Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dawson City, Yukon

     This is the last post of our original journey as when we depart here we will be retracing our path through the rest of the ALCAN back to Dawson Creek, B.C.  From there we will head SE into Alberta to visit some spectacular parks along the Rockies. 
     Dawson City, YT is the northernmost point on the Yukon's Klondike Highway.  It is the hub of 88% of the Yukon's gold production.
     The town remains authentic, not just due to tourism, but also to the mining, outfitters, and river trade.  Gone are the familiar fishing wheels that used to adorn the river banks as the King Salmon fishery the area thrived on for years has gone into steep decline.  In fact, Yukon Fish and Game has outlawed all King Salmon fishing on the Yukon this year.  Nearly all the surrounding roads are lined with rocks and boulders as a result of tailings from gold mining here.  All the town streets are compacted dirt and gravel. 

     The buildings stand as they have for many years, some kept restored just for historic value.  There are stores, shops, mercantile, hotels, outfitters, trading posts, a mortuary, a university, and even a boarding house or two.  All the sidewalks are board work construction, probably to combat the seemingly never ending mud here. 

     Although newer homes exist the emphasis here is on survival during brutal winters, not architecture or landscaping. There are only 91 frost free days each year.  In fact several homes are still nearly original equipment.

     At one time the Yukon River was home to 70 paddle wheelers and still home to two that are in service. 

     Two of the main attractions are the Grand Palace Theatre and Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall, a still functioning casino. 
     Dawson City is also the home of Robert Service, a famous British Canadian poet and Jack London, the famed novelist of "Call of the Wild" & "White Fang" fame.  The Jack London Museum is actually quite fascinating with a replica of his original cabin & cache as well as an impressive display of his pictures, memorabilia, and works. 

     We stayed (with permission) at a gravel pit south of town and boondocked off our battery bank and generator for a couple of days.  The rain didn't see fit to subside as celebration to our visit.  We ate in town twice, both times at the Downtown Hotel Jack London Grill which had excellent food (French Dip & Club Sandwiches to die for and great breakfasts) at decent prices. 
This post made possible by the FREE internet at a nearby gas station here (which translates to a single hour free or $5 CDN per day in Canada).  Unless something unusual or spectacular happens, our next post will be from the Canadian Rockies south of Dawson Creek in about 7 days. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Chicken, Alaska (Barb's Gold Rush Dream) and the Top of the World Highway

     After leaving Fairbanks we stopped in Tok to pick up another mail forwarding (can't forget those pesky property taxes) and then we set sail for Chicken, Alaska.  This tiny hamlet is located about 65 miles northeast of Tok on the Taylor Highway.  It became Barb's destination obsession about a year ago when she saw it on the Travel Channel.  Small?  This place has somewhere around 2 dozen residents on any single day.  The 80 mile drive from Tok to Chicken takes about 2 1/2 hours.  It is part highway, part highway with gravel patches and road construction, and part just plain gravel.  It is through some very scenic hills where you can see the Wrangell Mountains in your rear view mirror.  We were lucky here to average 10 mpg.

     Chicken was settled by gold miners in the late 1800s and in 1902 the local post office was established requiring a community name. Due to the prevalence of ptarmigan in the area that name was suggested as the official name for the new community. However, the spelling could not be agreed on and Chicken was used to avoid embarrassment.  The community itself is spread out, but downtown is centrally located in a single building and parking lot.  They even have a single gas pump; diesel $4.99.  Not a bad price considering where we are.  In fact the entire community is powered off several large diesel generators.

      Chicken is also the home to the region's premier music festival, aptly named Chickenstock.
This two day event hosts about a dozen talents in a very relaxed informal atmosphere.  Unfortunately for us, we missed the event by about 5 weeks.  Maybe next time. 
     To make this adventure as simple as possible we camped at the Chicken Gold Camp. They have camping spots (only 4 30 amp pull through, the rest are 20 amp back ins), WiFi (not much bandwidth), a dump station and potable water hose, and offer instruction/advice on gold panning, even renting equipment should you need it.  Not us....Barb came prepared (you gotta love Cabelas).  They even have access to several claims in the area and will transport you there if you desire.  You can almost smell the $$$ fees here.  I was perfectly happy to stay in camp, read, and babysit the critters, but much like General George Armstrong Custer, Barb insisted on her own biographer. 

