Thursday, February 26, 2015

Turnagain Arm

Turnagain Arm.  Sharon said the drive south of Anchorage to Turnagain Arm was pretty right now as the ice was breaking up.  "Where?" Monique questioned.  "Ptarmigan Arm?" is what I thought it must be.  Nope.  Turn-Again is the name of the place.  So we decided that would be a good road to travel on Monique's only tourist morning in Anchorage.  Stan was off that morning and able to come with us, and offered to drive.  Stan is an excellent tour guide, and always has stories, lore, and information at the ready.  For example, I learned that if 5 vehicles are lined up behind you on this road you have to use the roadside turnout and let them's a ticket if you hold up traffic.  There are sections of the road that are famous for slides, and Sharon said she has been late for work when boulders occasionally block the road.  Apparently once a moose just fell off the cliff...I think they said it landed on a passing state trooper car.  These are the ways of my new world.
So this is the Turnagain Arm area.  This is open ocean and these big chunks of ice were just cruising by.  According to Stan-Alaska-wiki, these are the second highest tides in the world.  The Bay of Fundy is the highest. 
This is the Stan...or Stan-wiki-Alaska.  I think he is being a starfish.

This is Stan and Monique, posing in the northernmost habitat these two skydivers have even been at in the same time (it's usually Eden North in Edmonton or Skydive Arizona in Eloy).  Note the ocean-mountain Monique smile is an absolute beaming grin whilst in the presence of both of those things...and she even has a bonus Stan.

But back to the ice.  So the ice breaks up, and rides the tide through this area.  At low tide the big chunks get stranded on the silt.  The chunks I saw were the size of a car hood on average...many were much bigger and thicker, not quite small car size, but if one waited and watched long enough, maybe you would see such a thing.

This sign caught my eye.  You may or may not know that Alaska is really active on the old seismic scales.  In fact, if you take a look at the largest earthquakes ever recorded, you will find Alaska ranks #3 for the largest earthquakes ever recorded (it was second until the Indian Ocean earthquake of Dec 26th, 2004).  On March 27, 1964, an earthquake registering 9.2 on the Richter Scale hit 78 miles east of Anchorage.  Land near Kodiak was permanently raised 30 feet, and the area around Turnagain Arm dropped 8 feet.  The road was no longer above sea level at high tide.  The forest dropped into salt water, leaving the trees upright to eventually die off in their new stand, and eerie reminder of the landscape shift.  139 people were killed in the collapsing, the underwater landslide that collapsed the docks at Valdez, and in the 27 foot tsunami that hit the village of Chenega.  I expect there will be more mentions of this event in future blogs.

There was also this sign, which made me excited that I might get to see some whales this year.  And sad that there needs to be a call number to report people harassing or hurting whales here.

Some bigger shots of the ice against the mountains...

And I just had to post this one of Monique because she looks just so darn happy!

The wind made the day feel a bit brisk, but it was still nice to see the scenery!

I liked the way the sun tried very hard to poke through the grey skies and warm the tips of the mountain.  It wasn't successful at the warming bit, but it was stunning.

This scene also foreshadows adventures to come.  Below is a picture.  There is a rocky point, named Beluga Point.  I imagine spending a lazy weekend with my still imaginary new zoom lens watching for Belugas.  In the foreground is a railway track...for a little passenger train that I am just going to have to ride around on this summer to see where it goes!

Alaska via Land, Day 5, The Finish Line!!

A very solid sleep was had by all.  The home stretch to Anchorage would only be 6 hours, 8 if the roads were poor, so we didn't worry about alarms or take off time, but were still awake before 9.  We took time to grab some continental breakfast, and snap pictures of our much loved winter sanctuary in the light of day.  Once again, here is our full size cabin (WITH Jacuzzi tub and loft), Cabin #1.
The office is the most comfortable and casual set up -- coffee and breakfast was waiting, a decent selection since we were one of only 2 guests (it seems someone turned up even later than us the previous evening).  There is a key drop, and a bell if you need the owners, but basically it's a bit of small town paradise in the way it's run.  Once again, Caribou Cabins at Tok is a must if you are taking the Alaska was one of the best parts of the whole journey.

