We woke up early the next morning, Thursday September 27th 2012 to cook breakfast and head up to the airport by 8am. Security was a breeze. I waited with Lynne until then and walked back across the highway to my car. I watched her flight take off and snapped a pic of it going airborne. I decided then in my head I was going to try to make it back over 1500 miles (2400km) for the memorial on Saturday. I sat down in the Roo and drove. I drove like it meant something, because it did. With a tail wind through the southern Yukon I made the speedo point south for a stretch. Kilometers blurred as I explored the recesses of my mind. By 1:20pm I stopped for gas at Watson Lake and said hello to the fellow who helped me out with the tires last year on the Roo at campground Services just south of town. Back on the throttle I stopped again from 2:45-3:30 to spend some time with Bison along the Alcan. I spent 5-7pm at Liard Hot Springs- North America’s best. I had budgeted only an hour but that place is tough to pass up. The sun was setting as I moved into the Northern Rockies but I made it to Muncho Lake just after dark. I pulled the Roo down near the shore and called it a night shortly after I set up my tripod near the softly lapping waves. This is another favorite spot in the North!
The next morning I had a leisurely start getting underway just before 8am. After pausing to take pics of a pretty meadow with great clouds I filled up with gas at Toad River and stopped again not long afterwards and to gaze at one of my favorite slopes with Aspens above the river. By 9:20 I was heading through Stone mountain, a place we had planned on backpacking this year. Eventually you make your way to the east side of the Rockies and head down towards Fort Nelson. That section seemed to drag on as I had been told it’s one of the few speed traps anywhere in rural Canada. A couple people I’ve talked to in Watson Lake have been picked off by RCMP radar there. From here there is a lot of oil and gas exploration. Trucks and 1 ton pickups clog the road with traffic compared to places further north (out of tourist season). In other words you have to pass vehicles from time to time. It was super smokey when I dropped down out of the mountains but cleared out further south. At some point south of Fort Nelson it began to rain. I had my sights set on Fort St John or the turnoff to Chetwyend near there my next gas stop after topping off a bit further north. The rain came and went making for some interesting passes of semis. The cutoff on hwy 29 along the Peace River was twisty but super pretty, my favorite route through the region.
I had hoped to make it to Prince George or even Williams Lake by dark but that was not to be. A pretty sunset held back the night for a bit after crossing the Rockies again towards McLeod Lake. Stopping for a break (to recharge the Go Pro) I drove through fog and moonlight and made it to Prince George around 9pm. I drove another 45 minutes and stopped at a rest area off the highway. I crawled in the back to take a cat nap but was too amped up on adrenaline to sleep. I laid there for two hours and got back on the road before 11pm and made it to Williams lake after midnight and filled up with gas again at the husky station I often visit there. Now I knew I was within striking distance as we’ve often made big pushes home from here. However exhaustion was setting in pretty hard. I was bone tired when I stopped past Prince George but this is when the power of the mind comes in willing the body on and helping it stay alert. Finally around 4am I stopped again past Clinton BC where the Nar car threw a rod on the big push south in 2003 leading to an even bigger adventure. I laid down again right near the turnoff to Lillooet and after an hour was back in the saddle. Eventually daylight began to show itself as I sped down the fraser River. That stretch dragged on forever. Finally around 7am I made it to Hope and could feel the border. By now each stretch felt like an eternity. I made it to the US border by 8:20am on Saturday morning greeted with long lines of Canadians heading south. I pulled into the duty free to use the bathroom and had a fantastically simple entry back into the US. It felt great to be back in Washington. I called my family and Lynne surprising her I was in the US. Her mom said not to do anything rash thinking i was much further north. I replied I was already back in the states to her astonishment I made my way to Seattle and although I was in a zombie state I cleaned up at found some clothes for the memorial. I didn’t used to realize the importance of memorials until I lost the person most important to me. Then it was a big deal to me when friends made the effort to come over from Seattle. That show of support will stick with me the rest of my life!
