Impressions of Homer:

-artsy fartsy
-tourists confined to segregated area (known as "the Spit")
-pay money, catch halibut, take pictures with halibut
-$20 sandwich: white bread, PB & J
-locals say "yeah, lots of eagles, beautiful mountains, blah blah blah"
-alarming lack of fresh seafood
-bald eagle wants to eat your dog

Impressions of Seward:

-cool without trying to be cool
-every marine creature and bird comes here at least once in their life, for it is lush
-city camping on the beach, heck yeah (minus irritatingly loud Asian family next door at midnight and again at 5am)
-amazing tours, no advertising, which you discover after you've already left
-alarming lack of fresh seafood
-Exit Glacier biding its time to retake the world

Impressions of Girdwood:

-11pm? time for everyone to wander the streets!
-dead cars going "dust to dust" in random spots in the forest
-sketchiest city campground ever
-best combination camping/defunct gold mine ever
-reasonable lack of fresh seafood
-ski lodge wants to eat your baby and your dog
-now featuring bread-free bakeries

Impressions of Haines:

-we're friendly, but we don't like you
-10 art galleries, 1 artist
-uncluttered by plumbers, mechanics, or anyone who knows how to replace toilet paper/soap/towels in bathrooms
-our faces will break if we smile
-thousands of eagles can be seen at all other times of the year, just not today
-8oz wrongfully delicious Muffin Cake
-fresh seafood, but guarded by a cranky old man who will snap at any moment
-we are only tolerating you, give us your money

Impressions of Juneau:

-amazingly buff Juneaun thighs
-grey, cold, warm, sunny, rainy, grey
-quality souvenirs for the low low price of $999.99!
-finding skyline from water comparable to Where's Waldo? with massive cruise ships
-fresh seafood location: pricey restaurant plate
-Seattle's younger, rowdy little cousin
-it's 6pm and we're going home and we don't care that you're on vacation because we're here all year and if you have to get on the boat before we open and can't buy your little Made in Tawain "Alaskan" eskimo child doll then you're screwed, aren't you?

Swoop! Southeast!

TSO and I have been travelling WiFi dry for a little too long, and in the time we've had a connection, I have not had time/motivation to write. It's hard to look at a computer screen when the alternative is hundreds of mountains and glaciers and swooping eagles and the like.

Yes, I shook the Anchorage blues. We went down into the Kenai Peninsula, which was originally supposed to be a short little side jaunt. I thought it was so close to Anchorage that I didn't even factor in the mileage to our trip total. So... it turns out that the Peninsula is actually like an upside-down "Y" with Homer at one tip and Seward at the other. and each over 100 miles from Anchorage. We ended up visiting both.


It's very late and I have to get up in 4 hours to go catch the ferry to Sitka. What should I write about?

Well, the mosquitoes here are every bit as big and bad as the warnings say. We have mostly avoided running into them, but our last few campsites have been some of the worst. We stayed at Huck Hobbit's Hostel in Slana, where they came by the thousands, and fell asleep staring up at the hundred or so that had gotten themselves trapped between the outside of the tent and the rain fly. When I took off the fly in the morning, a visible cloud of mosquitoes lifted straight up into the air. Then there was the campground in Haines, Chilkat Lake?, where I had to get up in the morning before our ferry left and boil water to wash the dishes. The water came from a hand pump, like most of the water in state/provincial parks, with an advisory to boil it first. It takes about half an hour to do enough for dishes and drinking, and in that time every mosquito from a five mile radius came and hovered around me, attracted by the heat and steam. A good fifty or so kamikazeed directly into the uncovered clean water bucket, which made washing dishes interesting. I finally busted out the mosquito hat that I brought, the first time I've had to use it on this trip. The actually mosquito net, however, remains packed and untouched. Oh yes. We are rough woodsmen now, aren't we?

