It seemed fitting that since we were finally in Alaska we could probably slow down a little. So, we started by sleeping in. In fact we were still in bed when we heard our Oregon friends coming across the little bridge to our side of the RV Park and give us a little toot on their air horns just to make sure we knew they were underway first. In fact, we were next to last to get underway that morning and that was just fine with us. Our destination for this first full day in Alaska was Tok.
Our drive was only 164 miles, but due to our late start we were unable to stop at the visitor center for the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. When looking at the refuge on the map it looked as though access could be gained from near Tok. In actuality the only place the refuge can be entered is from the northeast. Had we gotten up and out a little earlier we would have stopped. Unfortunately, our outbound route currently does not include going back by the refuge.
Tok is one of those places that exist because there is a junction of two highways and someone decided maybe a fuel stop was needed and then a store and before long a hotel followed by a couple of restaurants and RV parks. Before long there were real people living there necessitating schools and all the stuff a real town has.
We stayed at Sourdough RV Park. It is a relatively large park, with a small café and an outdoor museum of sorts that provides the visitor a bit of history of the area. The ad for the park indicated free WiFi. Unfortunately the WiFi didn’t reach the coach meaning we had to go to the café to get connected. It did, however, have that café which meant food. The owner makes reindeer chili and serves it in bread bowls. I was excited as I had never eaten reindeer before. Connie was a little apprehensive and therefore ordered the alternative, chicken corn chowder. We also ordered the pie and the homemade ice cream. Now, we only had to wait until dinner time.
Once we got settled we drove back up the road about a mile to the information center. We talked at some length to one of the volunteers there to learn what the draws in the area were as well as what to do while in Fairbanks. She was very knowledgeable and really helped us set our schedule. While we were there we met our neighbors from the RV Park and agreed to sit with them at dinner.
The dinner was wonderful and the conversation we had with our neighbors was insightful. They are also full timers and have been for six years. We shared tips and experiences while enjoying the reindeer chili.
One of the things we had wanted to do while in this part of the state was drive to Chicken, Alaska in the car. We had two reasons for wanting to make this drive. We had heard a lot about Chicken from others who have made the trip to Alaska and the planning video we watched. Chicken is pretty much a ghost town, but one could say it is a ghost town with an attitude. It was gold that caused Chicken to become a town and it was the lack of gold and the presence of bone chilling cold that caused most everyone to leave. The drive to Chicken, some 60 miles or so was pretty tame although there were a few frost heaves to deal with. Just outside of town the pavement ends, but the gravel road is really well maintained. We arrived just after noon and headed straight for the restaurant. Before we got there, Bev of the Oregon four stuck her head out of a door and yelled our names. Sure enough, they were all there having lunch.
As I said, Chicken is essentially a ghost town. Well, there are four small businesses all connected and all owned by the same lady that are doing just fine. Susan Wiren, the woman who owns them settled in town with her boyfriend while there was still mining activity in the area. Eventually she had a few children and her boyfriend left her. She opened a salmon bake, bar, liquor store and gift shop and she made enough money to support her family and herself. In recent years she has been able to go to Las Vegas or Hawaii in the winter and stay up with the fashion world and therefore put merchandise in her gift shop that will sell. She seems to be doing quite well and I have to say that the merchandise in the gift shop is good quality stuff and the clothing is certainly in style. The restaurant is a hoot. You order at the counter, when your order is up they call your name. You pick your own drinks from the cooler and there are some touristy items around to try to suck you in for additional purchases. The menu items ranged from burgers to panini to soups. They had awesome homemade brownies and cinnamon rolls. It was really a cute little place. You don’t pay until you are ready to leave. The hard part for me was remembering what we had ordered as we didn’t get a copy of the order when we picked up our food. A real trusting place. We loved it.
I took some pictures of the various places and they will be in the web album.
The second reason we wanted to drive to Chicken was to check out the road on the other side to see if we should take the coach over the Top of the World Highway on our way out of Alaska. We have been told that this is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Unfortunately, the road is not paved. We have been learning a lot about the virtues of unpaved roads in this environment. However, some unpaved roads are better than others. With the severe weather extremes experienced this far north, the paved roads experience a lot of frost heave. Frost heave which can be pretty viscous is caused by the melting of the permafrost beneath the road surface. The road absorbs heat from the sun and the vehicles traveling over it and the accumulation of heat over time causes the melting. The road surface takes on a sort of twisting appearance that may or may not be apparent as you approach. After a good heave has been around for awhile the appearance is enhanced by the skid marks on back side. The skid marks are made by vehicles going air borne and then touching down on the other side of the heave. Most of the airborne rigs are probably the lighter trailers that are towed along the highway. Another clue that a frost heave is in your immediate future can be the little orange flags or red slow signs that are stuck in the ground adjacent to the damaged roadway. Drivers have a lot to pay attention to while driving on these highways. For the unpaved earthen and gravel roads, the frost heave is not of concern. What are of concern are the pot holes and the wash-boarding of the surface. Most of the gravel and earth roads are kept well graded in order to keep traffic moving safely. However, roads such as the Top of the World Highway have little commerce traffic and therefore may not receive the attention of the road crews as routinely as other highways in the state.
