I know, I know! We crossed back into the lower 48 on October 1 and I haven’t written a blog post since then. I’m afraid that Alaska completely wore me out! I know it sounds funny but we did maintain a pretty frenetic pace from the time we crossed over on June 1, and all our fellow nomads who made the Alaska journey also suffered varying degrees of post-Alaska meltdown. We’ve spent some very recuperative time in Washington and northern Oregon and I’m finally motivated to blog again. The good news is, I’ve definitely saved the best part of the trip for last. The bad news is, it’s not a short post so pour yourself a tasty beverage and put your feet up!
We spent a great week in Valdez at the Allison Point Campground overlooking Port Valdez Bay. It was cool & rainy for most of our stay and we spent some restful and productive days cocooned in the clouds.
When we got a break in the weather we made a dash back up to Thompson Pass. Thompson Pass is certainly not the highest at 2,805′ but it has the dubious honor of receiving more snow than any other place in Alaska – an average of 551.5 inches per year. That’s just shy of 46 feet of snow every winter. See those odd poles alongside the highway in the pic below? Those are to help the snow plow drivers find the road. Really. In fact, on our drive up to the Pass I snapped a picture of this odd chunk of ice just buried in the dirt in Keystone Canyon. A little Googling revealed that in January of 2014,
an unusually warm period with heavy rain caused an avalanche at Snowslide Gulch (pictured above). The avalanche blocked the canyon with a wall of snow 100′ high, backing up the Lowe River and forming a lake that stretched nearly half a mile and cut off vehicle traffic for 2 weeks. Anyone wishing to get in or out of Valdez had to either fly or take the ferry. You can see what it looked like here. Fortunately we had no such troubles on our beautiful day. We snapped a million photos, walked through an abandoned railroad tunnel in the canyon, picked blueberries, and visited Worthington Glacier. Fall weather was making itself known and the fireweed that had blanketed so much of Alaska with its brilliant fuchsia blooms all summer was giving us one final gift – brilliant red fall foliage that punctuated the scenery and blanketed hillsides.
The weather stayed clear long enough to let me cross a huge item off my bucket list – the Northern Lights! This display started around midnight and lasted for about an hour and 1/2. If you’ve never seen them, nothing can prepare you for it. They don’t look real. They dance across the sky, twist in on themselves, pulse from top to bottom, and change color – aqua, chartreuse and purple. We stayed outside until we were freezing and had cricks in our necks. It was amazing.
We thought our stay in Valdez couldn’t get any better, but she had one last gift. I stepped outside on our last morning and startled this short-tailed ermine aka weasel who was investigating the fire pit. He or she didn’t go far though, and once I was back outside with my camera it ran all over and even came up so close to me that I was having trouble photographing it. It was amazing to watch as it didn’t amble anywhere. It zipped and boing-boinged at crazy speeds like a cartoon weasel. Eric & I had such big smiles our cheeks were hurting. Awesome!
We hated to leave but there’s always something great on the horizon. In this case it was time for the Alaska State Fair so we headed off to Palmer. We hadn’t been to a state fair in a long time and this one did not disappoint. The very long hours of daylight here mean that vegetables can grow to enormous size: 100 pound cabbages, even larger pumpkins, 6′ long gourds and, inexplicably, a sheep wearing a sweater. Wait, what???
The fairgrounds in Palmer occupy a site that was once a farmstead for the Matanuska Valley Colony. Why does that matter? To backtrack slightly, Eric had just returned from a trip to Wisconsin to help his grandmother celebrate her 100th birthday. Since he had just flown in from Anchorage, grandma casually dropped the comment that “your grandpa and I almost went to Alaska”, a fact of which the majority of the family was unaware. The Matanuska Valley Colony was part of FDR’s New Deal to help the country get back on its feet during the Great Depression. The government figured that the long summer days in the fertile Matanuska Valley would be an ideal place to settle some colonists, give them a farmstead, and let them feed themselves and other Alaskans. But who would be crazy enough to move to Alaska? Hmmm, folks from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan are already crazy enough to live with nasty winters so let’s ask them! Eric’s grandparents signed up to relocate, but at the last minute Wally came down with pneumonia and they were unable to go. Whew! If Eric’s mom had been born in Alaska, she never would have met his dad, and I’d be living a totally different life. We were surprised to see that the barn pictured above contained an exhibit all about the Matanuska Valley Colony and Eric got a great PBS documentary to send to grandma. The filmmaker was at the exhibit and now wants to interview grandma to get the “other side of the story” from someone who couldn’t make the trip. It really is a small world.
From our campsite alongside the Knik River we enjoyed the increasingly vibrant fall foliage, and colors were approaching their peak as we heading toward our last big Alaska destination: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
Located at the top of the Alaskan panhandle, Wrangell-St. Elias is a mammoth 13.2 million acre wilderness, stretching from the ocean to the top of the second-highest peak in the U.S. (Mt. St. Elias at 18,008′). It’s our largest National Park and, to put that in perspective, you could fit Yellowstone National Park inside Wrangell 6 times (or you could put Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Switzerland inside it). It has so many glacier superlatives that I won’t even go into them, including a glacier that is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. Brrrrr! But for all that size there are only 2 roads leading into the Park: the 43 mile-long Nabesna Road and the 59 mile-long McCarthy Road, both of which are gravel. The town of McCarthy has only 28 permanent residents, but it’s a fairly busy destination during the summer and the traffic takes its toll on the gravel road. Toward the end of the season maintenance may not happen at all and it can take 3 hours or more to travel the 60 miles. We did NOT want to undertake that in the RV so we decided to camp at the end of the paved road in the village of Chitina. We settled in at the free Fish & Game campground just outside town and, since it was Friday night, headed into town to celebrate the start of the weekend. There are only 2 “bars” in town: a very civilized looking one in the hotel and Uncle Tom’s, which looked like the kind of place the locals hang out. It’s no secret that we prefer our bars quirky, with plenty of character and characters, and Tom’s didn’t disappoint. The footrail is an old section of railroad track from mining days, and the walls are covered with old license plates and our bartender shared a few of the more colorful stories associated with them. I snapped the picture of the bar below, and inadvertently blinded a woman with my flash. I apologized profusely (I thought the flash was off!) but she slid off her bar stool and headed our way.
