Return to Canada Land

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.

 

Alaska Just 20 Minutes Outside of Anchorage

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.

 

Lowland Alaskan Ramblin From the Denali Highway to McCarthy & Valdez

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.

 

Estrellas: Dreams in the Night

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!
Jon

 

 

 

 

 

Denali Grandeurscape

written september 12th 2012 at the Denali Visitor Center

I’m Excited! Over the past few days I fulfilled several different dreams. For starters I shot my first photos of the Aurora!! I’ve wanted to do this for as long as I’ve had a camera! I saw wolves in Denali and took my first images of Canis Lupus not in captivity. To top it off I also photographed stars above Denali and the Alaska Range!! These were my first real photos of the trip where I had time to step back and be a photographer rather than just a driver or cook and snapshooter on the side. But more than these a greater dream was fulfilled.

Things looked grim on Sunday (sept 9th). We went to the wrong bus stop near the visitor center at 7am. After finally hitching a shuttle bus back to the Wilderness Activity Center we were on standby. It was 8am. Our bus hadn’t left yet. No buses had. The road was closed due to snow. Maybe 9am .. By 9 the word was 10. Our driver told us we’d head out any minute after that. At noon the status went from standby to cancelled.

Denali is all about grandeur! Like most national parks, throngs visit to walk around the visitor center snap some pics of pull outs along the road and rave about it. I’m really proud of my dad. Unlike the vast majority of silverheads visiting he made it into the bush for two separate forays- even had some Alaskan bushwhacking thrown in for good measure. He was impressed by what he saw and unlike the “where’s the restroom?” crowd he walked away from something that will stick with him the rest of his life. I like that a lot!

For this trip I was his guide. I packed his pack, cooked meals, selected his clothing, handled the food, destinations, route-finding and everything in between. But I wouldn’t be here today without him- not just for the obvious reason that he’s my dad. It wasn’t so many years ago I was in 3rd grade. That tiny 8 year old had help with his meals, packing his pack, clothes, the route and everything in between.

That tiny 8 year old had his eyes opened. He grew and bushwhacked around the hills of NE Washington. He discovered the mountains and grew to be a man in that world. My father has done a lot for me but this is the largest gift he gave me. It transformed me and was one of the main shaping forces in who I am today. It taught me who I am and what I’m made of. It’s taken me to places of untold beauty & taught me lessons that flowed through all aspects of life. This trip is about a lot of things, yet here in Denali it is about a simple thank you- a chance to share with him the majesty he taught me to seek.

Even the bus rides into Denali are great! There are lots of wildlife sightings and great folks to chat with. I had met Terry briefly the day our bus was cancelled on that snowy Sunday Sept 9th. I was impressed Monday morning as we rolled out on the bus to Savage River. He hopped on wearing Carhartts coveralls and jacket, summer edition. His hood was all snow. He said it had been a chilly one. Terry is from West Virginia but lives in Alaska now and loves it. On the ride out we also met Ben, a wildlife photographer from South Carolina. He’d been out calling moose and following some around for great shots. They both mentioned how folks will think they’re dumb because of the southern accent. How dumb of those who think that! People of all stripes are found wherever one goes. We saw Bears, Moose, Caribou, and a variety of other creatures on the way in!

We were dropped off at Wonder Lake. This is practically the last stop and certainly the most popular stop. It’s quite beautiful. One is only 20 miles from “the mountain” and it’s only a couple miles back up the road to Reflection Pond where Ansel Adams made his famous shot. Ben said he’s counted over 80 photographers there at sunset!! I shot that spot in 2003 and didn’t have a compelling desire to do so again. Different perspectives draw me off the beaten path. While we didn’t stray exceedingly far from this path we still made it out to a place where we didn’t see other folks. Down on the McKinley River Bar we had great views of the mountains and enjoyed a chilly night there along the river. I was told the next day the weather station at Wonder lake reported a low of 25. The station at McKinley River Bar said 15! For most of the night I was up, shooting photos with all the clothes I’d brought. Landscape photography, especially at night, isn’t an activity to warm oneself with. I may have to soften up at some point and get those chemical heat packs for hands and feet! The night was spectacular though! I had gone to bed at 10:30 after post sunset color and set my alarm for just after 11. However I woke with a start when I realized I had overslept and it was 1am! I popped out of the tent to see the Aurora dancing with greens and a tinge of red! It was spectacular! I shot and shot though the night. Eventually there was too much pre-dawn glow to shoot stars over Denali. I had gone through 3 of my 4 camera batteries! and still had a 2-3 days left in the park!

