Alaska: We Made It! Also, “The Whole Danged State’s on Fire!” 4

Welcome to Alaska

We crossed back into the U.S. at Poker Creek, Alaska on June 16, 2015! The Poker Creek border crossing facility is both the northern-most in North America as well as the one at the highest elevation (4,127′) and is shared by crossing guards from both countries. I can’t remember where I heard or read this now, but the kitchen is on the U.S. side & the bathroom on the Canadian side (or vice versa) which sparks all sorts of frivolity such as the confiscation of tasty food “contraband” from the fridge, with retaliatory action such as requiring identification for restroom visits. Since there is also a 1 hour time difference between Canadian Pacific and Alaska time, I’m sure there are opportunities for mischief there as well. In there defense, it can’t be a terribly exciting posting (the official who checked us through did appear quite pleased that there were 2 vehicles lined up when we arrived) and you do live on site. I’m sure that some people delight in being posted there, while it would be considered punishment for others. We crossed with no issues, although she did confiscate our California orange. So you can’t bring U.S. produce into the U.S.? Whatever!

Welcome Lupine Welcome view

Leaving the customs station, we got to drive on about 10 miles of the newest, smoothest, pavement you can imagine and after weeks of frost heaves, pot holes & gravel it was sheet bliss! Sadly, it was over all too quickly and the rest of the dirt road to the town of Chicken was some of the worst we’ve yet encountered. Also, we were amused to note that returning to the U.S. meant that all of the road signs had bullet holes in them. Nothing says ‘Murica like bullet holes in signs!

The town of Chicken is a funny little place. The miners supposedly wanted to name the settlement Ptarmigan because the plentiful birds provided valuable fresh meat, but nobody could spell ptarmigan and they do look a bit like chickens, so…. Summer population of 27, winter population 4. The building below used to be the entire town with store, bar & cafe all under the same roof, but in recent years a couple of new gift shops have opened up. There’s also a big gold mining dredge that you can tour and they’ll teach you how to pan for gold. We stopped at the gold panning area and chatted briefly with a woman who comes here every year and pans all day long. I guess once you’ve got gold fever there is no going back.

Chicken chicken Chicken

As we left Chicken and headed on to Tok to rejoin the Alaska Highway we began to see and smell smoke. A Tok resident at the gas station informed us that “the whole dang state’s on fire” and they weren’t far off! A winter of less snow than usual followed by a summer with little rain means that the wilderness is dry, and about 280 fires were burning across the state at the time (most caused by lightning strikes). Since Alaska is so danged huge and much of it is inaccessible except by air,  wildfires aren’t even addressed unless they threaten a settled area. We quickly went online and learned that there were 2 in the immediate vicinity, but neither should be an issue for us.

Wildfire map on July 8 showing 301 active fires

Wildfire map on July 8 showing 301 active fires

After refueling and a quick trip to the grocery store, we headed north toward Delta Junction. Our target campsite for the night was a free wayside camping area at Gerstle River (63°49’3.4″ N, 144°55’27.62″ W). The Healy Lake fire was in the vicinity but was about 10 miles away, there was a major river between us & it, officials were hoping to have it “largely contained” by the next day, and the wind was blowing away from us, so it seemed like a good choice. We arrived at the wayside and found our hands-down favorite campsite of the trip so far, and maybe ever. Rather than staying in the campsite proper, we followed a dirt road onto the banks of the Gerstle River itself. The ground is hard-packed and rocky enough for the RV, and we checked the forecast to make sure that a rising river wouldn’t ruin our night either. We were in heaven! The sounds of flowing water about 25′ away and expansive views of the snow-capped Alaska Range had us sitting speechless in our chairs.

Gerstle River site Gerstle house

Gerstle Gerstle mtn sun

But as we were enjoying our beverages, the wind died and we noticed that the grayish-white smoke column that had been a thin smear low on the horizon had begun to rise straight into the sky. Then it turned an oily black. We were enjoying a late dinner when we began to notice that cars would drive onto the bridge and stop for minutes at a time. They were obviously looking at something we couldn’t see. So we went outside to find that a breeze had sprung up and was blowing the smoke column directly toward us. Eric took the Jeep up onto the bridge, and found that flames were visible above the treeline, even from 10 miles away! We decided that as much as we hated to leave the spot, it was wiser to vamoose. We found out the next day that the change in wind direction had taken the firefighters by surprise and there had been a major blow-up. Oh well, maybe we’ll get back there before this trip is over.

Gerstle smoke Gerstle fire



Center map
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We had driven most of the way to Delta Junction in our midnight run from the fire, so the next morning we just made a quick stop at the Visitor’s Center at the end of the Alaska Highway.

Alcan end


Today we don’t think much about it when someone says they’re “driving to Alaska” but it’s really pretty amazing that it can be done now with relative ease. In the 1920’s and 30’s Canada and the United States had discussed building such a road but the will and the funding just weren’t there. Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 changed all that. The U.S. Army approved the concept on February 6, 1942 and 5 days later it had been approved by Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Construction of the 1680 mile-long road began on March 8, 1942 and was completed an astonishing 7 1/2 months later on October 28, 1942. Over the years the route has been shortened by over 200 miles (mostly to improve safety) to its present length of 1442 miles, and it’s a work in progress which requires constant repairs caused by the harsh winter conditions over most of its length. Although the roots of its necessity are dark, it’s now the road to adventure for thousands of people.

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