Our cabin even had a Caribou on the side.  Some had bears :)
Since we were on the homeward stretch, we emptied the jerry can of gas from Fort Nelson into the tank to lighten up a bit more of the load, and continued to do our best on eating away the food supplies.  The kitties enjoyed some tuna while we alternated from M&M's and Reese's Peanut Butter cups to assorted crackers and trail mixes.  And, as always, we drove on.

We were met with some pretty beautiful scenes.  The skies were brightening and blue.  The road still had a few bouncy wavy places, but overall it wasn't too bad.

And the Panthers seemed to know we were almost done with the drive too.  Granted, the Alaska Halibut from Fast Eddie's had saved them from their hunger strike and they were looking brighter and happier (or less manky according to the co-pilot), and Aiden even braved a quick walk outside of the carrier.

We finally felt we had both the time and will to pull out at some of the roadside turnouts for some photos.  THIS is Alaska!

This section is called "Majestic Pass."  Makes sense to me!

Monique is an mountains and ocean kind of girl.  The smile definitely gets bigger as you get closer to either one of those things!

So here's some more mountains.  I guess I took a lot because they were just pretty.  I think this one is near Sheep Mountain, but alas, still no sheep.  The sheep were the only wildlife no show on the trip.  Silly sheep.

That was it.  From there we rolled on to Anchorage.  In the most untimely irony, it was less than 50 miles from Anchorage when we were feeling pretty safe and excited to get to town when we chattered our way through a speed zone transition from 65 mph to 55 mph and were greeted with some shiny red and blues.  And so I got to meet an Alaska State Trooper, and meekly felt some of the winds being sucked out of my sails.  He rubbed 5 days of dirt off to find a license plate, and much to my dismay, I had tucked all the insurance and registration information into my carry on after showing it to the border to import it...which was now at the bottom of the pile in the trunk.  This in itself is an impoundable arrestable offense in Alaska, but the kind officer explained a few laws and regulations to me, gave me a speed zone quiz, and sent me away with a welcome to Alaska.  I was once again counting my lucky stars, perhaps the good karma from 5 consecutive days of speed limit adherence was in my favor.  I swore to be more careful, and I have kept it up!

Once in Anchorage, we checked into the hotel, unloaded all of the gear for the first time in 5 days, and fell limply into chairs for a few minutes before heading out for supper.  We were reuniting with "The Alaskans," Stan, Sharon, and Dave.  It had probably been 7 years since we were all in the same place at the same time, but we all used to skydive in Arizona in January at an event called the Canadian/Alaskan Invasion.  The skydiving community is a close one, and so we were given a full hearted welcome to Anchorage over delicious steak and great laughs at Club Paris.  We made it...I have...arrived.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Alaska via Land, Part 3, Day 4

When we arrived at our destination at the end of day 3, it was at an old skydiving friend of Monique's north of Whitehorse.  He laid out the welcome mat for us, road sign and all!  Fabulous bacon wrapped steak dinner, mmmmm.  The awesome part is that he had sled dogs.  However, I had panthers so a restful night was not had by none.  Monique was a trooper of positive bubbles the next day.  I was a bit tired and all of my positive bubbles had popped.  I did get some puppy pictures though.

This is an aging alpha...he looked part wolf to me, but was a huge gentle soul.

This pretty girl I think belongs to the neighbours...but the call of the pack was too strong so they just agreed she could move in

