<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Postcards Library 29
Little Log



Stephanie is one of those persons who can fit a lot of words onto a standard size postcard -- usually by writing sideways, around corners, and even upside down if she can find some extra space. Most of these go to family and friends. But some of them -- those which document our RV adventures -- find their way onto this portion of our website.

Postcard: Ferry Tales

July 6, 2002

We got a special treat that evening in Kitwanga -- Canada Day fireworks. This is a very small town, and I might have expected bottle rockets, sparklers and firecrackers. Instead, we got the whole show; multi-stage aerial explosions of brilliant color lighting up the night sky. Fireworks wouldn't have made much of an impact during much of our travels, but we have driven far enough south now to have a few hours of "real" night.

The next morning we headed for Prince Rupert, following Yellowhead Highway along the Skeena River. The river is unusually high for this time of year; one old-timer told us that all the water from as far away as Smithers "winds up here". (Smithers is a town 100 miles further upstream).

Just how did we meet this old-timer? Anything reading ferry this or ferry that catches our immediate attention, so when Tom saw a side road reading "Ferry Ave," we had to explore. Within a quarter mile, we were at the riverbank, where an unusual ferry was coming across. It was attached to either shore by a single cable. A large rudder cut into the fast current and the weight of the boat caused it to cross the river. The ferry was quite small; it wouldn't accommodate more than three average size cars, and only had one passenger on this trip. As the ferry docked on our side of the river, an elderly man who was watching its progress waved hello to the ferry attendant. "Good morning, John", the ferry worker called, and headed back across the river.

This man told us that about 30 people live across the river, and the ferry is their only access to the rest of the world -- when there is no river ice. The Skeena freezes hard enough to make ferry travel impractical in winter. In ice season, there is a different way across the river. There are two towers near the ferry landing, one on either side of the river. In ice season, anyone wanting to cross climbs the tower, gets into a gondola and swings across. Residents keep two cars, one on each side, so they can drive to town.

The town in question is Terrace, where we were headed for a breakfast and a trip to the grocery store. But we had forgotten that this was Canada Day. Terrace was shut tight. No stores of any kind were open. Restaurants were closed, except for one lone MacDonalds. They were doing a brisk business.

The city of Prince Rupert, wasn't shut down, however. Far from it. Here we found a completely different way to celebrate. At the centrally located Mariner's Park several bands were playing, kids were running races, and vendors were selling various delicious looking foods. Grocery stores here were open, and the waterfront area known as "Cow Bay" was doing a brisk tourist business. The theme of this area is totally bovine, a coffee house is called "Cowpuccinos", and other businesses are painted cow colors, white with black spots. The difference between this town and Terrance was explained by the checkout girl at the town grocery. She explained that just recently Terrance had voted to completely close for the holiday, while Prince Rupert chose to keep its stores open.

We wandered the docks at Cow Bay. A small cruise ship had docked, and a handful of passengers were browsing the dockside stores. This city is expanding its cruise services, a new and much larger dock area is planned, to attract the mega-ships. (We hope they can keep the small town atmosphere that some Alaskan towns have lost.)

Our ferry was due to depart at 7:30 the next morning, and we were advised to be there by 6:30. It was a good thing we were early, as loading took place at 6:15 and the boat sailed right on time. We had a stateroom, a tiny cubicle with adjoining bath, a desk, but no window. A bit confining, but on a 15 hour trip, we spent only a fraction of the time in the room. There was a "below deck" call every three hours, so pet owners could visit their animals. Three lectures were given during our cruise, one on the different climatic zones of BC, another on eagles, and the third on whales and marine life. If you didn't want to hear the lecture, there was a (fairly) first run movie starring Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. The gift shop was well stocked with attractive merchandise, and the restaurant was terrific. We had an "all you can eat" dinner, with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding as the main course, several different salads and veggies, and scrumptious desserts. Of course we sampled everything!

The weather cooperated on the trip, there was no wind and little ocean swell, and we arrived in Port Hardy on time, at 10:30 that night. We spent the night at Missy's favorite spot, the Sunny Sanctuary Campground, where there are dozens of rabbits. She spends all her waking time sitting at attention, watching then and hoping someone will let her loose.

We plan on spending a couple of days at Ripple Rock RV Park, just north of Campbell River. One of our favorite spots, the park overlooks Brown Bay marina with its many small fishing and whale watching boats. Almost every evening in summer, at least one large cruise ship comes by, lights ablaze. There are two sections of this park, one at the water's edge, the other on a terrace above, overlooking the marina. Tonight the sun has come out and is bathing everything is a rosy glow. We sit looking down at the boats as they come into the marina and unload their cargo. (The man in the RV next to us just unloaded a 26 pound King salmon!). Across the channel, we can see the spouts from a couple of wandering orcas. Fabulously beautiful.

However, tomorrow we it's time to head home. Leaving Ripple Rock, we will drive south to Nanaimo, catch a ferry to Tswassen, (south of Vancouver), drive to Anacortes, and take another ferry to our San Juan Island home. We will have only a few days to catch upon mail and get our hot weather clothes packed before it will be time to head east to Moscow, ID for the Life on Wheels Conference. Busy summer, and what fun!

Postcard: Fishing down the Cassiar

July 1, 2002

The Cassiar Highway is a 446 mile, (718 km) road stretching from a point on the Yellowhead Highway 150 miles east of Prince Rupert, to the Alaska Highway, 25 miles west of Watson Lake. Travelers between Prince George and the junction of the Alaska/Cassiar Highways will save 132 miles by taking the Cassiar. Yet most don't go that way. The Cassiar has a largely undeserved reputation of being a muddy (or dusty, depending on the weather), rutted, pot-holed road, that no one in his right mind would choose. When I mentioned we would be driving it, a fellow camper looked at me with horror. "Didn't you hear", he said, "it's been raining down there for the last two days."

