, multiple times per week, to deliver fresh water and remove the sewage. The tanks which hold this material must of course be inside the heated envelope of the house or they'd freeze solid.

To be fair, there were some decent houses, some businesses that appeared to be doing well, and a bunch of kids actually playing a pick-up baseball game instead of sitting in front of a computer or television. They must have built up an immunity to mosquitoes. We dipped our toes in the ocean and left.

From what I could gather, it's largely a subsistence existence. Many fish and hunt, some still pursue whales in the traditional manner, the meat must be preserved and prepared. Some folks work as there are some regular jobs with the businesses in town... construction, small retail, etc. But there are many on public assistance. Depression and suicide is common. Our woman tour guide lost her 17 year old son to suicide. We can speculate and theorize as to the reasons. But it's there. Perhaps an all weather road will help those who need help... prevent people from feeling like there's no way out. Perhaps not.

Perspective is a funny thing. Our trip north involved stops in successively more "northern" towns. When we stopped in Whitehorse YT, we thought we were really north... until we got to Dawson, further north yet... until we got to Inuvik, really "up" there... until we got to Tuk. From Tuk, Inuvik is the "big" town down south where they go to shop the "big" stores, for more specialized medical care, to connect with a real road. To the Inuvikians, that next big town south is Dawson. To the Dawsonians, it's Whitehorse. Everything is perspective.

Our trip to Tuk was good. It was a glimpse into the lives of much hardier people than I'll ever be.

The furthest north I'll likely ever be.

We both waded in the Arctic Ocean.


Kids playing baseball... without adults, or uniforms.

The community freezer... a 35 foot deep hole in the permafrost.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Tire Tales from the Dempster

They said to bring two spares. We did.

The first day on the Dempster, about kilometer 168 (mile 105?), the truck's low tire pressure alarm goes off. Damn! No place to pull off, but that's not a problem since traffic on the Dempster is pretty light. And we're in a relatively flat long stretch and, thus, well visible to other travelers.

Pull over, sort of, and turn on four way flashers. My first quick inspection of our 4 tires didn't reveal an obvious problem, but a pressure check said our left rear tire was down to 40 psi, from the 80 I usually run. These are brand new 10 ply tires (load range E), all terrain tires, bought specifically for gravel and non-paved road use. Very discouraging. As I contemplated the situation, I could hear air escaping the tire, from the area of an embedded rock in the fat part of the tread. Hmmm.

Nothing else to do but get into action and change the tire. Dar helped, as we had to remove a lot of gear from the packed back seat in order to get the tire irons, wrenches, and jack from behind the seat. I slipped on my mechanics coveralls (a really smart idea to have along) and crawled under to place the jack. Both of us were learning as we proceeded, never having to do this for real before with this truck... a sort of tire changing tap-dance.

You know the routine: release spare tire from it's mount, emergency brake on, truck chocked in place, start jacking, loosen lug nuts, finish jacking, lug nuts off, pull wheel and flat tire, mount spare, spin on lug nuts, tighten lug nuts, drop jack so new tire makes contact with ground, tighten lug nuts to spec (150 ft. lbs), drop jack the rest of the way, mount flat tire and wheel on spare tire mount, pick up and stow everything. Elapsed time about 50 minutes... including talking to a few passers-by who inquired about our need for help.

One of the couples that stopped were journalists from Germany. They were on their way back from Inuvik, had traveled almost the entire length of the Dempster, and hadn't yet seen anybody with a flat tire. (!!!) They asked if we'd be ok with them taking photos and getting our story... to which we readily agreed. So if you see our mugs in some travel article in Germany, you'll know where it came from.

So, with everything stowed, we were slowly on our way again. At first, gingerly... to make sure everything's turning ok, wheel's mounted straight... gaining confidence and rhythm as we go.