While one is seldom completely satisfied with a shot since there are always little things one can do better I felt happy with the images I’d created in the cold! It was my first real stab at photography on this trip! For that I was quite happy :) After shooting the sunrise and morning light we had food and lounged waiting for the ice to break up. During the night the sand I was standing on was frozen solid. The braided river channels around us had frozen about 2-3 feet out from each bank! Ice was breaking up all morning. We had to wade a few of those on the way out so the idea of less ice sounded like a good one. We hiked back out to Wonder Lake and missed the bear others had seen on the trail. I’m glad it was only a few miles to backpack out as I’d carried a ton of camera gear! We spent some time at Wonder Lake then hopped a bus bound for Kantishna to see the end of the road and the private in-holdings grandfathered into the park. As the bus headed back for the park entrance we hopped off near a pond I had spied. My dad wasn’t too keen on the bushwhack down to it (a ways through steep brush in places). I scouted above the road and found a reasonable route to higher ground. We made our way up and up to a spot that also had a big pond. It was breezy though so I didn’t shoot it in the evening. Our perfect day of weather on the first day and good day of weather on the second day was turning into a pretty cloudy evening. There was decent slanty light on the peaks to the east before sunset but then the show was over. I was relieved as I was too tired to shoot well and didn’t have much battery capacity left anyways. I set a better alarm than the night before by drinking a bunch of water. When I awoke to some clouds over the mountains with stars above I considered watching it for improvement. However one stupid act at 1am changed that. Instead of putting both shoes on outside the tent it seemed to make sense to put one on and hop over to the tripod. On one foot I collapsed the legs. As the last one went down so did my balance and support. My finger was pinched in the collapsed section. At first I though it would just be a blood blister but upon inspection in the tent with a headlamp I noticed I’d taken a chunk out of a fingertip! Only a flesh wound :D Whoops.

The morning had far more clouds. We heard the rumble of the 6:30am wonder lake bus as we were packing up and thought we’d catch the 7:30 bus. We made it down to the road with time to spare but no bus. It was one of those mornings where the night had been clear enough to get cold but clouds covered the canopy as the sun rose preventing warming. We dug our puffies out as we waited. Light pierced the canopy of clouds in spots for some nice highlights to the west and down to the McKinley River Bar & Turtle hill near where we’d slept the previous night. Eventually the bus rolled in an hour and change later then we expected realizing it had gone from Wonder Lake to Kantishna and back. On the ride out I met a number of great folks from Nome, Philly and Seattle. We exchanged stories about Denali and life! One of our new found friends had recently returned from Vladivostok and Siberia! We saw Dall Sheep and Moose and Bears and Wolves!!! on the way out. It was fantastic!

From there it was back in the car for another adventure east along the Denali highway and down into McCarthy & Valdez before a layover in Anchorage. More on that next time. Thanks for reading! I hope you are well and I look forward to hearing from you in the comments of via email or facebook!
Take Care
Jon

 

 

The Dalton ‘Highway’: A trip up & back into ‘Merica’s Far North

The Dalton highway is almost something of legend. It makes me think of the old days on the Alcan. In the early 1950′s Lynne’s grandparents drove the Alcan for their first time. I picture that road something like the Dalton today only worse- rougher, more narrow and with far inferior tire technology. From Fairbanks to Prudhoe to Fairbanks it was was under 1000 miles and about a quarter of that was pavement, albeit poor pavement. In many stretches the dirt is preferable to the pavement- no frost heaves. Like Lynne’s grandfather a number of people told me I was crazy for driving the Blue Roo up that road. I wouldn’t make it. Most know how I respond to such encouragement. Lynne’s grandfather was in fact a bit more crazy than I though as he had a 6 month old aboard both on their first trip up in ’53 and again in ’55! I can’t imagine. What an adventure. Thinking back I can’t recall any other cars way up north on the Dalton highway. It’s truck land- 4X4 pickups and semis. I’m sure other cars make it up there but it’s not a common sight.