So, with that on our minds we decided to drive several miles north of Chicken to see what the road is really like. I was really impressed with the quality of the surface. There were some pot holes to drive around, but it certainly seemed to me that it is very much a drivable road for the motorhome. We passed several motorhomes going the other way and the drivers didn’t seem to be too stressed. As we approached one big rig he flashed his lights and pointed across the canyon. We took that to mean there was either some sort of hazard or a big animal to look at. We proceeded with caution. What we found a few turns up the road was a rig about the size of ours off the road in the ditch. It was apparent by the lack of damage that he just sort of oozed over too far and the shoulder disappeared from beneath him. I stopped to offer assistance and the rather embarrassed driver told me that he had help coming. When I asked what had happened he said he had dodged a pot hole and wound up on the collapsing shoulder. I had trouble understanding why he was so far to the right in the first place. The road is nearly three lanes wide except in the tightest of turns. There is plenty of room to drive down the middle of the road giving the driver plenty of room to dodge left or right. If there is approaching traffic then you slow down or stop rather than dodge into the shoulder. We continued up the road three or four more miles while I continued to wonder just what happened to this poor fellow. After we turned around and started back towards Chicken, Connie asked me if the tire track she could see along the edge of the road could have been made by a motorhome tire. At first I wasn’t sure, but as we continued down the road it looked more and more to be the width of a motorhome vs. a car or trailer tire. Sure enough we followed that track all the way to the tail end of the motorhome in the ditch. Mystery solved. The guy was hugging the shoulder and gave himself no room if he had to dodge to the right to avoid a series of potholes. In the end I decided that this guy went into the ditch due to poor driving habits. I remain convinced that we can make the drive in the motorhome without incident so long as I take it slow and easy. You can be sure that you will read about that journey soon after it happens.
The rest of our drive that day was uneventful. I must add that we did find the guy the next day and I asked him what the rest of the road was like. He said it was all about the same as where he had gone off the road. When I asked him if he would drive it again he said absolutely not.
One of the things that has been pretty amazing to us since crossing into Canada at the beginning of this journey is how we keep running into the same people. I have mentioned the folks from Oregon a couple of times. One day while at the Yukon Brewery we met a young couple from Oregon who were traveling by pickup to Alaska. We talked with them a bit while we were tasting beer. Several days later we ran into them not once but twice while in Tok. The first time we saw them was at the information center. Then we saw them again at the grocery store. The day we went to Chicken who did we run into, besides the Oregon Four, but the young couple. I had a better opportunity to talk to the young woman while we were standing outside the gift shop at Chicken. As it turns out she had recently completed her master’s degree in Chemistry and this trip was a decompression trip. She and her traveling companion are friends spending the summer together before she has to find a way to make a living off her degree. We always pay attention to the license plates of our fellow campers. On our last evening in Tok we noticed that our new neighbors had Camden County, Georgia, plates on their motorhome. So, we staked out the coach until they came back from dinner and then asked them if we might know one another. They turned out to be two teachers, one teaches grade school at Kingsland Elementary and the other is at Camden Middle School and they are on an Alaskan adventure for the summer. We only talked to one of them as the other was at the pancake toss. What a small world.
On June 15 we got underway for Eielson Air Force Base about seventeen miles south of Fairbanks, Alaska. Our intention was to stay a minimum of three nights there while we figured out what we really wanted to do in the area.
Along the way we saw two bald eagles and three moose. One of the moose was a huge bull who was being quite cooperative for another couple who had stopped to take pictures. We just watched him as we drove slowly by. After arriving at Eielson we saw yet another moose and our first Osprey since arriving in Alaska.
The RV park at Eielson was okay so long as all you wanted was a level place to camp with water and electric. To use the campground showers one has to make sure his shots are up to date. The laundry seemed to be the only place in the state where mold grows. Finally, there is no adult supervision at the campground, which has led to the situations described here. We stayed long enough to fill the freezer and pantry and explore as much of the on base wild lands as we could.
