Alaska

6 July 2012

We find ourselves on a small road next to yet another crystal clear Alaskan lake and we are sad to say that we are somewhat bored.  It feels almost arrogant to say this after being blessed to be travelling for such a long time, but I guess in every situation one can get use to a certain routine and setting.  Alaska, so far, has been a bag of mixed nuts with the exception that it has been every bit as beautiful as one would expect from the US state known as “The last frontier”.  It was only declare the 49th State in 1959 but was bought for the bargain price of $7.2 million dollar from the Russians in 1867 after the sea otter numbers declined.  Lucky for the US, gold was soon discovered in Juneau (1880), Nome (1898) and Fairbanks (1902) and a few decades later quite a large amount of oil…I guess someone knew a good thing when they saw it!

We were delighted to finally cross the border and say goodbye to Canada for a while hoping to be met by familiar US hospitality and lower food and gas prices…and to most degrees we got what we expected.  Alaska is however not the lower 48…one can almost say that its rather-rough-around-the-edges.  We entered at the smaller of the two Alaskan borders on a beautifully maintained gravel road.  Our first town was called Chicken…strange name one would say until you hear the even stranger reason for this town of only 23 in summer (7 in winter).  The story goes that the towns’ folk wanted to name the town after a bird commonly found in the area – the ptarmigan.  Since they found it impossible to agree on the correct spelling of the word, they finally opted to just call it Chicken..and from there the name stuck.  It’s rather more of a fuel station with a shop and a restaurant than an actual town, but it’s nevertheless worth it to stop for the free coffee.  Do not be fooled by the considerably lower fuel price compared to Dawson City on the other side of the border…it is still MUCH higher than any price you will pay for fuel on your way to Fairbanks..if at all possible wait for Fairbanks, your money is much wiser spent on the Pizza Hut buffet..

After a long drive to Fairbanks we were happy to see the Walmart and although prices weren’t quite as low as they are in the US, we managed to fill up our stocks for the most part.  One thing that certainly didn’t get any cheaper was the alcohol.  Here you pay one and a half time the price for the same box of wine…or in our case you don’t.  The rotisserie chicken luckily stayed the same price, although the chicken did seem a little smaller.  We met an interesting cyclist while in town.  Josh lives in Oregon and have cycled from there to Alaska where he plans to do a roundtrip before cycling all the way back to his hometown.  Like us, his next destination was Deadhorse, the most northerly point of the US.  There is only one road, known as the Dalton Highway, which goes to this town and it was built for one reason only.  It served as a hauling road to get to equipment up to Prudoe Bay, which is responsible for supplying about 20 percent of the natural gas demand in the US.  After discovering this resource, a trans-Alaska pipeline was built in the 1970s running from Prudoe Bay all the way to  Valdez on the South coast of Alaska.  This pipeline runs a staggering 800-miles south to Valdez and carries with it about a million barrels of oil per day….  Anyway, we set out late that afternoon on the 666 mile drive all along this impressive pipeline up to Deadhorse.

The road isn’t considered one of the best roads in the state and there are ample warnings about taking spare tyres, spare fuel and that your windscreen will likely never be the same.  They even mention that rental companies do not allow their vehicles on this road and that a 4WD vehicle is recommended.  What they neglect to tell you is that you are entering the twilight zone and no matter how prepared you consider yourself to be, you are certainly not prepared at all.  We were surprised when we found the state of the road surface to be good, especially compared to any unpaved roads in Africa…Marius were even slightly disappointed at how easy the drive seemed to be.  As we went more north the sun was staying out later and later, but had not been such an issue up to now.

When we stopped on our second night at a typical Alaskan river with round river rocks and mountains all around, it soon became clear why this road would forever remain in our memories as one of our biggest nemeses…within minutes of stopping there were a cloud of mosquitoes surrounding us, these ones were smaller than the ones we encountered in Canada but their numbers were just overwhelming.  There were no way you could survive this without a headnet and covering yourself in clothes from head to toe…and this is after you sprayed yourself with 25% Deet.  Making any kind of food with these vampires requires a special type of patients and virtues (none of which I have) but is nothing compared to the torture endured when going for any type of toilet session.  Your imminent momentary exposure of your most precious parts is somehow broadcasted to every bloodsucker in the immediate vicinity and as soon as that zipper sounds they are ready!  For a number one you are lucky to get away with five red, itchy and swollen humps spread evenly in super uncomfortable areas but the number two you’re lucky to get away with a spot that doesn’t itch.  To add to this mid-evil slaughter, the sun had now reached the point of no surrender.  It would not go down from that point forward, and we were only a quarter of the way up.  After dinner that night, we slowly emerged from underneath our 1.5 m high mosquito net (the only square net in the whole of America!), at 11h30 in bright sunlight, and drove further north until at least 2am (the sun sitting at around 2pm).

The next day we crossed the arctic circle and I was surprised to be wearing a tank-top instead of 15 layers of clothing…not as icy as we had imagined.  As we continued north the days began to flow into one another, dinner felt like breakfast and lunch like dinner and we became more and more exhausted from battling the evil demon mosquitoes and the insomnia.  As the latitude increased we slept less and less and we drove more and more.  A long, long way from the arctic circle we went over the beautiful Atigun Pass, which is followed by miles and miles of semipaved or oil-sluch road.  After going over the pass the landscape turns into flat marshland…if you get stuck here, no warn winch or maxtracks will get you anywhere (luckily oil and gas sorted this out with a big ass road).  We finally reached Deadhorse, which is nothing more than a large oil and gas camp, feeling pretty much dead tired.  We tried to sleep a few miles from the town but after dinner started a poor, reluctant Cruiser again and drove for another 80 miles.