     Barb didn't take as comfortably to gold panning as sapphire panning and it took her awhile to get the rhythm down.  Like most folks, she was always afraid she would dump the gold back out.  Takes everyone a bit to realize that gold is the heaviest thing in the pan and unless you get VIGOROUS it ain't leaving.  She kept at it for a day and a half, in the end coming up with far less than an ounce, but had a sense of satisfaction nonetheless. 
     I have to say that the WiFi service at Chicken Gold Camp is really, really, really marginal at best.  It seems to work in waves, but is never 100%.  I found it best to work in short shifts and have everything ready to compose.  There is NO CAPABILITY to upload or download pics or large files.  

     Departing Chicken we headed NE towards the border on the Taylor Highway.  It is 40 miles from Chicken to the Yukon border.  This is perhaps the worst road of the trip.  It is fairly narrow and winding.  Slow down considerably to let others pass.  The last 10 miles prior to the border are paved.  It is here where we sadly departed Alaska.  After crossing the border easily we had only 75 miles to go.  The road is narrow and winding, but easily navigable with an RV that takes it's time.  It is, however, a gravel road. We averaged less than 8 mpg here. 

     Rainy days keep the dust down, but make for an incredibly dirty truck/RV.  It poured on our day; in fact it was the worst possible conditions.  The level parts were slow, sloppy, and full of potholes, I needed 4WD on several uphill sections to maintain traction, and went very slow down hills to avoid 'trailer rampage'.  Again, it was a rainy day and I was in no hurry.  In fact, I was passed on this road twice.  This section of the road, however, is pretty wide and easy for both directions of traffic to navigate. 

     Due to the rain and low clouds we had few opportunities to view the countryside.  The final part of your journey is the George Black ferry crossing just west of town.  Surprisingly this is a free ride across the Yukon River. 

     It was NOT an incredibly fun day, taking about 6 hours in all.  I can now say I visited Chicken, Alaska and  survived the Top of the World Highway, but I would NOT do it again.  Hello, Dawson City!  This was posted via the FREE WiFi in Dawson City (once I figured out free translates to a single hour free or $5 CDN per day in Canada. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Things I Learned in Alaska

As we prepare to cross the border back into Canada within the next few days I would like to share some lessons learned:

BEWARE:  STICKER SHOCK, especially for groceries and gas which can be very expensive outside of large towns.  Get a Safeway and Fred Meyers discount card before you get here.  The discounts (especially for gas) are substantial.

Drivers can be pretty aggressive, especially on the open road.  EXPECT them to pass when you LEAST expect it, especially rental RVs. 

When the salmon are running…..there are no driving or parking rules.

You can only drive to about 25% of the state, the rest is fly or boat in.   

It is the most beautiful place I have ever been.

Many, many people move here to escape the lower 48.  Events elsewhere don't really affect Alaska.  They just seem to watch the news and shake their heads in amazement.

There are 7 tribes (First Nations) and a vast amount of incredible culture.  Experience as much of it as you can.

TAPS (Trans Alaska Pipeline) has reduced production 5% a year since 1988.  This is from a high of 2,000,000 barrels a day to current production of 500,000.  There is nothing wrong with the North Slope Oilfields, this is governmental regulation.

Bring plenty of mosquito repellent.

The local, indigenous people are some of the friendliest I have ever met.

NOTHING goes to waste here, but surprisingly they DO NOT RECYCLE. 

Halibut is a fine eating fish, but Rockfish is much tastier. 

Dungeness Crab is much better eating than Alaskan Red King Crab.   

The interior of the state is usually much warmer than the coastal regions.

You can get used to 20 hours of daylight in the summer.  In fact it’s excellent for gardening or solar power. The vegetables grown in the Mat-Su Valley are the largest in the world.  However, our dog and cat had more problems adjusting. 

We visited many wonderful places, but Valdez and Homer were perhaps the biggest surprises. 

I do not play chess any better here than anywhere else. 

