Saturday, July 30, 2011

Kenai Penninsusla (Anchorage to Homer)

Rain showers greeted us upon our late day arrival in Anchorage. The showers persisted the next day, but that was not a problem since our plan was to visit the Anchorage Museum ( ) and the Botanical Garden. The museum is in a very modern building in the center of this neat little city. It is a combination art, historical and natural science museum.The collection of North American Native Art is impressive. I also liked the section detailing the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, since the factory I worked in while in college supplied many of the grinding wheels used to grind the welds that joined the sections of pipe.  The Botanical Garden is small. However, it is has two very well presented perennial gardens, an herb garden and a pleasant wildflower path.

Sarah's sister, Jennifer, arrived in Anchorage on Tuesday. While waiting for her at the Anchorage airport, Jay, another Airstream owner who was waiting for his flight, came out to talk to us and see the trailer. Everywhere we go people give us thumbs up or ask to see our trailer. Many are surprised that Airstreams are still being made and are even more astounded that ours is six years old.

With Jennifer settled in, we started south on the Sterling Highway just a short distance to Kelly Lake, a small lake just off the highway. With the calling of the loons, this was a nice tranquil place to spend the night. We were up early on Wednesday and drove to the Swift River Campground near the town of Soldotna on the Kenai River. The Red Salmon were running and the fishing was great. However, when I say 'great', I mean that it was almost like shooting fish in a barrel. Hundreds of thousands of salmon swim up the river to their spawning grounds. For reasons unknown, the run this year is reportedly on track to be a record for the number of fish. These salmon don't feed as they swim up river to their spawning areas, but only attack objects (our lures) on their way. Many times fish are hooked in various places on their bodies as they swim by a lure being reeled in. Fish snagged in this manner must be released. Fishermen and women line up shoulder to shoulder on both sides of the river where access is available. The fish are filleted right at the river and the remains are left in the water. I was told that the preferred disposal method is to throw the carcass into swift flowing portions of the river so that they will be washed downstream and out to the ocean. Clearly, at this location, that was not being done as the shallow water in pools near the banks were filled with fish heads and skeletal remains. I was surprised that the place was not over-run with bears.

I caught three but only kept one since our freezer is quite small. This one fish will provide four or five meals for Sarah and I. However, others were leaving the river with up to six of these 24 - 30" Red Salmon.

We made a brief stop in Kenai to observe the practice of dip netting.  For many Alaskans, this is a major part of their yearly food supply. This form of harvesting salmon is restricted to Alaska residents and Native Americans only. Nets that are about 4 - 5 feet in diameter and attached to 8 - 10 foot poles are held in the water to catch salmon as they migrate into the mouth of the river with the incoming tide. The fish are filleted on the beach which is strewn with the decaying remains.
Dip Netting


We traveled south on the peninsula and visited the town of Kasilof on the shore of Cook Sound. We walked the streets and saw the historic buildings dating to the middle of the 19th century. The Russian Orthodox Church was a beautiful place to see, built in 1848 it is one of the oldest buildings in Alaska. It is richly decorated with murals painted in Russia and brought to to the church. This area on the Kenai Peninsula was dominated by the Russians prior to the collapse of the fur trade and the subsequent sale of Alaska to the United States. 
Russian Orthodox Chapel

At Ninilchik we stayed at the River View State Campground situated on a high bluff overlooking the mouth of the river where it enters Cook Sound. Named for the same Captain Cook who explored the South Pacific, it is a vast body of water with towering active volcanoes dominating the far western shore. The weather was sublime, 65 degrees, clear skies and magnificent views of the volcanoes from this bluff. Digging for razor clams is a popular endeavor here. After talking to the manager of the camp ground, we decided the labor involved wasn't worth the rewards. We'll buy our clams in a restaurant.

Mount Redoubt

Our usually reliable guide book let us down after leaving Ninlchik. Sarah read about a fine authentic Russian style restaurant in Nikolaevsk so we decided to go there for lunch. Nikolaevsk is about 10 miles inland. It is a small village populated mainly by Russian Orthodox families that are referred to by many as 'old believers'. In the village was another picturesque Orthodox Chapel. and we found Nina's Samavor Cafe just a little way up the street opposite the chapel. The neon 'open' sign in the window was lit, but the door was locked. On the door was a detailed note telling us we should have made a reservation, but inviting us to ring the bell, be patient and Nina, whose arthritis was bothering her would come as quickly as possible. Less than a minute after ringing the bell, Nina arrived, entering the parking lot at a blazing speed in her old white van. She quickly, and quite nimbly for someone suffering from arthritis, ran into a rear entrance after telling us to just wait outside for a moment.
Russian Orthodox Church in Nikolaevsk

Samovar, Nina's Restaurant

No, we didn't pay for this picture (taken from the web)
Just a couple minutes later, Nina reappeared at the front entrance. She had donned a colorful Russian costume and ordered us into a solarium adorned with plastic plants, a few tables and colorful images of Russian Orthodox iconography and many small signs informing us that certain behaviors, such as taking pictures, were not allowed and that there would be a $3 charge per person to visit her gift shop unless a purchase of at least $10 was made and that portions of all proceeds were used to feed children in Russia.