On our last day at Eielson we drove south again to a place along the highway we had passed on our way in, The Knotty Shop. The Knotty Shop is your typical tourist gift store type of place, but they have a yard full of burl wood art. We wanted to look at the art and see what was inside. As we started walking through the artwork another couple approached from the RV parking lot. In an unmistakable Irish/New Zealand accent the woman starts talking about what a beautiful day it is and what fun displays. Before long we learned that our new friends, Clive and Gilly Anderson are indeed from New Zealand although Gilly was born in Ireland. Anyway, they retired young and are now enjoying life. They are in the United States on a two year visa, although they do have to go home in the middle for some reason. Anyway, they bought a forty foot motorhome and are touring as much of the United States and Canada as they can in the two years they have available. They are a wonderful couple and we had some great times with them during our week or so in the area. During that first meeting we decided we should drive to the Arctic Circle in our car before we all left the Fairbanks area. More about that later.
On June 18th we moved to Santa Land RV Park in North Pole, Alaska. This is a full service RV Park with people working there who want to be there and seem to enjoy helping the customer. Novel concept I know, but boy, was it refreshing. We treated that moving day as a “maintenance day” meaning that we did house chores and took it easy. One of the events that would be staged in Fairbanks while we were to be in the area was a 10K run called the Midnight Sun Run. It starts at 10 PM on June 20th. I was pretty sure I wanted to run it, just to say I did. Being concerned about embarrassing myself I decided to run a 10K on the 18th starting from the park and going wherever the road took me. It was a pretty darned nice run. I was kept cool by a light rain from about mile three through mile five. I completed this casual run in under an hour, so I felt comfortable entering the race.
However, before running the Midnight Sun Run we had plenty of tourist stuff to do. On the 19th we took the Discovery Riverboat Cruise. The cruise is very peaceful and even more educational. The trip was on the Chena River and was narrated nearly continuously along the way. These folks really know how to take care of visitors. They offer free coffee at the landing prior to getting underway and of course plenty of shopping. Once on the boat, there are television monitors all around so if you are not able to see what the narrator is talking about you can see it on one of the monitors. On the way along the river the boat stops at the kennels and home of the late Iditarod Champion, Susan Butcher and her husband Dave Manson We got a demonstration on how the dogs are raised, trained and respond to verbal commands while pulling a sled. In the summer they pull a modified ATV that has no engine and beefed up brakes. It was amazing to watch how excited those dogs got when they figured out they were about to go on a run. They absolutely loved it. When they returned from a short run of maybe a couple of miles they were released from the harness and headed straight for the river to cool down and get a quick drink. It was ever so obvious that these dogs live in a surrounding of love.
We continued down the Chena River to a replica of an Athabascan Indian Village where we got off the boat and had a tour of the village where we learned about fishing and smoking Dog Salmon to be used later to feed sled dogs, we met another team of sled dogs with their trainer who answered any questions asked. We also were introduced to the use of the various mammals by the Athabasca Indians, and finally we got to see some of the baskets crafted from birch bark including a baby carrier and a basket. The photos for most of this stop turned out pretty well. I hope you enjoy them.
The next day we took the El Dorado Gold Mine Tour. Before I get too deep into this tour I need to make two points. First, this tour and the Discovery River Boat Tour we took the previous day are operated by the same company which is a family owned business owned by the Binkley Family. They really know how to take care of their customers. Second, there is a great two for one coupon book that can be purchased for $99.99 and pays for itself almost instantly. The two tours we took in Fairbanks did not completely pay for the coupon book, but almost. There are tens of attractions we hope to participate in later in the trip and they are all covered by the two for one offers of the coupon book.
The El Dorado Gold Mine Tour is a two hour guided tour that begins as you board a narrow gauge train and travel to a working gold mine where modern mining techniques are demonstrated by local miners. Along the way we got see actual demonstrations and experience the gold mining history of Alaska’s interior. One of the highlights to me was what we learned inside a permafrost tunnel. The early miners did all the tunnel work during the winter months while the ground was at its coldest making the possibility of cave ins much more remote. After a demonstration on panning, we were each given a “poke” of soil and led to a panning area where we got to try our hand at gold panning. Connie netted about six dollars worth of gold from her poke while I scraped out about eighteen dollars worth. Of course all those flakes now reside in a gold locket that cost much more than the value of the gold within and it is on a gold chain around Connie’s neck. Just before we left the mine the seasoned miner who had been our guide asked how many men still had the gold they panned in their possession. No hands went up, imagine that!