On September 23rd we left Tok in the afternoon and stopped for our last ‘cheap’ Yankee gas just before the border. At the border into the Yukon the Canada customs agent was chit chatting with me about photography. Lynne and I both thought it was going to be a record setting easy crossing. At the suggestion of the the nicest customs agent I had ever dealt with on my way north to Alaska I mentioned that I had been denied entry to Canada 9 years before due to having a photocopy of my birth certificate. She dismissed that but almost immediately changed her tone turning from runner up to nicest canada customs agent to the flip side I’ve known a lot over the years. “Did you know your passport expires in 4 weeks?” “Yes.” “Canada is like any other foreign country and requires your passport to be valid for 6 months beyond date of entry.” “I will be exiting the country in a just over a week.” I’ve grown accustomed to pulling into the bay to speak with immigration regarding why I was denied entry in ’03 (since it only says “Immigration” when the person at the window scans my passport) or being searched for suspicion of poverty but this was different. 45 minutes later and a less than friendly conversation about how Canada is not different than other foreign countries in its relation to the US or how I had been lying earlier when I didn’t mention I was considering a flight south for a memorial to return afterwards for my car and drive south my thoughts of Canada Customs were soured further. She said I could or perhaps would be denied entry if I tried to return north for my car even if the flight was a domestic Canadian flight and I was entering Canada by bus. At the same time I watched another Customs Agent turn around a retired couple from North Carolina, separating them from their traveling friends in another vehicle already through the border. I asked the agent about the regulations on the retired gentleman’s firearm. He casually said the shotgun was a grey area because it was about 1/2cm too short. Two events don’t define a place but in my head they went far in that direction as 2 agents followed the letter of the law and more regarding a couple of harmless Americans. I was issued a form permitting me short term entry of Canda. Regarding my car she told me to check with the Customs office in Whitehorse to notify them. On the form she typed “unknown” for citizenship when it’s plainy stated as USA on my valid US Passport. Beaver Creek customs has won the coveted title of most annoying! Congrats!
We drove the current champion for ‘most frost heaved’ stretch of road that I’ve encountered- the Alaska highway from Beaver Creek to Kluane Lake, the first stretch being the worst. In 2010 with my fully loaded Toyota pickup it was a 35mph white knuckle drive in 4wd across the snowy road pitching side to side and dropping into unexpected holes. Fortunately the road was dry and the Subaru wasn’t a handful. For a stretch we watched vibrant rainbows form before us at times seeing double bows. It would dim to return again as we turned another bend and the clouds moved through the sky. It was quite a sight and comforting to Lynne. I was excited to shoot photos along the highway of some spectacular beauty. We camped at the Donjek River and settled in for a cold night after cooking dinner on the lee side of the car. Wind batted at the Subaru. I had considered night photos as that had been a constant goal on this trip but the cold was too much. We stayed up and talked and cried, pondering lives well lived … and death. Recalling many memories that made us smile and lessons we’d learned. Loss of those we cherish and admire, the people we look to as anchors, is hard. It seems to rock us at our cores. I also see such loss as a challenge to live a more exemplary life and treat others better every day. To be known for kindness and for offering encouragement and smiles to those we contact.
Emotions often show themselves physically. After not sleeping that much I awoke to an achy body. It felt like I had the flu but I was optimistic for a while and wrote it off to a rough night of sleep. Later in the day I realized the bug I’d fought off in Anchorage was back with a vengeance. We drove to Kluane Lake and watched the wind drive whitecaps to the shore. This is another spot up north that I’m drawn to, stark and beautiful. We cooked breakfast at Burwash Landing and read up on a large fire they had. We made our way to Haines junction. My body wanted to sleep but we pushed on to Whitehorse arriving in the afternoon. First stop was starbucks across from Walmart (for free wifi- not coffee silly). I had to figure out whether or not to fly south. My brain capacity seemed to be hovering around 5%. Staring blankly into space was what I could muster. Making a good decision seemed out of reach. I pondered my options for a while and decided to fly (driving down in time seemed out of reach- even had we driven straight south from Tok). We were still considering a return to the north to finish our trip to the Arctic in the Yukon. After discussing things Lynne persuaded me not to fly south. Since I was sick I wouldn’t be of much help or support. I trusted her judgement and agreed. We looked at our ‘schedule’ and wanting to visit Yellowstone meant we were running out of time up North. We decided to take a short trip North of Whitehorse to salvage some sort of neato factor for Lynne. I wasn’t sure I could make the drive but decided to see what I could do in the morning. We picked up a bunch of veggies and Lynne cooked a delicious healthy meal while I chugged carrot juice. Somehow I managed enough brain capacity to help Lynne set up her tent. I slept well in the Roo and felt a little bit better in the morning.