Eagles are everywhere and ALWAYS worthy of a moment of pure admiration.

There are more glaciers still here than anywhere else on the planet. 

You can still successfully pan for gold.

There are more dinosaur fossils than you would think.

There are many earthquakes daily. 

Shirley’s Burgers in Talkeetna rank among the Top 3 burgers I have ever tasted.

President Obama DOES NOT visit for events, fund raisers, or own a summer home here, nor is it likely he ever will. 

Sara Palin is not nearly as popular as she used to be. 

Santa Claus’ House in North Pole has a long way to go to rival Bronners in Frankenmuth, MI. 

The best ice cream I have ever tasted is made in Fairbanks.

Cell phone service (and therefore Internet) is VERY SPOTTY outside of towns. 

Reindeer is a little spicier, but a delicious meat.

Few halibut are actually 100+ pounds, but they are ALL heavy as hell to reel in, and delicious to eat. 

You can encounter a moose darned near anywhere, anytime and they are not really afraid of people. 

Not all traffic congestion is the result of automobiles or anything else man made.   

The residents of Alaska are also some of the hardest working people I have ever seen.

Even before the melting of the final spring snow, everybody begins cutting firewood for next winter. 

Most of the folks you see on TV (Yukon Men, Alaska the Last Frontier, Deadliest Catch) are just normal, hardworking people who have had their stories embellished.  In fact one of the ladies we fished with out of Homer is in a weekly exercise class with Atz Lee (Alaska the Last Frontier).  In fact he and his brother Otto live in town; the younger kids and families run the Kilcher homestead. 

I am not going to move here, but I will be back (I see a fly-in bear photography trip or a fishing trip in my future).


….and last, but not least, YOU THINK YOU HAVE ROAD CONSTRUCTION?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Hot Licks Homemade Ice Cream

      We decided to review something a little different this stop.  Hot Licks Homemade Ice Cream has been listed as the 4th best homemade ice cream shop in the nation by Fodor's Travel Magazine.!4-hot-licks-homemade-ice-cream 

     You probably don't equate really great homemade ice cream with Alaska, but this place breaks all the rules.  The interior of Alaska can reach some pretty high temperatures during the summer (92 is the record in 1993).  In fact last summer they experienced 39 days over 80 degrees.  It was, however, just in the 60s during our visit.  Believe me, Barb and I did not need Mother Nature's help to prompt our visit.   Thankfully there was only a small line when we arrived. 
     This place has been making homemade ice cream for over 25 years.  Their secret?  One batch at a time, just 40 quarts thus guaranteeing freshness and taste.  They may have as many as 30 flavors available on any given day, but probably not all of them.  They also have favors such as liquor, beer, honey sorbet, sherbet, frozen yogurt, and sugar free ice creams.  I asked, but they do not offer Reindeer.  These were the flavors available to us the day we stopped in. 

     We decided to play it 'smart' and share a Banana Split.  We chose a scoop each of Apple Pie, Arctic Refuge Wildberry Snap, and Sugar Free Chocolate Chip.  We decided on Walnuts, Hot Fudge, and Butterscotch for our toppings.  Of course the entire creation is lathered with whipped cream and cherries. 
     It is a good thing we decided to share as the Banana Split is a foot long!  The ice cream is delicious; not tasting hard or soft serve, but as if it had just come out of the homemade ice cream machine.....thick and creamy!  The Arctic Wildberry Snap is quite the taste sensation featuring a blend of Alaska Blueberry, Cranberry, and Crushed Ginger Snap Cookies.   It leaves quite the 'zing' in your mouth.  The price....$11.  It turned out to be the perfect treat for two of us.  Hot Licks also serves cones, sundaes, espresso ice cream drinks, Hawaiian shave ice, shakes, floats, and sodas.  Ice cream cakes and bulk ice cream are also available made to order with 48 hours notice.  There are two locations in Fairbanks. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

North Pole, Eskimo Olympics, and the Alyeska Pipeline

     Our visit to the Fairbanks area was just ahead of the latest rain front which dumped several more inches of rain to the already swollen Chena River.  This area was already the victim of heavy rains and flooding just a month ago.  The Chena River Recreation Area campground we intended to stay at was still open, but recommended air mattresses, but for floating, not sleeping.  Time for another overpriced RV Park. 
     What visit to the Fairbanks area would be complete without stopping at North Pole, Alaska to visit the famed Santa Claus House.  It is, however, just a single shop of not much size.  In fact it is only about 20% of the size of the famed Bronner's in Frankenmuth, Michigan. 