This will be our second trip down the Cassiar, so we feel like seasoned veterans. We know just where we want to stop each night, where we saw bear and moose last trip, and where Tom can get a fishing license. Parts of the Cassiar seem bordered by small lakes, most with reasonable shore access, and the fishing is very good. This time, we have had to forego our planned saltwater excursions, but now there's time for trout.

We spent the first night 50 miles down the highway, at Boya Lake, which is absolutely as turquoise and beautiful as we remembered., a typical provincial park, with spacious non-hookup sites, and free firewood, producing great evening campfires. We arrived on the first day the Canada Day weekend, a three day holiday the Canadians take very seriously -- their independence day, quite like our 4th of July. We were a bit concerned that it might be crowded, but we arrived about 2 pm, there was only one other camper. We found a site overlooking the lake, with our very own bit of beach. Later, the sites along the lake did fill, but there were still lots of empty non-beach sites. Our neighbors had two inflatable kayaks with them, and were out for an afternoon paddle. We have missed not having a boat with us, always thinking it would be too cumbersome with the camper, but an inflatable kayak seems a very good idea.

A hiking trail leads along the shore of the lake, and there are numerous places where you can access the water from the trail -- obviously, hopeful fishermen had made paths to fish for lake char, whitefish and burbot. It was a brilliant, sunny afternoon, just right for an afternoon stroll.

Next morning, we were off toward the small town of Dease Lake. About 40 miles north of town, we were attracted by the Dease River Crossing RV & Campsite. This park is still undergoing a "fix up" phase, with attractive new log cabins, restrooms and laundry, and expectations of electricity by late summer. While Boya Lake sites are suitable for mid-size rigs, here the larger ones can be accommodated, right at the edge of the Dease River.

Dease Lake provided a fishing license, and with mouths now watering for a trout dinner, all we needed was the proper lake. Again, our memories served well -- the Gnat Lakes. When we first read the "Milepost", it had touted the fish in Upper Gnat Lake. Tom had fished there with no results, and then tried Lower Gnat. A fish bonanza resulted. This edition didn't even mention fishing Upper Gnat, and we didn't stop until we got to Lower Gnat, and, if there weren't as many as we remembered, fish was the main course for dinner.

Our next night's stop was also drawn from our memories -- Kiniskan Lake Provincial Park. This lake is reportedly great for fishing, but you really need a boat to have any success. Tom saw one young boy come ashore with an impressive string of fish, and we later saw the same boat go out again, this time carrying a much older man. Hmm.. Could be Dad wanted part of the action as well. We set up right on the shore, and to our surprise, found the same two couples from Nevada, we had seen that morning at Boya Lake. We exchanged greetings, "we've got to stop meeting like this" and "fancy meeting you here".

We had covered 160 miles of this not-so fearsome road. The weather had been intermittently rainy, but we had traveled only one patch of unpaved road. True, the paved roads are a bit narrow, and there is often no midline stripe, but there are also very few cars. Occasionally, a truck did come by, headed for the Alaska highway at as high a speed as he could safely travel, so we slowed each time we saw one coming, and had no trouble with rock spatter.

As we drove south, we looked for out-of-the way spots, and found Little Bob Quinn Lake. This was so out-of-the-way, we almost missed it. First we had to drive through the Bob Quinn highway maintenance camp, then down a steep, fairly muddy, rutted trail to a lovely little lake. Someone else had already found it; another camper was all set up, generator running, boat in the water. Tom hooked a breakfast rainbow, we batted at some extremely pesky mosquitoes, and were off to Meziadin Lake Provincial Park.

Time constraints decided us against staying here or taking the road west to Stewart, BC and Hyder, AK. We had been there before, and enjoyed the contrast between the two towns, Stewart more sedate than Hyder, the "friendliest ghost town in Alaska", only 3 km further on. This weekend, with the combination Canada Day/4th of July celebration occurring, we were told that Stewart/Hyder was "where it was happening". As we drove through Meziadin Lake Provincial Park, we ran again into our Nevada friends. Tom talked fishing with the men, while I took a short stroll with one of the women as she walked her small dog. She confided that the dog didn't much like the trip, he was scared "all the time", and "was looking forward to going home". Just the dog?

As we headed south that afternoon, it was wildlife time. First, a bull moose ambled across the highway right in front of the car. Then we came upon two bears munching grass and leaves right by the side of the road. I was driving, and Tom spotted them before I could stop. We continued on and found ourselves stopped by a mother Franklin Grouse and what seemed like dozens of babies, all intent on crossing. I pulled on the truck flashers, stuck my arm out the window and waved at oncoming cars to slow down until all the babies were across. In a few more yards there was a spot wide enough to turn around and we came back up the road. The bears were still there. Tom got some great bear pictures.

The Cassiar RV Park is located in Kitwanga, only a couple of miles from the bottom of the Highway. This is a very attractive park, with level grassy sites suitable for the largest rigs and level grassy sites just right for tenters. It attracts those rigs just off the Cassiar -- with an in-park RV wash! It was easy to tell which rigs were just starting north and which had just come off the road -- just look at the dirt caked on the back and lower sides. But it's a badge of honor to be so dirty; it proves you have successfully driven the Cassiar. However, badge or no, there was quite a lineup in front of the RV wash, another for the laundry wash, and still another for the hot showers.

Tomorrow we will be in Prince Rupert, with next day reservations on the BC ferry to Port Hardy at the north tip of Vancouver Island. We will have a few days on the Island and then head home. It seems that our trip has only lasted a few days, rather that its actual four weeks. Every part has been special, from the city life of Anchorage, to the wildness of the Cassiar, and we are already talking return trip.

