July 19, Wednesday
We headed south from Fairbanks on the Alaskan Highway at 8:30. There was a stretch of 213 miles through Delta Jct. to Tok, that we mushed along – listening to Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” on audio tape. It was especially fun, as we were following along the Tanana River as Buck (the dog/hero in the story) was mushing along the Tanana to Dawson City.
We stopped at North Pole and the Santa Klaus House, the Knotty Shop, and to take pictures of several moose along the road. We remember Tom's parents sending us a postcard from North Pole, on their Alaska trip back in 1978!
I followed along the Mileposts book, mile-marker by mile-marker . . . backwards! One stop was at the Delta Meat & Packing Company where we bought a lamb breast and some Yak steaks! There was free tasting of the reindeer sausage and the processed meat sticks, and we found the Yak meat stick to be very mild. Time will tell about the Yak Steaks!
Arriving at Tok we re-gassed the truck and pointed our nose 12 more miles down the highway where we left the AlCan and cut off onto the Taylor Highway . . . to Chicken. Chicken is remote – population 23 in summer and 7 in winter and three businesses – one of which is an RV Park. The 66 mile road up to Chicken was paved in some places, graveled or dirt in others, semi-maintained, and scenic. The pavement ended for good just as we arrived at Chicken Gold Camp RV Park -- it was basically an extension of the graveled/dirt road into a big parking lot with about 20 camping rigs backed into the perimeters. They did not have electric or water hookups, but we were prepared for that with full tanks and battery.
A bit about the weather: since we arrived in Fairbanks, the temps have been in the high 70’s! Two days ago the trip to the Arctic Circle was uncomfortably warm in the tour bus, and today, as the thermometer reached 80 on our drive up to Chicken, we had the AC running. We must have acclimatized to 55 degrees during all those weeks on the Inter-coastal Waterway, and anything above 70 seems excessively hot!
We took advantage of a rain shower that lasted about an hour to sit outside under the awning for a nice cool-down. I propped my feet so that the rain gave me a refreshing foot-washing. The day ended with final plans for driving the famed Top of the World highway tomorrow!
July 18, Tuesday Uptown Tourists
My goal when I got up this morning was to get caught up on the blog. Finally, at 10:30 I announced I was ready for downtown Fairbanks. We followed the map to the downtown area, parked, and got out to investigate.
There were several “outfitter” stores with the same pricy name-brands we had seen all over Alaska, and several local/native craft stores. There was an ice museum that we did not do, and now I will have to forever wonder what they have in an ice museum! Next we stumbled onto a rare coin shop and Tom needed to look over their wears. He found part of my birthday (July 14) present, a 4 gram collection of Alaska placer gold which he will take to our neighbor and jeweler for a container/charm that will fit onto my Airstream bracelet. We did a little free museum of Fairbanks, and the Klondike Gold Rush, and that made us anxious for the next part of the trip to Dawson City. Also we visited the Yukon Quest museum that is the start location for Alaska’s longest sled dog race.
Before heading back to the Silvermine, we went on a bit of a wild-goose-chase for something local to throw on the grill tonight – moose steaks, elk ribs . . . no luck!
Charlie Button was feeling a bit under-appreciated, and we took her for several long walks through the campground and to a large cottage resort that was next-door on the Chena River.
The big deal for the evening was talking to people that have done the Top of the World Highway Tetlin Jct. to Chicken, Alaska. Some of their stories made the decisions an easy “NO”. But, other’s imply that it is a “piece of cake.” One thing is for sure – once you get started, there is no turning back!
This post could have many titles – The Arctic Circle, The Dalton Highway . . . Follow the Pipeline!
Our tour was with the Northern Alaska Tour Company and spared our truck the thrashing of the Dalton Highway which was reported to be a little rough! Our guide was darling Rachel, a Texas transplant that has been living in Fairbanks for 2 years. Her observation of winter is that it makes social life very difficult.
We had a small tour coach with comfortable seating and Rachel initiated a pattern of seat rotation so that we would all have equal chances at the front of the bus, as well as the back of the bus. The schedule for the day: up at 5:00, on the shuttle at 5:45, leave the tour company at 6:30 – back sometime at 10:00 or after!
Note from Ella: at this point I am tired of blog-writing! As indicated, Tom is going to help me out a bit with the technical writing!
TOM: Leaving Fairbanks heading north is the Dalton Highway. When Black Gold (oil) was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and new Rush was established. America needed energy and Alaska would provide it. But, how to bring the oil to the south was the problem. The best solution was an 800 mile long pipeline stretching from the Arctic Ocean to Valdez. Because of environmental and tribal challenges the pipeline and the road were not started until 1974. The road, built in just 5 months, began as a Haulroad and once the pipeline was built it became the property of Alaska and became a highway. Today it is a mix of pavement and gravel roadbed.