Nina directed us to the plastic laminated menu adorned with photographs of each special dish she could prepare for us to take away. Except that all but three items were unavailable today because we had not made a reservation. We were taken aback by the prices, but we have become accustomed to relatively pricey meals in all the restaurants. Besides, this was authentic Russian cooking.

She showed us loaves of bread she had made. They were only $7 each. They didn't look very appealing to me, but before I could decline, Sarah ordered two loaves. Nina appeared very pleased. She then demanded that we order quickly. We complied by ordering one large bowl of borscht, but Nina would not allow us to have just one, "you must buy two" she declared, "one is not enough for three people". Two borschts it was then. The only other available item was the combination plate of dumplings and sausage. Sarah asked if the dumplings had meat. Nina replied that they did, but she also had some with potato and cheese. We decided to get one order of the combination and one order of the vegetarian dumplings. With that settled, Nina offered us a sample of the bread. One slice divided into three portions was provided. It was dry and tasteless,with a consistency of stale cake.  Jennifer quickly volunteered to cancel the order we had placed for two loaves of this horrible bread.

Nina prepared our food and ordered us to come and see the gift shop. It was dominated by painted bowls and spoons judged by Sarah to be of poor quality and overpriced. Also in the shop were more religious icon photographs and the signs informing us what must not be touched and that portions of all the money was used to feed hungry children in Russia. The signs also informed us that pictures must not be taken and that if one wished, Nina charged $30 to pose for a photograph.

Once the food was ready she placed the four containers on a decorative serving tray she wanted us to use to take our food to the trailer. We told her that the three of us could easily manage without the tray. Her tone nearly became combative when we again declined and Jennifer and I picked them up and left Sarah to pay the $55 charge. When Sarah finally re-joined us outside, she said that she needed the camera because Nina had asked if Sarah wanted a picture of her. Sarah had not seen the sign about the $30 charge and when told about it, decided we didn't need a picture of Nina.

Needless to say, the food was nothing remarkable. In fact it was barely edible.

We are now in Homer, about as far south as one can travel by road on the Kenai Peninsula. The scenery across Cook Sound is majestic (I know I'm repeating myself, but after awhile you run our of superlatives). Initially, we thought we would stay on Homer Spit, a thin strip of land that juts out into the sound, but we learned that there is a music festival adjacent to the campground in town. So, we are tucked into a hillside campsite just above the city park where the music festival is about to occur.
View from the Homer Spit
Stay tuned for more Alaska adventure

Monday, July 25, 2011

Beaver Creek to Anchorage

The black bears like dandelions

One of the nice things about traveling this way is that you can change your mind at the last minute about where you want to go and where you will stay. We know that we don't want to spend more than a few hours driving each day so we pick places where we think we will be when we have reached our driving limit. This is affected, of course, by scenic vista stops and must see tourist attractions which serve as wonderful breaks in our drive.

We have guide books that generally provide excellent information about what is before us. The information about Beaver Creek was a little less specific. We originally planned on staying outside the 'town' at the Yukon government campground, Snag Junction. But, we were intrigued by the description of Buckshot Betty's. We thought we could settle in there for the night, but it is not an RV park. So, we pulled into the Westmark Inn RV park where we enjoyed the Rendezvous Dinner Show, a vaudeville style show that we found very entertaining. It's amazing what television deprivation can do to help you appreciate live entertainment.

Big Entry to Alaska
Crossing back into the United States just west of Beaver Creek was uneventful except that the fruit and vegetables we had purchased in Haines, AK and transported through Yukon, Canada, were not allowed back into the U.S. Surprisingly, the items of concern were not those grown in Alaska, rather it was the citrus. Go figure.

It is difficult to grasp the enormity of this vast landscape. Immediately after crossing into Alaska from Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory we observed a dramatic change. The road that had been bringing us north now slowly turned northwest then west on the high Yukon Plateau. We were entering one of the few passes through the mountains that separated the coast from the interior. For hundreds of miles to the west and south is land that exceeds the definition of wilderness by many orders of magnitude. The combination of the Canadian Kluane National Park that is contiguous with the Tetlin Wildlife Preserve and the Wrangle-St. Elias preserve has created one the worlds largest area of protected land. We learned at the Tetlin Preserve Information Center how important this corridor is to millions of migratory birds, some of which pass through here on their way to central and south America.
Moose also enjoy this pass

We spent the night five miles east of Tok at the State Recreation area. We re-provisioned at the well stocked grocery store and picked up mail that Sarah had forwarded to this place.