Postcard: Out of Alaska

June 29, 2002

Our plans called for 2 days back in Haines before reboarding Alaska ferry, but by the time we crested Chilkat Pass on the Haines highway, the weather had turned cool and rainy. So we changed our plans. We would pack our allotted two days of exploring into one, and be off to Skagway at noon the next day. We spent our afternoon at the Sheldon Museum, learning about the pioneer history of Haines. I was taken with the story of Haines House, a school/living experience for the children of the indigenous people in the late 1800s. There several letters written by the students telling of their school life which are especially poignant. The next morning, we toured the American Bald Eagle Foundation Interpretive Center, where the emphasis is on the interaction of this bird with its environment. Almost before we knew it, it was time for the ferry.

We were sailing on the Malaspina, one of the smaller ships in the fleet. Every day during summer, Malaspina leaves Juneau at 7 am, stops in Haines and Skagway, and is back in Juneau by 11 that night. Some tourists get off in Haines; others disembark in Skagway, while some remain aboard round trip. There is usually room on board at this last stage of the trip, and we had no problem changing our reservations.

Skagway is one of the most popular stops for the large cruise lines. When we rounded the last point and could see the town, it was almost hidden by three huge ships -- one from the Norwegian American line, one bearing the logo of Princess cruises, and the third from Royal Caribbean. The Alaska ferry seemed an extremely small ship, docking at a very small dock between these behemoths.

We spent the evening at Pullen Creek Park. Most sites here would best accommodate smaller RVs, and the facilities are somewhat limited, but it is conveniently located right between the ships and downtown Skagway. A walk of just a few blocks brings you to all the shops. I went to join the hordes of tourists jamming the stores, and came away with the feeling that almost every store was the same -- selling t-shirts, Alaskan dolls and stuffed "sled dog" puppies, Alaskan figurines, and Ulus. (An ulu is a knife, curved into the shape of a "c" with the handle completing the circle). I asked one saleswoman how many days a week the cruise ships come into port, and got an interesting insight into the lives of those who stand behind the counters and wait on the tourists.

"Every day, we have at least three ships", she responded. "Once a month or so, we get a cruise-free day. Then everyone drives to Whitehorse and goes to Wal-mart to stock up on toiletries and dogfood."

The next morning found us on the South Klondike Highway. The road climbs over White Pass, crosses out of Alaska into British Columbia, and, 34 miles later, enters the Yukon Territory. By the time we cleared Canadian customs, the weather was clearing as well and the rain and mist of Skagway give way to brilliant sunlight on the high peaks surrounding the road. This is beautiful, (that overworked word again), country, dotted with sub-alpine lakes and stunted trees. Here and there, a patch of left-over snow still clung in the crevices of the boulders lining the lakes. Up on the higher mountains, we could see the wooden shafts of gold mines from days long gone.

We are still ahead of our schedule, and decided to detour through Whitehorse instead of taking a short cut road west to the Alaska Highway. That way, although we didn't know it at the time, we would get to see the Annie Lake Golf Course. We found its description in the "Milepost". "18 holes, wilderness setting". It was only a mile or so off the highway, and then another 3/4 mile on a very bumpy, rutted road, right out into the woods. It didn't look like there was going to be any course, wilderness or no, and we just about turned around. But suddenly, as we rounded a bend, there it was -- 18 holes, sand greens with brooms at their sides for the players to sweep the putting surface smooth after finishing putting, and a $2.00 greens fee. Canadian. Areas are set in the trees along the fairways where you could park an RV -- no hookups, but each with a picnic table and fire ring. There was no one there, so we let Missy run for a few minutes. She quickly discovered that the fairways were pock-marked with ground squirrel holes, and had a wonderful romp.

We provisioned in Whitehorse, and spent the night 110 miles southeast in Teslin at the Yukon Motel Lakeshore Resort, where we had a site right on Nisutlin Bay. This park would accommodate any size rig heading up the Alaska highway, with full hookups and very nice facilities, including "all you can eat" specials in their cafe. They also have been working on mosquito abatement, and we had a bug free night!

Tomorrow, we head down the Cassiar Highway. This road has such a reputation for such roughness that many people refuse to drive it. On our previous travels, we found that unpaved roadway often leads to wildlife sightings. I can't wait to see what this Cassiar Adventure will bring.

Postcard: Finding Alaska: Where's the Alaska I Used to Know?

June 22, 2002

We spent two days in Fairbanks, enjoying the never-setting sun. Unseasonable rain and cool temperatures robbed us of some of the daytime vistas, but both nights, around 1:00 am, the clouds broke up and the sun's reflection on the clouds turned them a beautiful pink, while the rest of the sky was a pale blue. Unbelievable colors at an unbelievable time. I often wake to people out enjoying the evening when, by my standards, they should be in bed. Solstice is a big celebration here -- Fairbanks enjoys a baseball game between two local teams. The game starts at 10 pm, and when it is over, everyone drives home with their lights OFF.

We're a bit ahead of schedule. We've been looking for the Alaska we used to know, and finding that at least parts of Alaska have changed greatly. Tour companies are everywhere. When we arrived at Denali National Park, we found huge, double-long buses from Holland America taking up multiple spaces in the headquarters parking lots. Their passengers had reserved all the available seats on all the available shuttles entering the park, and the first tour we could join was the next day at noon (individual vehicles are not allowed in the park). The hotels and motels at the entrance to the park are crowded by other buses, these bearing the logo of Princess Cruises. One of the lodges is called "Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge", and another is Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. You can even arrive at the park on Princess' own train, the Midnight Sun Express.

In Fairbanks, Gold Dredge No. 8, the only dredge in Alaska open to visitors, has been purchased by Holland-America lines, and is now surrounded by a fence. The only way to view it now is to take their tour -- you can't even see the dredge unless you do.

Not just Denali and Fairbanks; Talkeetna was crowded with tour buses as well, and less well equipped to handle the crowds. Every T-shirt shop was crammed with shoppers. I overheard one woman telling her friends, "This is my last shirt, I simply cannot get another thing into my suitcase". Great for the Alaskan economy; not so good for our search for Alaska.

