Sunday, May 29, 2016

Thompson Pass, Keystone Valley & Valdez

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The drive from Glennallen to Valdez is often touted as one of the most beautiful trips in all of Alaska and it is a well-earned reputation. On our travel day the weather was perfect as the sun dipped in and out of the clouds, creating plenty of sky and mountain drama around the craggy peaks of the Chugach mountains. By the time we descended Thompson Pass and reached the Keystone Canyon, numerous rivers rushed to the ground from hundreds of feet high amid green and lush forests, creating stunning and thunderous waterfalls of all shapes and sizes. WOW! has become such an inadequate word. But fear not, where words fail me, photos tell the story. 

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Spectacular sights along the way to Valdez. Everything that’s been said about the drive is true!

Our final destination for the day was Allison Point Campground, across the bay about five miles north of Valdez. Our view is of water and snow-covered mountains, exactly what we hoped for. Yet, something about this place didn't feel quite right. We had a really hard time picking our spot, since there were no other rigs here, it was kind of difficult to figure out how to park without taking up multiple spots. We ended up parking nose-in to maximize the view, then locked up and headed to town.

Valdez is a favorite stop for visitors to Alaska, including my Dad and Zac, who stayed here during their whirlwind tour of Alaska in 2008. When I posted my usual "Departure Day!" post on Facebook, friends said I was going to love Valdez. As we drove into town, Steven spoke up and said that despite the high cost, he thought we might be happier closer to town in a commercial campground than way out on Allison Point. I was relieved, because I had been thinking the exact same thing! We decided to take a look at campground options to decide which one we liked best.

Valdez is a beautiful location, to be sure, surrounded by towering mountains, glacier-blue water and the quaint small boat harbor. We checked out each campground, driving through several times, but ultimately agreed that, for the price, none of them appealed to us. We found it hard to get around town through all the construction, which is no doubt a necessary evil considering the winter weather, but still. We drove around in circles trying to find places and finally had to stop at the Visitors Center to ask directions. And Valdez is not that big!

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Slightly unsettled, we headed back to Scoopy at Allison Point, a twenty-minute drive from town. By now we had decided it would be our home for the next week. As we drove, I found myself wondering, why am I not feelin' the love?

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I think there were multiple factors at play, not the least of which was my own expectations. I was expecting to fall instantly in love with Valdez, as I had with Haines. I didn't. Another factor in my unease was our camping situation. There is safety in numbers and we were, for the first time since we began our trip, alone. We were unable to register and the reported host was nowhere to be found. She finally knocked on our door the second day we were here, handed us a registration envelope and told us our first night was free, because the campground was only now officially open for business. That explains a lot! With that information, and paid up at $120 for the week, we began to relax and enjoy our spot. 

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The view from Scoopy’s roof at Allison Point.

An absolutely unexpected bonus in Valdez was meeting up with Susan, a friend from my teen aged years. We lived in Tripoli, Libya together, and she attended the same boarding school in Switzerland that my sister, Judy, also attended. How we got together was thanks to social media, and her brother, Emil, who lives in Wasilla. Emil saw the photo I posted on Facebook of Scoopy at Allison Point and sent it to Susan. Susan's husband, David, works at the pipeline terminal and he literally drives right past us each day. One day he stopped and as he got out of his car, he announced who he was and how he found us. From there, Susan and I made plans to meet up! It's been more than 40 years since we'd seen each other, and we tried our hardest to bring each other up-to-date over a two hour period. We didn't get very far, but we sure had fun trying!

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Susan and Linda reunite after over 40 years.

With warm and sunny days during our stay, we spent a fair amount of time checking out several restaurants, exploring museums as well as making return trips to Thompson Pass, Worthington Glacier and Keystone Canyon. We spent a full day on a glacier cruise to see the Columbia Glacier, and what a day that was! As you can imagine, Steven took hundreds of photos, so that trip deserves it's own blog entry!

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Cool displays at the Valdez Museum and yummy lunch at our favorite restaurant.

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“Remembering Old Valdez Exhiibit” gets a special mention. Great museum on the 1964 earthquake.

