Monday, November 24, 2014

Back Through the Yukon

Beaver Creek, the first town after Canadian customs when you're leaving Alaska, meant a stop at the famous Buckshot Bettie's for lunch.  The toughest part of the AlCan road lie ahead - approximately 60 miles of unpaved, gravel road - a typical Yukon highway. We checked all our options before driving this route as we were not looking forward to driving the RV on anymore Canadian goat trails - we priced the ferry, which was too expensive.  We considered taking the  Top of the World Highway, which is also unpaved and too dangerous.  Taking the AlCan was our only option unless we left the RV behind and that wasn't an option.

Destruction Bay to Kluane Lake and Congdon Creek Provincial Park shook us to the bone but we looked forward to seeing the fabulous views on the largest natural lake in the Yukon. We had camped at Congdon Creek on the way to Alaska and it was one of our favorite stops.  When we stopped for gas a few miles before the park, we spoke with fellow end-of-the-season travelers also heading south. We invited them to Congdon Creek and one truck camper followed us down the road. As we pulled in, we noticed they had added bear boxes and that tent camping was still forbidden.  The park had experienced a large amount of grizzly bear traffic this summer but even though we camped there twice we never saw any evidence of them.

The park was about half full and it rained all night.  It was the darkest night ever!  No outside lights, moon, stars, or aurora borealis.  We couldn't even see our hands in front of our faces.  Our 12 volt system lit up the inside of the RV perfectly and the furnace kept us warm and toasty.  We ran the generator for awhile but our new batteries worked like a charm!  

The next morning, Joy had the coffee pot plugged in, our phones charging and an electric heater on which popped the breaker on the generator.  Kathy found the right switch and got us working again within a few minutes.  We hit the road after a yummy breakfast and headed to Haines Junction.

At the junction, we turned east onto highway 1 and drove the last 80 miles of the Alaskan Highway that we had skipped on the way up by taking the ferry from Skagway.  The route brought us through historic Whitehorse which was still relatively busy, especially with European tourists in their rented RV's.  As we drove around town on the loop, we realized we hadn't missed much and found it somewhat disappointing.

Near Whitehorse, Joy noticed that the AlCan bible, the Milepost, mentioned the Tahini Hot Springs which weren't too far off of our route.  It sounded like a welcome escape from the cold rain we'd been driving in so we took a detour so Joy, who is not a shower lover, could actually enjoy the ultimate bath.  She hadn't been able to soak in a tub since we'd left the lower 48 and "hot springs" is just another term for a really big warm bathtub!  

Kathy walked the dogs and started to read a new book while Joy soaked her cares away.  She hadn't been that relaxed since before the trip started.  Her shoulders loosened and her skin turned silky soft from the minerals.  When she arrived there were only 10 others in the pools but when she left it was after school and young hard bodies in bikinis and skimpy trunks began to fill the pool.  She made her exit quickly.  

Kathy drove hard to make up time and due to the extra miles and constant rain she was pretty grumpy and tired by the time we arrived at the Yukon RV Park.  We had filled up on both gas and LP at the park's gas station on our way to Alaska and also bought a yummy loaf of homemade bread.  Joy remembered to use her 4 cents off a litre coupon that we'd received during the first visit.  The women working in the cafe and store were younger and didn't seem familiar with procedures so we thought that maybe the place had recently been sold to new owners.  We picked a site, got a discount and set up in the light rain.  The park's Wifi only worked in the cafe so after dinner we had desert in the cafe and caught up on Internet stuff.  

In the morning, we tried to buy LP but the employees said the system was broken and obviously didn't know how to work it. LP was a priority as weather reports forecast snow in the days ahead. Sure enough, as we neared Watson Lake, beautiful snowy mountains welcomed us. We ended up driving to town 20 miles out of our way for LP.  Kathy felt rested so we went on to Jade City so Joy could get her mineral fix.  We had hoped to be able to camp there but there was only dry camping in the parking lot and no RV park.  We hoped that an advertised RV park several miles down the road would still be open.  