Another aging boy, but very sweet (the panthers did not care though, they were not going to sleep a wink just in case)
 And so we set out for Alaska.  Today was to be border crossing would be 1100 km to Anchorage and I was road weary and determined to make it if we could.  If not, there was always Tok at the 8 hour mark, but I had not seen any pet friendly hotels advertised in the MilePost so had not been sure if we would stop there or not.  Our Whitehorse host Brian suggested that it would be a reasonable stopping place, and found a few places that were pet friendly in the town.  I was too tired to concede to reason, and ready to just drive straight through.
A very despondent, non-eating non-sleeping Aiden was not happy as we set out
 The MilePost was pretty accurate on where things would be on the road for caribou and bison.  It also said to watch for wild horses at one point, and we really didn't believe we would find wild horses on the road.  But....there they were, right where they were expected to be!  There were only 4, but they were neat looking horses.
We topped up with gas at our first stop of the day, Haines Junction, Yukon.  When filling, I let out a loud four letter word when I saw the left rear tire was shockingly low of air.  The digital read out on the tire pressure sensor last night said front left tire.  I gave that tire a good kick in the am before starting out and it looked fine.  I neglected to do a whole walk around, and here we were, exhausted, with 2 cats on hunger strike, in the middle of no where with an almost flat tire.  That gas station didn't have air, but it referred us to a service station that did.  They topped us up with air, but could not repair tires, so referred us down the road, which was closed.  We debated the options, and settled on hope.  We were hoping it was a slow leak.  Or maybe a bump, there had been a few of those along the ways.  We would top up with air and hope it would be ok, and check it at next stop. 
And so we headed on to the next stop, Destruction Bay.  We stopped to check our tires, and had lost a little air, but not very much.  There was a local tire guy, but he was off at lunch, so we headed down the road to Beaver Creek.  It dawned on me that in all the emergency supplies, one of those little cans of emergency tire sealant was notably absent.
Next stop, Beaver Creek.  Despite the stress, the scenery was certainly beautiful.  And the road was certainly bumpy -- although clear, this was the road that is most in need of repair on the whole journey.

A quick stop at Beaver Creek led to the discovery that the tire was now audibly leaking, and bubbles could be seen coming out of the slushy mess on the tires.  We also determined that there was neither tire repair no an air compressor in town, and so made haste for the road again.  Next stop...US Border at Port Alcan, to import 2 protesting cats and one 3 tired car.  We could only hope the border process was speedy as the air steadily left the tire.  Fortunately, it was, and gosh darn it, the border guards were super friendly as well. They didn't even traumatize the panthers, and from inside the office they couldn't hear the hissing of my soon to be imported car tire.  They even said "Welcome home."  The next town, Tok Alaska was only 90 miles away.  The tire had determined what I was not willing to accept all day, that we would be staying over and spending one more day on the road.

Stressful day, gorgeous scenery
We did have to stop for the first Alaska moose, who seemed to be saying "hey, I can hear your tire leaking..."

what better place to have a steadily leaking tire?
And so we limped into Tok, Alaska on 3.25 tires, the last of the hope, and some surprise optimism from Monique who was certain the yellow sky had a rosy glow.  Positive bubbles!  (Or moderate colour blindness, could go either way).  First stop, gas station, which had a service station that was now closed til the following morning.  They did have a bottle of tire sealant called "slime," and a little pleading from the cashier got me a cell phone number to be used only if Willard's down the road was closed.  We headed back down the road to Willard's, which was locked up but still had a person inside.  I asked if he might be able to fix my tire, and he stared at me long and hard beneath his toque for a moment before kindly explaining they were closed and he was the last guy there finishing another job.  But he did call the final station in town and ask if they could help, and to my relief, Northern Energy said to send us over.  I think I have mentioned before that Alaskans seem to be really friendly.  Northern Energy exceeded that -- in addition to free coffee, they also give out free tootsie pops to the customers.  While one man put my car up on a jack and dealt with the tire, another chatted to us and offered friendly information and advice.  When we asked about dining recommendations, he smiled and said "well, there's Fast Eddie's, and then there's Fast Eddie's,"  Fast Eddie's it would be for our first non-drive through restaurant stop of the journey.  After about 30 minutes, the tire was fixed and we were ready to go.  I was a little nervous as I asked about the price, being a tourist and it being late.  "Well, if I could have patched it, it would have been $22.  But I couldn't patch it."  "Okay," I said, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  "So I put a plug in it.  That will be $9."  Wow.  We said it wasn't enough, and tried to pay more, or leave extra, and he handed it back and said "Give it to some kid who needs it."  I promised to pay it forward, and counted him as a blessing.  That man has some serious good karma coming his way.