After the mine tour we went back to the motorhome for an early dinner and a little rest for me. By 9:00 PM we were at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks participating in the pre-race festivities. I should have gotten a clue that this was a “fun” run as opposed to a serious run for all except the most elite of the crowd. There was a costume contest and way too many strollers and dogs were hanging around the starting area. Of course I didn’t pay any attention to that I was mentally preparing for my running comeback (laugh here if you want). I won’t bore you with the details of the run. I will only say that I finished a bit faster than I expected, a fact which is made more astounding by the horrible start, poor conditions as it rained nearly all the way, poor course management as there were bicycles, skate boards and too many leashed dogs and strollers along the course and finally a really poor finish in that too many runners have to squeeze through a single car width gate at the six mile mark and then run along a bike path for the last two tenths of a mile to a finish area that is opposite a deep pool caused by the rain. But, after all it is a fun run. I forgot for awhile. As of this writing there are no official results that I have been able to find. This was only the 27th year this race has been run. I guess they are still learning.
Sunday was a really full day. We picked up our New Zealand friends at their motorhome just after nine in the morning and headed nearly due north on the Dawson Highway (sometimes referred to as Haul Road.) This is the road that was constructed to support the construction and maintenance of the Alaska Pipeline as well as access to Prudhoe Bay at the roads northern extreme. Prudhoe Bay is where the oil is pumped into the pipeline. Our goal was to get only as far as the Arctic Circle as it is some 500 plus miles of not so smooth gravel road to get to the top and there are few places to stay once you arrive. There are tours that go all the way to the top, but we opted out. As it was, our roundtrip drive would take us some 475 miles and the entire northward drive was in the rain and various degrees of fog. There were some wonderful highlights along the way. Our first scheduled stop was at the Yukon River Camp which is on the north shore of the Yukon River. The camp is really quite simple. There is gas and diesel to be had there for a premium as you can well imagine as there is no competition and it is a long way to the next service station. There is a restaurant that makes pretty darn good lunches. A small gift shop specializing in Arctic Circle clothing is just off the restaurant. And one can rent a room with a bath down the hall. We couldn’t find a price for the rooms, but the next place up the road is advertised at the entrance to the restaurant at $199 per night. It would appear to be the same type of camp as Yukon River Camp. Across the road from the camp is an Alaska Pipeline information kiosk and a National Park Ranger Station.
Anyway, following a very casual lunch we got back on the road headed north. The weather had not improved one little bit while we were inside. The good news about having a reasonable rain falling on us throughout the drive was that car was continuously being rinsed, a fact I was unaware of until much later in the day. When we finally arrived at the Arctic Circle we were not surprised to learn that the good people of Alaska had erected a beautiful sign off the road where you can gather for photographs. We did just that and to make it seem a bit more eventful than it really was we had a big clock which we had set to 2400 and put it in at least one of the photos so we could tell people we were there at midnight on the longest day of the year. There were two things wrong with this plan, the first being that it was untruthful and the second being that the weather was so miserable the photos could have been taken at midnight and or noon or any other time of the day and no one could have argued because there was absolutely no evidence of anything even remotely resembling sunlight. But we have the photos anyway. We had also taken a bottle of sparkling wine, champagne for those who don’t care for French rules, to celebrate the occasion of getting inside the Arctic Circle. By the way, once our celebrating was over I purposely drove several hundred yards further north in order to accurately claim that we had been inside the Arctic Circle. While we were out of the car taking photos and acting like children we were absolutely swarmed with mosquitoes the size of small hummingbirds. Well, maybe I have exaggerated that a bit, but they were big. Oh, and the weather caused us to all wear hooded rain jackets, so you may have a wee bit of trouble identifying us, but it is us.
While we sat in the car enjoying the bubbly we watched a tour bus come into the parking area and before letting anyone off the bus the driver rolled out a red carpet in front of the sign complete with a center dotted line to feign realism. Then the tourists, not that we aren’t, got out and stood by the sign on the great carpet to get their pictures taken. We did note they had no sparkling wine. We felt the wine was a good trade for the rug.
Following our short stay and celebration we headed back down the road. However, on the way back we noticed that the weather was finally breaking up and we could actually see our surroundings. So, we stopped at a number of pullouts and took in the scenery. One place we stopped, Finger Mountain, even had restrooms and a nature trail. We spent the better part of an hour there. Eventually we got back to the Yukon River Camp where we stopped for gas and to buy some souvenir clothing to help us remember this occasion. We also stopped at the ranger station mentioned above. The station was manned by a husband and wife team from Texas the day we were there. Connie struck up a conversation with them and learned that he had been a Navy Nuclear Machinist Mate just as I had been in my early days in the Navy. He had served on the USS George Washington. My first submarine was the USS George Washington. However, this fellow had been on the aircraft carrier with the same name.