From Tok, we headed south to Valdez on the Richardson Highway. The day started out clear and we enjoyed the drive along the route of the Trans-Alaska Pipline. Being a dyed in the wool tree-huger, I regrettably have to admit that its impact on the ecology of this vast landscape doesn't amount to a piss hole in a snow bank (one of my dad's favorite expressions). We took the loop off the new highway into the town of Copper Center, had lunch at the Copper Center Lodge and visited the quaint museum next door where we saw artifacts from the days when mining was the principal occupation and where Sarah bought a hand made rag rug for the Mary Joan.

Cooper Center
The skies lowered as we left Copper Center eventually encasing us in thick fog as we neared the pass above Valdez. We stopped at the Blueberry Lake Campground near the summit of the pass that night and finished our descent into Valdez the next day.

The Eagle's Rest Campground was our home for the next three nights. It is located in the heart of Valdez with great views of the surrounding mountains. The pink salmon were running and hundreds of fishermen were angling from the southern shore of the bay. The salmon arrive on the incoming tide. We were a bit late the first day, still Sarah was able to hook two, but they got away. The next day's weather forecast was for clear skies and calm winds. We decided to take the dinghy west on Port Valdez to Shoup Bay, about ten miles west of Valdez. It was nearly slack tide when we arrived at the river draining the Shoup Glacier. There was glacial ice in the water and the air temperature drop was very noticeable. I took the dinghy as far up the river as I was comfortable. Knowing that when the tide began to flood I would  have to use more fuel than I had on board to get back to Valdez, so we made our retreat. Total round trip was about 25 miles and the scenery was wonderful.
Shoup Glacier

We returned to our fishing spot on the south side of Port Valdez just west of the fish hatchery about two hours before high tide. The salmon made the water boil with their presence. I caught two pink salmon within minutes and had other strikes that I lost. We also released fish that were just snagged on the body rather than hooked in the mouth. These pink salmon are not large, only about 18”. But, I found it to be like shooting fish in a barrel and after harvesting two that we could fit in our freezer, we stopped fishing. I must say, however, that fresh salmon in a dill cream sauce is a wonderful dinner.
Thousands of Pink Salmon

That's my tackle box

Two highlights of fishing at this place are the presence of Grizzly Bears and Bald Eagles. While we were fishing, a young Grizzly sauntered across the road and down to the shore. He walked about 200 yards along the shore, past my fishing spot, to the shallows where the spawning salmon were splashing. He was obviously inexperienced at catching fish because he came away empty pawed. A few moments later, however, a larger and clearly more experienced bear found two salmon for his dinner.

From Valdez we drove to Lake Louise, just 20 miles north of the Glenn-Allen Highway. We learned that this is the place that the would be president, Dwight Eisenhower spent four days in 1947. He came here to relax for one day of fishing, but ended up staying for four days. We can see why. 

On the way north on the Richardson Highway out of Valdez we stopped to take the short hike from the road to the Worthington Glacier. Having climbed glaciers, I didn't need the warning of the park ranger about walking into the tunnels beneath the glacier. But, that warning resonated loudly with others when just as we turned our backs to return to the truck, a  piece of glacier the size of our trailer I had just photographed fell to the ground.
Ready to Fall
We try to avoid retracing any routes, but there was no other option (other than using the Marine Ferry) to visit Valdez. We also made one error in our planning. Our normal routine is to explore the possible places of interest along our intended path. Somehow we overlooked the Wrangle-St. Elias National Park/Preserve. Reading about this place the evening we arrived at Lake Louise we were disappointed with our error. While I had planned to fish on Lake Louise the next day we decided to leave Mary Joan at the lake and retrace our steps to visit the town of McCarthy and the mining village of Kennicott. It was a drive of 175 miles (one way) with 60 miles on viscous washboard and potholed gravel road. Our decision was rewarded with some of the most wonderful scenery we have seen yet. A raging river produced by the confluence of melt water from more than six glaciers was crossed to reach the village of McCarthy then to the remnants of the mining hamlet of Kennicott. We hiked to within a mile of the tongue of the glacier but turned around when Scout (our faithful canine companion) began to tire.

Kennicott Mine

Today, we arrived in Anchorage. We'll visit museums and other sites tomorrow. Tuesday, Sarah's sister, Jennifer, arrives to spend a week with us while we explore the Kenai peninsula. 