     It does have a nice selection of holiday memorabilia and cheer.  It also has a very nice wall full of letters from children the world over addressed to who else?  The busiest building in town is the Post Office.  EVERYBODY wants that postmark!  The only other thing about North Pole that I found fascinating is the town only consists of about 4 blocks yet has 2 traffic circles.  We did receive our 2 latest mail forwarding shipments, but I had to 'jump thru several hoops' to get a prescription refilled. 
     Fairbanks (32,000) is a nice city not nearly the size of Anchorage, but still has all the bells and whistles needed for supplies.  We got Barb a better pair of hiking shoes and stocked up a bit more on reindeer meat which has become a new edition to our freezer since arrival in the state.  A bit spicier than beef, it is a deliciously lean and tasty meat.  The Mad Chef created a very tasty Venison Tater Tot Casserole for our first two nights here. 

     Fairbanks is the center of all things in Alaskan First Nation culture.  I highly recommend a tour of the Morris Thompson Culture and Visitor Center  We were lucky enough to be able to attend the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics held  at the University of Alaska Fairbanks   All too often incorrectly referred to as simply Eskimos, the largest indigenous group of Native Americans in Alaska are the Athabascans, followed by Inuit, Tlingit, and then Eskimos.  The cultures are also that incredibly diverse as well. 

      The games that are played by these people display the preparedness one needed for survival.  They require skill as well as strength, agility, and endurance. In this manner, the people could at least teach the children that they had to be tough to make it on their own, not just in one area, but in all. The games leave no part of the body untested.  These included the Knuckle Hop or Seal Hop, Four Man Carry, Ear Weight, Ear Pull, Drop the Bomb, One Foot High Kick, Two Foot High Kick, One Hand Reach, Alaskan High Kick, Kneel Jump, Indian and Eskimo Stick Pull, Toe Kick, Arm Pull, and Nalukataq (Blanket Toss).  I have uploaded several pictures, but suffice it to say you can see detailed descriptions of all the events at

     We were most impressed with the dance and ceremonial rituals, an integral part of every event.
     It was a pretty cool night for something a little bit out of the ordinary.  The Mad Chef even topped it off by springing for Concession Hot Dogs, Popcorn, and Water for dinner.
     Located just 9 miles north of Fairbanks is the Alyeska Pipeline Viewing Center.  This area allows you to pull off and view a section of the pipeline complete with informational signs and models.  The Alyeska pipeline is owned by 4 companies:  BP, Unocal, Exxon Mobil, and Conoco Phillips.  This pipeline spans the 800 miles between Prudhoe Bay and the Valdez Marine Shipping Terminal, which we visited last month.  There are 11 individual pumping stations which keep flow at a constant rate and can stop flow completely (if needed) within 4 minutes.  The pipe moves 534,480 barrels of oil each day (down from a high of 2,932,928 barrels in 1988).  In fact the pipeline use is declining 5% per year.  This is a governmental regulation.  

     Construction and engineering of the pipeline is fascinating.  The pipe is bolted to plate mounts that 'free ride' (not attached) to another plate mounted to the ground support pillars.  This allows for movement due to freeze/thaw and even earthquakes. 


     Mounted on top of each ground support pillar are also two heat conductors which are buried deep into the earth to transmit ground heat for dissipation into the air in order to keep the ground stable and not so subject to the rigors of permafrost.  Some 380 of the 800 total miles are buried due to the support problems of permafrost. 

     The pipe itself is nearly 1/2" thick and 4 foot in diameter and sits high enough off the ground to allow wildlife to cross under. 

