Tuesday, July 1, 2014

South to Alaska????

After sleeping in the slums of Watson Lake, the Watson Lake Downtown RV Park, and paying $43 for the pleasure of parking in a gravel lot right next to another RV, Kathy awoke and announced we were staying another day because she didn't feel like driving.  Convincing her that we could fill our water and go out to a state park just four km from town, she agreed to move on and we were headed back to the woods!

We broke camp and headed north west to the Watson Lake State Park.

We chose a large pull-thru site since it was early in the day they were all available.  We set up camp paying $12 for the freedom of the forest: no electric, no water and no sewer, but free firewood.  We left the dogs and went back to town to explore the Sign Forest, an interesting place where over 79,000 visitors have left messages regarding how far they traveled, where they're from, etc.  The sign forest started in 1942 when one of the soldiers building the Alaska highway became homesick and posted a small wooden sign indicating the mileage between Watson Lake and his home town of Danville, Illinois.  Other soldiers followed his lead and the forest has been growing ever since. See more photos below.

After perusing the signs, we headed to the liquor store to buy beer. Kathy chose a sampler pack of Yukon Brewing products which cost a whopping $15 for 6 bottles.  We stopped in to Hougen Department Store and Kathy purchased some post cards and a book about the building of the Alaska Highway, which completely intrigues her at this point. We ate lunch at Kathy's Kitchen, which is for sale.

After sitting down we figured out why.  The place has great character but lousy service and so-so food.  Definitely not as good as our kitchen when Kathy's in charge.

We decided to drive out to see the historic Watson Lake Airport.  Walking through the terminal doors was like taking a step back in time.  The terminal reminded Joy of the TV sitcom Wings, while the walls had historic pictures of its creation.  The airport was built in order to ferry planes to Russia during the WWII for a lend-lease program.  It also became a major player in the shipment of supplies to build the highway and the area around Watson Lake was a boom town.  It was fascinating.

Back at camp, we warmed up leftovers for supper and then hopped on our bicycles looking for adventure. We hadn't gone too far when we realized that we were beat out by full stomachs and steep dirt hills.  We returned to camp and opted for a game of dominoes and a camp fire.

While we enjoyed the musings of the chipmunks teasing the dogs, one of our neighbors asked if we could help her with electricity so she could fill her air mattress She had mistakenly brought a pump that required a 110 plug instead of the 12-volt plug she could have used in her truck.  After cranking up the generator and plugging the pump in, Kathy told her of our adventure,  and Lindsay, our new Canadian friend, suggested we go to Skagway and take the ferry to Haines AK.  She said it would save us 4 hours of driving time and allow us to see some beautiful scenery.  Since we were ahead of schedule and had plenty of time to get to Tok, we decided to take her suggestion.  As the discussion continued, we discovered that her husband was a RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) constable and she was a paramedic.  Afterwards, she returned to our site with a pound of organic coffee beans from one of her friends' coffee roasting business and a business card from her husband.

With our new route slated, we left camp early the next day, headed west instead of north and hit construction and gravel roads.  According to the maps these are considered paved, a term we've come to use loosely, especially in the Yukon!  The roads were were relatively smooth but dusty and muddy.  We parked and waited our turn to cross the one lane bridge towards the Rancherias Water Falls.  It was a beautiful easy walk with the pups with nice warm temperatures and the falls were gorgeous.  We ate a quick lunch in the parking lot and were once again back on the road.

Construction kept our speeds down and all wildlife away so all we saw were ravens, which apparently are on steroids in Canada as they are the size of Keila!

We stopped for gas and water at the Yukon Motel and opted to skip the wildlife exhibit since it was after three.  We dumped our tanks, refilled our fresh water, gas and propane tanks and made the turn toward our destination via a narrow paved road heading back into British Columbia toward Taglish, a small village were we hoped to camp.

We pulled into a "resort" where they could squeeze us in to a grass lot for $40/night and opted to try the "Native American run" campground across the bumpy bridge Kathy cussed the first time across. We haven't made reservations in over two weeks and really haven't had trouble finding a spot to land for a night.  We prefer the woods so whenever we splurge for a true RV park, we dump our tanks, fill our freshwater and head back to the woods.  We've found that most RV park wi-fi is useless so that's no longer a reason for us to spend the $$ to stay at a park.

 We circled the grounds twice, found no suitable sites and too many loose dogs so decided to go over the bumpy bridge once again to head further west to Carcross where we would get off the Alaskan highway and head south to Skagway.

We found the Carcross State Park, disconnected and set up in a back up site. There were already a few RV's there but it wasn't crowded at all.  We headed to town looking for wi-fi, which usually meant driving towards the visitor center, which happened to still be open. The super nice women volunteers suggested we make ferry reservations since it was going to be a weekend trek.

We drove around town and found a beautiful beach.  Kathy needed to touch the water to feel how cold it was so we walked to the waters edge as we watched a local dog play fetch with its owner.  The rest of town was a tourist's dream but seemed asleep or dead. We couldn't tell if this was a revitalization project just starting or one that had already gone bad.

We headed out of town to see the Carcross desert - a wonderful ecological error of nature. It's not actually a desert but rather the remnants glacial Lake Watson that dried up over 10,000 years ago.  Some of the flowers that grow here only grow here, in the Yukon and in Asia.  Amazing!

