Sunday, June 8 Blueberry Lake, Alaska
There is a salmon hatchery practically next door to the oil terminal where bazillions of barrels of crude oil are loaded onto tankers. That the salmon hatchery operates successfully this close to the oil loading indicates they must be running a pretty clean operation. There's also a hiking trail that starts at the salmon hatchery. It's short but very steep. It had two sets of ladders on some vertical cliffs and another place was so steep there was a rope to help you pull yourself up the trail. It was also very muddy from all the recent rain. Despite these drawbacks, we enjoyed the hike and the exercise.
We spent the rest of the day on a boat tour out to Columbia Glacier. Captain Fred, owner/operator of the LuLu Belle, was also a splendid tour guide. Soon after leaving the harbor we saw a raft of about 25 sea otters. No, the otters weren't on a raft. A "raft" is what you call a group of otters. Happy otters are a good indication that the water is not polluted with oil. Otters die if they get oil on their coats since it causes their fur to lose the ability to shed water. Another sign that the enormous mess made in these waters by the Exxon Valdez is a thing of the past and the ongoing operations at the oil terminal are keeping the waters clean.
As we approached the inlet where the Columbia Glacier lies, the icebergs started to get thicker and thicker. Threading our way through them reminded me of Star Wars and Han Solo speeding his ship through a meteor belt to escape the Imperial storm troopers. Eventually the bergs got so thick that we couldn't approach any closer to the glacier. As a consolation, one of the larger bergs next to us had a pair of bald eagles perched on its peak. On our return leg we also saw many sea lions and even some Dall porpoises.
Although it was fairly late in the afternoon by the time we got back from our cruise, we decided it was time to leave Valdez. The weather had been rainy the whole time we were there and we were ready for a change of scenery. We headed north again and spent the night at a State campground on Blueberry Lake. We didn't find our thrill there, but we did find two loons floating just a short distance from us.
Monday, June 9 Tok, Alaska
Even though we drove almost entirely north today, we're actually on our way out of Alaska. So I guess today marks the beginning of the return leg of our trip. The scenery was very good, but we had seen it all before. In all of today's driving, only 14 miles of it was on roads that we hadn't driven on previously. Alaska has a lot to recommend it, but there aren't a lot of roads to choose from. At least we got to see some wildlife for a change of pace. A female moose entertained us for a while before disappearing into the brush. We were also surprised and delighted to see a trumpeter swan and her babies. I'd never thought of these large, graceful birds as being natives of Alaska, but they are.
When we got back to Tok, we were curious to know the fate of the motorhome that had fallen off the side of the road near Chicken. Trying to extricate such a large upside-down vehicle from such a narrow road must have been quite the challenge. However, when we drove past the garage that was responsible for fetching it, we saw it parked in the lot. Still smashed up, but not looking too worse for the wear.
We had dinner at a salmon bake-type restaurant. You order the kind of meat you want and then help yourself to as much of the other foods as you want (salads, vegetables, bread, etc.). I'd already eaten plenty of salmon on this trip so decided to try the reindeer sausage. After all, there are plenty of places you can order salmon, but how many opportunities do you get to try reindeer? Besides, the reindeer was cheaper than the salmon. It tasted just fine, although the sausage was spiced so strongly that it could have been any kind of meat and I wouldn't have been able to tell you what kind of animal it came from.
At the restaurant we met a gentleman who was traveling from Nipomo, California. That's a town just south of Arroyo Grande, where our trip had started. Small world.
Back at our campsite, we took advantage of the showers and washing machines. Sandra overheard other campers complaining of the lack of scenery in Denali (!), the poor condition of the road we had just driven (it had numerous bumps caused by frost heave, but it was smooth and paved so count your blessings) and the poor showers at the campground (we thought them some of the better ones we'd encountered and were quite enjoying them). Funny, what people do and don't get out of their vacations.
Tuesday, June 10 Burwash Landing, Yukon
This morning we headed south on the Alaska Highway. The oncoming traffic is amazing. Literally 50 to 75% of the vehicles we meet are some sort of camper, most of them on the huge end of the scale. We're glad we beat the crowds by traveling a little early in the season.
The scenery was again fantastic. We've been driving past so many mountain vistas on this trip we're rather jaded by now. You want to stop and take pictures of them all, until you realize that you've already taken a dozen other pictures just like it.
Big chunks of the highway were under construction. Naturally it had to rain while we drove on the dirt roads, adding even more grime to our already filthy vehicle. A grader was busy surfacing the road and had left a trail of dirt about 12" high down the middle of the road. Eventually we met the grader, coming towards us in our own lane, so we had to plunge through the dirt piled in the middle. Soon thereafter we heard a faint squealing noise coming from one of the wheels and a smell of something burning. Uh oh! We pulled over and found gravel and mud caked all around the inner surface of our wheels. We scraped it all out and dislodged whatever stone was jammed up in there.
We spent the night at Burwash Landing, back now in Canada. There's really nothing much to Burwash Landing. However, we were ready to stop for the day and a restaurant there advertised free camping. So we did. It wasn't the worst place we spent the night, but neither did it have any particular attractions. I guess we got our money's worth, though.