     Due to the decreasing flow in the pipeline, oil moves much slower and results in a wax buildup within the pipe.  Alyeska utilizes what are called 'Pipeline Pigs' which are movable plugs pushed by the oil acting much like a scrubber moving the length of any section in order to clean the pipe and remove any unwanted buildup. 
     We move on now back to the east gradually approaching the border.  We will await a mail drop in Tok and then head NE to the village of Chicken where Barb will learn the skill of gold panning in an attempt to pay for our trip.  We will cross the border back into the Yukon around the 25th of July.  This upload was made via our Verizon Hot Spot which had incredible signal strength during our stay.  


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Denali National Park

     We departed Talkeetna and traveled the 152 miles north to Denali National Park. Although we had seen the mountain several days (both from the plane tour and wonderful, clear weather in Talkeetna) there is still so much else to do here.  We camped at Riley Creek, the largest campground in the park and the only one open year round.  There are also smaller campgrounds for RVs at Savage River and Teklanika.  We made these reservations back on December 1st of last year when they became available.  This park stays very full

     This campground is very nice, but it is important to note there are NO ELECTRICAL OR WATER HOOKUPS.  A potable water spigot is available at the Riley Creek Mercantile RV dump station.  Generators can only be run 8-10 a.m. and 4-8 p.m.  We depended on our battery bank/solar panels for the majority of our power.  Generator was run to top off the bank when needed.  There are many other considerations to be aware of as well. 
These are not obtrusive, but worth noting in advance so as to plan. 

     Denali Nat'l Park is over 6 million acres, but with only a single road leading into the park.  At the NE corner near Healy the Park Entrance Road leads 97 miles into the park passing several campgrounds, the Visitor Center, Wilderness Access Center, the Eielson Center, and the Wonder Lake Lodge.  At road's end (Kantishna) you are still 35 miles from Mt. McKinley.  Backcountry permits are required to even hike into the wilderness.  Needless to say everything is kept pretty remote and undisturbed.  Unfortunately, you may only drive your own vehicle for the first 13 miles to the Savage River Campground.  Tour busses are available for a fee to take you to the other stops, but they take from 6-13 hours.  This includes tour groups, back country hikers, and climbers as well.    We really didn't want to leave Dharma and Bodhi alone that long.  Besides, after our air tour of the park last week we were pretty satisfied already and decided to make this stop for rest/relaxation, photography, and some hiking. 
At this end of the park, the terrain consists of a large valley surrounded by an assortment of peaks.  In fact there are 114 peaks over 10,000 feet in the park.  Another pretty spectacular view.
     There are an assortment of animals in the park, but naturally the two most common are moose and bears.  There is a fairly large concentration of brownies (grizzly) here. 

     Bear attacks in Alaska are not common, but neither are they rare.  A jogger was attacked near the Air Force base in Anchorage days before our arrival and a hiker was caught off guard and mauled earlier this week here in the park when she came across a sow and cubs unexpectedly.  When hiking around the Savage River one day we came across this moose rub, where bull moose pick a tree to rub the velvet off their antlers as they grow to relieve the itching.  To put this it into perspective, this tree is approximately 11 feet tall and 5 inches in diameter. 
     The facilities in the park are FIRST RATE from the buildings to the parking to the trails to even the bathrooms.  The RV dump facility at Riley Creek offers 4 lanes, but there were still usually lines each morning as folks departed.  One area we visited the bathrooms were new and I found the bear proof design of the door fascinating, if not downright a bit frightening as to what they are designed to protect you from.  You can count the bolts if you like.  There are 112 of them.

     I am sad to say we saw neither bears nor moose nor Mt. McKinley during our visit to the park, but did see several eagles.  Bodhi and Dharma did love our camping area and enjoyed many hours of just laying out, playing with the pine cones, and probably imagining what they would actually do if they could catch one of those squirrels.  We also finally got around to taking a picture with our SPARTY gnome mascot.  There are lifelong Spartan fans everywhere!  Our original intention was to do this at nearly every stop, but retirement does something to your memory.    You could probably title this one "Sparty Does Denali" or maybe even "Who Gives a Crap that LeBron Went Back to Cleveland?" 
     There is cell service only at the entrance to the park and the Riley Creek area, but it is notoriously 'spotty' at best with very little bandwidth.   In fact, I usually set my alarm to get up no later than 5 a.m. to surf a bit or even post this blog.  Surprisingly there is little online traffic at this hour. We were able to effectively use our Verizon Hot Spot.
     We are off to Fairbanks and North Pole, AK next.  This is hailed as the Christmas Capital of the World.  I don't know if it rivals Leavenworth, WA or Frankenmuth, MI, but we'll see if it stands up under Barb's scrutiny. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Talkeetna Road House