Keno Hill Excursion
After a breakfast of Malto Meal we headed north towards Mayo and Keno Hill. Once again Lynne ate a Klondike bar on the Klondike Highway. We gazed at Five Finger Rapids, a foe of the overloaded river boats on the Yukon River during the gold rush. North we went until we reached Stewart Crossing where we left the main route to Dawson City and parted ways with a route we had traveled the previous summer to Tombstone & Dawson. Mayo has some interesting old buildings but the real history is further out the road. We left the pavement and made our way towards Keno Hill. It was chilly even in the sun and I was exhausted by the time we made it so I rested in the car for a bit before finding Lynne out for a walk through the historic town. We stopped at the Keno City Snack Bar, a place with lots of neat old things, and chatted with the owner. A couple of traveling librarians were also chatting with him about life in the north and checking on their library in Keno. That was our next stop. We looked at the campground to see what it was like before heading up to the end of the road on Keno Hill at the signpost. The temperature dropped and the wind picked up as we climbed. The views were nice but we found ourselves no longer in summer or even fall up top. Before dinner we met some workers from the department of Aboriginal Affairs & Northern Development, an agency surveying the environmental damage of the mines & tailings left behind. The cleanup there and at Faro are adding up to billions of dollars of cleanup. Mining money was made decades upon decades ago and now the responsibility is the taxpayer’s since United Keno Hill mines declared bankruptcy in 1999. They enjoyed sunset at the signpost and drove a bit beyond before returning to the town well below for a cozy night in town.
Facing the Roo into the wind we cooked dinner in the back of the car with the hatch open. It was so windy that even this arrangement resulted in mostly raw garlic in the veggie stir fry. This was a perfect compliment to tortellini and my immune system. My fever broke late that night as I sweated in my double sleeping bag. Lynne was wrapped in two warm down bags. It was so cold that night! It snowed but the wind carried most of it towards the Northwest Territories. The car shook and shuddered in the wind but we slept soundly in the Roo. We felt better about our decision not to head back to the Arctic a couple weeks later. 185km away was close enough in that season. In the morning we marveled at the patterns of snow sculpted by the wind. An even greater marvel was the distance to Mexico City- 4500km- further than several places in Europe including Paris 4400km, Moscow 4200km, Berlin 4300km & Hamburg 4200km! Yet this was nothing compared to the 7450km to Rio de Janeiro .. and that’s northern South America. This trip is hard to wrap the head around in terms of distance! Everything about it is big!
We took in the views and slowly headed down the hill getting out to look in different directions and take in the wildness of the Yukon. It’s so vast and unpopulated, everything I dreamed of Alaska being as a boy! Part way down the hill the snow disappeared and we made our way back to fall. Out we went under grey skies past Keno and then Mayo arriving back at the Klondike to fill up with gas at Stewart Crossing. South we went and the weather improved. Lynne gave me a baking soda hair ‘wash’ at Carmacks. I had seen her do this in the past and had been a skeptic of the practice but it turned really dirty hair into marginally dirty hair. Success I think. We made it to within striking distance of Whitehorse and went to the hot springs outside of town just off the Klondike highway. It was ~$11 per person and the hot springs we basically swimming pools but it was nice to soak in hot water! I was super tired again but on the mend. we met a nice couple from near Palmer AK who were hauling their horses to southern Idaho for the winter while they went to Florida. It was their first time driving south in 30 years and were surprised to learn you needed a passport to enter canada. They were hassled for a while but allowed ot enter Canada. They drove the Top of the World highway on the day were were looking to do so but turned around by the Customs Closed signs. After dark we headed to the Walmart parking lot, our home for the night once again. Lynne cooked up over a pound of hamburger with teriyaki. Sadly I spilled part of my hamburger in the parking lot. Lynne arranged her bags for the morning flight home taking only a carry on.