Leaving Denali, we headed toward Fairbanks. On a whim, we stopped in Nenana, a small town 50 miles south --and there it was-- the Alaska we used to know. The postmistress, a citizen of Nenana for the last 36 years, invited us to visit St. Marks Mission Church, conveniently located right across the street. She instructed us to take special note the white moose altar cloth and its intricate beadwork -- done by 4 generations of Nenana natives. The pews and the altar had also been hand carved by the parishioners.

As we were talking with the postmistress, a native woman came in. "Hi, Miss Nina," she was greeted, "how was Hawaii? I want to hear all about it." The two settled in for a chat, and Tom and I went to see the Mission church. It is a beautiful building, conveying a great sense of history, well worth the stop. As we headed back to the truck, Miss Nina was just leaving the post office. We stopped her to ask about the town, and she turned out to be an absolute repository of knowledge. We should visit the Visitor Center and have lunch in the nearby cafe (just opened for the season). She asked us if we knew about the Nenana Ice Classic. This annual event awards cash prizes to those who guess -- to the minute-- when the ice will break up on the Nenana River. A tripod is placed in the river in February with a line attached to a clock. When the surging ice dislodges the tripod, the line stops the clock and records the official breakup time. Thousands of people enter this contest; in fact, when we later had a chance to view the sign up book for 2001, it was over 1500 pages long, each page filled with columns of names and times. Miss Nina told us that her team came within a minute of winning in 1999, but since one member of her team was secretary for the event, perhaps it was well they'd come in second.

We found another piece of our missing Alaska in Delta Junction, when we stopped at the Delta Meat and Sausage Co., a shop selling elk, bison, and caribou meats as well as pork and beef. We were just about to enter the store when a car pulled up and two women got out. With warm and friendly "hi's", they led us into the shop and one of them told us which cuts were her particular favorites. She was entertaining her sister from Nebraska, and considered the Sausage Co. a "must see". Every cut from jerky to roasts is available, although Helen, the proprietress, told us that they were just about out of caribou. "And when we are", she said, "we won't be able to get any more."

The weather turned clear and sunny this morning, and we stopped to get a picture of the snow capped Alaska Range before turning eastward toward Tok. One of the best vantage points for a picture was the parking lot at the Delta Junction Baptist Church, where some men were working on an addition to the building. After Tom took his pictures, we talked with the foreman for the project. We had parked in the church parking Iot, and I jokingly remarked, "Tourists are everywhere, aren't they?"

"Hey, that's the state", he replied, and proceeded to tell us about life in Delta Junction,-- how much snow to expect in the winter, how to predict the flows of the Delta River, and the heights of the various peaks we could see from the church. And we found another piece of our puzzle.

Tonight we are camped at Moon Lake State Park, about 18 miles north of Tok. We drove into this campground for a quick lunch and found it so beautiful we decided to stay the night. We have a spot close to the water's edge, under a large cottonwood tree. We aren't in any particular hurry, so decided to spend the afternoon just relaxing. About 6 pm, two families showed up in their pickup trucks (the transportation of choice here). One was towing a speedboat, the other a jet ski. The kids hurriedly put on their swim suits, the boat and ski were unloaded and everyone took turns going for rides. They played in the early evening sun until about 9, before heading for home. Alaska families enjoying Alaska's beauty. Perhaps that's what we've been missing all along.

Postcard: The Black Bear of Byers Lake

June 19,2002

We have been "city folks" for the last several days. We spent a night at the Anchorage RV Park, caught up on our RV chores, laundry and grocery shopping. Then we took the Seward Highway south for one night in this small town.

The busy Seward Highway follows Turnagain Arm an easterly extension of Cook Inlet for 35 miles before turning inland and heading south. This body of water is known for having one of the world's greatest tidal swings, with a diurnal range of 33 feet. Today we could see the rush of water entering the Arm, creating grey, silt laden standing waves. Not a good place for boats of any size, and signs along the water's edge warn hikers away from the beaches, as the glacial silt and water can create a dangerous quicksand. We looked in vain for the Beluga whales that frequent Turnagain, but did see two small herds of Dall sheep high on the hill above the road.

We expected to find that Seward had grown, and were pleasantly surprised to see how well the town has handled its growth. The increase in cruise ship traffic has meant a corresponding increase in satellite services. A cruise ship comes into port, and early the next morning, small boats, bristling with fishing poles and loaded down with hopeful tourist fishermen, head out to the salmon or halibut grounds. The Kenai Fjords National Park is nearby, and other boats, large and small, head that way. But there still is an "old" town, with an old town feeling. The restaurant where, in 1987, we ate dinner while waiting, for the ferry to Kodiak, is still there. So are the old shops and downtown shops, changed very little, if at all.

Seward has added a new attraction in its old town area -- the Alaska Sealife Center. Born in part by concerns over the Exxon Valdez disaster, and funded by the oil spill settlement, this center is authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service, to conduct "research on the decline in the population of Stellar sea lions, and study the overall health of the marine ecosystem". It is a series of exhibits on marine life housed in a two story museum. You can observe Tufted Puffins and Pigeon Guillemots in their tanks as they dive for fish. With a pool 21 feet deep, from one floor you can observe them above water. The next floor down, you see the same pool from under water. Now you can see the birds, trailing shiny air bubbles, dive down and catch the bits of herring they call dinner. Other exhibits include one of King Crabs, and the Pacific "Giant" Squid. What a wonderful way to spend a few hours.

Leaving Seward, we retraced our steps to Anchorage for an afternoon of planning our next travels. We were becoming such city folk that we were surprised to see a young moose wander through the campground, even though prominently posted signs warned us of this possibility. We didn't know it, but we were becoming less and less prepared for Byers Lake.