Bears have not been a problem, knock on wood. The only ones we've seen have been A) on the side of the road while driving, B) in Denali while on the bus, and C) with enough people watching them already that they were no surprise. The first ones like that were the ones I mentioned in the Kenai. Today we encountered another similar case, but much worse. We went to visit the Mendenhall Glacier just outside of Juneau, discovering that apparently every person aboard every one of the four massive cruise ships parked outside of town was doing exactly the same thing. It was the most crowded "tourist" site we've seen yet, so bad that we had to practically march in a line as we walked up the trail. (We finally did break away and make it to a more remote spot much closer to the glacier.) But when we first arrived, I parked Bosco next to a large group of people surrounding a tree, taking pictures and pointing up at a little black bear high in the branches. The poor bear was agitated, but there was no way down, so it crawled around and gnawed on branches. Several hours later when we came back to the car, the tour buses and people were gone, and so was the bear.

We finally hit a nasty part of the Alaskan Highway several days ago, as we were driving from Tok to Haines Junction. This bit is all torn up, apparently a permanent thing, alternating between pavement unexpectedly turning to gravel, massive divots and waves marked only by a little orange flag (or sometimes not at all), frost heaves, and construction delays. It wasn't quite as bad as the drive from the Canadian/US border to Chicken, Alaska (a steep dirt road made muddy by a recent rain), but it was enough to shake and shimmy poor Bosco, who is beginning to take on a few extra rattle-y noises. The populous Kenai clubbed my Lower 48 driving sense back into me, so the first time I met a massive dip in my lane, I took it, causing things in the back to catch air and rearrange themselves, and then immediately realized that there was no one in the other lane for probably 50 miles and that I could - hey! - actually cross the yellow line to avoid things. It's funny I've forgotten this so quickly, considering how free and easy driving was for most of the Yukon. The Yukon - Where Road Markings Are Suggestions.

The drive from Haines Junction down to Haines is probably a leg that most people skip, since the RVers continue down the way they came and the cruise shippers never stray so far from the water, but this stretch was, I think, my favorite drive yet. The road goes up and over a mountain pass, one that was fiercely guarded by the coastal Tlingit so that they alone could control trade with the Interior Peoples. It starts in the taiga (Russian for "little sticks"), a forest in miniature. The permafrost stunts the growth of the trees, so that they can grow several hundred years and still look like a sapling. Occasionally there are "drunken forests" where the permafrost has melted under the roots of larger trees, causing them to tip this way and that like a bad hair day. Lakes and kettle ponds go past, and then the road climbs above the low treeline into the tundra, with massive snowy mountains in every direction. When it finally descends below treeline on the other side, massive trees quickly appear, the wet coastal forests of southeast Alaska.

And that's where we are now, one big jump from the Kenai to Southeast, and all I can say is "Finally!" For some reason I thought that it wouldn't take long to get from one to the other - the mileage in numbers certainly doesn't look intimidating - but when we finally turned around in Seward and set our sights on Haines, it took four days to get there!

I've got far too many stories to tell. We have a 25-hour ferry ride in our future. Maybe they'll have WiFi?

Shakin' Anchorage

After weeks of driving through the bush, tiny towns and narrow roads where the most exciting thing happening was wildlife or weather related, we came down into Anchorage the other day. It began ominously. The road first grew decent shoulders, and then took on another lane, and all of the sudden we were driving past Jiffy Lubes and junk shops, fast food places and giant plastic monkeys holding a sign that said "Gorilla Fireworks!!" Then came more cars, more people, insanity, and there we were in the city of Anchorage.

Somewhere I read that Anchorage has a million people, but I think I was sorely misinformed, because TSO read out of the Milepost that there are only 600,000, which is plenty enough anyway. I also read that the Anchorage area contains about %70 of Alaska's entire population. I think I read this from the same source. It may not be accurate. It may, in fact, be a gigantic lie intended to mislead me, a lie that I will pass on in full confidence to future generations, a perpetual sewage pipe of ignorance dumping into the clear stream that is the human existence. But I digress.