At kilometer 221, Dar wanted to take a pull-off alongside the road, for a photo opp I'm sure, so I checked the pressure in all the tires again. Imagine my dismay when I found the new spare was at only 60 psi! (WTF!!) Closer inspection revealed a leaking valve stem... not the valve inside, the rubber valve stem itself was damaged or sliced or cut... and air was leaking audibly. This spare tire was my new second spare, a brand new wheel with one of my previous tires mounted when we bought the new all terrain tires. The valve stem was either faulty or damaged during installation.

Nothing to do but get to work again. I won't go through the routine again, but you know what they say about "practice makes perfect". We did the entire job this time in only 20 minutes... almost good enough for a NASCAR pit crew.

So, to recap our situation as we pulled back onto the Dempster again: we had to change two tires in the first 140 miles (of 460 miles one way); we now have about 100 miles to go to get to Eagle Plains, the midway point where there's supposed to be a tire repair shop (in addition to a gas station, a motel, restaurant, and campground). We now had NO spare. Considering our experience in the first 140 miles, we were half-expecting yet another tire failure before Eagle Plains... which would leave us with only one option -- getting assistance from somewhere else.

But we made it. And we had two tires repaired for a $40C charge... which I considered reasonable as they could have charged me twice that and I would have paid it. We also got a space in the campground, had dinner in the unexpectedly good restaurant, and settled in for the night.

We talked with a number of guys in the bar at Eagle Plains who said they've driven the Dempster 15, 20 times or more, and have never had a tire problem. But they all say it does happen and it does happen with some regularity... it's called "the Dempster flat.

The rock removed from our tire is now in our trip archives. It's a nearly 1 inch long piece of very sharp and hard shale that actually resembles an arrowhead. It's probable that the front tire ran over this piece, flipped it up, and set it up perfectly so the sharp business end was pointed at the tread of the rear tire just as it contacted the surface of the roadway. Once partially embedded, in this case in a small sipe grove in the thickest part of the tread, it continued to work its way deeper into the tire with each successive rotation, eventually gnawing a hole all the way to the inside of the tire.

The moral to the story is: be prepared for the unexpected. And keep your spirit and sense of adventure high. Early explorers were continually engaging with unexpected problems and having to come up with solutions on the fly. Have a reasonable supply of resources at your disposal and try to anticipate the obvious. If we want to capture even a very small sense of what early exploring was like, savor those small problems, those solvable problems, and be happy they're not worse.

Earlier in the day.
Working on our first "Dempster Flat"
Cleaning up after replacing the faulty spare.
Tire shop in Eagle Plains came in handy.

Dawson City to Inuvik on the Dempster

Notes on the trip up the Dempster to Inuvik.

Thursday, June 25

About 25 miles out of Dawson is the junction of the Klondike and the Dempster Highways. The Dempster is the subject of this post. It's also one of the main reasons we've come this far north. For years, I've had the Dempster on my "bucket list". I've read about others doing it. I've dreamt of reaching the Arctic Circle and going beyond, maybe even to the Arctic Ocean. The Dempster is about 460 miles of gravel road that stretches from the Klondike Highway to the town of Inuvik. It was conceived and built in the 50s and 60s and was officially opened to public travel in 1979.

Why is it a gravel road? Much of the road is built on permafrost. Gravel is a much more forgiving surface, and much less expensive to build, to repair, and to keep in good shape. Traditional road-building techniques produced roads that become soft and unusable when they sink into the thawed frozen ground called permafrost. In order to preserve the frozen ground beneath the road, newer building methods use thick layers of aggregate as insulation. In this way, the warmer road surface and the permafrost are kept apart, and the road is more stable and long lasting. It also adds to the cost and time to build roads like this.

It's important to be prepared for the Dempster. One recommendation is having two spare tires because the Dempster is known to chew up tires on a fairly regular basis. I've talked to some who wouldn't be without two spares and I've talked with others who've driven the Dempster 20 times without a problem. I brought 2 spares.