We left Anchorage and headed north on the Parks Highway, toward Denali National Park and Fairbanks. We had contemplated spending the night at one of the campgrounds at Big Lake, just 50 miles north, but a glance at the Anchorage newspaper showed us this would be a mistake; like its counterparts to the east, it was closed "due to legislative constraints", and making big headlines. So we decided we would just wander north, find whatever camp area we could, and let Lady Luck decide where we would spend the night.

Without any fixed schedule, we just ambled along. It was almost 11 am when we left Anchorage, so a lunch stop seemed in order. Then I remembered a couple of important phone calls that needed to be made before we got out of cell phone range. We stopped in Talkeetna, a town with fond memories for both of us. The way this town had handled growth was disappointing, and we didn't stay long, but did stop at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge for a short geocaching expedition. Now it was late afternoon, and we started seriously looking for a place to stop.

The Milepost, (the good old Alaskan "bible"), showed us four possible places, and we settled on Byers Lake Campground. The Milepost cautioned us -- in red print-- that "Bears frequent campground. Keep a clean camp". When we found our site, I noticed a sign tacked to the table. There was a list of items that should not be left outside, including any food, barbeque grills, and cosmetics. Should you be in violation of this requirement, you could be fined $50. But we had seen these signs before without ever seeing any bears, and the last few days in civilization had made us complacent. We took a late afternoon walk along the shores of the lake, talking with a young family swimming there. We spent a leisurely evening, and, more because of the possible fine than fear of bears, cleaned our grill and put the dog food away.

The morning weather was grey and rainy, and we decided to drive for awhile before breakfast. While Tom packed up the last of our equipment, I took Missy for her morning "constitutional". We went down our loop road to the main drive, and were walking briskly along, when Missy started acting strangely. She put her nose down on the road and ran back and forth as far as the leash would let her go, sniffing madly. I guessed she had scented a squirrel. Next I tried to get her to do her doggy "thing". I sent her into the brush at the side of the road. That usually works. This time, she barely ventured into the brush, came right back to the road, sat down and looked up at me. I tried the other side of the road with similar results.

"OK, dog, you won't cooperate; we'll go back."

Tom was on his way to meet us down the road a bit, and was surprised that we hadn't walked on down the road. Missy and I got in the truck, we drove on about 300 feet, rounded a corner, and there, loping across the road, was a large black bear. We guessed his weight at about 400 pounds, that size probably making him a male. Missy and I must have been practically on top of him before we turned back. Brrr...

I've now had my wildlife experience for today and all week, and will surely be more aware of Missy's behavior from now on.

Postcard: How to Pack a Park

June 15, 2002

Overnight, we decided to go south to Valdez. This picturesque town is located on Prince William Sound, the site of the ecological disaster known as the Exxon oil spill. Mother Nature, according to a political cartoon, the "cleaning maid" of Exxon, seemingly has done a remarkable job of cleaning up the area. From Valdez, our options would include driving back to Anchorage, or, more interestingly, taking another Alaska State Ferry. This one would be a 7 hour trip west to Whittier, and then a 50 mile drive to Anchorage and the International Airport. One way or another, Tom would get to his meeting in Ventura.

The Tok Cutoff Road travels west and meets the Richardson Highway, which in turn takes you 130 miles to Valdez. It is a spectacular (there's that word again!) drive, following the Copper River south. At several places along the river, campers, trucks and trailers had disgorged hopeful fishermen. The water looked a bit high to us for successful fishing, but they undoubtedly know better. Climbing up over Thompson Pass, the road goes past the Worthington Glacier, and down into Valdez. It's a bit on the wild side, this morning I saw my first moose, grazing on some new growth right next to the road.

By now, we have seen so many "spectacular" mountains, "breathtaking" glaciers, "beautiful" valleys and rivers, and "wild" valleys, that my vocabulary has just about been exhausted. We are suffering from sensory overload; sometimes we don't even notice the scenery. Alaska needs to be experienced more slowly -- a little at a time. And we are learning that we have done it again -- we won't have as much time to spend here as we would like.

As we entered Valdez we saw several RV parks. A far cry from the idyllic setting of the Provincial and State parks, these in-town parks are designed to fit as many rigs into a limited gravel or concrete parcel as possible. But this is a price many will pay for the convenience of being able to walk through this small town, with its many interesting shops and restaurants. The town is centered around its boat harbor, which is comprised of commercial fishing vessels, sightseeing and fishing charter vessels, and pleasure boats. Many of the commercial establishments are store fronts for various types of fishing and sight seeing charters.

We had a vague recollection of staying at one of the downtown parks on our last visit -- Bear Paw RV park. When we checked it out in the Trailer Life Directory we found it was now in fact two parks -- the one we remembered, plus another "adult" park at a nearby but separate location. While the "adult park" designation is not one we normally seek out, in this case we wanted to at least see where it was. We followed the directions, but no luck. It wasn't where it was described in the Directory. So we checked in at the office of the main Bear Paw park, just in time for a guided tour.

We checked in, hooked up and checked our phone messages (we'd been out of cell range for the last few days). The Good Sam folks had called, and their schedule had Tom attending meetings that would require his staying an would require an extra 24-36 hours. So, email will have to do; Tom opted out of the trip south. This gives us an extra few days to explore Alaska.

What to do with our newly acquired time? We could take one of the several day cruises on Prince William Sound. We could stick with our idea to take the state ferry to Whittier and then drive out to Seward or to Homer. Or we could drive north to the Glenn Highway, and head for Anchorage. The weather helped us make our decision. The next morning was foggy, and a very light rain was falling. If we took a day cruise, we'd have to be right on top of a sea otter or lion before we would see it. Another day in foggy Valdez, waiting for the boat to Whittier, wasn't too enticing either. We knew that as soon as we drove inland, we would find sun. So Anchorage it was.

About noon, we turned onto the Glenn Highway. I was looking at the Milepost and noticed the full page discussion of a side trip to Lake Louise. Only 20 miles off the highway, so if it was full we wouldn't lose too much time, two campgrounds, a beautiful lake, and only $10 per night. To make matters even better, we thought we had been there before and thoroughly enjoyed it. Off we went.