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Visiting the Worthington Glacier. The snow was not yet cleared so we had limited access to the glacier.

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Waterfalls are in abundance in Keystone Canyon. Seen here are Horsetail and Bridal Veils.

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Toadie Hopper is queen of the mountain!

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The view just before entering the little town of Valdez is beautiful!

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Black-legged kittiwakes nesting and a female trumpeter swan sitting on her nest.

And so with a little exploration during our repeated visits into town, a bit of effort on my part and a willingness to seek out what was on offer, Valdez began to grow on me. I leave tomorrow with very fond memories and I suspect with those in place, the charm of Valdez will reveal itself even more in hindsight.

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The view out our window from Allison Point. The fun thing about this? It was taken at 11pm!

Next stop: We're heading to Chitina, McCarthy and the Kennicott Mines.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Haines to Glennallen and Everything in Between

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There is only one way in and out of Haines by car, so getting back to the Alaska Highway at Haines Junction, YT after our glorious five-day stay required about 145 miles of backtracking. The first few miles out of Haines is a bit rough and dippy, but once we crossed the border into Canada, the road was as smooth as butter. Seriously, one of the best ones on our trip so far.

The weather was overcast, which made everything seem gray and dreary. Still, it's a beautiful drive. We saw a nesting pair of Trumpeter swans, a Golden Eagle and a Willow Ptarmigan, the state bird of Alaska! In Haines Junction, we filled up with diesel and got ourselves back on the Alcan Highway. Our goal for the day was Congdon Campground on Kluane Lake just outside Destruction Bay, YT. Some friends of Bill and Kelly had recommended it and had posted a photo. It looked beautiful.

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Strange phenomenon on the way to Congdon Campground. We couldn’t figure out if it was mist or dust.

When we arrived at the campground and made the loop, we realized all of the waterfront sites were taken. We drove into the wooded loop and immediately found a pull-thru and a back-in site across the way. There were folks already in sites and more coming in, still, we thought there might be something better, so Kelly and I drove Toadie further around the loop and came upon two larger pull-thrus, and that's where we ended up. We took a little hike over to the lake and it was then we met some folks from Whitehorse who told us the Canadian holiday (Victoria Day) weekend was upon us. Damn. We had known about this forever, yet we had actually forgotten. In any case, it's the only place we've stayed where we didn't get our first choice of spots, but we were happy nonetheless. It was, after all, just an overnight.

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Our campsite at Congdon Campground. Kelly tries to combat the evening chill.

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Leaving Congdon the next morning and a foreshadowing of the conditions ahead.

The drive from Destruction Bay, YT to Tok, AK is the part of the road that gives the Alaska Highway it's fierce reputation. But considering that it is a relatively short stretch of the entire highway, I don't see why it should stop anyone from making the drive to Alaska. It is a nasty section, though. Steven and I made the decision when we left Destruction Bay that we would drive separately. We had all kinds of yoga mats and hardware cloth that we could have used to fashion Toadie Hopper a protective shroud, but in the end, it just seems easier to drive separately. It was a long and lonely drive, let me tell you. The armrest on my driver's seat likes to creep down from the up position and lightly tap me on the shoulder. It makes me jump every single time, but this time I let out a little squeal! 

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Undulating highway from winter wear and tear and one of the construction areas we encountered.

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Scoopy’s dust cloudand more contruction and a Pilot Car!

The worst parts of the road were actually "paved", but I use that term loosely. The torn up asphalt made the road even more bumpy and uncomfortable. The easier parts were dirt and gravel. Except believe me when I tell you that the dust kicked up will find it's way into your RV and tow car. Poor Steven was driving behind me and he really got engulfed. We still have a bunch of grit inside, and probably will until we settle down with hookups and do a big clean.

What I find most amazing is that Scoopy and Toadie stayed relatively clean. They were dusty, sure, but fairly clean! I did give Toadie a little spit bath while we were at Muncho Lake, using a half gallon of water and some elbow grease, but other than that, we haven't had to wash massive amounts of caked on dirt off them. Overall, we've just had really nice travel weather, so not a lot of mud to go through. I know I am going to jinx us by saying this, but oh well.