As I said earlier, the rain had kept the car pretty well rinsed off. By the time we got back to the Yukon River Camp we had been rain free for several miles. I had been running the rear window wiper, so the majority of the window was clear. Connie decided to write Arctic Circle in the mud that was outside the path of the wiper. When we got back on the road after this fuel stop I did not run the rear wiper anymore as it was not raining. Some miles down the road I looked in the rearview mirror and could no longer see out. By the time we got back to Fairbanks we had a good quarter inch of tightly adhering sandy mud down the sides and from top to bottom on the back of the car. It took longer to clean the rear window and taillights as it did to fill the car with gas in Fairbanks.
It was just after 9 PM when we got back to Fairbanks and we were all tired and hungry. We decided to eat at a Mexican restaurant named Gallos we had seen a couple times as we drove around town. The food was good, the portions too big, the salsa could singe hair and the margarita was absolutely to die for. After eating way too much we got our Kiwi friends back to their coach and we headed back to North Pole and our home. What a day!!
We spent the better part of the next morning cleaning the car outside and in. Then we went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to visit the Museum of the North. This museum is fantastic in so many ways. A new wing was added to the museum in 2005 that doubled the size of the facility. The new addition was designed by the nationally recognized architect, Joan Soranno and the GDM/HGA architectural team. Their goal was to convey a sense of Alaska, evoking images of alpine ridges, glaciers and a diving whale’s tail. They did a wonderful job.
The displays within the building give the visitor an introduction to this vast and diverse state. Exhibits focus on the cultures, wildlife, geography and history of each of Alaska’s five major regions. There are historical paintings from the late 1800s to mid-1900s. There are two featured videos that are shown several times during the day. The first is Dynamic Aurora which is a masterfully filmed discussion of the Northern Lights and why they can be seen. The film maker used some incredible technique to capture the lights as they appear to the eye. It was really something to watch, especially since we are not likely to see the lights before we leave these northern climes due to the lack of darkness we have been experiencing. The other film is simply called Winter. It too was brilliantly filmed and as the title suggests discusses the extreme features of this wonderland that are endured during those long winters. One of the many things we found interesting is the fact that the tiny Wood Frog can go into a sort of suspended animation for relatively long periods of time when it stops breathing and its tiny heart stops beating and it entire body actually freezes. When that same body temperature rises above 28 degrees F the little guy comes back around and it breathes and pumps its blood around again. These little fellows are part of a big study to try to figure out how they do it in order to learn if there are any practical applications to the survivability of humans in extremely cold temperatures.
Our time at the museum was too short, but quite honestly we were still pretty tired from the drive of the previous day.
We had but one more tourist thing on our short list and that was the brand new Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum that opened on June first on the grounds of the Wedgewood Resort in Fairbanks. This museum was really something. There are over sixty automobiles on display with others to be rotated in and out of the exhibit area. Even more remarkable than the sheer numbers of gorgeous vehicles is the fact that all but about four of them are in perfect running condition including one steam driven car. To make the incredible nearly unbelievable, each evening during the summer some number of these priceless vehicles are pushed out of the museum and driven throughout the resort so the guests can see and hear them run. Another pretty incredible fact is that all but just a very few are owned by the same owner. I am sorry that I don’t remember if the owner is a foundation or an individual. None-the-less it is remarkable collection. The people who care for and have the privilege of driving these works of art are all volunteers except for the manager of the museum. One such volunteer had stopped in to pick something up and saw Connie and I hanging around the only car visitors can sit in and he came over and offered to take our picture as we sat together in the car. Before leaving he gave us a lot of information that cannot be gotten by reading the numerous fact sheets that are mounted at each automobile. Later we met the manager who gave us a little more on the history of putting the museum together and how he and one of the volunteers traveled to many locations in the lower 48 to find vintage clothing to display alongside the vehicles of the same period. It is a great place and must see for anyone even remotely interested in the history of the automobile in the United States. I have included in my web album just a few of the over one hundred photos I took as we wandered through this brilliantly laid out facility. You will be amazed at the beauty of these restored treasures.
|Tok through Fairbanks
Once again I have probably worn out your eyes. Before you nod off, click on the photo below and take a trip to the web album for this article.
Our next stop is Denali National Park and what we hope will be a view of Mount McKinley or Denali depending on your take on history. Stay tuned.