We arrived in Anchorage ready to regroup and rest up. My dad picked up a cold from folks at Denali and I had been fighting it off ever since. Driving equaled being quite exhausted after each long day on the road. The drive out of Mccarthy was especially taxing even though the distances weren’t far. The luxuries of a city were a welcome sight. We arrived at Harmony’s house and ducked out of the rain for a bit before we changed the Roo’s oil out on the street. A tarp helped keep us off the street a bit but laying under the car one was soon greeted by running water. Soaked, I was still excited. Lynne was flying north! Her flight had been delayed for a few hours due to more high winds expected in Anchorage. She spent most of the day sitting at Sea Tac, boarding and unboarding a plane, waiting and finally flying to Alaska. It had been over a month since we’d seen each other! Initially we had planned on camping on the Kenai that night but the delayed flight made that tough. Harmony was gracious to host us, three weary travelers in her front room. The next day I set out to update my blog but computer issues which had been growing since Prince George reached a head. My machine had increasing trouble booting as we drove north. Before the trip and before any sign of real issues I had ordered another hard drive for Lynne to bring up. Finally armed with this and a copy of windows I had carried along I was ready to make those problems go away. Since this was too easy on its own my cd/dvd rom decided to fail as well. I read up on creating a bootable windows iso via usb or in my case a compact flash card. Lets just say that things reached new levels of complexity and my computer acted as a boat anchor for blog or photo productivity. After a couple days I managed to coax it into working long enough for me to recount our time in Denali. Months later Lynne now recalls me mainly being upset at my computer much of the time. And it seems this is how I think of time in cities, bound by technology. We made a quick visit to my best friend’s mother in law’s best friend’s place outside of Anchorage in the hills and off the grid. It was amazing to see the work Pete and Sarah had done on a place that started out as a small cabin, a place where she raised her kids close to the city but far from the conveniences we take for granted like running water and electricity. It was so nice to be welcomed by people we had never met as family!
Three days after Lynne flew in my dad flew out to Spokane but not before his flight was also delayed due to more crazy weather in Anchorage. Battling my computer Lynne and I spent 3 more glorious days in Anchorage. Lynne went for a long walk in the really really rainy weather and eyed a puddle to walk through until she saw ducks swimming through it. With one pair of shoes she also headed to dinner in her soggy walking shoes. It was a treat to meet up with several sets of friends that evening hailing from Spokane and Seattle but all drawn to the magic of AK. The next day’s agenda was headlined by Lynne’s search for warm boots! As a sidenote, goodwill will absolutely NOT sell an item that lacks a price tag. We came back the next day to find these ideal boots but they had either been sold or were swallowed by the back room. Now you’re probably wondering how you could be so lucky to find yourself in the glamorous vacation situations we lived in Anchorage. It can be tough to do but tying yourself to technology is a start. After this one must use most of the life in said technology but time it so that this isn’t discovered until you’re far away from easy remedies. Lastly you must let it influence your plans and emotions. Add prodigous rain. This is a surefire way to bolster your feelings of a place and the feelings of your traveling companions. We made our escape from Anchorage after 6 days while managing not to make it down to the Kenai like we’d planned. But as they say, all’s well that ends well. We were happy to be on the road again and that made up for some of the hits we’d taken in attitude with splendid light on the Matanuska Glacier. We camped just past there at a rest stop/ trail head as we neared Glenallen. The next day we made our way to Tok and the Top of the World Highway. This is a favorite spot for both of us up north. The drive is really pretty through the open rolling alpine along a ridge and it takes you to Dawson City Yukon Territory, hub of the 1898 Gold Rush. At this Lynne usually exclaims, “GOOOLLLLDDD” and becomes excited at the prospect of seeing gold rush history. We were both excited about heading to Tombstone Park again and beyond, hoping to travel all the way north on the Dempster highway making my second visit of the season to the Arctic. But there’s a saying about the plans of men.