Perhaps it is because I'm finally hitting travel fatigue, or perhaps it's because I do not like cities and had gone so long without one, but Anchorage immediately gave me the blues. The Anchorage Blues. We struggled to find a campsite that night, mostly because I was tired and not reading the AAA book correctly, sending TSO back and forth on a wild goose chase over the same stretch of highway, finally locating the campground and narrowly beating out a hundred frenzied RVers for the very last site. And the site was fair enough - our neighbors were friendly, descendants of native peoples, who let us enjoy their campfire with them - though we were rained on all through the night and into the morning.

We camped along the Turnagain Arm, a fjord of the bay that drains completely at low tide, leaving vast mud flats. Clay flats. There are stories aplenty of people (usually foolish tourists) who have wandered in to the quicksand like clay and been trapped as the tides come in, sometimes ending with the people losing their legs to get free, and sometimes ending with them just drowning. The warnings were enough that when we walked down to the edge of the clay, we did not stray from the rocks. Turnagain Arm took one look at us and growled... and we kept our distance.

The next morning we caught the open air weekend market in Anchorage itself, which was grand in that I had studied enough of the Anchorage map to get their without dilemma. Getting away and "casually driving the city," however, turned out to be different story, and as I circled the block a fourth time looking for nonexistent parking spots and getting stymied, again, by another one way street, I decided that I do not like Anchorage, at least while behind the wheel of a car. Oh, to ditch Bosco and explore the city on foot! Unfortunately there was no sign that said "Ditch Your Car Here," and so I panicked and flung us in the direction of south, out of Anchorage towards the Kenai Penn.

Anchorage got shoot up by a big earthquake in the 60's, and has now payed it forward by shaking me up. Blah, the Anchorage Blues!

We are now at a laundromat in Soldotna, and my clothes are dry, so that's the end of that story.

A bit more Denali

Right.... well now I'm not quite so rushed for time, so more on Denali.

The park only has one road going into it, 14 miles of pavement that you can drive yourself and then another 70 miles of unpaved that you must ride a park bus to reach, at least in the summertime. You can walk into the park, you can bike into the park, but you cannot take your car past mile 14. This results in something amazing - a wilderness barely touched by rampaging tourism, where the road winds narrow and unmarring through the tundra and around the mountain passes, a silence and remoteness. Almost everyone stays within striking distance of the road, which means that if you wander but a mile away, you are alone.

Wandering from the road isn't nearly as foolish as it would seem. Treeline is at about 2500 feet, so most of the park is covered by tundra or low-bush taiga, meaning that any rise allows you to see for miles and miles around. Backcountry campers can go anywhere with only one rule - You cannot pitch your tent within sight of the road. But because the line of sight goes so far, it can sometimes mean quite a long hike in. Of course, this works well for the day hiker's purposes. We were able to traipse about easily wherever we roamed and never fear getting lost, because every now and then - whoop! There's the road in the distance! No problem.

Denali impressed me in so many ways. Where other national parks insist that you stay on the trail at all times, Denali has very few trails after the paved section, and so there the signs read, "Get out and explore the backcountry! Get away from the road! Don't worry about trails! Just make sure you spread out in a group so you don't create a new one."

Denal also impresses in its commitment to environmental sustainability. Alaska so far has been a desert wasteland as far as recycling goes. People don't even accept the most recyclable of items. But in Denali, recycling was the rule. Trash cans were in short supply. We road the park bus in to about mile 66, where sits the brand new Eielson Visitor's Center, built to replace the older, smaller one that had previously been there. It is the most environmentally friendly building in the entire Parks system, built with out of recycled and local materials, with natural light and heating taken into account in its design. It is powered by a hydroelectric generator in a nearby stream, solar panels, and boosted by propane generators when needed. Best of all, it is built with a low profile. The parking and pullout for the buses is on the roof, so the actual structure is worked into the side of the hill in a way that makes it very difficult to see from the road - no large and imposing structure plunked down on the tunddra. It opened for the very first time last Sunday. We got to visit it on its third day of operation. Good timing for us!

More on Denali later, I'm sure. I could write all day about that park!

Cicily...I mean...Talkeetna

So now we are in Talkeetna, just about 100 miles north of Anchorage. I'm sitting outside from a coffee house in the sun, and between the sunshine and the dust on the screen, I can't really see what I'm typing, so apologies if typos abound.

