Welcome to Alaska. Here are a few fun facts about Alaska:
- There are approximately 3 Million Lakes and 100,000 glaciers (5% of the state in area)
- There are 9 National Parks
- 66 Million acres of undisturbed land
- The US bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for 2 cents per acre
- At 20,320 feet Mt. McKinley (now called Denali) is North America’s tallest mountain
- The world’s largest and busiest seaplane base is in Anchorage’s Lake Hood which logs over 800 takeoff’s on a peak summer day
- The strongest earthquake ever recorded happened in Prince William Sound on Good Friday, March 27, 1964 at 9.2 on the Richter Scale
Our Alaska adventure began with the short ferry ride across the Yukon River from Dawson City and we were totally shocked that we were the first RV in line for the ferry on Saturday morning as we had seen massive lineups for the prior days. Once across we used our painters tape to seal up the outside compartments as we were about to drive the Top of the World highway which was about another 200 kms of gravel/dirt roads. It started with a long climb up with a couple of viewpoints and some sign boards on the Caribou herd. Due to forest fires in the area we had an extremely hazy drive until we got to the Canada/US border. However we were very fortunate to see about 30 of the Fortymile Caribou herd on the top of a range. We reached the highest point on the Top of the World highway (1376 m) and then about a mile later, we crossed the border into Alaska. The agent didn’t ask us very many questions but he did give a good stare to our blue painters tape on the RV compartments. Note the agents cabin for Poker Creek Alaska, the most northerly land border port in the USA, and the population of 3😉
Shortly after the border we had a great view and then we descended into a valley and followed a river until we reached a day use area where they launched air boats and we saw a unique aluminum boat modified with a jet ski engine. Then we started the scariest section of the Top of the World highway especially if you were travelling West. We climbed back out of the valley and then had an extremely narrow section of the road with no guard rails and signs that said soft shoulders. On Sharon’s passenger side of the vehicle the drop was straight down anywhere from 1000’ to 2000’! She was very nervous every time an opposing vehicle came our way!! The snapshot from her video doesn’t do the scare factor justice😉
We survived the scary section and wound our way through the valleys until we reached the town of Chicken Alaska. We checked into the Chicken Gold Camp RV Park and luckily it was wood fired Pizza night so we preordered our Pizza dinner so it would be ready for us at our allotted slot of 6:30. The gift shop next to the office had the most unique items we had seen in any gift shop so far, but we still didn’t buy anything😉 Then we walked around the grounds to see all the chickens and to see the Pedro Dredge (a national historic site and claimed to be the most complete dredge along the Alaska road system, Dredge No. 4 in Dawson city is far better) and some of the other equipment. Then we walked across to the Chicken Café, Bar, and gift shop to look around. The following morning we stopped at the Chicken Post office and beside it they had an excellent display explaining how the dredges operated. The town was originally named Ptarmigan but the miners had trouble spelling that so they renamed it to Chicken.
The road from Chicken to Tetlin is called the Taylor Highway, they don’t use highway numbers in Alaska, every highway has a name based on some historical person. There had been some bad forest fires along the Taylor Highway so the landscape was not as spectacular. We turned back onto the Alaska Highway towards Tok (rhymes with poke) and stopped to see an interesting display about how and why they had replaced the bridge over the Tanana River. In Tok the visitor centre was closed on Sunday due to funding issues so we couldn’t gather any data. We checked into the Sourdough RV Park and after washing the RV and having dinner we went to the nightly Pancake toss. If you got the pancake in the bucket you won a free breakfast the next morning, unfortunately neither of us won the free breakfast;-(
We could only get a booking for Denali park for July 24-25 so we decided to change our plan and do our circuit clockwise instead of counter clockwise. There we took the Tok Cutoff highway to go south towards Valdez. What a disaster of a road! There were sections full of pot holes and massive areas with frost heave. The road was so rollie you felt like you were riding a roller-coaster. You really had to watch ahead and see if there were skid marks where someone dipped down too low. This asphalt highway was worse than anything we drove on the Dempster highway!!! We decided to take Nabesna road on the north side of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park to see if we could see the snow-covered mountains but unfortunately the forest fire smoke haze was completely covering all the mountains. This park is the US largest NP at 13 Million acres so 6 times larger than Yellowstone! The visitor centre gave us a CD we could play driving down Nabesna road and it described what you would be seeing at each mile marker but with the haze all we really saw was a Moose (no photo)😉
As we headed further south we came to the road construction area where you had to wait 20 minutes until the pilot truck came back and led you through the construction zone. One of the waysides talked about the gold rush days in the Copper River basin. We had a quick stop at the Gakona Lodge and Trading Post which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places built in 1929. Shortly after we stopped at the Dry Creek SP for the night.
