Rain, rain, come again some other day – Day 63-68 (Aug 20-25)

If the devil is “Prince of the Air”, I sometimes wonder if that means he has taken control of the weather. At least it seems like it in Alaska this past week. We have set tight in Cantwell for 7 days now, determined to outlast the rain. Last night it cleared up and the report all week promised partial sun today. We woke excited about driving the Denali Highway until we looked outside. The clouds are on the ground and the report is 40% rain today. We are leaving anyhow, hoping it clears up this afternoon. The color is almost prime, and the nights are supposed to be in the 30s this week.  It is time to go home.

aminita muscara
The rain is good for mushrooms – they are everywhere in the woods. These beautiful, but poisonous Amanita muscaria are common and abundant in Alaska this year.

This waiting has been relaxing. We finally caught up blogging, slept late, did laundry, watched movies, and explored locally as much as we could in the rain. We went out to eat a couple times, but it’s a long drive anywhere, and only a couple choices locally. Also, a hamburger and fries are $13 here in nowhere land. Yesterday, the storm broke enough to get a few photos that I am posting here. Maybe you will see why we are waiting for these mountains to be visible.

parks road clearing
Clearing storm on the Parks Highway near Cantwell.
evening alaska rang
Late last evening along the Denali Highway. Can you see why we are waiting for clear skies to drive this road?
clearing storm
Parks Highway yesterday. About two miles from our campsite. Not a bad place to hang out awhile.
sunset
Sunset on the Denali Highway.

According to the plan, our next stop and internet service will be Haines, Alaska. That is almost 800 miles and 3-4 days. Over a 100 miles of that is rough gravel with potholes. The rest is good to poor pavement – with frost heaves, fall colors, and miles of marvelous mountains. SEE YA LATER!

hope
On the Parks highway. This made me late for supper.

Journey to Denali – Day 61-62 (Aug 18-19)

Denali is the icon of Alaska. It is the top destination of most visitors to The Last Frontier. At 20,000 ft. it stands head and shoulders above all else in North America. Everything about Alaska is BIG – but this is the biggest and most spectacular Park of all!

denali mnt landscape
Denali Park Landscape – The Alaska Range.

We gave it our best!

Thurs, Aug 18, we left Fairbanks for “The Mountain”. We stayed overnight at a pullout just minutes away from the Park. The weather report said 20 % rain. When we woke at 5:30 AM, the report was 10% chance of rain. When we boarded the shuttle at 7:15, it was raining – and it rained most of the day. We took the first shuttle to Wonder Lake and stayed till the last shuttle left – all afternoon watching the clouds for just a glimpse. We never saw The Mountain.

savage rive
The road to Denali. This is the Savage River – about mile 15 – as far as you can drive without special permission.
grizzly and cubs
A distant view of a Grizzly and her 3 cubs
bus on road
Tour bus on the park road.
carabou grazing
Caribou grazing on the tundra slopes.
us
Waiting at Wonder Lake for the weather to break
picking blueberries
Tourist picking blueberries at Wonder Lake. This is the only thing you can pick or disturb at this National Park. You never want to do this here without your bear spray on your belt.
blueberries
Wild blueberries are abundant everywhere in this part of Alaska. There are almost as many folks here with buckets as guns.

Last year, over half a million people came to the Park. Only 1 out of every 3 saw Denali. This year even fewer will see this illusive wonder. This summer, the park received more rain in one month that it usually does in one year. Denali is famous for making its own weather. It is big enough that it heeds the wishes of no one but God.

denali landscape
“Foothills” under “The Mountain”

Since our trip inside the park we have been sitting at a campground just down the road, listening to it rain day and night, for 6 days. We are waiting for the weather to break and fall colors to peak, so we can drive and photograph the Denali Highway on our way back east. We had hoped to see Denali when it stopped raining. The Mountain has not showed its face in all that time. It is supposed to break up some tomorrow. We still keep hoping – but the snow is not far away, so we must leave tomorrow. We were very disappointed. But that is the way it is in Alaska. Most of it is outside the control of man. That is why we are here.

fall color
Typical landscape in the Alaska Range
tundra moss
Tundra moss is very strange to walk on.  Sometimes you can sink in 6-8 inches.
bull moose piggin out
Bull Moose chowing down by the side of the road.

