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Destination Alaska Part IV: A 66-Day Trek to the Last Frontier

Reindeer Sausage, Glaciers and Gut Parkas

By: Sheryl Gallup

This is Part IV of an eleven-part series

Click here for Part I | Part II | Part III

Monday, June 24, 2013

Today was our longest travel day thus far. We traveled about 400 miles and it took us about nine hours. The Alaska Highway from Whitehorse was rough, but it went from bad to worse very quickly. Ice heaves had buckled the road so badly that it was bone-jarring, dusty and exhausting. Road construction was part of the reason for the rough roads, but mostly it was the ice heaves. Think of it as somewhere between driving on a railroad track and being on a roller coaster for four solid hours.

This part of the Yukon was very wild, it was forested with scrubby pine trees and was not very mountainous. When we reached the Kluane Mountain Range, the scenery changed and it was very beautiful. We traveled along 154-square-mile Kluane Lake for quite some time.

One of the things that has been an ongoing delight for the entire length of the Alaska Highway is the wildflowers. Brilliant colors of purple, pink and yellow have lined the highway. I have taken so many pictures of them that I could wallpaper my office. The ones I like the best are some type of pinkish-purple flower called Fireweed.

Fireweed in the Kluane Mountain Range Yukon
Fireweed in the Kluane Mountain Range, Yukon

We finally pulled into Tok, Alaska, about 6:30 p.m. today and there was a huge sigh of relief from both of us. Based on the recommendation of some friends, we decided to stay at the Sourdough RV Park. It has very nice campsites, and although the service buildings are a little rough, the campground owners made it one of our favorite spots so far. They are famous for their pancake tossing contest to see which camp guests will win a free pancake and reindeer sausage breakfast.

There is a group campfire every night where guests can roast marshmallows and chat about the day’s journey with other travelers. Woodzjoe and I both tossed pancakes, but didn’t hit the bucket. No prize for us. We thought about going to the campfire, but the bugs were too bad. The mosquitoes in the Northwest are huge!

It is now 11:30 at night and the sun is still out. One of my biggest challenges this trip is trying to get to bed at a decent hour. Hard to do when it is still light outside and all you want to do is play.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

There was so much to do today that we decided to just stay in camp and get some things done. For me, it was a full work day, but I took advantage of the nice sun this morning and set up my office outside. Most of the campers had already left, so It was such a peaceful setting that I was actually able to get quite a bit of work done.

Sourdough Campground, Tok, Alaska

Sourdough Campground, Tok, Alaska

Temps reached about 90 degrees by noon, so I moved inside to the air conditioned comfort of our trailer. Who would think that it would be this hot in Alaska? I hope it is cooler the rest of the week.

Tonight we participated in the nightly Sourdough Campground pancake toss again. I used the “wadding it into a tight little ball” technique and the first one just missed the bucket. For my last attempt, I used the same technique, threw it, and it went right into the bucket. Once all the campers had their turn, it was three wins for the ladies and one for the men. My free breakfast will taste so good tomorrow morning. If you are ever in Tok, Alaska, be sure and spend a day or two at the Sourdough Campground.

We still haven’t decided yet which direction to head to tomorrow. I guess I will decide over my free pancakes and reindeer sausage.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

It took some time to decide, but after pouring over maps all evening the night before, we finally decided to head to Valdez from Tok.

From Tok, we headed to Glennallen to set up camp. We plan to spend a couple of days there because it has good access to both Valdez and also to Kennecott Mines. The campground will suit our needs for the next couple days, especially since we will spend so little time there.

After we set up camp, we headed toward Valdez. It was a relatively easy drive and it only took us a few hours. Along the way, we stopped at Worthington Glacier Park to walk up to the glacier. We both started the walk, but it was only Woodzjoe that decided to walk all the way up to the glacier. Like I have said before, I lack the need for risk-taking adventure, and sitting safely on a rock while he walked up the hill to the glacier was far less frightening to me. I was fine sitting there in the sun, until I could no longer see Woodzjoe from my vantage point.

