Sunday, August 30, 2009

Chicken and beyond

August 10, 2009

There is a road that runs from Alaska into Dawson City in the Yukon Territory where the famous Klondike gold strike territory lies. It is called The Top Of The World road. The name and location, give you some idea of the topography. Reports from various travelers say it takes 7 hours to travel the 47 unpaved miles between the town of Chicken in Alaska, to Dawson City in Yukon, and these travelers claim they would never drive it again. So, despite warnings of hairpin turns, sheer drop offs with no guardrails, and narrow stretches that were only wide enough for one car, we thought it would be worth it to venture into this famous Klondike gold rush area.

We arrived in Chicken about 4:00 on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Yes, that is the town’s name. The story most repeated is that the prospectors who settled there wanted to call it Ptarmigan, but could not spell that so they settled for calling it Chicken. Sounds reasonable to me. In addition to its name, it is quite a unique village, containing about 5 or 6 businesses, two RV parks, 8 year round residents, and several hundred caribou hunters on this opening day of hunting season. Two of the shops had authentic Alaska gifts made in China and the third had authentic Alaska gifts actually made by Alaskan artists.

We decided to spend the night here and leave early in the morning for our adventure over the mountain. That was our downfall. All night it rained hard and in the morning fog reduced visibility to about 10 feet. Since the dirt road had been transformed into a slick mud hole, we lost our courage and decided we were not as adventurous as we though we were yesterday. Although we had to backtrack down to Tok, it was worth the trip up here to experience this eclectic berg. We will save the Dawson visit for our next trip to Alaska

Chicken Post Office. Don't these rural Alaskan Post Offices have much more curb appeal than the official new ones they are building these days? I remember when Dixmont's mail came from a similar style building, but without the picturesque flower pots.

Town Welcome Sign

A gold dredge. This house size piece of machinery sat in the middle of a stream, scooped up gravel, sluiced it for gold and spit the rocks out the opposite end, back into the stream.

The chain of shovels that gathered up the stream bed and fed it into the dredge.

A few interesting sights along the road

This hillside was a flaming field of fireweed that has sprouted since last years forrest fire.

This character just sat at the side of the road and let us take lots of pictures. We guessed that he had just had a big meal and could not lift himself off the ground. He did eventually fly away.

The route from Tok to Haines Junction took us back through the Wrangell St Elias National Forrest and Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory. This is the same road we traveled on our way north and it was well worth repeating. We also got to stop again at the Cottonwood RV Park for a couple of sun filled days. This is a beautiful relaxing spot that we would like to come back to anytime. We got to visit with the owners a bit while here, caught up on the blog, and sat around oohing and aahing over the view. We were experiencing some separation anxiety since leaving Alaska, but leaving here felt like the last step out the door.

Our campsite at Cottonwood RV Park

Add Image Checking email at the Internet station.

This relaxing flower filled deck is for the park guests to use, and we did.

A fun stop further down the Alaska Highway was Watson Lake, YT. The town is famous for its "Forrest of Signs", which currently numbers around 65,000 unique place name signs. The tradition began when the crew building the Alaska highway in 1942, erected a signpost listing mileage to distant cities. One of the crew, feeling homesick, added a sign bearing the name of his hometown. Somehow visitors began adding their own town logos and over the years it has become a tradition for anyone passing through to do the same. We did not carry a Dixmont sign with us, but we did find a Maine plate.

The town also has a museum highlighting the construction of the Alaska Highway, which was built by the U.S. government to improve access to Alaska in order to defend it from Japanese attack after Pearl Harbor. The road begins and runs through Yukon, before entering Alaska. Although Canada had been considering building this road for many years, the U.S. signed legislation to begin construction two weeks before Canada agreed to the U.S. proposal.

A replica of the first sign put up by the road crew on the Alaska Highway project in 1942

Before we left Watson Lake we stopped to watch the local parade kicking off their annual summer fair. It wasn't a very big parade, but the town's people came out to support those who made floats or marched. It was led by two Royal Canadian Mounties who looked sharp in their bright red coats.

How would you like to get to the hospital via this kind of transport?