Joy bought jade earrings and we ate at the restaurant which served the best cheese burgers ever. There were several jade and gold miners at the table next to us and we enjoyed eavesdropping on them as we ate.  They told us the campground we planned to stay at was closed for the season - an occurrence that we were finding more and more of.  We decided to try anyway and, if nothing else, would simply pull over somewhere to sleep.

The drive was beautiful and the quality of the roads improved as we moved further south.  We arrived in Dease Lake andsure enough, the RV park was closed.  We found a long parking lot near businesses closed for the night and dry camped.

Getting up early to leave before the businesses opened meant a quick bowl of oatmeal and wearing yesterday's clothes.  Getting out of a parking lot before business owners noticed us is an important task when dry camping.  The drive south became green again - no snow and some wildflowers still in bloom.  

We turned west and began our decent from 4000' feet to sea level on highway 37A toward Stewart. The grades were 7 to 8%  and we were glad there was no hint of snow on the roads.  Kathy spotted something dark ahead on the side of the road and, sure enough, a big old black bear was in the ditch munching away on roots.  A semi coming from the other direction didn't even disturb him - he'd obviously been through this before.  He looked much older than the other bears we'd seen and took a good look at us before deciding to leave his dinner by walking back into the woods.

We pulled in and set up at our site in the Bear River RV Park in Stewart - excited about cable and hot showers.  As usual, we were disappointed that the cable was weak, the wifi had a 50 mb per day limit and showers were pay showers.  Canada was wearing thin on us and we were eager to get back to the lower 48.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Moving On

On Labor Day we left Denali for Anchorage.  We stopped at the Telkeetna visitors center so that Kathy, who had purchased both National Wildlife Refuge and National Park passport books could get her fourth Denali stamp.  We were disappointed to learn theVC with the stamp was an additional 14 miles from our route.  We'd have to drive there and back so we decided to skip it.

Although the views were cloudy, we caught several glimpses of the south face of McKinley as we drove.  Joy fell in love with the bridge over Hurricane Gulch and we pulled over hoping to spot bears fishing in the river.  A couple already parked at the sight noticed our Texas license plates and walked to meet Joy near the bridge to inquire about our travels.  They had flown in from Austin, rented an RV and were falling in love with the lifestyle.  They were just discussing how they would want to tow a Jeep and have their bicycles along too when we pulled up - towing our Jeep with the bikes on the back.  It's amazing how many people we've talked to about becoming full-timers.  So many talk about wanting to do it but then immediately come with all the reasons they think they can't.  We wonder how many will take the plunge.

As we neared Anchorage, traffic increased but the roads improved.  We Stayed at the Shipcreek RV Park near the railroad tracks on the industrial side of town.  When we write "near" we mean the tracks were about 6 feet behind the RV.  Although the park was well maintained and clean, the surrounding neighborhood was a little sketchy so we made sure to lock everything.

Anchorage has a large homeless population and we heard drugs are a problem in the area.  We also heard about a hobo camp near Wasilla, an Anchorage suburb, having nearly 1000 homeless teens living in it.  Even with the trains at our back door, we were able to relax knowing we were now on our own schedule.  No work until October 26th when we report for duty at Bosque Del Apache NWR in Socorro, NM.

Tuesday, we drove down the coastline along the Cook Inlet.  The coastline is beautiful with train tracks following the waters edge. At Beluga point, we saw large areas which we thought were schools of fish.  Later, we discovered they were actually pods of beluga whales.  We drove a little farther to see the Kenai peninsula better.  Being on the road and already thinking of the miles ahead to the lower 48, we decided we didn't need to drive another 100 miles to go to the preserve so we turned around and headed to the battery shop where we were going to buy new house batteries for the RV. Kathy wanted to scope out the location to figure out to get in and out of the parking lot.


We stopped at another pullout and, while Joy took more photos of the inlet,  a beluga whale surfaced right in front of us along the shore.  We watched it swim along the coast away from us until we couldn't see it anymore.