Stay tuned. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Great Yukon Plateau

The last installation of this blog found us in the city of Whitehorse's public library the morning that we were scheduled to take the ferry from Skagway to Haines. It was a beautiful day. We did the self guided tour of the stern wheel paddle boat, SS Klondike, one of several that plied the waters of the Yukon River bringing passengers, supplies and ore in Yukon Territory between Whitehorse and Dawson. We then returned to Skagway to catch the afternoon ferry to Haines, AK.
SS Yukon

Once again, our time table got turned upside down. Upon arrival in Haines we found that the salmon were running in the Chilkoot River.  Originally planned as a one night stop, we ended up staying for four days. Sarah purchased a one day fishing license and this inexperienced fly fisherman gave her a rudimentary lesson in how to cast a fly. Sarah enjoyed it so much that she purchased her own waders, vest and annual license the next day. While she was shopping, I trolled the lake for Dolly Vardon, a type of trout/salmon that is common here. I hooked two pink salmon but they both got away which is alright because salmon caught in the lake must be released. But, they were big!!!
Arrival at Chilkoot Lake at the head of Chilkoot River, Haines, AK

Being sailors, we know that one cannot always trust the GPS. In many parts of the world, the chart coordinates are not very accurate. We know other sailors who have experienced this first hand when the chart plotter placed the boat on dry land. We had just the opposite experience in Haines. The GPS would try to put us roads that didn't exist. And  as the picture shows, placed the road on the water. Also note how far off the actual road our track appears.

Sarah fished most of the afternoon, but only got one strike with her dry fly. Using flies, my experience matched hers. I switched to lures on spinning tackle in hopes of landing a salmon. I didn't catch any salmon, but I did land three nice Dolly Vardons. Just enough for dinner for two. As Sarah was exiting the river, she got baptized. She fell into the stream and was thoroughly soaked. After the shock wore off, she laughed as much as I.
Fishing the Chilkoot

The Chilkoot River is the valley of the eagles. There are hundreds of Bald Eagles here. All the while fishing, one hears the squall of this mighty bird. They chirp to one another from the highest Spruce trees. In this place they are as common as Blue Jays in Massachusetts. We are told that in another month, the population will increase dramatically when the spawning salmon die.
Fishing Companions
Haines is situated on the peninsula formed by the Chilkat and Chilkoot Rivers. While it is also visited by cruise ships and has the requisite tourist sites, it felt much more like a living community than a tourist destination, though clearly it was that also. In contrast to Skagway, this town felt more vibrant. When we arrived, there were no cruise ships in town so we got to meet the local residents. Of course, the best place to do that is at a bar. In Haines, the Fogcutter Bar is just the place. We did visit two of the museums. One unlikely treasure was the Hammer Museum. When I read about this in the guide book I thought it was a tourist trap I would certainly avoid. But, with only a three dollar admission, Sarah and I gave it a go. We were quite surprised. This tiny museum of only 3 rooms kept our attention for over and hour. It is not to be missed.
The hammer museum

From Haines we drove north on the Haines Highway toward Haines Junction and our return to the Alaska Highway. The scenery was as wondrous as we had been led to expect. Most exciting was the sight of Grizzly and Black Bears. We observed a Grizzly with two cubs. The cubs were frolicking in a grassy meadow alongside a creek and the Black Bear was browsing on dandelions in a patch of grass near the road. Unfortunately, in my excitement of seeing the Grizzly, I didn't set the ISO on the camera correctly for the lens I was using and we don't have pictures of them to post. Oh well, the quest for Grizzly pictures will continue.

A short 120 miles took us to Lake Kathleen, in the Kluane National Park, our next overnight stop. Before coming to Alaska and Yukon, we had heard horror stories about the vicious mosquitoes. But, they have not been as bad as we feared. On the contrary, they have been a minor nuisance. In fact, the worst mosquitoes were in Pennsylvania. In Hyder, AK, Sarah found an all natural mosquito repellant that has been working very well. Stay Away Insect Spray made by Back Bay Botanicals in Sitka, Ak is great. The campground at Lake Kathleen was also infested with black flies and this product worked equally well to repel those pests.