I view the Dalton in ways as I do the North Cascades Highway. I really enjoy the access and am glad I can see such an area so easily. However it’s sad in a way to think of piercing such a vast wilderness. we can thank the oil embargo in ’73 for turning the tide in Congress. Just like the North Cascades Highway though solitude is easily found in winter! We saw muskox right off the road, moose and more. And near a camp on the tundra ~30 miles south of Deadhorse I think I saw a wolverine crossing the braided river channels of the Sagavanirktok (the Sag). They have such a distinctive gait!

Fall is in full force up the Dalton. After a later than anticipated start from Spokane we ended up timing it just right for the far north. Colors are ablaze from the Brooks range south to Livengood, about 80 miles north of Fairbanks. Down in the deep south lands of Fairbanks fall has only just begun. Many of the trees are still lime colored. On the way north we started seeing signs of fall colors in mid BC and were worried we had missed the colors up north. Much of the interior though will change at a similar time. In 2010 when my pops and I headed north in late September we had stunning colors from the US border in Idaho to Whitehorse YT! Last Saturday (September 1st) moose season opened so we weren’t the only ones out enjoying the great outdoors. Most of the pipeline pullouts had hunter camps and we saw many a successful hunter with racks loaded on their rig headed south with fresh meat for id. with fish & game.

Wednesday evening we enjoyed the Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfot AK and watched some cool films, visited with the staff and sat in for a presentation by the NPS ranger there who grew up in Wiseman (10 miles away). Her presentation about all 4 seasons at Coldfoot/ Wiseman was quite interesting. 33 days of darkness in the winter and 33 days of sunlight in the summer. From the extreme quiet of winter to the explosion of sound and light in the summer. Her photos did a good job showing the transformation of life through the year. While getting gas at the Coldfoot restuarant/ everything place I met a fellow taking big drags from a cig. We chatted. He’s Spanish. Last year he rode his motorcycle around the world in ~37 days. Yes that’s right, around the world- from Spain through western then eastern Europe, Kazakhstan and to the Ocean in the east! From LA he rode route 66 across the US and took a boat home to Spain at the end. He said that was 7 days short of the Guiness record. He also is on the ‘Pan-American’ planning to do it in 3 months. I like to smell the lichen along the way, meet the people and write words about the trip. Like myself he’s shooting go pro footage of the ride. His footage is off to Discovery channel Latino. http://bufaloamerica.blogspot.com/

Late Thursday afternoon we made it back to Fairbanks. In town we immediately went to the Subaru/ Toyota dealer. Our friend Jen noted they had the cheapest tire repair in town- strange a dealer wins that contest! However they only do plugs and I wanted/ needed a full patch. So they sent us to American Tire and after some bartering I came up with a reasonable price. They did a great job and used a patch plug combo. I appreciated the guys in the shop. They were very helpful and went the extra mile. Props to them!

At times on a large journey the only thing one knows is exhaustion. Things blur together, days of rain, wind & cold- even hunger. Miserable conditions and many hours of driving rough roads can at times induce one to seek ‘bed’ over cooking in the biting rain. But it’s still a happy sort of tired, most of the time anyways. As in other life situations we must keep ourselves from becoming too hungry or tired and therefore crabby apples. Seeing the sky would be nice though. I do happen to have a camera with me and would love to use it on some Auroral activity! let alone landscapes. Today we roll south to Denali deeper in the interior where temps are expected to drop. We’ll see snow lower than we did in the Brooks Range and as on other trips we expect to see a variety of Large Game. This morning in Fairbanks I had a shower. It was fantastic!! I let hot water pour me over marveling at the feat. The cold washed out of my body. Being ‘indoors’ was luxurious! The sun is out and we’re feeling recharged and ready to be back on the road, not with the same vigor we had early on in this trip but the excitement’s still there. Early on I was soo excited to be done with the long driving days so I could relax and get some fine backpacking and photography in. I’ve yet to take one serious photo 2 weeks into this trip but I’m excited to change gears once the weather cooperates. As I said though the sun is out- we’re on the move. To Denali we go!

By the numbers we traveled 3110 miles from Spokane to Prudhoe Bay and with the drive back to Fairbanks our total is currently 3672 miles with each of us having spent ~$325 on gas thus far.