Kathy had been talking for years of getting another tattoo but wanted to find the artist who did her first two and let him do the third.  She's been searching for him without success.  She decided it was time to trust a new artist, researched the studios in Anchorage and decided upon Primal Tattoo in Anchorage.  She had already decided upon the tattoo - a Tlinglit raven modeled after one observed in the Denali visitors center.  We stopped in to the shop, discussed the work, paid a deposit and made an appointment for the next afternoon.

Wednesday morning, on our way out of town, we had the batteries installed and then headed to the tattoo shop.

Kathy's tattoo was completed by noon after taking about 3 hours.  We drove to Palmer to have lunch with Joy's childhood friend and neighbor, Erin, at The Noisy Goose Cafe.  It was fun seeing Erin and having a real Alaskan give us tourist tips that were actually helpful.  Erin is a photographer and took this great family photo for us.

We continued driving back toward Tok, completing the circle of Alaska roads joining Tok, Anchorage, Denali and Fairbanks.  We again saw Denali - other side - this time at sunset.  That means we are way more special than the regular 30%-ers that get to see the mountain on a clear day. We saw more glaciers as we drove into the sunset and decided to sleep in a pull out and dry camp. We used our new batteries - and our heater - without any problems.  Thanks again to Ruth and Jim for taking such good care of us!

The next afternoon we arrived at the Tetlin NWR headquarters for the last time and to say our final goodbyes.  Kay Lynn, the volunteer coordinator, had gone home early for her weekend and we had missed our friend Les, too. We did our last free laundry and camping and said goodbye to employees and volunteers who were working until the end of September.  We talked about it being our last night in Alaska and shed a few tears.

The next morning, we stopped at the VC, our home for the previous two months, on our way to the Yukon.  We found Alesha there alone with no electricity and reduced generator usage.  We talked her into cranking up the generator making us some fresh coffee because we have priorities!  We drank coffee, hung out in that beautiful buildding for awhile, said goodbye and hit the road.  We departed Alaska two months after arriving, changed for the better and with a lifetime of experiences.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Seasons Change

Our blog title, a reason, a season, or a lifetime, is appropriate as we end this part of our journey. We came to Tetlin NWR for a season.  There has been a reason each person has entered our lives, and our memories and experiences we take with us will last a lifetime.  As summer fades into fall, we begin gathering supplies to return, storing gear, and checking the lists of equipment, keys, and interpretative materials.

We were honored at a recent volunteer luncheon which was held early because schedules are changing as the rangers take annual leave and the college students head back to school.  Joy shared a story she'd written about our experiences as volunteers.  We all laughed and enjoyed ourselves.  The luncheon came to a quick closing as a tour bus of Germans pulled in to the VC parking lot.

One day, Joy joined the staff for a float down the Tok River as Kathy stayed behind and got caught up on a variety of tasks.  Joy's raft was captained by Les, the summer maintenance volunteer who actually helped build a lot of the visitor center exhibits nearly 30 years ago. Two biologist volunteers were also on the raft. This raft floated most of the way as Les called for paddling only as needed.  On the other hand, the volunteer coordinator, Kay Lynn, Tanya, the accountant, Alesha, a summer ranger,  Jerry, the deputy director and someone's husband whose name was never known all rafted together.  THEIR ride was hard paddling mostly upstream in order to splash other rafters, or back paddling to see how quickly they could spin in circles. These rebel rafters played all day in the water and provided the rest of us with lots of entertainment and laughter.

Two other rafts and two canoes contained other refuge employees and Youth Conservation Corps kids.  We all traveled down the river to a sand bar, where we built a fire and roasted hot dogs. Afterwards, the group headed to the Tanana River and eventually the pull out zone.

Our last few days off we opted to stick around the VC instead of traveling.  We went blueberry picking and drove up the Taylor Highway looking for an area that had been burned about 10 years ago.  We were told that the blueberries were abundant there!  On our way, we passed the spot where we had seen the two little foxes playing next to their den weeks earlier.  We tried to find the den and/or the foxes but had no luck with either one.