Talkeetna is a funky little town of about 800 people, depending on how many of the nearby backcountry hermits you count; a town of artists and tourist dives, bars decorated with furs and antlers and gift shops as far as the eye can see (which is about three blocks), reindeer pigs-in-a-blanket in the bakery and free cookies in the new/used bookstore. We have been in town for a day and a half now, and already we run into people we know at every corner. Today I tipped my hat at the mule wagon driver - we met each other yesterday - and just now as I was typing the owner of our hostel with her two young children came past to get ice cream and we had a little chat. It's a tight and friendly town, fake and real at the same time.

We are staying at the Talkeetna International Hostel, which caters especially to Denali mountain climbers. Some are just off the mountain, having made the summit or not, and since yesterday three guides have been staging the gear needed for a 12 person guided ascent. It's been fun watching and talking to them. They were much more generous than the sort of machismo I would usually expect, saying that I should climb the mountain...that I could climb the mountain. Ha ha. It warms my heart to hear it, though I suspect they're just tying to beef up their clientele. The backyard of the hostel is crammed full of mountaineering tents, so that our little three-person is nearly the largest thing there. (One and only one tent beats ours.) The porch is perpetually crammed with backpacks and ice picks, with sleeping bags, boots and tarps hanging down from the rafters. All in all, a pretty nice place to stay.

Talkeetna brags that it is the town that "Northern Exposure" was based on. I can see it, especially if I rewind the place back a few years to what it must have been like before the bigger crush of tourism came. It sits at the end of a 14 mile spur road, a dead end met by three converging rivers and the Alaskan Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and here also is the last place in the country where you can flag down a train anywhere along the tracks to stop and pick you up. There are liberals here, Obama signs on yards, and churches. We sat on the grass of the elementary school last night and watched a soccer game play to 10pm. Last night around 1am was the first time in at least a week or so that I noticed something approaching "dark" out the window. Still light enough to walk around without artificial light, but I could no longer read in my tent. Dark. I'm not so glad to see it again. Acouple of weeks is not long enough to miss the mood and stars.

What else to say? I am dozing in the sun. There is an amazing cinnamon roll sitting, waiting, across the table from me. I know it's amazing because I had one yesterday.

Now it's down south towards Anchorage, which is becoming less exciting the more I learn about it. I've heard things like, "Anchorage isn't Alaska, but on a clear day you can see it from there," and "The nice thing about Anchorage is that Alaska is only a half hour away." Apparently Anchorage is like any other generic sprawling fast food chained stripped malled commercial monstrous city down in the lower 48. Perhaps we shall give it a quick nod before going off in search of quainter climes. And salmon!

Denali is Not Mt. McKinley

Denali is amazing. Both the park and the mountain. You can call the thing Mt. McKinley if you want, but it was only ever named that because an early pioneer wanted to honor a presidential candidate back in the states, a candidate that never came to Alaska. TSO and I were joking that if the same thing happened in the present day, it would be Mt. Kucinich, perhaps?

This is my turbo Denali post, because I find myself, as I often do, strapped for time with a random WiFi connection, this one at the Science Center in the National Park. So.... turbo post. Here is a brief summary of Denali:

There is only one road into the park. Only park buses are allowed on it. It is a fallacy that only the morning buses see wildlife, but nevertheless everyone crowds onto them in the slim hope that their viewing will be improved. We took the 11am bus. It had six people. We saw grizzly with cubs (x2), caribou, ptarmigan, stuff, lots of other wildlife things. It was good. Then did lunch in the tundra and hiked in gorgeous mountains...

You know what I'm realizing? Turbo posts don't really work, do they? Ah well. It was worth a shot.

Eine Kleine Alaska

Just a few snapshots to help y'all visualize our trip:

Getting Bosco ready to go.  He is loaded to the hilt.  The sleeping/camp site stuff goes up top, the cooking gear and canned goods go below.  We just did a major repack in Tok, so this is a picture of our old system.