And speaking of tires, because the road is gravel... and much of the gravel they use is very hard and sharp crushed shale... it would be a good idea to have some good all-terrain tires... the kind that can take gravel and sharp surfaces better than regular street tires. I just mounted a set of new All-Terrain tires before the trip. On the other hand, I saw a lot of folks with standard highway tires too.

There is fuel available in a few places along the Dempster. The longest stretch between pumps is about 240 miles between the junction with the Klondike Highway and Eagle Plains, about mid-way. We have about 400 miles of range with the pickup and never came close to sweating it. Just because fuel is available doesn't mean it's cheap. While we were paying $1.15C further south in BC and Alberta, the price at Eagle Plains was $1.50C and $1.69C in Inuvik.

Got a cell phone? Forget using it on the Dempster. For emergency purposes, and to send out a daily location "ping" to family and friends, we have a DeLorme InReach device that can do two-way text messages via the Iridium Satellite System from anywhere on the planet. It provided us with a measure of comfort.

=====

A very nice couple from Ontario destroyed their truck and camper to an incident on the Dempster just a day ahead of us. This occurred about 90 kilometers (50 miles) north of Eagle Plains. At 7pm in the evening, their truck and truck camper ran off the road and into the soft downward sloping shoulders of the roadway. A panic steering correction just made things worse and they eventually rolled the unit... truck and camper separating in the process... with the truck finally resting on it's wheels in the ditch on one side and the camper laying on it's side in the middle of the road.

On the Dempster, there's no one to call as there's no cell service. Imagine, the nearest facilities are 50 miles away, and even there there are no police or emergency services. Not only did you completely destroy your truck and camper, you're totally alone... at the mercy of other travelers who happen to pass by. And let me tell you, there' are not a lot of people on that road at that time in the evening. You are so alone. A smoldering broken pile of metal that used to be your truck... your means of transportation... your lifeline. Another pile of broken wood and fiberglass, split open at the seams, that used to be your home away from home. Suddenly you have nothing... and you're in the middle of nowhere with no support or assistance of any kind. How must that feel?

We ran into these folks at dinner tonight and they told us their tale. They told us how no one responded... no police, no EMS, nothing -- when you're on the Dempster, you're really on your own. This is true wilderness. They told us of the difficulty in dealing with an insurance company that doesn't understand the wilderness and the distances involved. They recounted how they had to contact multiple people to report the incident and how few really cared or could do anything about it. It wasn't until late the next day that the highway maintenance guys based at Eagle Plains got equipment to the site and could push the broken camper off the highway. It was in the middle of the road for almost a day, traffic having to slow and inch around it. Without cell service up here, you have to rely on the few landlines available at a few places along the way. One of those places, Eagle Plains Lodge, was the nearest place in this case.

Eventually, passers-by helped them pick up some of their possessions and valued items, and gave them a lift to Eagle Plains, some 50 miles away, where they got a motel room and began the process of getting all the loose ends tied together. They couldn't take or pick up everything, so much of their stuff was just strewn beside a broken camper at the roadside... and still is at this writing.



=====

We had our own issue that first day, which I recorded in a separate post which follows this one. It's titled "Tire Tales from The Dempster". Just an inconvenience and not at all catastrophic, it gave us just a taste of why it's necessary to be self reliant and to have the basic resources you may need to address situations as they crop up.

We drove to the half-way point the first day, to Eagle Plains, where we spent the night in their camping/parking area. There's a restaurant and bar, both seemed inviting and reasonably good, and we spent some time chatting with a few locals.

The second day was less troublesome. The drive through the Richardson Mountains was scenic despite the general smokiness and haze in the air. There are two small ferry crossings: The first is at Peel Crossing, where a small cable ferry pulls loads across the river in just a few minutes. Only a short wait for us. The second is about 40 miles further where a larger ferry lugs loads across the larger MacKenzie River. It's a larger boat, with more capacity, but with the width of the river and the occasionally used third landing for a small nearby village, it can take more time to cross. Another thing about these crossings is the ferry landings themselves. The ferrys just pull up to the natural shore of the river, and drop their ramps, landing craft style, onto the sand and dirt. No concrete docks here. They try to maintain the landings to minimize the dips and inflections between the river bank and the ferry ramp, but often RVs with long rear overhangs are not able to be loaded. River levels and eroding banks are always changing things. Beware of this before you drag your big RV up here.