Joy also had her gold map from the DNR office and we drove 24 miles but never found a real creek to go panning for gold.  Blueberries, however, were plentiful.  We picked two cups quickly, watching for bears, and then headed to Tok to buy groceries.  The next day, we loaded up the canoe for the first time all summer and brought it to the Northway bunkhouse for storage.

Our final day off was a tumultuous one which allowed for a lot of chuckles.   It started with a knock on the door as Alesha, the seasonal ranger, asked if we could drive to the Northway bunkhouse to meet AP&T, the company that "provides" power, telephone and internet service to the state.  We use the term "provide" loosely here.  The internet at the bunkhouse had been down for weeks and, after several phone calls, they were finally sending a crew out to take a look at it.  Of course, by this time, the internet would only be needed for a few more days as Alesha's contract was ending and she was heading back to Fairbanks.  This native Alaskan has become a friend and we really enjoyed getting to know her and spending time together.

Since we were still in bed enjoying our coffee, Joy offered a few ideas and said we'd help out if needed. Kathy started the day by filling the RV's fresh water tank from the buffalo for the last time because the buffalo was now empty.  We hoped to have enough water until Tuesday when we headed into town for the last time.  We decided to ration our water by washing dishes only once a day.

Joy cooked breakfast and then we headed to the VC to check on Alesha's progress on finding someone to go to Northway.  When we returned, we found Frances with slick paws and a butter beard.  We had forgotten to put butter away after breakfast and she had had knocked it off the table, removed the lid, and eaten about half of it. After getting slightly scolded, she sat on her bed next to Joy on the couch, began to look woozy and silently threw up all over her blanket.   Kathy took her outside while Joy gathered up the butter barf blanket and threw it outside.  Keila didn't look so innocent, either, so Joy took them both for a long walk to see what else might happen.

As the eventful day progressed, Kathy decided she needed to empty the septic tanks.  Sure enough, the hose came loose from the RV while draining the gray water.  She got the hose reconnected properly and emptied it the best she could with the uphill slant we've dealt with all summer.  She left the hoses attached and began cleaning inside the RV while Joy began organizing and cleaning storage areas outside.  Kathy heard a loud thump and looked outside just in time to see Joy's head meeting the metal of the awning.  After seeing stars, Joy completed her project and washed the blanket.

After lunch, we decided we needed to get out of the RV and enjoy the sunshine so we grabbed the metal detector and hit the road.  We drove to to the nearest turn out, turned the metal detector on and started hunting. Within a minute, the detector started making a series of weird noises and promptly died.  The batteries were dead and the nearest working ones were back at the RV.  We returned home, got fresh batteries and tried another location.  The location brought us too close to a falcon's nest, who yelled at us the whole time we were there.  As we watched her through the camera, we looked up and we saw a very large V formation of birds flying overhead.  It was a flock of sand hill cranes heading south.  We counted the best we could and estimated that the V contained at least 80 birds. They were headed the same place we were for the winter and we knew we'd all meet up again within a few weeks. What an amazing sight!

Although our chosen site was obviously great for bird watching, the ground was hard as rock so we decided to find another location.  We drove to one of the many sandy hills along the roadway and discovered very large moose tracks in the sand.  Although it was much easier to dig, the detector didn't detect anything so we spent our time looking at animal tracks instead.

We put the detector away and headed to the nearby gas station/lodge/store, Border City, to buy ice cream to go with our recently cultivated blueberries.  Roberta, the store clerk, reported they only had ice cream bars.  Even desert plans were not happening as hoped.  We bought Klondike Bars, parked near Highway Lake and watched ravens hunt, water fowl fly, and a storm roll in.

The visitors center is open May 15th to September 15th annually and our last scheduled day was August 27. The average number of visitors diminished quickly the last week of August from 120 per day in July to less than 70 per day in August.  With our extra clean up projects completed, it was time we say our goodbyes. We loaded gear back into the RV and drove to HQ in Tok where we would spend the night before heading out of Alaska via Fairbanks, Denali and Anchorage.