The drive from Lake Kathleen to Beaver Creek took us along Lake Kluane, the largest lakes in Yukon. This is the north west tip of the high Yukon Plateau. We marveled at the difference between the mountains on one side, steep and jagged versus soft and rounded, on either side of the lake. From one of the roadside information areas, we learned that we were straddling a major geological fault. The steep and sharp mountains to the southwest are part of a tectonic plate that in the past 50 million years has pushed 150 miles northeast from Haines up against the much older mountains to the east.
Rain Squall in the Kluane Range

The final push to Beaver Creek, near the Alaska/Yukon border was on the Yukon plateau. A vast plain stretching across the land of perma-frost. Here we experienced the roughest roads yet. Pot holes, frost heaves and stretches of gravel road forces us to slow down. Despite that, we were occasionally caught unprepared for changes in the roadway. We chose not to cover Mary Joan with fabric to protect her and so far she has only received minor dents on the stainless steel stone guards. I will accept these as battle scars and right of passage on the Alaska Highway.

Tonight we stay at Beaver Creek which puts us just a short way from Alaska.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Whitehorse Yukon and the Ferry Columbia from Skagway to Haines

Leaving Boya Lake on the Cassier Highway we continued north to the intersection with the Alaska Highway at Junction 37. While I never worried about the ability to acquire fresh water when planning our trip, I did have concerns about three other necessities that might pose a problem. Two were acquisitions, diesel fuel and diesel exhaust fluid (DEF). The other was disposal of waste water from our gray and black water tanks. I solved the fuel issue by carrying two five gallon jugs of diesel in the TV and made it a rule to fill up as soon as possible anytime the fuel gauge indicated 1/4 tank or less. As with the fuel, we always carried an extra 2.5 gallons of DEF in the truck. DEF is a mixture of highly concentrated urea in water. Small quantities are injected into the specially designed catalytic converters of modern diesel vehicles to convert the harmful nitrogen oxides usually emitted to harmless nitrogen and water. It is carried in a tank separate from the fuel tank on the truck. That tank needs to be replenished every few thousand miles with about five gallons of DEF. It is available in nearly every auto supply store and many larger truck stops. But, many smaller gas stations that sell diesel fuel do not carry DEF.  While the truck will still run when the DEF tank is empty, vehicle speed is reduced to about 30mph. Finally, I was afraid that getting rid of our waste water would be a logistical challenge. Those with more experience traveling in an RV and others with no experience at all might be amused by our concerns. While virtually every privately owned commercial campground has a sani-dump station, not all public campgrounds are so equipped. Besides, we expected to boon-dock (staying on public lands away from designated campgrounds) which would require finding public sani-dumps. Our concerns were eased once we reached the midwestern United States. From then on, many towns and fuel stations had sani-dumps readily available.

We dumped our black water tank at the sani-dump and re-fueled here at Junction 37.  Sarah and I saw a young man with a small dog walking through the parking lot of the service station and hitch-hiking west on the Alaska Highway. We stopped and offered him a ride to Teslin, the next 'major' road house on the way north. Simon, and his dog Paddy joined us for the rest of the morning. Simon's goal is to learn how to live off the land by fishing and gathering native edible plants and roots. We felt that his efforts to gather sustenance was not as effective as he might have wished, so we stopped at Rancherio for lunch and insisted that he be our guest. Although, as hungry as we knew he was, he ordered the least expensive item on the menu, porridge with toast. We enjoyed Simon's youthful idealism as well as his stories of sleeping in the woods alone with his dog. We said goodbye to Simon at Teslin where he wanted to stop for a while.
Simon and Paddy

The tinwheeler continued on to the Wolf Creek Yukon Campground just outside the major city of Whitehorse, Yukon. The population of Yukon Territory is only about 30,000 people and more than two thirds live in Whitehorse. Whitehorse is a tidy city on the Yukon River. It is the cultural, governmental and tourist center of the territory.
Downtown Whitehorse
Exploring the MacBride Museum of Yukon history ( we were surprised to see a machine built in our home town of Worcester, MA. It is a machine that puts label on bottles.

The label machine

Made in Worcester

We have deliberately chosen not to have a firm itinerary for this adventure. This seemed to be exactly what we wanted when we learned that a music festival was scheduled for the next weekend in Dawson City, about 325 miles to the north. Although our original plan was to go south from Whitehorse to Skagway, AK, following the trail of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98, then take the ferry to  Haines, AK and back up to Haines Junction, Yukon and the Alaska Highway we decided to slow down and make Dawson City in time for the festival. Since we still wanted to see Skagway and the route taken by those seeking their fortune in 1898 we left Mary Joan at Wolf Creek and made a day trip to Skagway. We stopped in the small town of Carcross and strolled the street seeing the many old buildings from the gold rush days. During our stroll we met a young man who told us that the music festival at Dawson City was not what we expected it would be, certainly nothing like we experienced at Smithers. This caused us to rethink our plan to go to the festival, but we put off the decision of where we would go next until later in the day.