A cool night meant poor sleep and time to put the 'winter' blankets on the bed.  Kathy called for ferry reservations as soon as they opened the next morning and we were on our way to Skagway.  The views through White Pass were picture postcards turn after turn as we slowly climbed toward the border crossing. No one even came to the booth to ask if we had anything to declare and we left Canada without any fanfare.

We drove another mile and began our descent toward sea level.  It was at least a 9% grade and we still didn't have the brake buddy set up on the Jeep.  Turn by turn Joy snapped pictures while Kathy eased the RV down the mountain across the river from the White Pass train. Then Joy smelled something.  Kathy thought it was the vehicle in front of us - except there wasn't a vehicle in front of us.  Then there was smoke. It was us!

We rolled into a out near an Avalanche area and stopped.  Smoke billowed out from both front wheel wells.  Joy grabbed the fire extinguisher and hopped outside.  At this point we were pretty certain it was the brakes as Kathy admitted she'd been riding them all the way down the pass and never downshifted into a lower gear.  She was so caught up in the amazing scenery that she forgot how to drive through it!

We waited forty minutes to let them cool down before opening the engine compartment to check belts, hoses, etc.  After a few small test runs in the turn out area, we felt that the brakes were cool enough to finish the descent, even though the pedal went all the way to the floor before the RV stopped. We disconnected the Jeep and considered the options:

1. drive the Jeep down and get a tow truck to come tow us

2.  drive the RV down in low gear with Joy following in the Jeep

We decided to do what we should have done - descend in our lowest gear.  We put the emergency flashers on and Joy followed the RV in the Jeep.  Our next stop was the US Border and after he questioned us, we questioned the agent about overheated brakes.  He assured Kathy if the brakes had time to cool they should be OK.  We cautiously drove to Skagway without incident although it took about 24 hours before the burning brake smell left the RV.

We walked the streets and saw the train that had just arrived.  We went grocery shopping, had some lunch and headed to the ferry landing.  Joy went inside and purchased the tickets and, once parked in our designated lanes (separately,) we sat in the lounge to read brochures, charge the camera battery and call a best friend (shout out to Ruth!)

We had to return to our vehicles by 1:30 even though the ferry wouldn't depart until 3:00.  After the German tourists in the lane next to Kathy in a rented RV hit her mirror twice with their car door she had had enough.  She was not looking forward to maneuvering the RV into the belly of a boat and was a little anxious.   Turns out not only did she get it into the boat was she made a u-turn once in so she was facing in the right direction.  She almost threw a fit when they folded in both side mirrors but remembered about the back up camera and quickly turned it on to help her drive down the narrow lane between other cars, RV's and buses.

We met near the stern and walked around deck admiring the amazing views.  This was our mini Alaskan cruise and was a great idea.  Joy had asked the Ticket agent how much a ticket from Bellingham, Washington would be and was told it was just $330.00 per person.  That's a pretty cheap week-long cruise if you were willing to sleep in the waiting areas or on deck.  You could also rent a room on the ferry for an additional fee.

Arriving in Haines was a little disappointing for Joy as she thought it would be a larger town.  We opted to stay right on the water but the Oceanside RV Park was simply a parking lot.  We did face the water and had an absolutely beautiful view so figured it was worth it.  At check-in we were assisted by "Buffalo," a Bowie, TX native who came up on his trike in May, got trapped by the fires, and decided to stay awhile.  He invited us to a crab boil the next evening and we eagerly agreed.

We watched two bald eagles talk to each other and hunt while perched on pilings close to the beach.  We watched cruise ships slide by and were warned by the locals that the wind was coming and watched people pick up chairs etc.  The wind never came and the temperature overnight hardly dropped it and it was perfect 60's weather.

We spent Saturday exploring Fort Seward and the town of Haines.  Seward's folly (aka the purchase of Alaska) brought so much to the United States and Joy isn't not convinced it was in the best interest of the local peoples or ecology.  Like most of the forts established in Alaska, Ft. Seward was established to police the thousands of men who were flocking to Alaska to search for gold.  Once the gold was gone many of the forts were abandoned or sold to the locals.

We visited the Haines Fish cannery and drove past the colorful Rainbow glacier.  We headed out to the airport to see if Kathy could find a way to fly.  The owner of the RV park had told her to go to the local flight seeing business and ask for Paul or Drake and that they could help her.  Since she was already at the airport, she wandered over to a large open hangar housing a blue Cessna 180.  There was someone working on the plane and when he saw Kathy he walked out.  She immediately recognized him as one of the bush pilots featured on National Geographic's Alaska Wing Men.  Turns out he was Drake Olson, former formula 1 and Le Mans racer and one of the top adventure pilots in Alaska.

They chatted for awhile and he agreed to take Kathy up for a discounted rate and teacher her a few things about mountain flying and glacier landing.  They agreed to watch the weather and stay in touch.  Kathy could NOT believe her luck and was so excited she could barely sit still.

We came back to the campsite, walked the dogs and then headed to the natural grocery for coffee and desert.

Back at the RV Joy made a salad for the crab boil and we joined the table of fellow travelers for one of the best meals we've eaten since leaving Houston. Afterwards, we drove to a "beach" and hunted for agates.  It was the perfect ending to a near perfect day.

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