Mile O of the Alaskan Highway, one of the pictures in my Me Looking Far Too Excited About Signs series.

A typical campsite, our little tent.  We've been lucky to have picnic tables at every site, so we can use the cook stove without too much difficulty.  You might be able to see my hammock strung up in the back.  I spent one night in the hammock, but it got a little cold and the mosquitoes were fierce.

Buffalo!  Wild.  With mountains.  We saw a lot of these.  Buffalo and mountains.

The Dempster Highway.  We only drove 40 miles in, but it was wonderful.  It is all unpaved.  The Alaskan Highway has about the same sort of scenery, but it is paved and not even remotely dangerous.  Now I'm seeing a lot of "I survived the Alaskan Highway!!!" bumper stickers for sale in the gift shops, which seems akin to saying something like "I survived I-5 from Portland to Seattle!"  Actually, Seattle is much more dangerous.  Maybe it's different with an RV, but I am quite underwhelmed by the danger level of the Alcan.  Drive it.  It's fun!

The Visitor's Center, Tok, Alaska

"Where is Nunivak Island?" I asked Deb, the nice lady at the Visitor's Center.  She was bent over sorting out mailers; I was staring up at a mounted muskox head above a sign that said, "This muskox was taken on Nunivak Island, the only place where muskox can be hunted."

"Up north," said Deb.  "This is Alaska..."  She held out her hand and pointed to where we were, and where Fairbanks was, and where the island was.

"And it's the only place where you can hunt muskox?" I said.

"Is it?"  She looked at the sign below the head as though she had never actually read it before.  "Hmm.  I'm not sure about that.  I'll have to check."

We started talking about wild game meats.  I had been on a mission.  A caribou mission.  I have been going into the local grocery stories calling out for caribou, hoping a packaged steak will jump at me from the refrigerated shelf.  So far, the only thing even remotely caribou has come heavily seasoned in the form of a sausage.  TSO and I tried muskox just south of Dawson City, and it was quite good.  But I want to eat ALL of Alaska's animals.  Mmm, yummy.  Sea otter.

So I inquired of Deb where a foolish traveller like myself might find some of the more watchable wildlife in fillet form, and she frowned. 

"You can't buy wild game.  They only allow farmed game to be sold in stores.  Caribou, yes, but there's no such thing as farmed moose.  The Alaskan government doesn't like it, for some reason.  They farm moose in Russia and Norway, but some rancher up in Fairbanks tried for years to get a permit for it and the government wouldn't let him.  The only way to try moose is to meet someone who hunts them."

She then went on to tell me about a recent kerfuffle in Anchorage, where an older single woman woke up one morning to discover that a moose had died in her backyard.  This isn't that unusual; over 1000 moose have died in people's yards in Anchorage just in the last few years.  Alive, the moose belong to everyone.  Dead, in your yard, they are yours and yours alone.  The city won't come remove them.  So the woman, having no means to get rid of an entire moose carcass by herself, posted a note on Craigslist for someone to come and get it for dog food.  Craigslist notice and got nervous, thinking that someone might instead go and try to salvage the moose for meat, get sick, and sue the site.  Or something.  So they took her posting off, and I'm not quite sure how that story ends.

But after we'd been chatting a while, Deb and I, she glanced side to side and said, "Are you going to be around in the morning?  When I come to work, I can bring you some moose to try."

"That you shot?"  I said.

"Yes.  I don't meet many people who want to try it.  Most people don't really understand hunting.  But it's much better than buying meat.  I know exactly where it comes from, no hormones, and I respect the animals I hunt.  When my husband or I get a moose, we're so grateful.  We use everything.  It's really a blessing to get a moose."

I found out with a bit of talking that her husband had moved to Tok when he was a little kid, the very year that the Alaskan Highway had opened to civilian travel, 1947.  He was the eldest white man in town.

This morning, TSO and I returned to the Visitor's Center.  Deb brought us moose steaks and caribou sticks (like jerky.)  We gave her canned albacore tuna and chinook salmon from my hometown, which she was familiar with, a happy trade.  I'm so glad to make friends along the road, however fleeting they are.  Thank you, Deb!