Carcross cottage

The road from Carcross to Skagway was through another landscape like we had never experienced. The route provided not only the usual majestic mountain vistas but also a high mountain plateau. It was near tree line, studded with dwarfed trees and mottled with small alpine ponds. From this plateau, the road dropped precipitously back to sea level at Skagway, the launching point of the rush for gold.
This one caught Sarah's eye

Skagway is a tourist town, through and through. The center city is a conglomeration of gift shops catering to the cruise ships that frequent this town. One highlight was the Skagway Museum and Archives. This museum presents a clear depiction of the who, what, when where and why of the frantic follies of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Before leaving, I inquired at the Alaska Marine Highway terminal about taking the ferry from Skagway to Haines. I found the cost not as bad as I thought and there was a supplementary ferry the next afternoon in addition to the one usually scheduled at 7AM. With the disappointing information about the Dawson City Music Festival and the less than expected cost as well as convenient departure time, we booked passage on the ferry for the next day. After our tour of the town, we returned the Mary Joan in Whitehorse.

Our last morning in Whitehorse was spent updating this blog at the public library and touring the SS Klondike, the last stern paddle wheel to ply the Yukon. It has been meticulously restored and is well presented with a self guided tour.

By the time we finished touring the SS Klondike, we had just enough time to make the trip back to Skagway to catch the ferry. While we had driven this stretch of highway twice before, we found the scenery as magnificent as if we had not seen it before. The differing light and the absolute calm of the water presented a novel view of the scenery.
Mirror Lake

We arrived in time for the ferry employees to measure our vehicles and position us in the line to board the ferry. The boarding process was a bit daunting but was accomplished without incident. The ramp into the ferry was steep and parking the truck and trailer in the confined space of the ferry was a challenge. The effort was worth it because the hour and a half ride down the fiord presented grand vistas of snow capped mountains we could not have experienced any other way.
Heading toward Haines from Skagway
A white knuckle moment came when the ferry workers told me I had to back up the trailer inside the ship in order to get off the ferry. Being just inches away from the hull, this request was not accepted very eagerly. But, with deliberate care, we followed the load master's direction and successfully extricated the Mary Joan from the bowels of the ferry Columbia to the docks of Haines, Alaska.
Mirror Mirror too close to the wall!!!

Stay tuned for more.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Smithers to Boya Lake, British Columbia. Great fishing

After visiting the Ksan Historical Village we pressed on to Stewart, British Columbia. We saw our first Grizzly Bear and Black Bears not long after we were on the highway.
First Black Bear

Every turn of the road presents vistas that are prettier than just a few miles past. Snow covered peaks, thundering waterfalls are around every bend in the road. And, the roads have been great. While there are some stretches that cause some rumbling, in general they are as good as any secondary road in Massachusetts. We can easily maintain 50 – 65 mph most of the time (except on the big up-hill climbs).

The highway spur, 37A, to Stewart is a beautiful road. It passes close by Bear Glacier then down into Clement Lake (Bear Lake to the locals because of the numerous bears). We pulled into the Clement Lake (Bear Lake) campground. This was the most challenging campground we have encountered yet. Sarah did a supreme job directing me to back into a very tight spot. One wheel of the TV (tow vehicle) was nearly axle deep in mud while backing the trailer into the campsite. We are so glad for our 4 wheel drive. While some say that you can tow an Airstream with much smaller vehicles, that may be true on paved interstate highways, but NOT in rain soaked Provincial Parks.

I tried my hand at fishing early in the morning after spending a rainy night at Bear Lake. The fish weren't biting, but Sarah pointed out the fresh bear tracks in the sand where I was fishing. Clearly, we had visitors in the night.

We drove into Stewart, BC and Hyder, AK for breakfast. Crossing from Canada to America was a non-event. There is no United States border security at all, just drive across. On the return, the Canadians are a little more concerned. They have a border agent who asks the requisite questions, do you have drug, pepper spray or handguns?. Of course we have pepper spray, it's for the bears. Oh, the agent replies, it has a picture of a bear on it. It's bear spray, not pepper spray!!!

We drove out of Hyder to the Salmon Glacier. This immense river of ice is hard to comprehend due to the grand scale and the distance from which it is viewed. . We were impressed at how much snow remained from last winter. I could only hope that the melting of the last eighty years might be reversed and the glacier would once again be sustained.