Ella: There were frequent stops along the way where there were small tourist information posts, cabins of historical importance . . . . and outhouses! Our first stop was at Joy -- a very small rural community (of two houses) with a Trading Post.
TOM: The country we drove through was mostly Spruce and Aspen forest. The land was rolling hills and low mountains with an occasional outcropping of granite spires. The hills were steep and the road, as well as the pipeline, twists and turns up and down these mountains. The road crosses over the Yukon River as the pipeline dives underneath. The road is often a part of the TV series Ice Truckers.
TOM: All of the forest is on the surface, but just below the surface is permafrost. Permafrost is the reason you see the pipeline above the ground. When the oil enters the pipe at Prudhoe Bay it is heated to 180 degrees (when it arrives at Valdez it is 135 degrees) and that temperature would melt the permafrost and cause an unstable base for the pipe. So the pipeline is elevated and insulated so as to not affect the underlying surface of the landscape.
TOM: Permafrost is the permanent ice layer of the land. This is difficult to explain because there is life and plant growth just above the permafrost. When walking on the surface it is like walking on a lumpy mattress or a trampoline with many strips of the bouncy material missing. Your foot sinks in to the soft moss and lichen and yet blueberry and raspberry plants grow abundantly as do others. Even the Spruce trees are able to grow on top of the permafrost without penetrating the ice. As seen in the pictures we are dipping our hand about eight inches under this top layer of growth onto a solid sheet of ice that never melts. Amazing!
Ella: At 1:30 we crossed over into the realm of the Arctic Circle. Rachel had gone out of her way to make this a momentous occasion with a little ceremony where she greeted us each with a certificate as we walked across the circle. The challenge was that we were to each "do something that is totally you" as we crossed. This Tennessee girl took off her shoes and walked across barefoot. The English teacher, Tom, stopped and recited Shakespeare's "And this above all things, unto thine own self be true."
On the way back we had a few more stops to make. One was for supper at the Yukon River, one of the two main thoroughfares to reach the Yukon Goldrush. Tom got a water sample, and we went inside the way-station where supper was served. There is nothing at all pretty about this stop -- big dirt parking lot and lots of out buildings and stuff just laying around. But the inside was nice and clean and had a nice shop where we got t-shirts!
For all practical purposes that was the last of our stops except for a couple of outhouse stops. As we loaded on the bus, I took a picture of it to show how dirty it was. Our day would be done in 4 hours when we got back to our tour headquarters -- Rachel would not be done until she washed the bus for tomorrow's excursion!
On the way back we saw a double rainbow and I grabbed a picture out the bus window. By 11:00, after 17 hours, we were back at the Silvermine and ready to drop in bed. All that is planned for tomorrow is a trip to look over the downtown!
July 16, Sunday
Today started with a Fairbanks city-trip out to the LARS – Large Animal Research Station, which houses Muskox and Reindeer. The goal of the program was two-fold – to aid in restoration of the endangered Muskox species to Alaska, and to have Muskox provide subsistence for Alaskan peoples. Success! The Muskox is no longer endangered, and one Muskox alone can generate $7,000 a year just through harvesting it’s wool.
The Muskox is a surprisingly compact animal – much shorter than what you would think. They have a dense double-layer coat with a extremely warm and soft undercoat and a very long outer coat that was like the mane of a horse! It is reportedly the warmest fiber that there is, and most scarves and hats and afghans are knitted with a very open weave so that it is not overbearingly hot! The undercoat wool is harvested with a multi-tine long-tooth hair pik, and the Muskox are trained to stand during the process.
Two Muskox were up close to the fence today – a very stout little 3-year-old male that still had another 6” of height to gain, and a mother with an 8-week old calf. The calf was deep in the tall grass napping the whole time we were there. Having seen baby hippos, rhinos, and elephants, I am thinking that a baby Muskox would be more than I could stand, anyway!
There are also reindeer on the farm and a couple girls with their new calves came up to check us out. Reindeer are just the domesticated version of Caribou, although there are a few physiological differences between them. Interbreeding has resulted in Carideer and Reinbou.
We stopped back at the campground to introduce Charlie to the workers that would be walking her tomorrow during our 16-hour trip to the arctic circle. What a nice service this is! Then we were off to lunch at Carl’s burger joint for a “rib-burger” – a regular hamburger patty topped with sweet/smoky BBQ boneless rib meat, and fried onion straws. OH MY . . . .