We turned off the Alaska highway 12 miles past Tok to access the Top of the World Highway but a sign defiantly told us Customs Closed! What?! We considered heading to the border to see and as we found out from a couple in Whitehorse later that week the border was open that night until 8pm; they made it through. We ended up choosing the more conservative route and returning to Tok, seeing it as futile to drive over 120 mi to Chicken AK and back. People in Tok told us the ferry across the Yukon River had been shut down so even if a person made it through customs somehow it wouldn’t be possible to cross over to Dawson City. Our trip revolved around going north to the Yukon Arctic. We resigned ourselves to driving around, over 1000km extra! I spent the next 4-5 hours writing postcards in Tok. We cooked dinner outside a gift shop/ hotel in Tok and pulled down the dirt street, parking camp Subaru along the small road after dark. In the morning a voice mail from Kazakhstan told of sad news and our plans changed. The things that had been so frustrating, extra days in Anchorage and being too late to drive Top of the World highway were the things that kept us in Alaska just long enough to have phone service. Instead of scurrying off to Whitehorse we went to Fast Eddy’s restaurant for late morning dessert and internet. It was time to find ways home. We looked at the Alaska ferry and while a nice trip, it’s 4 days and more expensive than flights. Lynne had peanut butter pie. Eventually we found the best thing was to fly from Whitehorse to Vancouver BC. It was surprisingly cheap, only $212! Lynne booked a flight south. I delayed deciding on a flight for myself until we were in Whitehorse.
After such splendor & fantastic weather in Denali National Park we had high hopes for the next leg of the trip. I had checked the Aurora forecast and it appeared to be much better than our time in the park where I had taken my first photos of the Northern Lights with the roof of North America framed by stars at my back. For this stretch the Mountains would be between me and the Aurora, a recipe for some spectacular images. But as was often the case during our time north the weather had other plans. It snowed on us as we camped mid way between Cantwell and Paxson AK and we barely saw the valley let alone the peaks beyond or the sky above. It had been a goal of mine to at least drive this dirt highway running to the south of the much lesser visited part of the Alaska range. The views are still up there waiting for my return. Lots of hunters lined the roadway. In sections where there is quad access to the wilds beyond so the RV’s lined the road for a mile or more at such access points. In stark contrast to the hunters camped along the pullouts on the Haul Road (aka Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay) in simple expedition like tents these hunters appeared to hail from more urban settings with their kitchen and satellite tv along for the ride. Arriving in Paxson we looked to fill our tank but a paper taped over the pump proclaimed “Sorry Ran Out of Gas”. This can be a common sight in the North so fill up where you can! The hotel/ Restaurant/ Gas station in Paxson is an interesting old wood building with posters about the homesteading act inside.
We headed south on the Glen Highway stopping in Glenallen at the Visitor center and at the Gas Station/ General Store. It’s a main crossroads for travelers headed across Alaska east to west or north to south, complete with the novelties one would expect: mugs, T-shirts, trinkets & Shiny Rocks! We parked next to a DIY camper showcasing Alaskan ingenuity & resourcefulness. About 7 miles south of Glenallen is the Visitor center for Wrangell St Elias national Park. We had the place to ourselves and didn’t disturb the Ranger’s quiet for long. Combined with connecting parks Glacier Bay, Kluane National Park in the Yukon and Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in BC it is the world’s largest National Park. Comparisons in size were made to Switzerland. Wrangell St Elais itself is bigger! It is 6X Yellowstone and with its combined brethren it is 32 million acres or 130,000 square kilometers! everything here is massive from mountains to glaciers containing a single glacier bigger than the state of Rhode Island! It is the opposite of Denali though or any park in the lower 48 when it comes to accessibility. Overland access is still a serious expedition to reach the massive glaciers and peaks inside. It still holds a strong allure for those who seek wild explorations. Eyes wide open I dreamed of future trips into its secrets.
Down the road we went to the turnoff for McCarthy AK. Our small shortcut from the north was dirt and potholed. I didn’t let that slow our hunt for a camp in the daylight. We hit the pavement again at Kenny Lake and soon watched rainbows form in front of us. The ever changing interaction of light and water droplets is beautiful and fascinating. We admired the Tosina River and soon after the native Village of Chitina we made our camp along the Copper river basin. Right out of town one leaves the pavement for the last 60 miles to McCarthy, keeping the hordes of RVs at bay, especially the last 10-15 miles which can be a bit rough. One of my favorite things about Alaska is its wondrous rivers with immense gravel bars and braided channels. This area in particular is a gold mine for such sights. Last light glanced off Mt Wrangell as we made our camp and cooked in a sheltered spot at river’s edge.