More roadside sights

This buffalo looked a bit different than the American Bison seen in the States. I read later that it is called a Wood Buffalo, and there are only about 200 wild ones remaining in Canada.


Winding down the miles of the Alaska Highway, we stopped at mile 26 and took a short side road to the Kiskatinaw Bridge. The highway today bypasses this bridge, which was built in 1942 on the original route. The bridge, a three-span timber truss construction, with a unique 9-degree curve, sits 100 feet above the river. It is a beauty. Nice someone thought of moving the road instead of destroying the bridge.

In Dawson Creek, we stayed at “Mile 0” R.V. Park. Dawson Creek is the town where the Alaska Highway officially begins. You can tell our journey is winding down when we did not even snap a picture of the Mile 0 marker!


When we visited Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada a few years ago, it felt like we had traveled far into the north. This trip, when we reached Jasper, it felt like we had moved quite a distance south. We spent the day in the city, touring some spots we had missed last time.
Pyramid Lake, with its charming island, and history as a lovers meeting place, was a great spot for lunch, especially since there were very few visitors that day. That afternoon we stopped at a local museum, then, moved on to the ice field just south of Jasper.

The walking bridge to Pyramid Island

The picnic shelter built by Canada's version of the CCC in the 1930's

Pyramid Mountain. Quartz and Pyrite, (also known as fools gold), give this rock peak its beautiful colors.

The drive through the Ice Fields takes your breath away. I love how the snow looks like frosting at the top edge of these cliffs

Glaciers everywhere, pouring down from the ice fields that cover the peaks

More frosting

A view of the road below that eventually took us away from the ice fields

After awhile we made ourselves stop taking pictures. Everywhere we looked were magnificent views of mountains, glaciers and ice fields. Besides, without the context, they all look similar, plus, we had already taken all these shots last time we were here. Jasper, the Ice Fields, and Banff should be on everyone’s list to visit, at least once in their life to fully experience the majesty here.

Crossing the border from Canada into Montana was uneventful, except that now we could use our cell phones again. Marlin had a message from his cousin Carol, who was in Great Falls, Montana, which was only 80 miles from where we crossed the border. When you have driven as far as we have, 80 miles feels like around the corner, so we dropped down and visited for a couple of days.
Since we were in Great Falls, visited the Lewis and Clark Interpretative center again. This facility does the best job of documenting the 1804-5 journey. Weaving through the exhibits, that follow the time line of the epic trip, you can appreciate the magnitude of this venture and the bravery of the men who undertook the task. It was every bit as inspiring this second time through. In fact, it is a place you could visit many times and see something new every time you entered this museum.
That evening at the outdoor pavilion, the museum hosted concert given by two bluegrass performers. A perfect evening, overlooking the Missouri river, a warm breeze blowing, the sun setting off to our left, with the camera back in our truck! I think we are traveled out.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Denali National Park and Preserve

After our quick peek at Anchorage we traveled further north and stopped at Talketna on our way to Denali National Park & Preserve. This is a small village where mountaineers depart, by air, on their way to a 7,000-foot base camp. This camp, a jumping off spot for climbers, is located on the Kahiltna Glacier, which leads to the West Buttress, the preferred ascent route to the top of Mt. McKinley.
Our first moose sighting in Talkeetna

Grass even grows on top of the information boards

A shop in down town Talkeetna
At one time Talkeetna was a trading post during the gold rush and a supply station during the building of the railroad, but today it is a tourist stop for cruise line passengers. There are some quaint roadhouses, flying services, and shops where local artists sell their work. We had talked about a flying trip over McKinley, but the weather was socked in and zero visibility ruled that out. Montana Creek, a nearby river famous for its trout and salmon fishing, held Marlin’s interest for a couple of days before we headed for Denali.