     I have to admit I had already heard about this place on the Food Network and yet wanted to try it out for myself.  The Talkeetna Road House  sits in the middle of town in a rather inauspicious building.  Originally built in 1917 this eatery is one of the only original businesses in town still in operation.  Not just for dining, they also offer several guest rooms, ranging from private to hostel-style, rustic cabins to the school teacher's apartment located above the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum. Bathrooms are "down the hall" in typical Roadhouse fashion, and even though a bathroom has been added to Trapper Johns Cabin, guests can still use its 5-Star outhouse.  These rooms include breakfast in the cafĂ© or delivered to your room.

     Although they have a daily fresh baked bread and homemade soup schedule I chose to visit during breakfast hours.  Their breakfasts are very nearly legendary around these parts.  Seating here is 'family style' which you might end up dining with just about anybody from a fellow traveler to a local fisherman to someone fresh off climbing the mountain.  You have to appreciate their menu for it's simplicity.  You have two main choices:  BREAKFAST & NOT BREAKFAST, any questions? 

     Barb went with her customary half order of Biscuits and Gravy which still filled the plate.  I went with the Standard #1 Scrambled Eggs, Potatoes/Cheese, Thick Cut Pepper Bacon, and a Biscuit w/Gravy.  The food fills the plates and is intended for hearty appetites.  I enjoyed mine thoroughly, but Barb and I both agreed that the Biscuits and Gravy were very bland and required quite a bit of extra salt and pepper (and hot sauce on mine).  Our choice of OJ or Cranberry Juice was included as part of our breakfast in addition to my coffee.  The service was excellent. 

     Barb and I enjoyed the ambience and food here, but would go without the Biscuits and Gravy next time.  I'm thinking either one of their plate size sourdough pancakes or enormous plate size cinnamon, pecan, or raspberry breakfast rolls.


     Interestingly, the mobile Alaska Magazine and Milepost camper was visiting our campground for a ratings review and to book next year's advertisements as we arrived back in camp.  Our visit to Talkeetna was very enjoyable although we could have been just as happy here in only 3-4 days instead of a week.  On to Denali.....

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Mountain High Pizza Pie

     Where do you go for a bit after all the 4th of July festivities begin to die down?  Everyone in town had seemingly settled into their bar stools or chairs at their favorite bistro, micro-brewery, or sandwich shop for the evening.  Barb and I had planned to return to the RV to cook, but it was now over 80 and I just didn't feel like heating it up like an oven.  I spied several open outdoor tables at Mountain High Pizza Pie and so the decision was made.

     When we originally scouted out town this place was on our list for dinner, but got out voted as we just weren't in a 'pizza mood'.  But, I have to say that after having my meal here I had to share the experience.  We entered the building and were immediately told that if we would like to dine outside it would be much faster service. (Perhaps the World Cup game on the BIG FLAT SCREEN and a fully loaded bar was their first clue)  We found a table pretty quickly and the waitress was at our side almost immediately.  We got some rehydration to begin with as we perused the menu.  This place is strictly an artisan style pizza place, the menu is very eclectic.  You have two size choices:  individual and 15".  We both have grown fond of reindeer meat as we have had it several times now so Barb ordered the 'Game On' and I got the 'Gyro Pie'.  The Game On is a light marinara style with mozz and two types of reindeer;  pepperoni and sausage topped with cilantro.  The Gyro Pie is a white sauce style with reindeer pepperoni and topped with feta, oregano, lettuce, kalamata olives, and tzatziki sauce.

     We apparently had pretty good timing as the remaining seats filled and a line was beginning to form.  The pizzas do take a bit to make as we waited for about 40 minutes, but I did thoroughly enjoy my Alaskan Amber as we both relaxed and enjoyed the art of people watching. 