And, that is not the only “OH MY” I had today . . . in the afternoon I did something with Tom I haven’t done in over 25 years! Yep! We went to the Chena Hot Springs Resort and tried the baths. . . soaked in the healing waters . . . took the water cure . . . absorbed the minerals in the springs . . . you get the idea. We think the last time we did this was with the boys at Glenwood Springs, Colorado when they were under 10 years old.
It is definitely hot mineral water coming right out of the ground, but I am supposing that the soaking pool received a lot of man-made attention. There are locker/shower rooms and an inside set of hot tubs, and a long ramp that leads gradually down into the large outdoor pool. The whole thing has a sandy bottom and is surrounded by a wall of stone/boulders. The water never got more than rib-cage height, and there are some soaking ledges around one end to rest on. We did as others did, and bent at the knees and walked slowly around so that our heads were out of the water. At the far end there was a stream of water surging out from above and aimed at whoever wanted to stand underneath – wonderful water massage. Also at that end we found where the hot water was escaping into the pool – really HOT water! We chatted with other visitors of our age category, and generally bobbed around until we decided that we had enough . . . for the next 25 years!
Sorry – there was no way to get a camera into the soak area for pictures . . . thank-you-Jesus!
Before we left, Tom got a souvenir water sample! Oh, and just to let you know...when your as far north as Fairbanks, AK everything is at the "end of the road" ... Chena was at then end of the road.
Then, back to the camper for dinner – it had been almost a week since we had cooked salmon . . . . The evening was spent preparing to go to the Arctic Circle. Come back and see!
Saturday, July 15
We woke up to rain and the thought of getting back on the bus for 10 hours wasn’t appealing. Our plan had been to ride part-way back out the Denali road and stop at one of the locations that had some maintained trails. The rain, and the thought of long hours on the bus, was enough to convince us that we were ready to pull up stakes and head for Fairbanks.
We were all dirty, and gritty, and dusty from our in-Denali experience, and when we arrived at Fairbanks our first job was to do laundry – 7 loads! The Silvermine and the truck had a good scrub and then I washed down the inside of the trailer – especially the floor. I put Charlie in the sink for a bath, and then I opted for a shower in the Silvermine. Tonight, Tom is the last to get cleaned up and he is down at the shower house. Tomorrow we are tooling around Fairbanks, and on Monday we have a tour trip inside the Arctic circle planned.
The only picture I have to share today is of this moose!
Friday, July 14
Somebody had a birthday today -- it was celebrated last night with a steak dinner and a bottle of Oliver Bubblecraft. The big commemoration event today was the bus trip into Denali – all the way until the road ended. Ella says it was about the best 12-hour, all-day, birthday celebration -- EVER -- in the past 65 years!
The Denali Park Road twists, winds, climbs, and descends for 92 miles from the Denali Visitor Center to Kantishna. We are camped at Teklanika River (mile 29) and at that point could only move forward (into the park) by bus. Following a pancake breakfast, we got on the bus at 9:00 with two backpacks jam-packed with everything we thought we might need. There are bathroom stops along the way, and one location to refill water bottles – but no food service or concessions
Our driver was named Tim; he has been driving this route for over 20 years and had a full conversation style story-line that lasted for 10 hours! The deal was: we had a ticket/pass that allowed us to board his bus and ride it from Teklanika to Kantishna and back to Teklanika again. Once we left his bus at any of the drop-off spots, we would be left with our pass that would allow us on another bus only if there was room. It worked well for us to stay on Tim’s bus as he stopped at every point for a generous amount of time. He also stopped to pick up “hitchhikers” along the road if he had room – and he stopped every time someone yelled out STOP – for wildlife observations and photo opportunities.
It was not raining today, and there were minimal clouds, but -- darn it -- the visibility of Denali was not good due to wildfires to the north. There was a fine haze over everything, although we could not smell the smoke.
The caribou do not form the large migration herds until later in the fall, and most sightings are of lone individuals. They appear scruffy as they have not fully shed last year's winter coat.
At mile 66 we stopped for 30 minutes at Eleson Visitor Center -- beautiful lookouts . . . and flush toilets!
A viewing window inside Eleson had the outline of foreground mountains on the left that you could line up to help you locate Denali on the right. Sadly, Denali is rarely visible, so the outlines just show you where it is hiding.
Here are just two small views of a beautiful quilt/wall hanging (in 5 large sections) that was crafted by a local artist: The Seasons of Denali. All fabrics started out as plain/white and she dyed and painted the materials herself!
Land-owners that lost their land during the expansion of the National Park were issued permits for subsistence hunting -- only what they would use and consume for their own personal needs.