Worthington Glacier Park
Worthington Glacier Park

Suddenly, I became far more aware of my environment and became concerned about bears, not only for my sake but also my fearless wanderer. It took him about 45 minutes to reach the base of the glacier. And when I saw the little dot of him against the massive glacier, I knew he was on his way back down to meet up with me.

The Worthington Glacier was very interesting and seeing the blue-green ice peeking out from under all the white was quite beautiful.

From Worthington Glacier, we headed another hour or so to Valdez. While the town itself was not at all what I expected, the drive from our campground to Valdez was well worth the trip. The mountains surrounded us as we traveled in the valley alongside several different rivers. The size of the mountains made me feel so small and it really put things into perspective.

Moose along Richardson Highway

Moose along Richardson Highway

Valdez was a nice little community, if you want to kayak, fish for halibut, go sailing or boating. But, I was there to walk among the quaint little shops that I assumed would be there. They weren’t. It may be a port city, but it was not at all like Skagway. I was disappointed by that, but I still admired the beauty of this little community wrapped in the arms of the mountains and the bay.

Today’s trip produced several animal sightings. We saw two moose, some magpies, and some trumpeter swans. The best part of the day is always looking for wildlife.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

It is an entirely new warm for Alaska. I hear the locals talking about how we are experiencing unseasonably high temps. Even they don’t appear to like it much. I packed very little in the way of lightweight shirts and pants and I am thinking that a trip to do some shopping might be in my near future.

The Milepost book, that we use as our travel bible, spoke highly of the Wrangall-St. Elias National Park Visitor Center because of its extraordinary exhibits. So we made that our first stop today. It did not disappoint. It had a very extensive exhibit on the natural wonders of the national park, including two volcanoes, four of the top 16 largest mountains in North America, and the largest glacier in North America – Malaspina Glacier – which covers about 1,500 square miles. The entire park is more than 13 million acres, making it the largest park in the National Park System. We watched a 20-minute movie about the park, which I found to be very well produced.

Our goal for the day was Kennicott Mine on the McCarthy Road. From what we had read, it sounded like a really interesting way to spend our day. Woodzjoe had shared with me that the road was rough and part of it was gravel. What he neglected to tell me is the road is narrow, winding, death-defying and is about 94 miles long. The best part of the road was the beginning, which is paved and has a bridge over the Copper River. The bridge was built not that long ago at a cost of about $3.5 million. The odd thing is that this expensive bridge takes you really to nowhere.

We drove for at least 30 minutes up this horrifying road only to find that the scariest bridge of all was in front of us. It is long and so narrow that only one car can drive over it at a time. I honestly cannot add anything about the view because my eyes were shut the entire time.

McCarthy Road single-lane Bridge
McCarthy Road single-lane Bridge

At the end of the bridge was a pull-out area. We parked here long enough for my breathing to resume back to normal and my legs were no longer rubber. Woodzjoe wandered off to take pictures of the bridge while I calmed my nerves by participating in my favorite hobby – rock hunting. I was enjoying that immensely until I noticed bear scat piles everywhere. That was it – I was back in the truck, seatbelt on, by the time Woodzjoe got back to the truck.

When I asked how much farther to Kennicott Mine, he told me that we still had about 50 miles to go and that in order to get to the mine, we had to park the truck at the end of McCarthy Road and then walk in about five miles. He took one look at me and knew that we were not going to Kennicott Mine.

The trip most definitely was not a waste. We enjoyed driving through the Copper River region, and saw several delights during our drive. One of the best things we saw today was moose sightings. One was a cow moose by the side of the road.

Moose by the road
Moose by the road

From the McCarthy Road we also saw a bull moose in the water that walked right up to where a family was stopped to picnic. As we drove past, we could hear the woman frantically yelling, “Just back up. Keep backing up!” The trees blocked our view, but I am sure the sight was amusing to watch.

This narrow, one-lane, road cuts through a mountain very near the bridge on McCarthy Road. Very cool, not scary.