We saw our first marmots at the end of the road to the Salmon Glacier. They whistle loudly when approached. They are only moderately shy and can be approached to within about 75 feet.
River of Ice, The Salmon Glacier

It seemed appropriate that we reached Alaska on the 4th or July. Hyder Alaska is truly a town at the end of the road with all the personalities one could expect in such a town. There is the gregarious gift shop owner, the gruff motel/hotel manager and all the characters at the local watering hole. We resisted the local attraction of getting “Hyderized” (falling down drunk).
Almost Hyderized

Mountie Sarah

Having purchased a season fishing permit for British Columbia and knowing we had some good opportunities to fish ahead we stopped at Kinaskin Lake Provincial camp ground. This lake reportedly has a good population of Rainbow Trout. Here I inflated the dinghy and put the 5 HP Honda motor onto it. I tried fly fishing but switched to a small plug that I trolled. I caught one 24cm Rainbow. This one fish wasn't enough to make dinner for two, so I released it after failing to catch another. The next afternoon I had more success. In less than an hour I had two 25 cm beauties. Just the right size. The flesh of these trout, even though they all breed in the same lake can vary in color from nearly white to a rich pink color. These two had light pink flesh. I cleaned and fileted them then simply broiled them in butter. They tasted as good as we had imagined they would.

Bringing home the trout at Kiniskin Lake

We made a short drive the next day to Dease Lake. We stayed at the RV park in the center of the town because it had laundry facilities. It is also at the intersection with the Telegraph Creek Road. This seventy mile long gravel road leads to the town of Telegraph Creek, a town made significant due to its role as an important telegraph outpost that helped connect Northern British Columbia with Vancouver . The first 50 miles of this well maintained road was not unlike some of the roads in Vermont. However, after that, the road climbed to a ridge where the trees thinned out revealing a spectacular vista. Over a thousand feet below was the Stikine River which we reached by descending a tortuous and steep road. Sarah and I were taken aback by the sheer enormity of the valley we had descended into. As amazing as this was, even more breathtaking scenery awaited us just around the corner. Again, the road climbed back out of this valley to a high lava encrusted desert like environment. Then the land fell away on the right side of the road to a canyon with a river roaring at the bottom. We had found what is described as the Grand Canyon of Canada. At the next turn of the road, we found ourselves on a promontory overlooking the confluence of two rivers where the road now fell away on both sides leaving just a strip of land wide enough for the road. This led back down to the river to a First Nations settlement where many families were gathering to fish for Salmon that were just beginning to reach this far up the river.
The Canyon

The last stretch of road from the village to Telegraph Creek was the most frightening road I have ever traveled on. One lane wide with only a few turnouts to allow two vehicles to pass, this road is carved into the side of a cliff with the roaring river over a thousand feet below and there are no guard rails. While we enjoyed the views on the ride in, I silently mulled over my deepening apprehension of having to retrace my route out. Needless to say, we made it. But, I was thankful once we made the First Nation village on our return.

Telegraph Creek

There are so many interesting and beautiful places to see. We have guide books that we have come to trust, especially when they list places as a must see. When this information is reinforced in talking with other travelers heading south, we make sure to adjust our plans to include these places. Boya Lake, our next stop was just such a place. Called the jewel of British Columbia by some, it is a pristine, aquamarine lake at the foot of a richly forested mountain, made even more dramatic by a brief squall with thunder and lightening. The squall delayed my plans to fish for the reputed Lake Trout present here. So dinner was tofu stir fry. But, since it doesn't get dark until nearly midnight, after dinner I went out onto the lake and caught a 28-30cm Lake Trout.

Lake Boya
Squall over Boya Lake as viewed from our camp site

On the ride from Boya Lake, we passed through a large area of forest that had recently burned. We saw many people tenting and camping along the road in this burned forest. We were confused about why they would be here. We saw one group with rifles and others with dogs. We concluded that they must be hunting, but for what? We got our answer a few miles later when we saw a tent with a large sign that read “Mushroom Buyer”. Then we remembered that the person who sold us the Morel mushrooms in Smithers told us that morels were found in areas where there had been a fire. We decided to stop and try to buy some from one of the buyers. It was early in the day, and most of the buyer's tents were closed (the buyers usually show up in the afternoon when the mushroom pickers return with their find). We spotted one buyer on the opposite side of the road and was just about to pull into a rest area a couple hundred yards further along when we saw a large black bear in the rest area. The bear had gotten into a trash barrel. Even though the bear was leaving, we knew that it was not safe to walk in an area where a bear considered it a food source. There were no more mushroom buyers along the road. But, at Junction 37, the intersection of the Cassier Highway with the Alaska Highway, we found some buyers staying at the motel. Here we bought two pounds of fresh morel mushrooms for $5 per pound. That night we had Lake trout steamed in foil with onions and herbs and morel mushrooms with a cracker crumb crust fried in butter. We were the embodiment of happy campers.
You see a burned forest, I see morel mushrooms

There is much more to tell, but we are in the public library at Whitehorse and it is a chamber of commerce day. We have places to see here before we head onto Skagway to catch the late afternoon ferry to Haines. So, even though we may not have internet access until we reach Alaska, we will leave off here and continue later.