From College Coffee near Univ Alaska Fairbanks, thanks for reading! Enjoy the pics and be grateful for all the little comforts life offers!
Till on down the road
Jon

 

 

 

Prudhoe Bay AK: Like Patagonia with Polar Bears … & 5500 Oil Workers

We’re at the top of the continent, as far north as you can drive in the new world. This is the beginning of our epic journey south. From here we take it easy, learn and play and live. To say it’s different here would be classic use of British understatement. If Mars was industrialized and had a small colony living in portables where everything was covered by mud you’d be at a decent start but not really. Prudhoe Bay aka The North Slope feels like Chilean Patagonia in so many ways: the harshness of the landscape, wind & rain married a few notches above the freezing mark. Sparse.

Looking down from the pass along the Dalton passing through the Brooks Range Saturday morning we could see a pretty lil cloud below some pretty lil peaks. Soon the pretty lil peaks were gone but the clouds & fog stayed. They stayed with us all the way north to Deadhorse Alaska. Mountains sure do a good job of holding them pesky clouds back. Tundra and fog morphed into one as we each had our first taste of the far north.

Lotsa people said I wouldn’t make it to Deadhorse in the trusty ole Blue Roo. But she did make it and with only a minor hiccup. Even that wasn’t her fault. 20 miles south of Deadhorse was the first really rough stretch of road we hit. At 40 mph it shook your bones apart. I decided the ride was best somewhere around 60 mph. Eventually a rock pierced the soul of one of our trusty bfg snow tires in the rear. At first I pulled too close to the edge of the road as a courtesy to truckers but like milk on a hot day, that was a baaad choice. The jack and the whole car started sliding towards the ditch!! EEEk! We couldn’t get it high enough to mount the spare so we put the flat back on and moved the car further towards the center of the road. Like a seasoned backcountry Nascar crew we had it changed in a jiffy. The blowing rain was motivation. To mount the blown 14″ tire underhood in the spare tire hole we had to coax it a bit! Once it was started with four hands and two bars I had my pops open the hood completely and I jumped up and down on the tire. Even then the hood needed an extra slam to close. Mud covered our clothes as we wrapped up.

Yes it’s Chiliean Patagonia, the weather that is. One must remove those strange wind sculpted trees from the scene along with Gauchos atop their horses sheltered from the melee by their leather ponchos & said trees. Add in oil workers, lots of them, portables, lots of them too, trucks, heavy machinery galore, snow cats, drilling rigs, buildings insulated from the permafrost with liquid nitrogen or more simply on stilts and you start to build a picture of the objects that stick above the ground here. The tundra from what we’ve been able to see through the fog and rain is beautiful! Fall colors decorate the plants clinging to the ground and tell of colder darker days on the near horizon.

The Prudhoe Bay Hotel is $125 for a person/ night. This provides a stay in a portable & a warm cafeteria style meal! The meal on its own is all you can eat for $20. We have spent the past 2 nights in the cozy confines of Shangri La Blue Roo. With food bags, clothes bags, tents, tools, camera gear, laptop and a whole bunch more moved to the front seats, it’s cozy in back but warm, wind-free and a bit safer from our Ursus friends. Yes there are bears here & Brown Bears aplenty. A polar bear sow with cub was seen in town recently too. EEEEEKK! Polar Bears and the constant windy wet made sleeping in a summer tent less appealing. Not that the Roo is much of a defense but hey it’s better than nylon. Becky at Deadhorse camp told us she saw a brown bear nosing around someones tent recently when they were away. They must have been good about odors because it left things alone. She hasn’t gone on runs this summer due to the plentiful population of Brownies. This morning my pops was back to his old routines from home and left the Roo just after 5am to head out on a morning walkabout. He made it 90% of the few miles from our camp to the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. A guy in a truck picked him up to go the rest of the way. He had another ride to head over to the Prudhoe Bay General Store (which by the way is the coolest hardware store I have ever seen- I was a dork yesterday and shot video walking its aisles!). Yet another ride from a security fellow got him back to camp but only after giving the guy a few false turns for spice. Yesterday my the pops headed out in the Roo for a trip to the General Store / Post Office and got lost for a spell in Prudhoe, disoriented he says not “lost”. Even with buildings this place is disorienting. Most things industrial look very similar. The roads are all dirt and potholed. Mud is everywhere. You can’t avoid getting it all over. We look like little kids who just had a ball out in the garden with a hose and mud pit! And that’s civilized world here. Imagine navigating on the tundra. I’ve read stories about the Inuit using different senses to navigate this vast world. Scale is different, even time itself seems altered on such wide open spaces.