The last stop, Kantishna, is interesting in that there are several privately-owned, money-making establishments. In the 1980’s when the park boundaries were expanded, people owning land were allowed to continue as private land-holders. Some established these out-back camping stops and some sold their land to entrepreneurs that developed overnight establishments. Today you are either driven in by the enterprise’s private bus or flown in by their private plane and put up in a cabin/lodge environment for 2-3 days. We couldn't stop for pictures but I got one of the sign through the bus window and borrowed one from the internet.
And that was . . . the end of the road. Driver Tim parked by the sign and obligingly took pictures of all that wanted to commemorate the occasion. Tom took pictures of Tim with his wife -- who was another tour bus driver that happened to be at Kantishna right then!
The trip had taken five hours, and Tim was aiming to duplicate that on the return trip with all his required stops at drop-off/pick-up spots, and his accommodating stops for wildlife pictures.
On the way back we stopped at Wonder Lake --My favorite stop where I so vividly remember camping with my family when I was 11 years old (1963). Back then, private vehicles were allowed to drive the whole distance into the park. I have to say that Wonder Lake was just as I remembered it, tall spruce trees and lush meadows leading down to the lake -- but with a lot less mosquitoes. I have memories of us kids being chased by blue/grey birds that dive-bombed us fearlessly if we approached their nests. I learned that those pesky and aggressive birds are called “Gray-jays,” and they are still out in force! My other memory is the onslaught of large and lumbering mosquitoes, and forever-more my definition of mosquito has been WONDER LAKE! What a way to remember this experience 55 years later – and on my birthday, no less.
Have I mentioned that Tom has a water sample collection -- from all over the United States? It has been greatly augmented with water samples from Alaska! Here he is getting a sample from Wonder Lake -- I tried to catch a live misquote to put in the sample . . . .
The trip in and out gathered plenty of wildlife pictures – 11 grizzly bear, lots of Dahl Mountain Sheep, caribou, and various birds. We did not see any wolves or moose, which are also frequently seen on the drive. Most of the wildlife was seen in the distance, but one grizzly mom was adventuring with her cubs across our road, and two sheep were heading full-tilt down the mountainside to the stream when they saw us and spooked back up!
We pulled back into our campground bus stop at 7:00 – for a total of 10 hours on the bus. I can’t say it enough – it was just the very best birthday!
Thursday, July 13,
As explained before, cars and trailers are allowed access into Denali park for only about 30 miles. After that, you can tow your trailer another 12 miles into the interior and set up in a campground (if you have a reservation), and then use the bus system to get around.
This was our goal this morning, and we left Riley Creek campground at 10:00 and drove to “Check-Point-Denali” where we had to show our reservations and permit to enter. Then, it was a short drive of 12 miles on a well-graded dirt/gravel road to reach Tetlanika River campground.
Two buses entered the check-point ahead of us, and then we were welcomed and questioned abut our destination, and warned that there was no food or water in the backwoods. CHECK! Then we were turned loose on the dirt road -- which scored a 10 as far as dirt roads go!
Along the way, we passed a bus-stop with a bathroom – it was evident from the line-up that it was a very popular stop this morning! We also stopped for pictures of several Ptarmigan with young . . . covey – brood – clutch – litter?
The campground had big private sites with lots of tree cover between, but it came as a surprise to us that there were no maintained hiking trails in the area! This called for Tom and Charlie to forage around cross-country-style and follow along the river and through the undergrowth. I keep my walks with them to the campground loop roads. For the rest of the afternoon we sat and read, and made plans for tomorrow’s venture deep into the park by bus!
Wednesday, July 12
Today started with a big relief. After making reservations six months ago for four nights in the restricted interior of the park, we had received an email, two days before we arrived, stating that rigs over 40’ were not allowed in the campground! At 45’ feet, total truck and trailer, that meant US! We started the morning with a trip to headquarters and a talk with Cinnamon at the Superintendent’s office, who said they were aware of that little problem, the way it was being interpreted, and they were in the process of correcting it. We were fine with a trailer of 23’.
Feeling greatly reassured, we headed on down the road to the Savage River area with the intent to do the loop trail. The wonderful trail follows the Savage River at an easy, gentle, pace for about a mile – crosses over the river and comes back down the other side. What we were totally not prepared for – was the amount and variety of wildflowers!
As we finished the hike and were marveling to a Ranger about the wildflowers, she told us to download the app DENALIFLORA, which was written by one of the locals, to help with flower identification.
This hike wasn't just about the wildflowers, though -- the river, tundra, rocky outcrops and mountains offered lots of opportunity stop and take pictures.