And since we're on the subject of RVs, I guess it makes sense considering the ruggedness of the road, but more than half the RVs we see are truck campers. The next most common are C-class RVs, and then a mixture of everything else. While it's possible to make this trip with a big A-class, long travel trailer, or big 5th wheel, I wouldn't recommend it.

We decided to make camp at a government campground called Happy Valley RV and Campground right in town and within walking distance to much of what we needed to do.





Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Watson Lake to Dawson City

Monday, June 22
From Watson Lake to Whitehorse; Wolf Creek CG

Had some fog this morning, but it mostly burned off by 8am and we were back on the road a short time later. Stopped at Johnson Crossing Lodge for lunch… grilled ham and cheese, and a cinnamon roll of course. I've mentioned this before but cinnamon rolls are ubiquitous up here.

A big driving day for us. Racked up 291 miles. The terrain wasn't as dramatic or as impressive as the drive a few days ago on our way to Liard Hot Springs. But then, we're going to have to face facts that it's not going to be possible to reach new “highs” every day. I just love being this far north and savor the adventure of it too.

Decided to secure a campsite at Wolf Creek CG, a few miles before Whitehorse, before running into town for a quick perusal. Even though it's a Monday, the CG was not far from full. Selected a site, paid the iron ranger, attached tag to site post, and set a couple chairs out to establish our claim.

Whitehorse is, in addition to being the capital city of Yukon Territory, a hub of transportation and commerce. With a population of 10,000 or so, it qualifies as a big city in these parts. There's a few decent sized grocery stores, a Walmart, banks, and most of what you'd expect in a town twice this size further south. So it's a good spot to resupply if necessary.

Yukon government campgrounds provide free firewood for campers. Not one to ignore a deal like this I exercised my pyromaniacle tendencies early and got a pretty good fire going for the evening. A delightful neighbor in the next site, who added an artistic touch to the surroundings by practicing her fiddle (violin to some) during my fire building process. We invited Monique over to the fire and the next thing we knew it was after midnight. She's an interesting person… lives and travels alone in her truck camper and works on computer projects along the way… she's currently doing some work for a government office of some kind. We thoroughly enjoyed a far-ranging conversation with her.

Tuesday, June 23
Sat around the campfire a long time last night. Didn't seem like a long time, but when the campfire died out (or did I just tire of splitting big chunks into smaller burnable ones?) I was amazed that it was after midnight. Darkness has a different meaning in the Yukon... it's more an annual concept than a daily one. And darkness certainly can't be used as an indicator of time. When I finally crawled in the sack, 1:00am was only a few minutes away and I could still see clouds and blue in a muted bright sky. It just as easliy could have been 9:30 pm on a summer evening in Wisconsin.

I have yet to master the art of finding good WIFI and then focusing enough to get my internet chores done once I've found it. The last decent usable WIFI we had was back at the RV park in Dawson Creek. Since then we've stayed at many provincial parks which we prefer as quality camping venues, but they certainly don't offer WIFI of any kind. The RV park in Watson Lake was nearly full with a bunch of rigs from an organized big-rig Caravan as well as a passel of other rigs, some of which included teenagers who we all know are pretty much helpless without Internet access. Anyway, this RV park had WIFI that limited usage to 30 minutes every 90 minutes. Regardless of what you're doing or uploading, it just cut you off at 30:00 minutes. And even with that it was so slow as to be totally unusable.