Wednesday, June 11 Haines Junction, Yukon
The entire southwest corner of Yukon is the Kluane National Park. It's a large, beautiful park, but no roads go into it. If you want to see it, you can hike in, or fly in. We found a place offering helicopter rides that charged $100 for a 25 minute flight over the Kaskawulsh Glacier. The glacier is over 40 miles long and up to 1 mile deep, one heck of a lot of ice. A helicopter ride over a glacier was one of the activities that Luke had definitely wanted to do on the trip, so we signed up. Well, everyone but I signed up. It was something I was sure I'd enjoy greatly, but the thought of paying $100 for such a short thrill was too much for my cheap genes. Actually, Sandra wasn't going to go either, for the same reason, but the helicopter wouldn't go without at least three customers. We couldn't really wait around hoping someone else would eventually show up, and it was important to Luke, so Sandra went. She had a great time and took lots of pictures.
We stopped in Haines Junction where Sandra and I signed up for a whitewater rafting trip the next day. Its cost was also $100 each but we paid it with no qualms at all. Getting a whole day of thrills and excitement for $100 seemed so much more reasonable than just 25 minutes in a helicopter.
The aspen trees are shedding little puffs of cotton in abundance. The air is so thick with them it looks like snow. It piles up on the ground and looks like snow there too.
Thursday, June 12 Haines Junction, Yukon
Our raft trip was guided by Richard, an import from Britain with a hearty sense of humor. When he first came to Canada, he told us that he lived in "southern Canada" but didn't like it there so came to the Yukon. We asked him where in southern Canada he'd lived. "Thunder Bay." Yikes! That's awfully far north to most Canadians!
It turned out that nobody else had signed up to go rafting today (it was still a little early in the season). So to fill out the boat, Richard had offered a free trip to a few friends. Jody is a quiet girl who lives and works in Haines Junction year round. Rene is a German landed immigrant of two years. He likes the Yukon better in the winter than in the summer! Both he and Richard mush dogs in the winter. Following us was Sara, in a one person raft that looked like two orange bananas (the raft did, not Sara). She guides raft tours in Washington state, but was on her way to Alaska for the summer. She'd brought her banana boat with her and was planning to bum around with any rafting tour companies she encountered. Not a bad way to spend the summer we thought.
We drove for an hour to our put-in spot, just across the border in British Columbia, on the Tatshenshini River. It started to rain while we were driving and continued raining for the rest of the day. Not the best weather to be rafting in but since rafting gets you wet anyway, what's a little rain? The rafting company supplied wetsuits, which we definitely needed in the cold water. Unfortunately, we didn't have any gloves to keep our hands warm, and only our tennis shoes for our feet. Spending all day in freezing water with soaking wet shoes isn't the most fun. Richard also forgot to bring the tarp, so when we stopped for lunch we had to eat it standing in the rain. Despite these complaints, we had a great time on the river with no regrets. Nobody got tossed out of our raft, but Sara's banana boat turned turtle near the end of the trip. She quickly stood on top of her upside-down boat and pulled it over so it was right-side-up again and climbed aboard. All this by herself, in the middle of the river. Very impressive.
Friday, June 13 Haines Junction, Yukon
The weather today was sunny, clear, and cool. A nice change from yesterday's rain, and perfect weather for hiking. We'd bought a book on hiking in the Kluane Park and its description of a hike to the top of Mt. Decoeli sounded attractive. So we drove back along the highway about 6 miles to where the hike began.
There was no trail to guide us, just the directions in the book. We scuffled uphill, following a rocky creek bed (ominously called Bear Creek) for two hours -- bushwhacking and creek-jumping along the way -- to the toe of a glacier. Then we scrambled up the hillside beside the glacier but the breeze was really ripping up there and we stopped for rest and shelter. As we sat there resting, we spotted a momma grizzly bear with her cub on the hillside opposite us. We watched them for a while, to determine which way they were headed. They seemed to be looking for chow in the grassy tundra and not moving very fast. They were headed in the same general direction we were (up) but on the hillside opposite us. We figured we weren't in any real danger so continued our climb, but keeping an occasional eye on them to see if their intentions were changing.
It was pretty in the alpine meadow that we were hiking through, but very tiring as the terrain continued to rise very steeply and the wind kept blowing hard, and straight at us. Sandra tried to take some pictures of the wild flowers but it was difficult because they were blowing so much in the wind. As we climbed, we started seeing more and more bear poop and torn up ground, caused by grizzlies trying to dig out ground squirrels, of which there were many here. We were getting tired and a little concerned about all the bear signs around us (and us in the open with no trees or rocks or any other possible refuge). Our legs and our discretion told us it was time to head back without making it to the summit.
Saturday, June 14 near Teslin, Yukon
When we got to Whitehorse this morning we were almost out of propane. It was the perfect time to get our propane tank re-certified (necessary before it could be refilled). The re-certification process involves removing the old valve and installing a new one. Most places aren't equipped to do it, and even in Whitehorse it appears that there's only one place that can handle this task. Fortunately we found them, and they were open on Saturday. After much ado, the job was done, at reasonable cost. We're set now for another ten years.
Just south of Whitehorse we stopped at Miles Canyon to enjoy the view of the narrow gorge that the Yukon River passes through. A scenic, pleasant place to walk around, but also lots of tourists. We've been fortunate, until now anyway, in having very few tourists to share the sights with us.
Mukluk Annie's is a popular campground and salmon bake restaurant. They offer free camping in reasonably attractive sites (i.e., surrounded by trees, not a parking lot). Best of all, they have a place to wash your RV that you can use for free if you buy dinner there. That was okay with us, since we were planning on eating dinner there anyway.
It took us almost two hours to wash the month of accumulated grunge and grime off our motorhome. But once we were done, we had a nice clean vehicle again. What a pleasant change!
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