After about 3 miles, the pavement ended and the gravel road began. It was well graded, and, except for a huge hole marked with a now faded pink cone, where the roadbed was crumbling away to nothing, a fairly easy trip. We passed lake after lake, most marked "stocked by the ADF&G". This country appeals to off road enthusiasts as well; we passed several empty ATV trailers.

At the end of the road, we passed the first campground, Army Point. Uh, oh! There was a rock and wood barricade across the entrance and a sign reading, "this campground has been closed due to budgetary cuts by the Alaska State Legislature". We were 20 miles off the road, and this was the first such sign we had seen. Maybe they had just closed one of the two campgrounds? Nope. A few hundred yards down the road, we found Lake Louise campground, its entrance barricaded by three huge boulders, and an identical sign.

But the situation here was a bit different. You don't shut out an Alaskan from his campground quite that easily. Someone had rolled the rocks away from the exit area, and the campground was already about half full, at 2 in the afternoon. There were 8 pickups with empty boat trailers attached taking up the waterfront sites, and we later learned that this is the only public boat launch on the entire lake. Of the remaining 15 sites or so, there were only about 5 empty.

We drove in through the exit, and found a nice site overlooking -- the largest eagle I have ever seen. Maybe she (females are larger than males) just seemed so big because we could get so close. She was in a tree about 20 feet tall and we were within 30 feet of the tree. The eagle was looking at Missy, less as a threat, and more as a meal! Our site also had a great view of the water, and we watched as the boats came back. A couple of lake trout were brought in, each over 30 inches, looking more like salmon than trout.

By 4, the campground was absolutely full. One nearby camper was worried that everyone would be kicked out that evening. She lived in Wasilla, about 120 miles west of the Lake, and her children had been fishing here since they were small. "I have pictures of them with fish bigger than they are", she told me. "We come up here all the time. The lake wasn't closed last weekend". (It wasn't really closed this weekend either.)

Unfortunately, this pretty campground is going to have some substantial problems. Since it is technically closed, there is no one taking any money from the campers. The bathrooms are nailed shut, so what will the campers do? The garbage cans were still there, each lined with clean trash bags, but they won't stay clean long. And I keep remembering that this really is bear country.

While I was taking with the woman from Wasilla, Tom met another group of campers who told him that every campground between Glennallen and Palmer (50 miles east of Anchorage), had been closed. Not that it made a whole lot of difference to the Alaskan camping/picnicing public. As we drove west the next morning, we passed Long Lake State Recreation Site. This has 9 campsites, no fee for camping, no water and no garbage. It too, bore a sign proclaiming it closed. The parking area was packed so full of vehicles, not one more could have squeezed in. There were jet skis tied at the water's edge, picnic fires burning in the grates, and families enjoying a Sunday afternoon outing.

How to pack a park? Close it.

Postcard: The Roads to Tok

June 12, 2002

The sun jumped ship somewhere just north of Juneau, and the more typical gray, misty weather followed us north toward to Haines. We could view the town as the ferry passed en route to its dock about 4 miles north of town. There is a ferry dock at the south end of town, several homes and marine businesses are situated right on the water, but the bulk of the town scrambles up the hill behind the water. There are two grocery stores here; a good thing, since all the RVs getting off the ferry had been without propane for three days. Our experiments on previous trips had taught us that even dry ice won't keep things cold for 3 days. Everyone was anxious to stock up for the trip into the interior. I chose the AP (Alaska Proud) grocery store for my provisions, and found it very good, if a bit expensive.

That accomplished, we drove about four blocks to the Haines Hitch-Up RV park. We stayed here on our first visit to Alaska, and wanted to return. Each rig parks on level grass, and the park can accommodate any size rig. What you noticed first as you drive into the park, however is the scenery. The mountains of the Coast Range tower above the park, seeming just a short hike away. Their craggy tops are snow crested, and snow ribbons streak down the mountain sides, turning to waterfalls further down the slopes. The park is conveniently located on the Haines Highway, tomorrow's route to interior British Columbia, Yukon Territory and the rest of Alaska. The highway was busy this afternoon, but by dinnertime, there was no more traffic. The Haines residents had gone home, and no tourists were going to miss the coming spectacular vistas by driving in the dark.

Before taking off the next morning, we explored the town. We drove south to the Fort William H. Seward Historic area, where the old officer's quarters are being renovated for use as tourist facilities. Nearby is the shuttle dock, where the Haines-Skagway Water Taxi takes passengers to the nearby town. Skagway is only 45 minutes away by water, but over 300 miles by land! The taxi was just arriving, and I was tempted to try to talk Tom into just one more ferry ride, but the lure of the rest of Alaska proved too strong for both of us. By 11:30 that morning, we were off toward Haines Junction.

Leaving town, the road winds along the Chilkat River, through the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. This 48,000 acre preserve is seasonal home to more than 3,500 Bald Eagles. Unfortunately, the season occurs in late summer, and while we saw a dozen or so eagles, most of the others were elsewhere, waiting to visit during salmon spawning season. There were several small fish camps located along the river, and we saw three fish wheels. These interesting wheels scoop into the river, hopefully catching salmon and storing them in a side compartment. Beats baiting a hook!

Leaving the river, the Haines Highway took us up Three Guardsmen Pass and over Chilkat Pass, the highest point on the road. Even in mid-June, there are still patches of snow in places, and the wind is merciless. This is a country of brown lichen, random bits of green foliage scattered here and there, and lots of wind scoured rocks. The area is well above the treeline, even though the passes are relatively low at 3,500 feet. This is a reputed favorite snowmobiling and cross-country skiing area, although I could imagine how terribly cold it must be then. It's stark and barren, but fabulously beautiful country.