Praise God for His marvelous works to the children of men

We were not sorry we came to this special place. Even if we didn’t see the main attraction, we saw more than we could contain. Moose, Caribou and Grizzlies were common. The clouds broke up a little on our way out and the scenery was wonderful. Photography is limited on a shuttle bus, especially if you are stuck on the wrong side of the action. The pros that get the spectacular photos get special permits to drive the road and stay 7 days. We were there only 13 hrs and it took most of that to discover the tricks. If I get here again, I will do it different.

tundra
Tundra fall colors

However, anyway you see this place, with any weather, it is always an inspiration. I am just thankful that this nation has preserved these places for future generations to experience. I hope all my grandchildren get the opportunity to pick wild blueberries at Wonder Lake, see the evening light brighten up the tundra,and sit on a shuttle bus alive with excited people from all over the world as they laugh at Grizzly Bear cubs wrestling on the hillsides.

denali evening
Evening in the park.

Flying Into The Brooks Range – Day 60 (Aug 17)

Photographs of The Brooks Range have intrigued and inspired me for years. When I considered coming to Alaska, my first goal was to see the Brooks Range – but that seemed unlikely, if not impossible. Other than a brief glimpse available off the Dalton Highway on the way to the Arctic Ocean, the only way to see it is by plane. That is very expensive since the going rate for a bush plane is $500/hr. and the Brooks Range is a long way from anywhere.

A Dream Comes True

So…I was elated when I was able to get a seat with the bush pilot that delivers the mail to three remote villages in the Brooks Range for $309 – for a 4 hr flight! It was one of the most emotionally intense experiences I have ever had. The thrill of the ride and the spectacular scenery was overwhelming at times. It still seems like a fantasy that happened to someone else.

fairbanks fron the plane
Fairbanks from the Navaho Piper mail plane.
Yukon River
Yukon River from the air.
books Range near Gates of the Artic
The Brooks Range

Anaktuvuk Pass

Not only did we fly OVER the Brooks Range, we flew to the last village, Anaktuvuk Pass, THROUGH the mountains and into the Gates of the Arctic National Park – the best of the Brooks Range. According to the mail service, this is the most isolated village in the USA.

anaktuvuk pass
Anaktuvuk Pass from the airport runway. no time to explore – this mail plane works like the UPS truck – as fast as possible.

This part of the flight was low through canyons and over ridges – just like in the movies. For a novice like me, it was very spooky, and I expected at any moment for the turbulence to toss us into a rock face (why do these guys fly so close to the rocks?). The only way I kept from freaking out was to keep photographing, and to force myself to trust the pilot. He was experienced and seemed to know what he was doing – but how would I know? (How do these guys seem so confident and relaxed when I am on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown?)

gates of the artic-3
Entering the Gate of the Artic National Park. I was glad I took motion sickness meds or the rough and wild ride would have done me in.

This was not a scenery tour for photographers, it was a business trip for a mailman, so photography was very sketchy and difficult. Actually, it is nearly impossible to get sharp photos under these circumstances. I knew this before and was not too disappointed at the obstacles – I was just elated to see the mountains. However, if I ever get to Alaska again, I want to stay at Anaktuvuk Pass for a few days instead of a few minutes. I want to hike around The Gates of the Arctic and photograph from a tripod on solid ground with no scratched up plastic window or wing in the way.

brooks range never ends
Above the Brooks Range. They appear endless since they go almost completely across the entire state – above the Artic Circle.
me and plane
Proof that it was all real – me at the Anaktuvuk Pass airport.
coming in to fairbanks
Coming into the Fairbanks airport.