We awoke refreshed and excited to see the beauty beyond. Climbing above the Copper river we paused at overlooks of the river below. One of my favorite memories from this part of my 2003 trip was the bridge overlooking the Kuskulana River far below. It was just as spectacular as I remembered. We parked at the trailhead/ small seasonal visitor info center for the National Park on the edge of McCarthy after I dropped my dad off at the footbridge leading to old McCarthy and Kennicott 5 miles beyond. A bush pilot picked me up cutting out a chunk of my walk to the bridge and said he knew my friend Josh when he was flying in Florida as he runs another flight-seeing business in Florida during the winter months. My dad and I hiked for a bit and were picked up by a woman driving back to one of the hotels in old McCarthy. The seasonal shuttle running to Kennicott made its last 2012 run the previous day. My dad wasn’t too keen on huffing it 10 miles round trip just to get to and from Kennicott so we were satisfied by poking around McCarthy. It’s a neat old town with wooden buildings in various states of restoration or disrepair. The old mines out at Kennicott are neat as well and worth seeing. From my 2003 trip it was only a short hike to the glacier from there as well. we hiked back to the car and went out the trail to the glacier overlook. Rain was on its way so we didn’t linger for long as we gazed across the valley to Kennicott and the rubble & heaps of gravel at the glacier’s terminus. Retracing our way back out to Chitina I once again admired the Kuskulana river from high above its aqua waters. We took in the impressive spans of the “Can’t Run Never Will” railroad line to the mines that is sagging in decay. Running from 1911-38 it proved many wrong and is still impressive today.
We made camp just off the highway along the Tosina River and watched warm light set trees and hills aglow. I was impressed by the clouds. Like Argentine Patagonia, massive weather slams into the mountains and creates a dynamic show on the other side. With the show there is wind. I set my dad’s tent up in the trees for shelter and made my home in the Roo. In the morning we drove past a Yak farm and watched many shaggy creatures follow the hay dispenser. After a gas stop at the Kenny Lake Mercantile we made it back to the highway and watched the weather change as we went south. Our blue hole from the night before turned grey. Rain began, softly at first then with a ferocity. When we reached Thompson Pass the rain was in a rage. Dropping into the valley towards Valdez it lessened but held a constant presence through our stay, a constant reminder we had found the Pacific. Valdez is a neat town where fishing still holds a strong presence. It is also where the 800 mile long Alaska pipeline ends with huge storage facilities that feed waiting oil tankers. The library is a neat place and a good refuge for the rain. Their special collections are fantastic! We also toured the local museum and read up on the history of the area from natives to gold prospectors and eventually oil. They have a chunk of the Exxon Valdez and a write up on the disaster. From Valdez we headed back up north to Glenallen, gas, and a camp off a dirt road about 20 miles closer to Anchorage for an easy drive to the big City in the morning. 100mph winds were forecast for the coast that night so we sought shelter in the trees. I spent another peaceful night in the Roo as did my dad in the tent sheltered by trees. The next morning we were on the road early and even with stops at the Matanuska glacier we made it into Anchorage before noon.
Have you ever watched a dream wither and die? … hopes fall flat and joy disappear from the things you once loved? As an adult human reading this I’d take a gander the answer is yes. A few years ago I found myself at this place. Loss is powerful. In its wake we may find ourselves missing a number of the tools both practical and intangible that nourished us in the past from hobbies to dreams. Photography has been one of the ways I’ve found joy in the past decade but its lure became elusive. Even actions as simple as heading to the mountains fell flat. In the past even the prospect of heading into the alpine conjured joy. This trip through North and South America has been a headlining hope and dream of mine for the past 10 years. Yet I found myself staring at an empty hope, a dream that had exited the building.
How does one find these runaway dreams again? This is what I searched for over the past few years. How do you find that wonder in the world when the flame went out? How do you see the world through the eyes of a child when that age seems so distant? How long do you go through the motions taking photos, traveling .. exploring … before the wonder returns? I knew I needed to go back to those things that brought large smiles in the past, to find beauty that had inspired me before, to somehow learn to dream again and rekindle that excitement. I went to the North Kuntry (Alaska & the Yukon) 3 years in a row, I put in the work to embark on this major undertaking heading from the tip of one continent to another, I got back up each time struggles knocked me down.
I sought beauty wherever I went in one of the most simplistic ways humans have ever known. After dark I gazed skyward and pointed my camera to match my gaze.
After ages of watching this trip play in my dreams and for a time disappear from them, I’m on the road … near the Mexican border.
Happy new year to you!
Buena Suerte & Dream Big!