     We both ordered the individual size pizzas and I have to say we could have easily just split one.  They are pretty good size for 'individual'.  As couples do we both tried each others and I have to say that Barb's was a bit better than mine.  I found the topping of lettuce/tzatziki on mine to be a bit cumbersome to navigate from plate to mouth.  I finally ate it like a salad.  Barb's was generous meat and cheese with a spice I could not identify, but found delicious.  Being your typical artisan style pizzeria on the holidays the tab with drinks was about $30.  The service was EXCELLENT.  By the way the Holiday Special today was a Smoked Red Salmon, Blueberry, and White Sauce pizza.
     We left full, (Barb with her usual to go box) but quite satisfied with the experience.   As their sign our front says, "When in Rome do as the Romans do.  When in Talkeetna look for the purple pizzeria!"

Friday, July 4, 2014

Talkeetna Air Taxi and an Alaskan 4th of July!

     Heading north, we arrived in Talkeetna.  Located just 14 miles off the Parks Hwy on the Talkeetna Spur the village sits off the beaten path, but is the center of everything Denali.  Everything from the Denali Ranger Station (all climbers check in here) to river rafting to jet boating Devil's Gorge to zip lining to air tours begin here.  This will be our base of operations for about a week.  It is important to note that there is only ONE campground in town  so it would be a good idea to make reservations before arriving.  There is overflow parking in a lot next door, but it is only overnight with power/water. Montana Creek State Rec Area is very near the Parks Hwy/Talkeetna Spur intersection and there are a few camping spots next to the Tesoro gas station at the intersection as well.  There are several small inns and cabins to rent and one very nice Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge as well.  During summer this is a very busy community with plenty of people coming and going.  This is a fairly major hub for the Alaska Railroad not only for cargo, but people on tours come and go as well as the locals who live in the bush, but depend on 'town' for their intermittent supplies.  Trains come and go north and south here several times daily. 

     I was fascinated on our second day as several of the new Earth Roamer Expedition Class RVs pulled into our campground.  I had seen these on TV, but this was my first live experience.  These are made in Colorado and are the ultimate in off road and off grid exploration.  They offer several models, but are all completely self contained for water, power, and sewer and do not ever need external hookups, which made me wonder why they chose our campground.  They run on either diesel or bio diesel fuel and utilize a large solar power array to supply off grid electrical power.  They also have several state of the art converter/inverters to convert/manage either AC/DC power. 

These large, extremely durable boxes are mounted on a Ford F-550 frame with a turbocharged diesel Power Stroke engine with the dual alternator option which provides a quiet, fuel efficient, factory installed 3.7 kWh generator. They have an advanced battery isolation system and connect the factory alternators using low resistance, #4/0 tinned copper marine cable to the massive  absorbed glass mat (AGM) camper battery bank. Whenever driving or the engine is idling, the AGM battery bank is being charged by the high output dual engine alternators. At idle, the Power Stroke diesel burns approximately .5 gallons of diesel per hour which is significantly less than many RV generators at full load.  I understand the insides are equally well built to withstand abuse and plush.  I was not able to view the inside of any of these rigs as these folks tended to keep to themselves.  This is definitely the 'off griders man cave'.  These vehicles are made to order and prices begin about $200,000!  Okay, back to my world....
     The Interior Alaska area is also a large producer of Birch Syrup.  That's right, I said Birch Syrup.  I didn't know it existed either, but was very interested to explore it.  It is pretty rare and not very much is made each year, less than 1500 gallons.  It is gathered and made very much the same way as maple syrup, but whereas maple syrup takes 40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup, birch takes an average of 100 gallons of sap to make a single gallon.  It does have a distinctly different taste, but is good nonetheless.  I bought several bottles: one for Barb and I as well as one for friends of ours who gave us a quart of their own maple syrup for our trip before leaving Michigan.