This is the Arctic, a world of it’s own and for that reason fascinating to no end! It’s the ultimate in extremes, daylight, space … frozen ground. In the summer lakes sit atop the permafrost. We saw loons, arctic swans and many other fowl on its waters. Birds travel a long ways to summer here! Despite the seemingly constant rain this is a desert. They receive less precip than central Washington! 6-7 inches per year! Some of that comes from the less than 2′ of snow on the ground in the winter. That’s one of the reasons it’s so flat and why  during the ice ages there were no glaciers here. It’s a land of contradictions. It’s been damp every day yet I have to drink more water than normal and the ground has received hardly any water. We went past sand dunes yesterday on our way to the ocean. Brown Bears burrow into the soft sand to hibernate. They’re omnivores but plants are tough to come by when the surface is snow and ice. Meanwhile Polar Bears work year round to find food. They’re carnivores. Brandon, our tour guide to the ocean told of a polar bear that swam an astonishing distance recently, something like 300 miles. As a security contractor for an oil company he must keep a keen eye on any polar bears when they show up. This bear slept for 3 days after its epic swim!

The Arctic Ocean! It’s the one of the many reasons for our being here. We officially began our trip Sunday morning September 2nd 2012!! Since Sept 11th 2001 the oil companies have shut down private traffic to Prudhoe Bay itself on the Arctic Ocean.  You can drive to within 10 miles of the water but there’s a guard station to prevent private vehicles from going further. While it seems a terrorist would have to be quite determined to come to Alaska in the first place and drive the entire Dalton highway, I worry for the other 400 miles of the Alaska pipeline that are near the road. What if the terrorists read wikipedia or saw pictures that this pipeline is so close to the road? Even though the road itself requires determination and a vehicle ready for the journey such folk may be out there. I’ve even seen roads that go near high tension power lines!! What if the terrorists wanted to take out chunks of our power grid? We should be afraid, very afraid! Big oil and the entire energy industry need to take some lessons from TSA in the 48 and step up their ruse of security beyond the point of absurdity. That way we can all sleep better at night because we all know what can happen with just 4.2 oz of shampoo! Here at Deadhorse AK the folks at the airport are some of the nicest around. I’ve become Tom Hanks in the film Terminal, spending my time on their wifi to comb through photos, compile mailing addresses, write postcards, deal with UPS and work on this blog! I’ve gotten to know the staff and while the weather outside is frightful .. well, we’ve grown accustomed to this place at the top of the road.

Anyways I think I was talking about the Arctic Ocean and how incredible it was! For the low low price of $49USD one can make reservations to go on a tour to the ocean 24 hours ahead of time so security (for your security). They will ask you for your driver’s license & credit card #’s and make sure you’re not an Errorist. You will be escorted in an oldish tour bus that’s spent its days traveling the Dalton Highway. If you come soon, your guide will be Brandon. He’s awesome!! Funny and full of facts you will actually be glad you paid the steep fee and your grumbling will subside. For the Aspergers fans out there he will rattle numbers and stats off until you’re red in the face with glee. Did you know they have to drill 9000 feet deep for oil!! using one 32 foot section of drill after another! Not only that but over 90% of the wells out here use directional drilling now. That means that they utilize a well 9000′ deep and THEN go 6000′ horizontally with an accuracy of 5 feet!!! Holy Moly, there are some geologists and engineers out there who’ve been solving some wild problems. Oil, more oil it’s what we all need or at least that’s what most of our actions state. A blue T shirt for sale in the Prudhoe Bay General Store shows a Polar Bear clinging to a tiny chunk of ice. The caption says, “Global Warming Sucks!” As I said this place is not without its contradictions.