That little silver thing is my 16 oz. coffee mug. These are
largest Cinnamon rolls I saw all trip. Just huge. Family sized.
This morning we drove into Whitehorse on our way out of town to run a couple last minute errands and find WIFI so we could upload a few posts and/or photos. Thought a coffee shop would be the place. Unfortunately, the coffee shop/bakery is a popular hangout for young Whitehorseians who, like most other young adults we all know, own at least one hand-held WIFI connected device that's been surgically attached to their palm. And they were pretty much all there, busy, and heads-down on their little machines, glancing up only long enough to see if the friend they were sitting next to had gotten the Facebook post they just put up. We did get on-line and were able to check email, and I did post a very short update to the blog so folks can say they're heard from us. Of course, I no sooner did that when my battery died... and the coffee shop had no 120v plugs available. Oh well.

Felt good again to get back on the road and into the wild country. Big towns like Whitehorse are getting to be nerve-racking to me. Today we turned right at the junction of the Alcan and the Klondike Highway (Yukon 2), left the Alcan, and headed north on the Klondike Highway toward Dawson City, a little over 300 miles up the road. We'll cover the rest of the big road to Alaska as we leave Alaska on our way back home in a few weeks.

Typical Highway construction zone in the far north. Note the mud.
The Klondike Highway is a paved road except where it's not... usually in construction zones. Today we had to deal with one 8 km (about 5 miles) and a couple smaller sections of "no pavement". In these areas the pavement is replaced with a gravel mixture which is doused with water, tons of water, then graded, rolled, packed, and stirred until it's the consistency of oil well fracking fluid. It's not clear to me yet how hard pavement eventually gets on top of this soup... but we did a good job of applying much of the sand/gravel/water slurry onto the sides and back of the truck. It now looks like it did before we washed it in Watson Lake just a couple days ago. The upside to all this is that we do truly look like adventurous overland explorers, as do most the cars and trucks up here. It's just a way of life.

The result.
Even though the Klondike Highway is paved (mostly) it's a notch or two below the quality of the Alaska Highway. It's narrower, the pavement is less even and consistent, there are more frost-heaves, potholes, and there's more brush and growth right up to the highway's edge. I actually like some primitiveness to a road in the far north... especially when I'm on one of the last great wilderness road trips. All the straightening and widening of the Alaska Highway concerns me a little. How long before it's a four lane parkway with complete cell phone and internet coverage end to end… and it’s no longer an adventure but just a long trip?

After about a hundred miles we found a campsite that overlooks Twin Lakes just a little north of Conglomerate Mountain. It's too nice to pass up and our early arrival means a little time to write this afternoon. If the weather holds out, we'll have another campfire tonight.

Wednesday, June 24
Up and at 'em by 8am; great nights sleep. The wake-up call was provided by a family of loons on the lake. Good weather with some smoke and haze in the air.

The Five Fingers pinnacles and rapids. 
During the drive today we saw increasing evidence of past volcanic activity in the deep ash layers exposed in cuts along the road. We followed the Yukon River for a while, passing the noted five fingers pinnacles… hard rock protuberances or spires that gave early navigators of the river a headache over the years. Apparently, only one of the four channels between the pinnacles was deep enough for navigation and it wasn't real obvious which one it was. We stopped at Moose Creek Lodge, an aged log building, for one of their famed cinnamon rolls and a cup of coffee to break up the pace.

After 267 miles we pulled into the Klondike River CG, just outside Dawson City, for the night. Mosquitoes kept us inside mostly, as we prepare for hitting the Dempster tomorrow. We did a short drive into town for fuel and a quick perusal of Dawson City.

Some say they keep grading, rolling, and watering the roads
until it freezes. 

The famous Moose Creek Lodge. Yep, they got cinnamon buns too.

I didn't ask any questions.

Dawson City

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

In Whitehorse

I'm sitting in a coffee shop in Whitehorse YT. The WIFI along our path has been pretty marginal to say the least. Even here, it's very slow. We've also been staying, often, in Provincial campgrounds, which definitely don't offer WIFI.  I've been writing and Dar has been processing photos, but we haven't been able to get them uploaded yet. That will come with time.