The next stop was to find shelter for the night.  And so we headed to one of the places Brian found online that morning, a little place called "Caribou Cabins."  At $119 a night and pet friendly,
I wasn't sure if we could possibly find these seemingly beautiful little log cabins at Tok, AK.  At some point you just think you have used up all the good luck you can rely on in a day.  But, in the twilight, there they were, the Caribou Cabins.

They were awesome.  I would like to go back to Tok and just hole up in there as a retreat some day.  The cabin had a queen bed on the main floor, and a single and a pull out sofa in the loft upstairs.  There was a Jacuzzi tub, a little table, wifi, and a shower in the bathroom.  The quilts appeared to be home made log-cabin style bear and moose decorated, and the front office had a snowman and a continental breakfast for the morning.  If you are driving this road, plan your stop around Caribou Cabins and Tok.  Spend a day, it's a friendly little town!

Once we were settled, it was off to Fast Eddies, where we both opted for the Alaskan Halibut Fish Sticks.  They were delicious, but I saved 1/3 just in case the panthers would try a bite.  More luck, the panthers devoured that fish stick and perked right up.  There was a bit of a draft coming into the bathroom where the panthers were to bunk for the night, so I pulled out the emergency "Mr. Heater Portable Buddy" and made the panthers cosy and warm in no time.

The worst was over.  I couldn't help but think that little angel on my shoulder had a lot to do with it -- thanks Jaycena, for looking out for me on what shoulda been your 22nd birthday.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Alaska via Land...Part 2, Day 3

Day 3 on the road is the one I expected to be most difficult.  Ironically, it was my favorite day of the trip.  It was the stretch of road between Fort Nelson, BC and Whitehorse, Yukon.  On the map, it is the stretch of road with the fewest towns and settlements.  It would have the least traffic, no cell phone service, the longest distances between services.  It is the stretch of road in the Milepost that has the most red text advising cautions as well -- "narrow winding road through limestone gorge no guardrails" (GORGE they say, dear God), and numerous moose and caribou on the road warnings.  It was the stretch of road trucker friends (Bruce Rhodes) said are fine but all the 90 degree turns are at the bottom of steep hills.  It was the stretch of road that all the live highway cams showed as trails through snowbanks without a hint of pavement.  Monique and I like an adventure, but we are also wise in our planning,  The satellite phone was precharged.  The jerry can of gas was filled.  Emergency supplies were at the ready, and we set alarms to be sure we were starting out at the earliest we would on the trip (0830 am).  If you are following the map, this is the stretch between Blue M&M #2 and Blue M&M #3...British Columbia to the Yukon.

That doesn't mean we didn't have a great sleep and have time to get up, enjoy continental breakfast, and update the world on our travels.  "Breaking News -- the Panthers pooped!!!" flashed across my Facebook screen, and I realized Monique had adapted all my worries of the journey as a good co-pilot should.  This was all fine and not TMI until days later it became apparent that some of her friends did not know what the panthers were and that a small contingent thought that Monique and I WERE the panthers, a definitely unwelcome development that we clued into thanks to one John R Smith and a subsequent confession from one Doug Sanders.  Devereux Warwick Richards is also in the bad books by association.

We set out in the freezing rain, and this may be the one part of the journey that made Monique nervous (not to worry, my part would come).  The defrost could not keep up with the freezing rain, leaving a window of reduced visibility, and the roads were bouncy with potholes, slush, and muck.  "Ah, it's no worse than Saskatchewan," I said as we bounced along the cliff face.  By the time we reached Toad River (or Frog Creek as Monique recalls it), we decided to switch despite it being a short starter leg for me.  The freezing rain had stopped, and the limestone gorge was ahead.  This was my predeclared nervous stretch.  I have still not recovered from Montana's terrifying Highway 49 skirting Glacier National Park, and so Monique was slated to drive the section between Toad River/Frog Creek and Watson Lake so that I had the option to close my eyes and pretend I was somewhere else if we came to a  deathly narrow road hovering over a massive gap into probable fiery death.