The Arctic Ocean is a wee chilly!! Going in the water is a lively experience! You have that feeling of fullness that comes in times where our senses are heightened when our body is a bit stressed by what’s happening. I think it’s a little chemical called adrenaline. I tried jumping as high as I could but between the peat bog on the beach and legs numb below my knees I didn’t set any records. It felt better than I can describe to begin this trip after 10 years and plenty of struggles along the way. Getting back in a bus with a heater thawing my bottom half felt pretty decent too. After we make another lap around the sun I hope to jump in an ocean connected yet far away, one cooled by the Antarctic current and ravaged by winds that discourage habitation. Penguins, no bears.

From the top of the Road in the Americas: Latitude 70 degrees 15 minutes and 19 seconds NORTH Longitude: 148-20’14” W Prudhoe Bay, Alaska
Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear from you and see you as we make our way to South America.
Jon Jantz

 

 

 

 

How Years in the Mountains Train ya for a Stormy Night at the Whitehorse Walmart

Blowing rain not far above the freezing point, it felt like a mini Patagonia. Guying out a flimsy 3 season tent on pavement with frozen fingers is an art! Rocks, we needed more rocks! Thank goodness the strip mall across from Canadian Tire had some decorative river rocks. I ferried load after load. In the morning with sleep & a much higher blood sugar level a shopping cart hauled them all at once. But brute force is often the main tool to meet exhaustion and terrible conditions head on. Fall is showing signs of its arrival. It snowed a few hundred feet above town last night. We’ve been seeing yellow leaves since mid BC but they’re for real now, red ones too. I’m not a big fan of rushing things but we’re in a rush to get north. Winter will soon be coming to Prudhoe Bay!

One of the wisest choices we made on the way up was a stop at Telegraph Creek & Glenora. It’s been 10 years since I spent a couple great days there. I remember cooking dinner along the Stikine in the August twilight on the fiest sand I’ve seen in ages. This is what I wrote from Glenora the other day at roads end on the banks of the mighty Stikine River. While enjoying the river I met a couple of folks who live in the bush across the River, Tami & Rod. They were ferrying loads of fuel for their tractor and equipment. I had a chance to chat with them each time they came over to pump gas outta one 55 gallon drum in the truck and into one in the boat.

Touching the past here I found a secret in plain sight, one I forget from time to time. You have to get off the beaten track. In ’02 we explored every nook and cranny we could. It was magical! Recall the night here sleeping on the sandbar having gone as far as you can drive on the Stikine. The fine sand got in everything and stayed with us through the journey. It was one of my most memorable nights out on that trip on our own beach for a night along the Stikine. Maybe it’s the mountains down the river, some of the fiercest in North America or the remoteness or both. Devils Thumb and its 6000′ unclimbed north face calls out from the vast wilderness.

Telegraph creek didn’t get power until ’76! She was 15. Now she said lights dot the valley as their look out form their perch. White folks have moved in. (here and there between Telegraph Creek and Glenora.) White folks have also moved out as their kids reach school age. The natives stay in Telegraph Creek and always seem to number around 300. Her dad bought one of the first 4X4 trucks around in 1980. The road today is a far cry from the 3 day (131km) drive to Dease Lake of her childhood. The days of her dad calling in a plow to Glenora are gone- they only plowed if you asked back then. Twas a public road but they were the only public around. He used to tie his rifle to a tree outside of the village when he skidooed into town.

While things have changed it’s still remote here. The drive takes a few hours from the Cassiar and while the Cassiar has been tamed by pavement this road hasn’t. It still scares most tourists. (honestly the dirt is smoother than the pavement on the northern Cassiar thanks to the road crew!) One becomes alive traveling off the cattle path. This morning in Telegraph creek was the most excited I’ve been behind a camera in some time! For a short time I felt like a little kid. I need that little kid. I went on this trip in part to search for the wonder that went gone and missing. At times I didn’t think it would ever come back. Part of me died a few years back. When I take a hard look though part of that wonder died a few years before that- not enough time in the wild or on the wander, bad choices .. the list could go on.

The wind is picking up. High clouds are building from the west. Experience says a storm is coming. My pops wants to be on the move. For some reason I’m attached to this place. I’ve love to spend the night on that sandbar again but he wants to head back up the road & stay at the ‘rest area’ overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. I’m ok with that. It’s like visiting an old friend. (another spot I stayed a decade ago) I know I will come back some day and explore these waters & mountains & people more. In ways it’s like Sand Creek further south along the BC Coast range but far more remote than even there!