We were also entertained by Alaskan ground squirrels who ran and played up and down the trail. They were very friendly . . . sometimes a little too friendly.
And, I forgot to say that the morning started out again with a moose welcoming committee -- this time a mom and her two babies!
It's been a busy morning, and we are ready to head out after lunch. I am going to post this now, because starting tomorrow there will be no service of any kind. . . take a break but be sure to come back in a few days!
Tuesday, July 11
Today began with showers in the Silvermine -- in the morning! The showers at the private campground were $4 for 10 minutes, and the ones in the Silvermine were free . . . until the hot water tank ran out!
We were in no hurry to pull up stakes at The Denali Rainbow RV Park, as we just had to move 5 miles down the road to Riley Creek inside the National Park. And, we figured we needed to give campers that were leaving this morning time to vacate their site. We pulled in at 9:30, and took the site directly across from Dave and Gail – except that they had left this morning. The welcoming committee was out again, as we soon had a young juvenile moose in our campground.
Denali is a mostly a closed park; there is only one public road going into the park, and only the first 15 miles are open to private cars. Cars/travel trailers or motorhomes can drive on into various campgrounds if they have a reservation and a pass. Otherwise, access to the total 92 miles of road is by bus – with reservations.
We drove the first 15 miles before lunch; it was misty, cloudy and rainy – just the way Denali is supposed to be! We drove all the way back to the restriction post, hoping to take a loop hike around the Savage Mountain River Area. Here we discovered that dogs were not allowed on the trails, so we took some pictures of a magnificent rock outcropping that looked like it was begging to be climbed. Several groups of people scrambled up over the base rubble, but I don’t know how far anyone makes it up the rock. On the way back, we saw a “jam” up in front of us – would you believe a wolf jam! He was trotting right down the road!
After lunch we left Charlie for a nap and drove to the Denali dog kennels just 6 miles down the road. The kennels are maintained by the park and the dogs provide winter access to many parts of the park. It was interesting to compare these kennels and dogs to the one we saw in Seward. These dogs are the much larger and heavier type of dog usually thought of. The distinction is that they are not made for speed and racing, but for hauling power. The presentation said that pound for pound the dogs are the strongest draft animal of any type (body weight in comparison to load weight.)
We missed the major part of the presentation – that’s ok because the guy’s microphone wasn’t working, and we couldn’t hear anyway. But when the group was released we were able to walk back through the dog yard and go up and pet many of the dogs. Their kennel arrangements are very different – little deluxe log cabins for each dog with flat tops as an outdoor perch. Their yard was also nicely graveled and free of mud puddles.
We wanted to enjoy the campsite atmosphere in the late afternoon – it is the best campsite we have had in a long time.
Monday, July 10
Whatever they call it -- we are on our way!
The drive was 200 miles today, and we left Anchorage at 9:00 and arrived at Denali at 1:00. Our first glimpse of Denali was about 10:00, followed by lunch at a rest area with a viewing point that gave us some reference maps and pictures in the way of orientation. As we are led to understand -- we are extremely lucky to be able to see the mountain with clouds not covering the top.
We passed by the park entrance and drove another 5 miles down to our Denali Rainbow RV Park – set up – and headed off to meet Gail and Dave at their campsite at Riley Creek just inside the park.
Their campsite was a nice place to sit out and catch up on our divergent trips through Alaska during the past 3 weeks. We walked to the campground office and registered – we would be coming to Riley ourselves tomorrow! We held a little happy-hour celebration with drinks and snacks before heading into out to eat.
We drove back in to our campground with Dave and Gail following, and parked at our site and walked to the little strip of stores in front of our campground. After a little shopping, we walked down the street to a restaurant and relaxed into grinders, pizza, elk meatball sandwiches . . . .
It was fun to share stores of “we did this” and “we did that” – and to compare plans for the next 3 weeks. Nobody likes to think about it, but we are on the down-side of the trip, and soon it will be time to head for home. Only after we split up did I remember that I had not gotten any pictures of the four of us!
Before the evening was over we were welcomed to Denali by the wildlife – the official welcome-mother-moose and her little knobby-knee baby. It is good to be in Denali again . . .I was here about 57 years ago – when it was Mt. McKinely!
We don’t go camping any more . . . we go ‘streamin’ ! The “SIlvermine and His” is our 2018 25' Airstream Serenity with Salsa interior and front twin beds., and ‘streamin’ is the name we use to describe our adventures. Stream along as we document everything from weekend trips to longer summer excursions and full-blown vacations. You know what they say: if you’re not in an Airstream – you’re just camping!
Tom & Ella Brown