Life is but a Dream

Our natural dreams and desires are never satisfied – we always want more next time. All over Alaska – as amazing and wonderful as this trip has been – I have been hindered from the PERFECT experience. Everywhere I go, whatever I do, and with every person I meet, there is something imperfect. There are mosquitoes, bad weather, poor food that upsets the stomach, overpriced campgrounds, scratched and dirty windows, scheduling problems, poor service, disappointing scenery, bad attitudes and bad hair days. Every day I struggle with that same cynical, pessimist, impatient voice sitting on my shoulder. But there are moments, in spite of all that is broken and bitter in us and around us, God speaks to us, and we suddenly KNOW that this moment is not all there is to life. In those moments we BELIEVE there is something ahead that is perfect and eternal and better than any experience we can have here and now. We believe that when we close our eyes for the last time, we will wake with perfect vision that  cannot be hindered by scratched windows or expensive plane fares. I can only wonder what it means to “know as we are known”, but flying through the Gates of the Arctic reminded me of that promise – and how fast that day is approaching.

clouds 2
Clouds Over Alaska

Fairbanks, Alaska – Day 56-59 (Aug 13-16)

Fairbanks is a nice town. I was surprised. I expected it to be acting like the gold rush was still on. It has tamed down considerably. We found it friendly, clean, and modern – and much smaller than I expected. There are no skyscrapers and many of the “suburbs” are hidden in the trees on the surrounding hills. It has a mellow small town feel about it. We liked it much better than Anchorage with its hustle bustle and homeless on every corner. Plus – you can stay overnight in the Walmart parking lot here.

fairbanks
A “Where’s Waldo” for the grandkids: Can you find our tiny camper in the Fairbanks Walmart parking lot?

Fairbanks is surrounded by rolling hills covered with the everywhere present and scrubby Boreal Forest – not my favorite ecosystem. It lacks the dynamic scenery and photo opportunity of coastal ports and mountain towns. However, it was a good place to relax, meet traveling friends from back home, go to the State Fair, air out the damp camper, catch up on blogging, take a plane ride into the Brooks Range, and explore a side road or two.

ester dome
Fairbanks from Ester Dome on a rainy day.

The Fairbanks Visitor Center: A Five Star Experience

By now, I am a Visitor Center Connoisseur. Jackie, on the other hand, dreads them. She says it is because they have too many MAPS! She has severe mapaphobia. This condition has probably developed from the trauma of numerous marital conflicts over map reading and travel navigation. We travel now under a truce, much like that between the USA and North Korea. (She claims I am the one acting like North Korea.)

Oops… I got sidetracked…I was going to keep this a positive review of the Visitor Center. Even Jackie liked it. That is because it has many more cool things besides MAPS! They have an exceptional museum, great movies, unique programs with native dancing and what not, helpful Rangers, decent wifi, soft chairs for zoning out, and outside they even have dandy flower and vegetable gardens. All FREE! You heard right – FREE!

We spent hours here using the wifi, relaxing, getting advice, watching movies, and learning amazing things about Alaska. DO NOT MISS THIS PLACE! 

Crossing Paths with the Ohio Hendersons and Kansas Bowmans.

It just happened that we were in Fairbanks the same time as Fred and Rose and Shannon and Heather & family. Amazing. We even stayed side by side overnight at Walmart. How cool is that! We come all the way up here and ended up camping next door to our long time friends and ex-neighbors. Only in Alaska!

Exploring the Steese Highway

Quite a few roads leave Fairbanks. One goes north toward the Dalton Highway and points above the Arctic Circle. The Park Highway goes south to Denali and Anchorage. A couple others go off into the wild and dead end at isolated villages. We opted to explore the Steese Highway which goes 161 miles to Circle, an old gold rush milepost on the Yukon River 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle. We only went the first half that was paved. We didn’t have the time for 160 miles of gravel potholes and wash board.

steese highway
The Steese Highway is a great road until it turns to gravel.
mining
Contemporary mining operations along the Steese Highway

We caught some Grayling at our campsite on the Chatanika River, hiked to an abandoned old gold mining dredge, saw the remnant of an amazing waterline used in mining, drove many miles through wilderness, had an interesting visit with the campground host of an isolated rustic “Lodge”, and visited another pipeline visitor site.