This short post is to let you know we're doing fine and are having a great time. I have been able to get text messages out via InReach Mapshare (check the link on our Alaska2015 tab) as well as occasionally on Facebook.

Today, after we're done here in Whitehorse, we're heading north on the Klondike Highway toward Dawson City. The plan is to keep heading north from there... until we can't drive anymore. That should be in the little village of Inuvik NWT, only a short distance from the Arctic Ocean.

Rest assured, we're having a wonderful time. I almost have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming this epic journey. Long days and not very dark nights are interesting. Last night we were sitting out around the campfire with a neighboring camper, talking, laughing, sharing experiences... until after midnight. Despite the hour, it appeared the sun had just set. Blue sky and clouds were still clearly visible. Regardless, we're getting very good sleeps.

More to follow...

Sunday, June 21, 2015

First Days on the Alaska Highway

The Alaska Highway, the "Alcan" as it's also known, was built in 8 months during 1942. Those were tense days. Pearl Harbor had been attacked the previous December and there was great fear of Japan invading North America... first the Aleutian Islands (just 700 miles from Japan), and then, after they gained a foothold in Alaska, who knows? It was imperative to have a land route to Alaska for military mobilization as soon as possible. Ten thousand army engineers were hurridly rushed to various spots along the proposed route, along with equipment and supplies, and given orders to punch through a military grade road before the winter of 42-43. They did it. All 1500 miles of it... stretching from Dawson Creek BC to Delta Junction AK. It wasn't the prettiest road, as a matter of fact it was pretty damn ugly in spots. But they did it. The building of this road through forest, swampy bogs, mountains, and frozen tundra still stands as one of the great engineering accomplishments of all time.

Since that time, the road has been almost continually upgraded. It's been straightened, re-aligned, and improved. All the original bridges across streams and rivers... just timber bridges built with the trees and materials at hand... were replaced. In some places you can see, and often drive on, the original road which closely follows the alignment of the current upgraded highway. We visited the Kiskatinaw bridge, the last remaining wooden bridge on the Alcan. It was built by a private contractor in 1943, replacing the crude original structure. The unique thing about this bridge is the 9 degree curve from one end to the other of it's more than 500 foot length. No longer on the alignment of the current Alaska Highway, it's a valued artifact from more than 70 years ago... and a monument of engineering in a pre-computer age. Wonderful.

Thursday, June 18

Left Dawson Creek full of excitement and anticipation. But for the first couple hours today... until we got some distance north of Fort St. John... I was, frankly, disappointed. My expectations were one thing, reality was another. There is so much resource extraction in this part of Canada, the resultant truck traffic and general hubbub, busy-ness, was overwhelming to me. Huge oil transporters, larger oil field equipment haulers, logging trucks, and rock, gravel, sand hauling trucks were everywhere. There were far more of them than RVs and travelers heading north. My romantic expectation of the road leaving Dawson Creek and punching immediately into a wildlife filled wilderness was clearly unrealistic. But that's why I'm here... to experience the "real McCoy", the genuine article. To see for myself what this Alaska experience is actually all about. Isn't that what travel is all about anyway? I got over my disappointment.

We've been keeping careful watch for wildlife. Haven't seen much yet. Our big coup for the drive today was a bear... our first black bear. Spotted alongside the highway in the Profit River area. Don't think we'll keep a scorecard on wildlife sightings or we'll go nuts.

Stayed tonight at Tetsa River Regional Park... 25 of the prettiest rustic riverside campsites you'd ever want to see. We snagged a site and paid our $20C. Sounds of nearby flowing water will assure a good nights sleep tonight.

General thoughts:

Made it north of 58 degrees latitude today... the latitude with an attitude. By some folk's standards, this is the line where the "far north" begins.

The road is generally in very good shape. Like roads everywhere, there are some spots where it might be considered "fair" or "poor", but for the mostpart the quality of the road surface is better than some interstate highways we've been on in the good old USA.