Single-lane road on McCarthy Road
Single-lane road on McCarthy Road

Our road trip today ended with one last stop at Liberty Falls. The water was moving rapidly, and wasn’t really conducive to gold panning, but Woodzjoe was so anxious to try out panning he just had to go down to the riverfront and give it a try. His goal is to find enough gold to cover the cost of the $20 gold pan he bought in Ft. Steele, B.C.

Once we got back to camp, I worked on some projects for a while and Woodzjoe watched a movie. One of our frustrations with Alaska so far is the mosquitoes and the heat. When we get back to camp, we immediately head into the trailer with the AC going and those nasty mosquitoes cling to our bodies when we walked inside. Everyone makes fun of the size of Minnesota mosquitoes. Well folks, our mosquitoes are mere babes compared to these pre-historic saber-toothed ones in Alaska.

Woodzjoe panning for gold
Woodzjoe panning for gold

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Yesterday was a travel day from Glenallen, Alaska, to Anchorage. We decided to drive straight through since the weather was gray and overcast and you couldn’t really see much in the way of scenery. All the mountain peaks were in the clouds and there wasn’t much to photograph.

We opted to go a little “wilder” for camping last night and decided to stay in a State Park along Eagle River. The Eagle River campground offered very nice wooded campsites, and many of them were along the river. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get any along the river because someone in a group must have come into camp early and “reserved” a whole lot of sites by putting a lawn chair in many of the spots.

We set up camp in what appeared to be a quieter location and even though there were a few lawn chairs holding guard on some sites around us, we still managed to find one that was nicely wooded and shaded. The moment we stepped out of the truck, the mosquitoes enthusiastically greeted us like we were donors of some neighborhood blood drive.

We donned hooded sweatshirts and leather work gloves and quickly set up camp so we could escape to the trailer. I dug out the Thermacells and within a few minutes, we could sit outside with minimal irritation from the bugs. Amazing technology! I recommend that anyone with blood own at least two of these things.

We had planned to stay at Eagle River Campground for two days, but, honestly, we have found RV parks are far quieter. The RV camps may have sparse vegetation, and they may be parked on top of each other, but no generators, no barking dogs, and the campground is filled with seniors, like us, who have been on the road all day and plan to be on the road early the next day, so they all go to bed early.

Today, we relocated right into the city of Anchorage and are staying at the Golden Nugget Campground. We plan to stay here for at least a couple days so that we can check out the many museums Anchorage has to offer.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Last night was dedicated to running errands, but today was purely about sight-seeing.

Grass socksy

Grass socks

Our first stop was the Anchorage Museum. It is right in the center of downtown Anchorage and it offers four floors of exhibits. The place is huge! We both really enjoyed the Native culture exhibit which featured artifacts from all the various Alaskan First Nation Tribes. It shared their history and their culture. I particularly enjoyed the dioramas and all the ritual clothing and masks.

Woodzjoe liked the primitive tools and the weaponry. Several things, for some reason, really stood out to me and I was fascinated by them. The first were grass socks which were woven from dried grass. They wore these inside their mukluks for added insulation. The second thing that intrigued me was all the gut parkas. The First Nations people had so much respect for the animals that they harvested, that they would not waste anything. From seal and walrus intestines, they made these parkas that were waterproof and provided added insulation, especially when fishing.

Ceremonial gut parka
Ceremonial gut parka

Other exhibits in the museum included a tribute to bush pilots. They also had exhibits on the Exxon Oil Spill, the building of the Pipeline, the introduction of Alaskan wood frame houses in the ‘20s, and some absolutely amazing dioramas of early First Nation people’s huts.

From the Anchorage Museum, we headed down to the port to attend the marketplace. It was filled with vendors selling gifts, artwork, carvings, etc., as well as a row of food vendors. The aroma of the reindeer polish dogs sucked us in and we just had to sink our teeth into them. Yum!

Tomorrow we depart for the place that I have wanted to visit ever since we first started talking about going to Alaska. We are leaving for the Kenai Peninsula. I am filled with excitement.

Stay tuned for Part VI!

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