Stay tuned.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Smither, BC and the Mid-Summer Music Festival

Continuing on from Fort St. James, our next destination was either Smithers or Hazelton, British Columbia. We don't have a set itinerary, so the decision as to where we will stop and for how long is made that day. Some towns just seem to feel right the minute you arrive. Smithers felt right. It is a vibrant community with lots of activity on Main St. Of course, some might say that I liked Smithers because it had a brew pub on Main St. To be perfectly honest, it is true, but I also appreciated the free Wi-Fi.

The campground we chose is just a few miles west of the town center on the Yellowhead Highway (16). The Glacier View Campground aptly describes this very well run establishment. A grand view of the glacier dominates the scenery from each of the camp sites. The grounds were well maintained and the bathrooms were immaculate. Rose, the proprietor, clearly works very hard to present her guests with the finest experience. Our only grudge was that Facebook and other web sites were blocked.

We arrived on Wednesday, June 28th and decided to stay for the weekend on account of the occurrence of the 28th annual Mid-Summer Music Festival that was scheduled to start on Canada Day, July 1. On Thursday, under overcast skies and drizzle we hiked to the twin falls at the base of the Kathlyn Glacier (also called the Smithers Glacier or the Hudson's Bay Glacier), we attempted to hike to the glacier, on the Glacier Gulch trail, but the trail was blocked by snow in narrow but steep snow shoot that would have been dangerous to cross without a rope and mountaineering axes.

Soon after we arrived back at our campsite, what we believed was a vintage Airstream pulled in. As soon as the new arrivals were settled, Sarah went over to introduce herself. The trailer had obviously seen better days and had been neglected for a long time. It turned out not to be an Airstream, but a Streamliner. According the Jason, the new owner of this trailer, the Streamliners were made by two former Airstream employees who thought they could improve on the Airstream design. Jason's trailer was a 1960s era model. While he has done a lot of work on it, there is much more to be done.

Along with his wife, Laura, and their two young boys, Locke and Cache, they was moving from Vancouver to find work near Smithers or Hazelton. Sarah and I enjoyed this young couple's company, and we were continually delighted by the boy's exuberance.
Jason and Locke with the Streamliner in background
Laura reading the true story of Smokey the Bear to Locke

Laura told us about the farmer's market held on Saturday mornings at the visitors center in town. We made sure to get there early and we were rewarded with a great find. One woman had fresh morel mushrooms. Sarah and I had not had these delectable treats since our college days. We bought half a pound and used them to make a mushroom and Israeli couscous dish to go along with our grilled salmon that evening.

Farmer's market in Smithers
The music festival was held at the fairgrounds and camping was available. However, dogs were not permitted. While speaking to the gate attendants, I mentioned our disappointment with the no dogs policy. She said, that we could just camp outside the grounds in the huge meadow that was used as the parking the lot. When we returned for Saturday's events, we took the trailer with us and parked at the far edge of the meadow. We enjoyed the music very much. The styles were very eclectic and nearly all the performers became part of the audience when they were not on stage. Two of our favorites were bands called Headwater and The Fugitives, both from the Vancouver area. Jason and Laura joined us after the festival ended for pie and tea.
Cache on stage

Young revelers

Sunday morning was bright and warm. From our meadow campsite we could see the snow capped peaks of the mountains south of town. After a leisurely breakfast, we went to the grocery store to pick up some fresh vegetables that weren't available at the farmer's market then continued west on the Yellowhead Highway. The Old Town of Hazelton and the Ksan Historical Village was a stop on our way to our next destination. This village depicts the life of the Gitxsan people before their contact with Europeans. Unlike other First Nation peoples of British Columbia, they were not nomadic. Everything they needed was available for them at the confluence of the Bulkly and Skeena rivers. They fished for salmon and made massive lodges from the huge cedars present here. They were highly skilled wood carvers as evidenced by the totem poles, wooden masks and wooden boxes they made. I was as much intrigued the highly decorated wooden boxes. The Gitxsan people were the first native Americans to made square boxes out of wood. Using a single piece of cedar that had been meticulously cut from a clear log, they made scarf cuts where the corners were to be. They then steamed the scarf area and bent the wood to make the rights angles. Besides being used to store belongings and food, they could be stacked and used as dividers in the lodges to make private areas.

Totem pole

The Gitxsan have struggled to maintain their culture and clan hierarchy despite living through a period of time when the practice of their beliefs and the clan governmental structure was banned.

Now we are off to Stewart, British Columbia and Hyder, Alaska. Stay tuned.