the alleged limestone gorge after Toad River

We discovered that the one open venue of frog Toad River, was a gas station sporting wifi for more updates, a small wall of post office boxes for the locals wherever they may be, a restaurant, a gift shop, and one live employee.  We were happy to see the truck and boat we had been following also stopped, and were determined to get out ahead of them.  We also noticed a cute large dog that looked a little bit like the llama as we filled up, grabbed coffee, and headed back out onto the road.  The Toad River itself was had glacial blue ice breaking up on its surface and gently bubbled on.  The Limestone Gorge into the MacKenzie Valley required no eye closing or even squinting...and long before we reached Watson Lake miss Monique had dubbed my sturdy Milepost advisor book as the PansyPost.  The areas without guardrails would really not require them unless in a whiteout or uncontrollably icy circumstance.  The drop-offs were totally survivable (presuming you got out of car and could swim), and there was not a single scary thing about the drive the whole day.

 Monique at Toad River... Mile 422 Alaska Highway
Beyond Toad River, we climbed to Watson Lake on moderately snowy roads.

By Muncho Lake we were met with beautiful views and still clear skies and roads.

Monique at Muncho Lake

Snowy mountain passes but well maintained roads
Despite now being called "The Pansy Post," I kept a careful eye on my MilePost publication.  When we switched driving at Muncho Lake, I was aware that stone sheep and caribou were to be expected on the road at mile 449.  Ironically, I topped a hill and there they were, right on the road as expected.  We stopped, being able to confirm no traffic for a mile ahead or behind, and got some road caribou photos.

Road Caribou -- photo by Monique Andrie
I of course worried about the skinny caribou, hoping for an early spring for him
 Beyond the caribou of Mile 449...we knew we had to stop at the famous Liard Hotsprings at Mile 477.  I remember reading about this place because a bear killed 2 would be bathers on this very path back in 1997, a time when I was avidly mountain biking in the Rockies and acutely aware of such events.  It was nice to go in February while the bears were napping,
Lliard Hotsprings Trail
The hotsprings were FABULOUS.  There is some variation of warmth so you can move about to where you want to be and find the absolute perfect temperature for you.  Sitting in the mineral water beneath the snowy banks in a cloud of steam....awesome. 
Lliard Hotsprings
The one caution of the hotsprings, aside from becoming bear crunchy biter yummer yums in the summer, is that any silver on your jewellery oxidizes with superman speed.  I knew my chain was white gold, and my locket black and white diamonds...but I didn't clue in that they are set in silver.  In this otherwise happy warm pic of the two happy travellers enjoying the hot springs in can see the rust red stain of my locket on my skin after just a few minutes in the water.  Do remove silver before enjoying Lliard.  It was cautioned in the MilePost but I forgot.

The hotsprings were mostly isolated...we only had to share with one, terribly handsome Yukon park ranger who was on vacation (we jokingly called him the potential panther papa for the rest of the day as we kept running into him at stops.  He was also he owner of llama dog seen at Toad River).

Rocking Wilderness Chic at Lliard Hotsprings
Leaving Lliard, we saw a sign saying 'Buffalo Next 94 km,' and panther papa had warned us about road buffalo as well.  Indeed, there they were...on the road, along the side, for the next 100 km.  The great thing about buffalo is that they lumber rather than dart, so we could easily time the car vs buffalo path.

momma and baby buffalo at the edge of the road -- photo by Monique
As we left British Columbia and crossed into the Yukon, we were met with the most beautiful sunset!

Monique documenting Yukon sunset traffic

Sunset gleaming in the sky and on the road -- Monique's camera agqin
 And so we drove off into the sunset, and later into the dark, on our longest part of the trip, arriving north of Whitehorse some 13 hours into the drive.  Incidentally, we got a warning on the car to check the front left tire pressure, which we did stop in the dark to check, and found that my pricey 4 day old front left winter tire was still at a solid 30 psi.  We carried on til our designated Whitehorseish stopping point.