Tami’s grandpa was born in 1885. He came to the Stikine in 1919 & ran pack horses. The horses in these hills are descendents of those. You hear them on the roads at times, a bell clanging around the neck. They carry on with the families of the area … as family. Pack horses predated roads for a long long while. They moved supplies for the masses who had thronged to the area like so many in the late 19th or early 20th century. GOLD!!!!!! 3,000 people lived in Glenora! Today google can’t compute distances to and from here. It’s barely a dot on the map. Time change. When I mentioned to Rod & Tami how Telegraph Creek looks like a ghost town down by the river. The said two sets of old timer residents died this past year. A granddaughter comes back during the summer to one of those places but she has very little company. When I asked what parts of isolation are the hardest Rod said immediately he likes it. A few minutes later Tami softly said it’s hardest when someone is sick or hurt.

In Whitehorse the rain has stopped and the sun is out. The trendy guy with neon headphones isn’t here speaking french to someone on his computer. The hundred or so RVs have yet to disband. Locals fill the starbucks across from Walmart this morning. We’ve reentered a foreign world, a world of people & Americana or Canadacana. So we head north. North to Alaska, north to the beginning.

All American Adventure: The Beginning

After 10 years of plotting and too many false starts to mention we’re underway on the All American Adventure that until now has only been a vapour in my dreams. Tom Petty says the waiting is the hardest part. And while that may be true for those who go on long trips with me it’s really the leaving that’s the hardest part. The larger the trip the more of those million and one little things there seem to be prior to the leaving, maybe 10^7+1 little things.

But we’re off. The first few miles were almost overwhelming. All the doubts and dangers bundled into one feeling. Will this really be the year? Will my car break? I could go on. Who knows really and after the first few miles those thoughts evaporated. I was back to my normal relaxed self. We were one the road. I know it well- the open road- we’re great friends. At first it began with my best known road of childhood, the road north to my grandma’s. After a short visit and a crossing of the Columbia it soon became the road to Alaska, land of my dreams. In this case it contains the starting point for our All American Adventure, the Arctic Ocean.

We traversed west in BC into the Okanogan and took in the beauty of many small farms dotting BC 3.  to Vernon was in full tourist mode. Lake Country was nice to look at but we were glad to be beyond all the nonsense of that world. A stop at a fruit stand run by an Indian family rewarded us with many peaches, cherries, blueberries, peppers and garlic. That was the best $20cdn I’ve spent in some time.

A few snapshots:

 


Beyond Kamloops we spent a nice night above the Thompson River and rose before first light to hit the road. After Valemount traffic thinned considerably, plucked away by Jasper and the international lure of the Canadian Rockies. We plugged along the Yellowhead Highway enjoying the Fraser and Thompson Rivers so far from the Pacific. After a short absence the sun greets us once again in Prince George. Now we’re off to see the wonders of the Cassiar. All the effort, years and frustrations that went in to making this happen are now a blip in the past. Now it’s North to a new beginning.

Jon

 

For those who like numbers: in a leisurely 27 hours we covered 762 miles. Google claims that equates to a driving time of 16 hours and 5 minutes.

 

Around the Sun Once More

Niño en el Desierto

 

While life was marked primarily by struggle in 2010, 11 was a mixed bag with a growing flip side. I spent time in 8 or 9 countries this past year, about half of what I had expected yet not a terrible beginning to some wandering. Wandering is at times necessary when the route has been lost. I will not search for eloquence as F. Scott Fitzgeralald described the sentiment best in THE DIAMOND AS BIG AS THE RITZ.

“Under the stars,” she repeated. “I never noticed the stars before. I always thought of them as great big diamonds that belonged to some one. Now they frighten me. They make me feel that it was all a dream, all my youth.”

“It was a dream,” said John quietly. “Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.”

“How pleasant then to be insane!”

“So I’m told,” said John gloomily. “I don’t know any longer …”

May your 2012 be bright & sunny, may you experience childlike smiles and laughter as we sit back from our perch and watch the stars spin. May you retain or reclaim that most cherished form of chemical madness.