The following morning we decided to clean the dust off our bikes from the over 2,000 kms of gravel roads that we’ve now done. Needless to say it took awhile but I was sure glad I had purchased a battery operated spray washer that had a hose to pull water out of our bucket😉
They had an excellent main visitor centre for the Wrangell-St. Elias NP with exhibits and a movie about the area but in some respects, it was depressing because we could see footage of how spectacular the mountains were that we couldn’t see due to the haze! However, we did get lucky when we came back from Valdez and we did see them.
We had phoned 3 RV parks in Valdez and they were booked up for July 4th but we decided to try out a first come first serve town campground that was across the bay from Valdez at Allison Point. The drive from the NP visitor centre south through Thompson Pass to Valdez was spectacular and the haze lifted somewhat as we got further south. There was another pilot car construction zone where they were replacing an extremely large culvert but the wait wasn’t too bad. As we went over the pass we saw several different glaciers. The view from Allison Point campground was much better than if we had been in Valdez.
Time to leave the land and head out onto the water. We did a day cruise to the Columbia Glacier with some wildlife spotting along the way for Sea Otters, Steller Sea Lions, Harbour Seals, Puffins and a Humpback Whale! The Columbia Glacier is one of the largest tidewater glaciers in Alaska (meaning it comes down into the water). It is the second fastest moving glacier in the world, moving 80 ft/day. It is 34 miles long, 3 miles wide and 3,000 ft thick in some places. One big glacier! The scenery was fabulous, and we were lucky to have a calm sunny day. We were also fortunate that there weren’t any large icebergs floating in front of the glacier preventing the ship from getting closer. In fact we got to a ¼ mile away which the captain said was phenomenal. You don’t want to get too close since glaciers on the water calve (ice breaking off) on a regular basis and in fact we saw it do this about five times while we were there. We went out with Stan Stephens and they gave you a clam chowder lunch with a bagel and cream cheese, it was very good.
Once back to port we walked along the harbour watching the fishing boats come in and displaying their daily catch. They have fish cleaning stations and guys you can hire to fillet your fish. Interesting enough this was the day the boats weren’t allowed to take out paying customers. So most of them go fishing for themselves and will take some “friends” out with them. We were getting the low down from the boat captains Aunt who was in town for the holiday. The boat captain caught a huge halibut (182 lbs) so they had to call in the weighing judge for the fishing contest. It was the biggest fish this week but the biggest halibut for the season so far was 285.6 lbs. Seeing all those fish gave us the idea we should go out for a fish dinner 😉 before heading back to camp.
On July 4th we started with a self guided tour of the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery. Pink and Coho Salmon come up a stream to spawn and they are redirected up a fish ladder into the spawning building. They collect the eggs from the females and the sperm from the males and mix those together and incubate the eggs until they hatch. The fish carcasses are used for pet food. The reason they go through all this work is that they can ensure a much higher birth rate than in the wild and they keep the fry until they are ready to be released into the wild. The fish in the wild are caught both by commercial fishermen and sports fishermen. They can release 240 million Pink Salmon fry and 1.8 million Coho Salmon Smolts each year ensuring a very healthy population of those species. We did see some pink salmon waiting to come up the ladder but full production doesn’t start until the middle of July.
As we drove up and over the Thompson Pass to leave the Valdez area we stopped at several locations we had missed on the way in. We saw Horsetail and Bridal Veil falls, the hand chiseled tunnel that never got completed, and Worthington Glacier. We decided to stop at Squirrel Creek SP for the night since we were worried about finding a place on July 4th and boy was it hot as a record heat wave had hit Alaska, the dash said 33 C at one point!
This concludes our first week in Alaska, next up another long gravel road to McCarthy and Kennecott mine.