Entering the Yukon territory, we passed a sign reading "Rock Glacier Trail -- distance, 1/2 mile." Sounded like a nice easy walk, so we parked and started hiking. The next sign we saw said, "This is bear country, be careful". We debated leaving Missy in the camper, as we hadn't the faintest idea what she would do if she saw a bear, but opted to give her a little exercise. Knowing then what we learned later, we might have made a different decision.

The boardwalk trail wound through some swampy areas, and then started to climb. The boardwalk was replaced by a narrow trail of loose and crumbling rock. Up and ever more steeply up. We hadn't seen any bears, and having a glad-to-be-free dog pulling us up the trail was a decided plus. The trail is actually on a glacier, a glacier of rock. At one time, water in and under the rocks made them move in much the same way as an ice glacier does. An interpretive sign at the bottom of the hill explained that, due to global warming, water movement had ceased, and the rock glacier was dead. Close to the top of the climb, we found another sign. This one stated that the rock glacier had ceased all movement more than a century earlier. Hmm...

We spent the night at Kathleen Lake Provincial Park campground. At this time of year, we pretty much had our pick among the 39 campsites, each with fire ring and picnic table. We were still in bear country, and the trash containers have special "bear proof" (also often Stephanie proof) closures. "Warning, you are in bear country" signs are everywhere. We hiked down to the lake, talking loudly all the way, but saw only other campers on the trail. It was not until the next day that we learned that Kathleen Lake has a resident black bear, an exceptionally large male.

The Haines Highway dead ends at the Alaska Highway in the town of Haines Junction. We were still in Yukon Territory; Alaska was more than 200 miles away-- distances are huge out here. The road traces the eastern edge of the Kluane National Park. This Canadian park and the adjacent Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska form an enormous area of total wilderness, with 8 mountains over 15,000 feet in the interior. We drove along the western shore of Kluane Lake, and stopped at the Sheep Mountain Visitor Information Center. We had stopped here before, and seen no sheep, but this morning, we were lucky. With the help of a ranger, we were able to spot several animals in the lea of a cliff close to the top of the mountain. The ranger told us that the sheep migrate to the north facing slopes as soon as the southern slopes get too warm. Since our previous visit was in August, that explained the lack of sheep that time.

Missy got a special surprise at the Visitor Center, too -- she was invited to come inside. The Ranger asked us if she had ever seen a bear. After our experience on the Rock Glacier Trail, we were most interested in what her reaction might be if she saw one. Inside, draped over a barrel, was the skin of a large brown bear, complete down to the claws. It didn't look like anything Missy had ever seen before, and certainly didn't smell familiar. She advanced to within about a foot of this thing and stopped cold. Next, she retreated behind Tom. Only by coaxing were we able to get her anywhere close. Now we know what she'll do should she meet one in the wild -- run to us for help!

We have been following the roads marked in "The Milepost, since 1949, the Bible of North Country Travel". It is great to know what you are going to see before you get to it, and the book sits open between us as we travel Alaska. A couple of times, however, the information hasn't been quite accurate. We had planned on getting some fuel at White River, kilometer marker 1182. At km mark 1179, we found a fuel station which looked exactly like the picture of the one further on. We stopped there and were glad of it as there was nothing at all further down the road.

We entered Alaska earlier in the day than we had expected, and opted to go all the way to Tok. We aren't sure just what our schedule will be for the next few days, as Tom is scheduled to fly out of Anchorage in a few days for a meeting in Ventura with the Affinity folks. Tok is the perfect destination for people like us. Do we want to drive north to Fairbanks, west toward Anchorage or south to Valdez? We'll have the evening to make up our minds.

Postcard: Alaska Time

June 7, 2002

The Alaska State Ferry was scheduled for boarding at 3:30 pm, and would be sailing at 6. We left our Island Wednesday afternoon, put the camper on our Dodge dually on Thursday and were ready to go Friday morning. We planned to arrive at the Bellingham ferry terminal by 1 pm, giving ourselves plenty of time to get through any pre-boarding formalities, have a leisurely lunch, and walk the dog. Then we would drive on the ferry, and view the departure preparations.

That was how it was supposed to work. In reality, at 1 pm, we were second in line at the gate, feeling quite smug about all our planning. We paid a price for that smugness; however: The agent could find that no record of a small change we had made in our plans several days earlier. Instead of going all the way to Skagway as we'd originally booked the trip, we'd be getting off one stop earlier, in Haines. The ferry reservation person we'd called in Juneau said he had changed our itinerary, and we assumed it would be on the Bellingham computer. But somehow this change hadn’t reached the chap who was checking us in, and he wasn’t about to let us get in the ferry line. So we started over. We got out of line, went to the nearby terminal building, got our tickets rerouted, (and, silver lining, got a small refund), and drove back to the line. But, while we were at the terminal, something had happened to that line. It had grown to more than 30 cars, each inching along at slower than snail’s pace. So much for a leisurely lunch. I walked up to the nearby grocery store, and we split a deli sandwich.

Obviously, things were not going as scheduled. But that paled in comparison to what happened when the loading process began. No first come, first on, on the Alaska ferry. Imagine 10 lanes of traffic, each car with a sticker labeling its destination - Ketchikan, Juneau, Haines, Skagway, Petersburg or Wrangell. By and large, each lane held only cars headed for a single destination, but this was not always the case. Further complicating matters, it appeared the loading was being done to balance the weight on the ferry. The cars and trucks were loaded by vehicle size, so not to have all the 18 wheelers on one side of the vessel, and all the volkswagons on the other. Very carefully, the dockworkers examined each car, pulling some from one lane and some from another. Several drivers had to back up as far as possible, while others pulled forward, making room for a selected car to pull out of place, drive across several lines of traffic and onto the boat. The chosen vehicles drove up to another checkpoint, where tickets and passports were examined, airport-like cautions were given about any unknown person having asked anyone to carry on anything, and only then were they allowed to board. At a rate of 5 cars at a time, the boat was an hour late leaving.