grayling fin
Grayling with its famous fin.
long creek
Long Creek campground – a cool place in the wilderness. We see many of these Alaska “Lodges” closed or trashy. This one is surviving with class.
campground host
The campground manager (I lost his name) was a friendly breath of fresh air, with plenty of stories and a positive outlook on life.
picnic area
Nifty secluded picnic area at Long Creek campground. Just follow the path under the bridge into the edge of the wilderness.
old dredge
We took a short hike back to this old abandoned gold dredge – a remnant of yesterday, rusting away like an old memory.
pipeline detail
Pipeline detail at one of the educational public access displays along the Steese Highway. The fins remove ground heat to maintain the permafrost and the support brackets allow the pipe to slide independent of the ground supports. This is old news today, but it still amazing engineering.
second childhood
Our second honeymoon at the pipeline – or our second childhood trying to fit in the selfie revolution?

Tanana Valley Campground Review: Four Stars

We stayed a couple days at the Tanana Valley Campground in Fairbanks. We liked it. It was our style. It is a mellow, rustic campground in the woods with elbow room, not an RV parking lot. It had everything we needed, (showers, electricity, dump station) at a budget price. We would recommend it if you’re not too picky about fine details.

campground cabin
Campground managers


Wilderness

“To know the wilderness is to know a profound humility, to recognize one’s littleness, to sense dependence and interdependence, indebtedness and responsibility. ”    – Howard Zahniser, author of The Wilderness Act of 1964-

wilderness
Wetlands in The Alaska Range

The Richardson Highway to Fairbanks – Day 54-55 (Aug 11-12)

When Mr. Richardson was designing one of the first roads in Alaska, from Valdez to Fairbanks, a cynical news reporter wrote something to the effect : “If Mr. Richardson can build a boulevard into the interior of Alaska, he will certainly make a name for himself!’ The Richardson Highway was a marvel then, and today’s tourist still think it is a marvel to drive.

tanana river_
The Richardson Highway follows the Tanana River near Fairbanks. These wide Alaska rivers always amaze me!
aspen
Beside the Richardson Highway

We left Valdez in the rain and stayed on this highway till we finally saw the sun in Fairbanks – 363 miles north. We marveled at the landscape and stopped to fish here and there. The rainbows were jumping and biting flies at Blueberry Lake near the pass at Valdez, and the Arctic Grayling were doing the same farther north.

Delta River in the Alaska Range
Delta River in the Alaska Range
Alaska range and delta river
The Delta River and the Alaska Range from an overlook on the Richardson highway.
boreal forest and pond alaska range
Typical landscape along the Richardson Highway. Boreal Forest and wetland, showing just a hint of fall colors.

 

We stopped at a small lake where the grayling were jumping out of the water all over the lake. A young fellow was filleting his limit he just got from a small boat. I soon saw I needed a boat to get beyond the reeds in the shallow shore water. Here, once again, I proved the Alaska Law I discovered as soon as I arrived. The Law says “The best, and occasionally the only fishing in Alaska happens from a boat. Therefore, when in Alaska, you need a boat – or a friend with a boat. If you get a boat, you will also get a friend.” This Law is like the Law of Gravity. It works whether you believe it or not. (I have seen a similar Law at work in Florida.)

rainbows for dinner
These small rainbows are fun to catch and are good eating.

Three  Wet Days in Valdez, Alaska – Day 50-52  (Aug 7-9)

Valdez is known for its scenery, fishing, history, and of course, the pipeline and the famous oil spill. However, the tourist info doesn’t mention how much it rains here. We were here three days and never saw more than a brief glance of the mountain tops just about the time we left. It had been raining for 3 weeks with no end in sight. Even so, you don’t want to miss Valdez.

ship at valdez
Drone shot of a ship in Prince William Sound at Valdez

Museums, Boats, and Beautiful Landscape at Valdez

Valdez has a lot to see, even in the rain. There are two wonderful museums for the price of one. The one near the ferry terminal featuring Old Valdez before the 1964 earthquake was my favorite. Don’t miss the documentary film. It gives you a vivid emotional connection to Alaska and it’s amazing history.

old valdez_
The Old Valdez town site. Notice the remnant of the pier that disappeared with 32 people in the earthquake of 1964.
valdez street
Street scene in the New Valdez on a rainy day.