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Look how clean Scoopy is…!!

By the time we hit the US Border in Alaska, I was really surprised to see Bill and Kelly still there. They usually travel ahead of us, then find an interesting pullout to stop and wait for us to catch up. Either I am a super pokey driver or 5th wheels just handle the roads differently than a Class A, because we were always a good bit behind them. The worst part for me was the dips. Scoopy just loooooves to start bouncing and if I don't slow down, she gets going like a lowrider.

Anyway, while Steven drove Toadie through the regular auto lane, I pulled up behind Queenie. I could see some activity, but really couldn't figure out what was going on until I saw the border agent come sailing around the front of Bill & Kelly's truck with a wheelbarrow full of firewood. Uh oh. Most of it was wood Bill had just picked up at the Congdon campground the night before, so it was no big loss really. The agent pointed out a nasty pine beetle and said this is why they confiscate wood. Ew!

Steven had made it through and now it was my turn. The border agent asked me a few questions and asked for Scoopy's registration. This was the first time we had been asked for that, but I had it at the ready. The agents don't have booths and computers right at the lane, so they have to go inside to check your story of where you've been and how long against what the computer shows. (I guess that's what he was doing - he could be going in to take a swig of his latte for all I know.) When he returned, the agent asked me to open the side door. At first I didn't understand what he meant, because we call it the "front" door, not the side door, but it finally dawned on me that he was coming aboard.

I happened to have on my favorite driving footwear, fuzzy socks with flipflops, which makes my feet look like goat hooves. That is the first thing the agent saw when I opened the door. Bill said he's surprised the guard didn't let me go right then and there, because he can never unsee my goat feet. :) But he didn't, he just came right on in, unfazed. He's probably seen it all.

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Goat feet.

Now there is not a lot of room for the two of us to be maneuvering around, so I basically stood back and let him in. He asked about fresh veggies and I sung like a canary about our tomatoes. When we travel, we secure doors and cabinets with all manner of contraptions, a 26 lbs. kettlebell, a huge fan, rope to tie the fridge doors shut, and our favorite being the tension curtain rod. We use two of those. So to be honest, it might look a little sketchy to a border guard. He said, "What's all this?"  Then he just laughed and tried to open the fridge. I said, "Pull that string." Considering the rough and bumpy roads I had just been over, I realized as soon as I said that the contents of my fridge could end up all over him. But all's well that ends well. He did offer to let me eat all my tomatoes. That made me LOL. Really, the whole thing was kind of comical and the guy was actually super nice.

Finally back in Alaska, the roads did improve somewhat as we made our way to Tok. We topped off with diesel so that we could avail of the "free" parking behind the service station. I was so tired I couldn't be bothered to back in. Happy Hour was short and sweet, which worked out well for everyone. Tracy & Lee, friends of B&K finally caught up with us and they had a nice reunion while Steven and I retreated to Scoopy to recover from the long, intense driving day.

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Settled down for the night behind the Chevron in Tok.

The next morning we were now a caravan of three as we all made our way to the Northern Nights RV Park in Glennallen. This is where Tracy & Lee will be working for the summer. We met up with Hank and Shirleen from RVillage, and the eight of us had a lovely Happy Hour. We enjoyed getting to know Tracy & Lee over dinner and we stayed outside for hours in spite of the buzzing mosquitos.

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Arriving at Northern Nights in Glennallen.

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Lee and Tracy and our Happy Hour in Glennallen.

The next morning, we said our goodbyes to Bill & Kelly. We had been together since we met in Bellingham on May 2nd. We were all a bit sad, yet excited to continue our adventures. Our destination for the day was the beautiful port town of Valdez where we will be staying for an entire week. Here is a sneak preview: we are currently camping at Allison Point across the bay from the town. Our view is spectacular.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Haines – Our First Stop in Alaska

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Long before taking our epic trip north, Linda and I zealously read all the blogs we could find about the Alaskan experiences of our fellow fulltimers. One common reaction, in particular, was the wow factor. What I mean by that is you actually can't stop saying "wow" as you travel through this magnificent state.

