Chapter Three of our Alaska Adventure!
We were at the halfway point of our month long journey from our home in Oakhurst, CA. We had driven the Alaska Highway and toured the Kenai Peninsula. Now we were headed North.
We were camping in our car, an old Toyota 4-Runner. During the past 8 days, we traveled around the Southern part of the state with my husband’s parents, but we were on our own once again.
We were now nearing the end of September, and there would be no more cozy motor home to retreat to in the chilly evenings and mornings.We left the beautiful Portage Valley that afternoon. After a quick stop to stock up on supplies in Anchorage, we headed North in the direction of Denali. We had experienced fantastic weather, and wanted to see Denali (Mt. McKinley) before the storms set in.
We stayed at a campground in the small town of Trapper Creek between Anchorage and Denali. Hopeful to see the Northern Lights, we had selected a site in the campground specifically so that we had a view facing north, and set the alarm for 2 a.m.
They were faint, but we could see the green lights moving and swirling. I didn’t realize how fast they moved. I also didn’t realize how tired I would be when that alarm went off. I pictured myself getting out of the car and setting up the tripod and taking some awesome night shots of the lights. Instead, I remember cleaning the condensation off the car window for a quick peek before apparently falling back to sleep. Although we set the 2 a.m. alarm a few times after that, we would not see the lights again.
Our drive to Denali National Park had an iconic Alaskan feel. The sky was unbelievably clear and blue. The spruce trees, which cover most of Alaska and the Yukon, were smaller and more spindly this far north as they struggle to survive in the permanently frozen ground.
Twice, giant moose crossed in front of our car. To top it all off (literally), Denali, at 20,328 feet, served as our focal point, towering above this wide open and wild land. It was a very windy day, and the snow blowing off the summit made it look as though the giant mountain was on fire.
We spent a chilly, windy evening at a government campground just outside the park. After a walk and some hot soup, we retreated inside the car to read. Sometime after we went to bed, the wind died down, and it got cold. It was one of the only times on the trip that we got so cold it was hard to sleep.
In the morning all the windows were frozen from the inside. The thermometer inside our car read 22 degrees. The thermometer outside said it was 4 degrees. We didn’t even take the time to make coffee. We haphazardly tossed everything in our car, and left.
There was a town a few miles away, and we were hopeful to find an open restaurant or gas station. When we got there, we realized that what we thought was a town was actually only a resort village, and they had closed for winter. It felt odd to be the only living souls in that high-dollar resort town.
We pressed on for the tiny town of Healy. We weren’t really sure if there was going to be anything there either, but we didn’t have much choice. Thankfully, there was a gas station that was packed with locals. At 4 degrees, they had the doors open, and were going about their day as if this was normal. A couple of them were even wearing tee-shirts. We felt like wimpy Californians by the time, and left with our coffee.
We arrived in Fairbanks fairly early and found a laundromat that had showers. Not only that, when we got there we realized that they were not metered! You had to have been in our shoes to realize how exciting and rare this was.
By this time, we had been 18 days on the road and had some interesting shower experiences. Most of the campgrounds we stayed at either had no showers, or they had already shut off the water for winter. When we did find a shower, they were usually both token operated and cold.
Even with our hot showers, Fairbanks was cold! We did something that we had not yet done on this trip. We spent time indoors. We visited the University of Alaska Museum of the North, went to a movie, restocked our groceries and went out to dinner. This would be the last big town we would see for a while. Appropriately, we camped just outside the town of North Pole that night.
We had plans to explore more of the Fairbanks area, but we were cold and a storm had set in, so we did what any self-respecting Californian would have done – we headed south.
South of Fairbanks, we reached the “end of the Alaskan Highway,” and completed the famous road that we had started two weeks earlier. Only this time, the drive was not warm and sunny, but cold, stormy and treacherous.
It was snowing hard. Even the locals were sliding off the road, and our trusty 4-Runner was starting to make a grinding sound. We were pretty sure there was water frozen in the wheel bearings. We inched along at about 30 mph and hoped for the best. We figured we could be in southeast Alaska and out of the freezing temperatures in about 400 miles.
When stopped in the border town of Tok for gas, the sides of the car were completely frozen over. We had to chisel the fuel door open with a screwdriver. We thought of the hearty Alaskans who would probably not see an above-freezing temperature until spring.
We were now on the same part of the Alaska Highway that we had driven on our way north to Alaska. Two weeks can make a big difference this far north. When we arrived in Alaska, the days were bright and sunny, and the aspen trees glowed a brilliant orange. Now, every thing seemed to be gray and white.
The leaves had fallen from the aspens. The ground was covered in snow and ice and the sky was ominous gray. The “Welcome to Alaska” visitor’s center that we had found so warm and welcoming on our way north was now closed for winter and frozen over with layers of ice.
We stayed in the first government campground we found after crossing the border into Canada. The campgrounds in the Yukon have covered, semi-enclosed shelters that have picnic tables, a wood stove and free firewood. For us, a wood stove and shelter was quite the luxury. We ate next to the fire and enjoyed a game of Yatzee.
The campground was deserted except for us, but sometime after dark, a car pulled in. Grizzlies were never far from our minds, so we had already been aware of how alone we were in this wild land, but ironically we were still more cautious of fellow humans. It turned out to be a young guy on his drive back to the “Lower 48.” Seeing as how we were a little lonely, it was actually nice to visit with another human being.
The next day we gimped our poor 4-Runner in the direction of the southeast Alaska town of Haines. We hadn’t seen an above-freezing temperature for several days now. Although the snow-covered scenery was beautiful, the horrible grinding sound our car was making was getting worse. We were also reminded just how lonely the Yukon is. If we had broken down, we would have had a hard time getting a ride.
We had noticed the lack of people and the abundance of wide-open, wild land when we drove through the Yukon on the Alaska Highway several weeks earlier. There were days of driving through that we could count on the fingers of one hand how many other cars we had seen on the road. We had said to each other several times, “Canada is vast!” We got the sense that we were the only humans in a huge wilderness, and many times we were.
We stayed in another government campground in the Yukon that night by Million Dollar Falls. We took over the deserted common shelter again. This time we were joined by a Canadian woman named Elly. She told us about winter survival, being treed by a grizzly, being chased by a moose and how she stays in campgrounds during the week while she works for the Department of Transportation on the roads. She could also chop firewood like I have never seen before.
She said the time she was treed by a bear, she had no idea she could climb so fast, but next thing she knew she was at the top of one of the spindly spruce trees wondering what to do next. Thankfully, she was able to shoot a pistol into the air and scare the bear away. After we said goodnight to Elly, we wondered if all Canadian’s were that tough.
The next day’s drive was spectacular. We got into alpine tundra almost immediately. There were snowy peaks everywhere and lightly falling snow, but as soon as went over the summit, the scenery changed dramatically. All the sudden we were in a dense rainforest. It felt like our first time seeing in color.
This was the first time we had seen an above-freezing temperature in almost a week. As if by magic, our 4-Runner stopped the grinding sound. It was the end of our journey through the far and frozen North and the beginning of our fantastic journey through Southeast Alaska.