Boats of all kinds strike a deep cord in me, so I always spend time at the harbor and on the docks. Sometimes I get lost in the moment and forget to take photos  Valdez is a wonderful place if you do that too. I will never forget that strange stirring somewhere in my subconscious, when I watched a big fishing boat, with its powerful diesel engine chugging against the pull of the tide, pull away from the dock and disappear into the mysterious fog of the Valdez ocean. I will always wonder if they made it back. 

fishing boats at valdez
Fishing boats docked at Valdez waiting for an opening in the weather.
dock at valdez
Commercial dock at Valdez
valdez harbor
Valdez harbor.

The landscape around Valdez is dramatic in any weather. However, there were days it was raining too hard to take the camera outside, or the cloud cover was so thick even the base of the mountains could not be seen. Rain has been the norm for most of our time in Alaska. I would guess at least 50%. The last month has been 75%. There were probably folks that have visited for 3-4 weeks this summer and never saw a dry day – especially in Valdez and the other coastal villages.

valdez wetlands
Wetlands near the Valdez city limits.
valdez cloudy mountains
Temporary clearing in the cloud cover at Valdez
duck at valdez
Valdez has good weather for ducks
lowe river at valdez
Evening drone shot of the Lowe River near Valdez. These roped Alaska rivers hog all the real estate from one mountain to the next.

The Sermon of the Salmon

They say you speak your loudest sermons without saying a word. That is what the Salmon do at Valdez. We heard it loud and clear.

There is a fish hatchery here on a side road across the bay from Valdez. They release millions of salmon into the ocean each year and only 4% return. The rest are eaten by fish or birds, die in the struggle, or are caught by commercial fisherman and end up in grocery stores.

Only a small percentage of the ones that return are harvested by the hatchery for the next generation of eggs. The rest die while trying to get up the fresh water creek next to the hatchery to spawn. They can’t get far until they reach a dead end at a huge waterfall that is impassable. There is a parking lot here where the tourist come to watch this amazing mass migration.

salmon
A female Pink Salmon who has not been in the fresh water, and is still edible.However, I couldn’t eat much of it barbecued – It tasted too old for me. Many folks were keeping these and smoking or canning them. Maybe I just couldn’t get past the smell of all those thousands of dead fish.

We arrived at the peak run of the Pink Salmon – the primary ones released in the largest numbers by this hatchery. At any time of the day, there were literally hundreds of thousands of Pink Salmon churning the water far out into the bay. They were waiting in line to die, crawling over one another, even leaving the safety of oxygen to squirm onto the rocks following the scent of fresh water that dribbled through the rocks into the ocean. 

I have never seen or imagined anything like it. This was one of the of the most spectacular events I have ever experienced in 68 years. For days later, I would wake at 4: 00 AM and try to process this experience. The struggling, splashing masses of dying bodies, the stench of death, and the sight of the shore littered with dead fish was too much for me. I have never seen so much of death.

salmon graveyard
Salmon graveyard on the low tide shore of the bay at Valdez.

However, it was not the smell that stayed with me, it was the overwhelming sensation of power that was driving these fish. Some mystical force beyond human reasoning or science was  calling these creatures and they responded without questioning, with no regard for their own life. With only one single aim and purpose.

The Force was LIFE. It was the call to spread the seed and the life that was in the seed. Nothing else mattered. This was the highest calling, above every call – above even the instinct for survival of the individual.

This was not just a call the for the Salmon – it was a wake-up call for me. What woke me at 4AM was an intense desire to be a part of this plan. I want more than anything to be driven by a power like that. A spiritual power that will not stop at any obstacle or challenge. A power above every power. A power that calls me home to the source at all cost. A Power that instills in me such a narrow path and focus that nothing can draw me away. I want to live in, and by, and through this same POWER of LIFE !

I will not preach here today the complete sermon I heard. But someday I hope to have more to say about it. I will post video footage of this event later. Until then, if you ever get a chance – go somewhere and let the Salmon preach to you.