British Columbia got us excited with its wildlife and lush vistas, Yukon had us looking upwards and ogling at the immense snow-capped mountains but Alaska...that's just a different story. The landscape has a personality all its own. It has a majesty that is at once quiet and bombastic and it places us squarely where we belong - as insignificant dots in the midst of nature's wilderness.

My first encounter with Alaska was back in 2002 when we spent Christmas in Juneau. Linda and I are an adventurous pair and like to explore at our own pace when we visit somewhere new. We rented a car and found a host of amazing places off the beaten track that allowed for some memorable views of humpback whales and countless sea lions. The snow fell slowly in big chunks on Christmas Day for the first time in seven years. We spent time at Mendenhall Glacier, alone amongst the bald eagles and ravens. It was an experience that set the bar as high as the sky itself.

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Mendenhall Glacier and resident bald eagle from our Juneau trip in 2002.

Years later, we returned to Juneau on a cruise and the magic eluded us. Mendenhall Glacier, as vast as it is, was swallowed up by thousands of tourists buzzing around with iPads, iPhones and cameras of all shapes and sizes. 

Back during our original Alaska visit in 2002, we had planned a trip to Haines to see the bald eagles. We were excited sitting in the little airport in Juneau waiting out a winter storm. Alas, it was not meant to be. Our flight was canceled and we headed back home to Seattle promising ourselves we would return some day.

Fast forward to 2016. We were traveling with our friends Bill and Kelly to Tok when they suggested a 5-day detour to Haines. Of course we jumped at the chance of coming full circle on our promise so it was settled.

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Scoopy takes on Alaska!

The road from Whitehorse to Haines was the first where I truly felt like I was in a different world. Gone were the rolling green hills and colorful wildflowers. Gone was the abundant wildlife found in British Columbia. Instead, we drove through a stark world of snowy mountains and ice-covered lakes. The road was surprisingly good and the scenery had us making multiple photo stops.

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Spectacular views along our trip to Haines.

When we arrived in Haines it was full of the colors of spring. Ironically, some of the worst road conditions of the day were encountered right before we reached town. We settled down at Oceanside RV Campground with a beautiful view of the little harbor framed by a backdrop of white-topped mountains. From our window, we could see bald eagles riding the thermals or hanging out by the water waiting for meal opportunities.

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After our long journey, the four of us set up our tables and chairs and enjoyed sipping our adult beverages. Can life get better than this? I seriously doubt it and, even if we had to come off the road tomorrow, I would still have memories that would fuel the rest of my life.

Despite the fact that we arrived outside the salmon run season, we saw lots of eagles, a harbor seal and some otters. I found the interaction between the ravens and crows to be particularly entertaining. They have a wide vocabulary and are quite animated. One crow's squeal, in particular, reminded Linda of Cam from the show Modern Family. Naturally, the bird was given a name: Cameron Crow :)

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Cameron Crow tries to get our attention.                Bald eagle at Chilkat State Park.

It would be easy to just list all the things we did one by one but it was the atmosphere of being in Haines that was most memorable. The little town is quaint and the pace is slow. We met some really interesting locals while we were there and five days just whizzed by. Before we knew it, we were having our last happy hour at our favorite spot by the water.

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We visited Port Chilkoot Distillery where Macky gave us the lowdown on whiskey and vodka.

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Learning about brewskies from Paul at Alaska Brewing Company and indulging in delicious pizza at Klondike.

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Linda and Bill just passing time in small town Haines.

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Bill and Kelly pose at one of the many Haines signs in the area.

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Sunset views in Haines.

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Linda said she heard “The hills are alive..”                Steven keeps the bugs at bay.

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Adding state number 16 to our map!               Not a shabby view from our site in Haines.

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Cruise ships would come and go. One stayed the entire day and sucked up all our wifi.

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Contrasting scenes and dramatic clouds made Haines a truly amazing place to photograph.

Bill and Kelly are planning a return trip when the salmon are running and the bears and eagles will be out in abundance. As for Linda and me, I'm confident we'll be back again. As has been the case with all things Alaska during this trip, my high expectations have been exceeded again and again.