I knew we would not be late arriving at our various destinations, however, as there is makeup time built into the schedule. Each stop has time allotted for sightseeing -- the longest, 4 1/2 hours in Ketchikan, the shortest, 1/2 hour in Petersburg. Just shorten one stop, and you’re caught up. We should be in Haines just as planned, Monday at 3:45.

It took me a full 24 hours to realize that I had been reacting just as any type A, stressed out, city girl. I should have seen it immediately, taking note of the fact that, although the loading was slow, folks didn’t seem to mind. (Their dogs loved it; there were many more “last minute” walks that way). I should have noticed the boat friendships springing up among people who had never seen each other before, and who were unlikely to see each other again when the trip was over. I should have remembered that the first thing you learn when you board the ferry is that everything works on “Alaska Time”, only one hour earlier than the lower 48, but with a completely different outlook.

That is the magic of Alaska time. After awhile, everything slows down, and you relax and begin to notice the beauty that surrounds you as you travel up the Inland Passage.

And this trip has been spectacular. Before we left home, Tom looked up the forecasts for various ports on the Web. Rain, rain and more rain. Especially in Ketchikan, where the average yearly rainfall is over 13 feet! We have experienced the sideways driving rains of Ketchikan before, but today the sun is out and we are wearing shorts. The “Ketchikan-ers” are having a great time in the sun. One checker at the AP (Alaska Proud) grocery store confided she had gotten sunburned just last week. Some ferry passengers are wearing shorts and sandals; others sport hats and winter jackets.

Not being a cruise ship, the Columbia has no Las Vegas type entertainment, no casino, no shows, but it does have a Forest Service naturalist on board. His talks cover a wide variety of Alaskan subjects, such as marine mammal identification, Bald Eagles, and distinguishing between Brown and Black bears. Alaska time has created a lifestyle that includes doing a little bit of everything, and this museum curator turned beach log salvager, turned Forest Service naturalist is a perfect example. An Alaskan may be a salmon fisherman in late summer, a grocery clerk in winter, and have a completely different job in between. Few get wealthy; none would trade for living in what they are sure is paradise.

Tomorrow afternoon, we will disembark in Haines and start our northward trek. Missy, who has been forced to stay in the camper while we are on the boat, will be more than delighted with the next leg of our travels. Bring on the solid ground, with squirrels to chase and bears to observe, (from a distance). Alaska, here we come.

Postcard: Waiting for the Ferry

June 3, 2002

On June 7, we will board an Alaska State Ferry to Haines. There we disembark and start on our great Alaska adventure. We will be driving our Dodge dually loaded with camper, fishing gear, mosquito repellant, and our Brittany, Missy. Our current “plan” (if you know us, you know there is no such thing) is to drive to Fairbanks and work our way south, visiting new spots as well as some places we haven’t seen for years. Talkeetna, north of Anchorage, was once a very tiny village. How much will it have changed in the last 10 years? When we were last in Homer, the halibut season was in full swing, and we had halibut for weeks after we got home. We’re hoping that isn’t different this time.

We always look forward to our ferry trip north. We will be aboard the Columbia, the largest ship in the fleet, complete with cabins for the comfort lovers (us), or “throw your sleeping bag on the floor and camp out” areas for the more hardy types. The Columbia has a beautiful dining room with ever-changing views of the Inland Passage, great food, and a cafe open for all meals as well, so we will only go hungry if we decide not to eat.

The Alaska ferry system takes its passengers places the cruise ships cannot go -- one such being through the Wrangell Narrows to the towns of Wrangell and Petersburg. I look forward to seeing the lights of the Narrows; if the ship passes through at night, all one can see are the navigational lights, red on one side, green on the other. Spectacular.

Many Alaska travel veterans will tell you that it is better to take the ferry from an Alaskan port heading south. Our preference has always been to take the boat going north; that way, we don’t have a boat we must catch coming south, and can take our time meandering along the highway south. We haven’t yet decided whether to drive the “Top of the World” highway to Dawson City, to drive the Cassiar or the Alaska Highway, or perhaps to come home via Bella Coola. All these choices await us, and we are very anxious to set out.

We have been impatiently waiting for our June 7 departure ever since we got home from the southwest. We waited through the springtime rains. We waited while the weather forecasters predicted “showers, followed by “sunbreaks”, (some of which actually occurred). We waited through dentist appointments, haircuts and veterinary visits. We waited, and while we waited, I got a new laptop computer.

It’s a great computer -- I think. First of all, it’s an iBook. I know that because it says so, right below the screen. Tom says it’s a G3 chip running at 700 MHZ, with 256K megs of RAM with a combo superdrive and airport wireless connections. I think it’s beautiful, white, and light. It’s also magic. Somehow it can connect with the Internet without the need for a phone hookup. The first time I experimented, I wound up on our web site without knowing how I had done so. Guess who’s the somewhat “computer challenged” one in our family? When in doubt, I begin randomly to push buttons, and usually get myself into deeper trouble than I was in the beginning. Thank goodness for Tom and all his know-how, not to mention his fairly unending patience. I have learned how to maneuver, a bit, through all the interesting pictures which now appear at the bottom of my new screen. I know that the stamp means mail, the music notes are i-tunes, the little A and the pencil is where I go to compose a postcard, and the little Sherlock Holmes hat with magnifying glass is Sherlock, which I’m supposed to use to find lost documents. I have lots of those.

Computers these days are supposed to be very “user friendly”, but are a lot more complex than they appear. I learn new things every day, and every day I run to Tom’s office with new problems. Which he usually can fix. It’s a bit frustrating, but is surely making the time go faster.

And now, June has finally arrived. In a couple of days we will go to “America”, (the mainland), to set the camper on the truck and load clothes, whatever food will survive the ferry trip, (propane must be turned off while the boat is underway, so the Haines grocery store will be our first stop), and, of course, Missy. Off we go!