And so tonight we had the best dinner ever... Moose steak with spruce tip jam, wild rice pilaf, carrots with mustard, and of course, the very necessary desert, an uncooked smore.  Raw smores are the best thing ever.  After moose steak.

Dawson City is Quite Old

We have just made it into Alaska, but for the past few days we have been resting and exploring Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.  Dawson deserves at least a couple of posts.  Here is one.

We rolled into town after a long day, a day that started by hiking in the Tombstone Mountains on the Dempster Highway.  The very fact that we drove on the Dempster made me giddy.  This is the highway that goes all the way to Inuvit on the Arctic Sea, waaaay way up north.  It is unpaved all the way.  (Except the last 6 miles.  Random.)  It makes the Alaskan Highway look like the Jersey Turnpike.

So we trotted around for awhile in the brushy tundra and snow, yelling "Hey bear!!!" at intervals, and when we'd had our fill we drove back up the dusty road to the real one - the paved one - and on to Dawson.  We rolled into Dawson with the music of "Amelie" playing in the car... resulting in a very surreal experience, for Dawson City is like a movie set in three dimensions, or a piece of Disneyland's Frontierland expanded, or a old timey photo brought to color.  Every building looks straight out of the early 1900's.  Not a chain or recognizable store name in town - no McDonalds, no Safeway.  Just Klondike Kate's, The Drunken Goat, Sourdough Joes, The Midnight Sun.

In the summer, Dawson has 3000 people, half of which are young seasonal workers supporting the tourist trade.  (The other big business is gold mining.  Still.  Which strikes me as a bit of an anachronism.)  The result - the town is all a'bustle with young travellers looking for nothing more than new friends and adventures.  We made a couple of both.


I need to write Dawson part II another time, because right now I'm in Chicken, Alaska, and we have to keep driving to Tok before the soughdough pancake contest is over.  Wee!


This is my turbo post about Whitehorse, the Capital of the Yukon Territory.

It's nice.

It's not as cold as you might think.

Everyone here is very fit and trim, as though they were air-lifted in from Denver. They are also very young, cool, and friendly.

There is a vibrant arts and culture scene here in town. Even a guitar busker out on the street. Local musicians abound. One of the most famous ones also drives a city bus.

There are Starbucks here. Two of them. I am sad to say that I visited one instead of the local alternatives, but only because it was late and they had a bathroom. And also coffee.

It's still light at midnight. It's still light at 3am. It is light all the freaking time. You hardly ever need a flashlight, unless you are hoping to read a book during the couple of "dim" hours in the night. We were playing guitar last night around 11pm, forgetting the fact that, oh yes, it's late and perhaps people are sleeping. The light is very deceptive.

Whitehorse is definitely a town I could sink my teeth into. I feel like I could spend a year here easily. But for this morning, it's back into Bosco and north to Dawson City, the Klondike!

Sucky Times in the Yukon

I should really say "Sucky Times and Otherwise," because it really hasn't been so bad...

But I have this nasty foolish tendency to wait until I'm next to dying before going to visit a doctor. Some freakish mutant British Columbian stomach virus came and whalloped me last week, which was putting a serious damper - such as making every meal a traumatic experience - in my otherwise merry adventures. Here we were in Watson Lake on a Friday afternoon, and did I go take my last chance to see a doctor? Nooo... because I am dumb. Apparently.

So Nathan and I got to get off the beaten tourist path late on Friday night and visit the Whitehorse General Hospital, and I got to learn about Canadian health care, and now I have magic happy pills that have made the sun come out and shine again, and Nathan gets gold stars and the official designation of "Good Friend in Rough Weather."

Morals of the story:
1. Don't get sick while travelling.
2. Jujubees do not substitute for medicine, despite their pill-like appearance.
3. It's good to keep a healthy travelling buddy around so that when you do get sick, you can tell the doctor again and again, "It wasn't the drinking water. wasn't the drinking water. I'm telling you..."