     'Downtown Talkeetna' is very much like a much smaller version of Santa Fe, full of local culture   The village itself is a matter of a couple of blocks of dirt/paved roads that house everything in town, from gift shops, art galleries, micro-breweries, boat/fishing charters, chocolate shops, several B n B's and a variety of eclectic eateries from pizza to bakeries to soup and sandwiches to full meals.  This place is ripe with opportunities for one or two of my restaurant reviews.  We could easily walk from our camp to and from every place in the village. The nearest grocery store of any size and gas station are both located 14 miles back at the intersection of the main highway.  The airport is also very close by and houses 3 tour companies:  Talkeetna Air Taxi, K2 Aviation, and Sheldon Air Tours.  These provide transportation for anything from Denali viewing, glacier landings, fishing fly ins, and even drop off and pick up of Denali climbers. 

     We booked passage with Talkeetna Air Taxi for a guided tour of Denali (Mt. McKinley) and the surrounding peaks.  We also arranged for a landing on a glacier!  We were part of a 5 person tour traveling on a DeHavilland Beaver aircraft.  Our pilot, Alex, was young, but flying all his life and a very experienced pilot with many hours in several types of aircraft in Alaska.  Our flight was a two hour expedition into the TEETH of the Alaska Range, exploring such sights as the local flooding of the rivers, Mount Foraker, Mount Hunter, the Great Gorge, Ruth Glacier, and of course Denali.  We had beautiful weather for flying.  Barb and I took nearly 300 pictures, taking several hours to edit afterwards.  Please understand that it impossible to put every single photograph on here so we chose a few we thought best described our adventure.  Again, a picture is well worth a thousand words.
     A system of strong storms invaded the interior of Alaska about 2 weeks ago bringing with a deluge of new water to flow down from the mountains.  In fact the upper half of the Denali Park Hwy is still closed due to flooding.  This will not effect our trip there next week.  There are flood warnings for many parts of the interior.  Although not effecting the village, this is the Talkeetna River.

     Flying NW from Talkeetna you enter the Alaskan Range and Denali National Park.  There are countless miles of awesome landscapes, forbidding pinnacles, and many types of glaciers.

      Many of the glaciers have pockets where the upper crust snow has been blown away revealing the pure blue ice beneath. 
     This is Ruth Glacier, the 2nd longest in the park.  We landed at the upper end in an area called the Ruth Amphitheater.
     After flying over the base camp in the valley below we arrived at the 'big tamale' Mount McKinley which Alaskans refer to as 'Denali'.  It is the tallest point in North America at 20,320 feet.  Although it is at the tail end of the season there are still 100 climbers on the mountain.  As we were not in a pressurized aircraft we never flew above 12,000 feet. 
      As we slowly descended we headed up the glacial valley making our landing on the Ruth Amphitheater.  We were in a virtual bowl surrounded by towering peaks and cliffs at 5500 feet.  We landed on 10 feet of snow sitting atop 500 feet of glacial ice below.  After taking time to catch our breath with faces full of awe clicking camera shutters, we boarded the plane for our trip back to Talkeetna.  Our total flight time was just at 2 hours.  This is not an inexpensive trip, but it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Our 'Base Camp Tour' w/glacier landing cost $645 w/park pass.  All we can say is it is WORTH EVERY SINGLE CENT! 
     We stayed over for the 4th of July, wanting to watch the parade and Annual Moose Auction.  There are nearly 20 of these individually hand painted moose by various artisans around town all week.  They are auctioned off after the parade with all proceeds going to support local children's activities. 
     Independence Day is a pretty big deal here in Talkeetna.  The majority of the population here are highly educated escapees from the lower 48 yet very patriotic Americans.   The entire village takes on a festive atmosphere with any and all of the local culture rising to the top!  There are many additional street vendors, sales, parties (all the local watering holes are full), and there were even several stands serving free reindeer hot dogs. 

     Only the oldest members of the local VFW can participate in the color guard to begin the parade each year.
The main theme of the Independence Day Parade here is the moose....there are 20 of them on floats.
Couldn't resist Snoopy.
It was a myriad of moose floats....
....ending with the Grand Moose Auction at the Park.  THIS moose went for $265, all proceeds go towards children's activities during the coming year. 
This could very well be the definition of irony.  I'm pretty sure these two WERE NOT the Grand Marshalls of this year's festivities, but they were the traffic on the way back to camp.