Fuel: As I mentioned in an earlier post, 1.149 per liter seemed common up to and including Dawson Creek. That price calculates to the equivalent of about $3.50 per US dollar considering the favorable exchange rate. But the further north one travels, the higher the price. We paid 1.429 in Fort Nelson this afternoon. It's common to find diesel for a few cents less than regular gas.

Friday, June 19

The drive through the northern Canadian Rockies today rivaled the "Banff to Jasper" route for scenery and visual wow-ness. Much of the road through here is narrow and twisting... more like my pre-conceived notion of what the Alaska Highway "should" look like. But it won't be that way much longer as projects are underway to straighten, level, and widen the road to a much higher standard. If you're looking for that authentic experience before heading up this way, I wouldn't wait much longer.

Saw a couple more bear today... just busily munching away on something alongside the road. Also slowed for a group of bison that were likewise more interested in eating than in traffic just a few feet away.

Again, I can't begin to convey the beauty of these mountains and the path through them. I'll include a selection of photos with this post for you to see some of what we experienced today. As always, there are more photos in our online photo albums. They're only a click away from the tab at the top of this website.

Because we prefer staying at more rustic provincial parks, internet access is hard to come by. I'm trying to keep the journal up to date by writing offline and will "publish" when I find WIFI.

We stopped and snagged a campsite in the Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park. One of the "must do's" along the Alcan is a stop at the Liard Hot Springs for a soak, and having the hot springs just a short walk from our campsite is quite convenient. The weather today took a turn for the better. It was actually over 70 degrees with a bright clear sky. Couldn't have planned a better day for a stress relieving soak.

And up to this point we're not having any problems sleeping during these very short nights. Even in Dawson Creek, the sun didn't set until almost 10pm and was poking up again by just after 4am. Considering we're just a day or two away from solstice, and our planned route to take us north of the Arctic Circle, this is just training for much brighter nights to come.

Before retiring tonight we decided to extend our stay here another night. Another day of warm sun, soaking in the hot springs, and enjoying another non-travel day couldn't hurt, could it? We have no set schedule so when we find a comfortable spot, we'll often "call an audible", and linger a while longer.

Saturday, June 20

Good weather day that made our day of rest even more enjoyable. Another soak in the springs was in order and then the rest of the day to relax, read, and work on things. Ordered up wood for another campfire, our second in as many days.

Sunday, June 21 Solstice

The sun's direct rays on earth reached their furthest annual northern point today, and areas above the Arctic Circle are experiencing 24 hours of daylight. We're not there yet, but in the next week or so, that's our plan: to be in the land of all day sunlight.

About 8am this morning we left our campsite at Liard River Hot Springs Prov. Park, and headed northwest, toward Alaska. However, we only rolled about 4 tenths of a mile before a force beyond our control reached out, grabbed the steering wheel, and turned the truck into the Hot Springs Lodge, where we enjoyed a much needed hot breakfast.

Only 130 miles today but still saw a good collection of wildlife: a couple bears and a bunch of bison were most noteable. Our goal was to make it to Watson Lake where we checked into the Downtown RV Park. We're not going to make RV parks a habit, but in some cases, like today, there's a reason. In this case the reason involves "washing"... the truck and camper, some laundry, and ourselves, a hot shower.

Watson Lake is the location of the famous Alaska Highway Sign Post Forest. The whole thing started when some homesick GI made a sign with the name of his hometown and it's distance from Watson Lake. Since that time more than 75,000 signs (at last count in 2013) have been put up on a literal forest of signposts that cover the better part of a block. Just goes to show you can overdo a good thing.

Here are a few pics from these days.  The rest are in our photo albums... [here]

Kiskatinaw Bridge - built 1943. The last wooden bridge on the Alcan.

Note the curves.

Too many oil tankers

Nice campsite along the Tetsa River
Liard Hot Springs

Happy Hour

A bear alongside the road

The Toad River Lodge has a bunch of hats. Didn't get one of mine.