The Miles and the Coles should remember this spot. Mt. McKinley should be in the background

The Talkeetna Lodge, a Princes Cruise Line property. Not where we stayed this time

There are not enough adjectives to use when writing about Denali National Park and Preserve. That alone makes it hard to begin, but we have had no Internet and little down time over the past two weeks to write anything, even if we did have access. Starting the 26th, we spent five days in the park, then visited in Fairbanks for three, and returned to the park for another four days, all crammed with activities lasting into the late evening. It would take me a month to explain all we saw and experienced.
For starters, Denali was created in 1917, the first National Park dedicated to conserving wildlife. Today, it has a staff of 30 interpretive Park Rangers that present daily programs about the Park’s plant and wildlife inhabitants. One major focus of these presentations is how to safely view the animals without disturbing their natural patterns. All the presenters were excellent, well informed speakers with topics that covered a wide range of the flora and fauna within the Park.

Access to the Park is achieved via the 90-mile, dead end road that winds through a tiny piece of the Park’s six million acres. Travel by private car is allowed only on the first 14 miles. Shuttle and specific Tour buses carry people to various spots along the rest of the road. We saw amazing numbers of wildlife along this meager 14 miles each time we drove out to Savage River, which is at mile 14, and even greater numbers from the bus further along its narrow route.

A fox ambled past us while we were stopped for lunch on the crest of a hill

Our favorite activities were the Discovery hikes. They are Ranger led treks into the trail-less backcountry and are limited to ten people. The park encourages getting off the bus anywhere you wish and heading out in whatever direction you please. They discourage use of any kind of trails, even those made by wildlife and stress leaving no trace.
On our first hike out to Poly Chrome Mountain we were afforded a look at the elusive Mount McKinley. This 20,320-foot masterpiece is not only the tallest mountain in North America, it has a larger bulk and rise than Mt. Everest when Everest is measured from its base on the Tibetan Plateau.

There is so much I’d like to share about this park that I cannot organize my thoughts without blathering on for pages so the best I can do is let some of the pictures convey the thousand unspoken words I have in my head. This Park and this State have stolen my heart and we are already planning for a longer return trip. If I were 20, I’d be packing my bags and changing my address from ME to AK.

One of the first bears we sighted along the side of the road

Brandi, our Ranger guide, read a Robert Service poem on our hike in the Poly Chrome area

View from the top of Poly Chrome

The Park keeps a sled dog kennel, where they raise dogs for winter travel in the park. Demonstrations are given three times a day.

The dogs and sled racing around a short track.

After their short run. It was about 65 degrees-hot for these cold weather dogs

The dogs who were left behind this trip, watch closely for their turn

Savage River trail, one of the very few organized trails in the park

As we walked along Savage river, Marlin spied this ram sheep using the same trail. We politely stepped aside a few feet

and he passed right in front of us, just keeping a weary eye on us.

We saw him again further along the trail, pawing up roots or grass under this rock

This Arctic ground squirrel looks like a ground hog to me

Park out houses, complete with sod roofs

On our quick trip to Fairbanks, we visited with Stephen Sheehy, who came to Alaska to canoe the Yukon River and never left. While we were there we visited the University of Alaska, Fairbanks gardens.
How much coleslaw would this make?

Somehow we got away from Stephen without taking any pictures of him, his cabin or even his seven sled dogs. I have been lamenting that loss since we left Fairbanks. Just have to go back.

The downtown parking lots have plug ins for your your car in the winter. What does that tell you about the temperature

On our way out of town we stopped at a section of the oil pipeline and learned how they keep the permafrost frozen all the time. A sensor tells when the temp goes above 30 degrees and it sends down a liquid that forces the heat up to a series of fins that disperse the heat into the air

Support system

Back in the park a caribou crosses a braided stream

Two eating the tender grass at the edge of the road

Taken from the bus.

McKinley stream, near the park entrance. The point of land was pushed up between two faults

A small view of the interior park road. It has many hairpin turns like this

The beginning of our hike along Stony Creek with ranger Andy Keller

A braided stream. These streams wander through the gravel left behind by retreating glaciers. Their courses can change by the hour.

Hiking Stony Stream
Fall has begun here. During the past week we have watched the willow and Aspen foliage turn yellow and the fireweed loose its last purple blossom. The temperature last night was 38 degrees, the Caribou have started to migrate toward their winter feeding grounds, the bears are scouring the berry bushes for every calorie they can get into their stomachs, there is fresh snow on the hills this morning, and the Cooks must begin their long slow journey toward Maine.
We will have more interesting things to see on the way home, but it is hard to leave here.