I thought we were about to get our tourist behinds evicted for being insensitive, but Lori introduced herself and asked me if I’d gotten my hair cut in a nearby town. She pulled up a bar stool, we bought her a beer, and had one of the most delightful conversations of the whole Alaska trip. Getting to know some of the locals can turn a good trip into a great one, and Lori certainly proved that true! We chatted for nearly an hour and got some great insights into Alaskan life. We had been whining half the summer about being unable to find our favorite brand of rum, but living in Chitina (and all the other oh-so remote places here) takes everything to a different level. Lori cuts her own hair because 1) the nearest hairdresser is a 2-hour drive away and 2) the road is closed half the winter anyway due to bad weather. Alrighty then! [On the bright side, she has a very similar cut to mine and she told me how she cuts hers so if I ever need to I suppose I can cut my own!] We chatted about salmon fishing with fish wheels, and got a glimpse of what the long dark winters are like. What a treat! Lori lives a little ways down the McCarthy Road and she warned us that the road was in really bad shape because it had been awhile since the highway department had graded it, and this late in the season the weren’t likely to do so. But luck was with us, and when we headed for McCarthy a few days later two-thirds of the distance had just been graded!
The scenery in Wrangall-St. Elias is stunning, and the smoother road let us enjoy the views rugged snow-capped mountains, deep gorges, and wildlife. About 1/3 of the way to McCarthy we passed a hitchhiker and, since there isn’t much traffic on the Road this late in the season, we stopped and offered a ride. Our good deed was immediately rewarded: Jim was a long-time local who runs the campground out at Root Glacier and he kept us entertained for the rest of the ride. He was the perfect tour guide, naming & explaining things we were passing on the road, and giving us some history on the building of the railroad, McCarthy and the Kennecott Mine. He also passed along anecdotes about some of the locals and more than a few tales seemed to contain a fair amount of blarney. We could not have asked for better entertainment! As if that weren’t enough, turns out that Jim also runs the parking lot at the end of the McCarthy Road and he gave us a free pass for the day which identified us as “Special People.”
From the parking lot at the end of the McCarthy Road, you must cross the Kennicott River on a footbridge and walk into town. There’s not much to see in downtown, so we hopped the shuttle out to the abandoned Kennecott Mine. The history of McCarthy and the Kennecott Mine, and the explanation of why some things are spelled Kennecott and others Kennicott could fill another blog post, but we don’t have time for that here. Because it was so late in the season the shuttle bus was running on a reduced schedule, and we didn’t have time to hike out onto Root Glacier as some of our friends had done (see the Wynn’s awesome video of it here). We were bummed about that but still had fun poking around the mine buildings and hiking partway out to Root Glacier just for the gorgeous scenery. When we arrived back in McCarthy we had a cider at the only establishment still open, and then started the long drive back to Chitina. We did have a couple of awesome wildlife encounters on the way home though, including a spruce grouse who thought he was pretty special, and a beaver snacking right beside the road.
For the view from the Kuskulana River Bridge, check out our video!
We might have stayed longer to explore this gorgeous area, but snow was in the forecast and there are some really big hills on the road out of Chitina so we decided it was time to go. We headed back up the Richardson Highway and then over to the Nabesna Road. Just before we reached Nabesna, we finally had a grizzly bear encounter close enough that we could actually tell they were grizzlies! Two bears were foraging right on the side of the road, so we had a great view. I grabbed my camera but it was nearly dark and in my excitement and rush to snap pics all I got were blurry bears. Agh! But there really wasn’t a shoulder to pull off onto and we were blocking traffic, so you grab what you can grab. It was great just to see them going about their bear business of stuffing their faces before the big hibernation. We spent a few nights in a pull-off 12 miles down the Nabesna Road with surprisingly great 4G cell coverage! We took a Jeep excursion to the end of the 43 mile-long road. The terrain here was more like moonscape, with bare hills in the fantastic colors that volcanic mountains are known for. It is also Dall Sheep territory, and we spotted 4 of them picking their way along a mountainside. You still can’t tell much about them, but at least these were close enough that you can make out their legs! [The only reason we’re sure they’re Dall Sheep is that there are no mountain goats in these parts.]
With winter closing in we knew it was time to head south, but the decision was bittersweet. Our last 2 weeks in Alaska were some of the best of the trip, with fall foliage at its peak, some of the most rugged scenery in the state, amazing wildlife encounters, and most especially our interactions with hospitable locals. All summer long we had been continually awed by this state, and each time we thought it couldn’t possibly get any better. But Alaska really had been saving the best for last and we left feeling that we really hang wrung every last drop of “amazing” from our summer. Until next time Alaska!