After what felt like a lifetime of sleeplessness, mosquito hunting to the point of paranoia, sun revolving around you instead of going up and down we emerged from the Dalton highway, beaten, dirty and in desperate search of new mosquito net.  Fairbanks had none to offer, and as a sad consolation we bought another 1.5m net at Walmart.  That afternoon Marius mounted the nets inside the tent in the hopes of keeping the buggers out and in sheer disgust of the enormous amount of mosquito carcasses that had accumulated in the Cruiser, I cleaned out the entire cab.  It was the ritualistic shedding (which I am sure most Dalton travelers go through after returning) of the Dalton highway following your bare survival from this haunting road.  We met Josh on the way down and really tried not to discourage him in the gigantic task that lay ahead of him…all I can say is am glad it wasn’t me.  As a reward for our survival we went for the Pizza hut buffet and it was everything we hoped it to be…

One of the things we have come to understand is that you don’t just drive off the road in Alaska.  For one you’re bound to get fine and secondly Alaska only seems to have that many road, most of which are in good, paved condition.  Nevertheless, if there is an offroad road in the vicinity, my beautiful boyfriend seems to find it.  Or rather it finds him… and the more muddy the road, the more likely we are to find it.  And here we found ourselves again on the way down to Denali National Park on a road known as the Stampede Rd.  According to the trusty Milepost 2012, this road only goes in about 8 miles and then ends.  This is however not the same song that the GPS sung.  The Milepost do go on to tell of a hiking trial to a certain “Magic Bus” which is actually the original location of THE BUS that Mr. Into the Wild from the movie “Into the Wild” lived in before succumbing to a very lonesome horrible death.  Personally I have never seen the movie, but Marius assures me it is nothing to write home about.  What is worth writing home about however is our endless attempts at driving to this “Magic Bus”.  On day one we got through the area where the ATV (all terrain vehicles as they are referred to here) tour companies take people on 4 hour day trips for a whopping $130… Just beyond this point, the Cruiser got stuck in a mudhole and after uprooting a tree and getting mud in most crevices we used the trusty, amazing Maxtrax to escape this muddy graveyard.  The second time this happened we turned around and was disappointed that we would not be able to see a famous bus.

On day two, Mr. de Clercq wanted to make sure that the muddy road we got stuck in the day before was indeed bad to the bone.  On the way back we saw another small turnoff which we took but only got a few 100 meters in before we found out that it was tundra that we were driving on.  A botanist would give you a very scientific explanation of what tundra is but for the most part it seems to be moss-like plants which grow to form a spongy layer of about 2 feet thick.  The bell sounded and we had been punched out of the Stampede road a second time.   When we got to the original muddy road, we left the Cruiser on safe ground and hiked the road for a few hundred meters.  Indeed we found that this road was truly impassible and turned around again.  Strike three..  On our way back we figured the road the GPS was showing might actually be the creek, and so we drove down the in the direction the water was flowing.  It wasn’t that deep at (compared to Africa), maybe 1 metre, and the Cruiser “cruised” along nicely. We seemed to be going in vaguely the right direction and so we continued along this creek for about a mile.  Marius was skeptical about how easy it would be to go in the opposite direction against the flow and as the creek was getting narrower, the side banks deeper and the water slightly deeper, we turned around at the first level ground that presented itself.  We found that “going with the flow” is not just another saying and although the Cruiser inched itself back against the water, it was a slow process.  At one point, the water had carved a rather deep rut in the riverbed and the rear-end of the Cruiser started to slide into the rut.   The rear of the Cruiser was slowly sinking and I later heard that the water came up to the height of Marius’s window (about 1.5m high)…I shudder to think how deep the rear was in!   Thanks to some skilled driving, two difflocks, 165kW and a very heavy foot, we got out of the hole without any repercussions if you ignore all the stuff that got wet in the back.  Strike four!  We had exhausted all possible roads to the “Magic Bus” and defeated (and I have to say a little relieved it was over..) we left the Stampede road for another lifetime.

Our next destination was Denali National Park, known as one of the best national parks in the world!  We still had not seen a grizzly and were hoping this would be our chance.  Unlike any other national parks we had been to before, Denali could only be explored from a schoolbus..yes, another damn bus.  You can drive your own vehicle for the first 14 miles but after that the only way you can see the park is by purchasing a bus ticket to various points along this 92 mile road.  Unfortunately, a World class park comes with world-class rates and we figured we would only drive the 14 miles into the park and also go and see the one other thing that was free in the park – the dog mushing show.

It was here amongst the excited dogs and cute puppies that we met up again with fellow travelers Diane, Gary, Jeannie and Bob.  They were also exploring the park and were planning on taking the bus into the park to Wonder Lake which was just short of the end of the road.  In an act of complete selflessness and generosity they offered to pay our tickets for the bus so that we could go into the park as well.  We were overwhelmed by this great gesture and felt truly blessed to have met such wonderful people.  The next morning, bright and early, we arrived at the bus terminal and spent a great day in Denali.  Thanks to Gary’s “eagle eyes” we did not miss any wildlife and ended up seeing all there was to see in the park…caribou, elk, dall sheep, moose and then finally a Toklat Grizzly …with two cubs!  She was a rare blond Grizzly only found in these parts and she and her cubs were soo close we could almost run over and cuddle this fluffy 500 pound killing machine.  Besides the wildlife, the surroundings was simply breathtaking and we were even further blessed to be part of only 20 -30% of visitors that see the peak of Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain (base to summit – yes, higher than Everest) in the world!  It was one of the most memorable days on the trip so far and we are forever grateful to our four new friends who made it possible.  Thanks guys, your generosity have given us so much more than just some great memories!

The next day we headed east on the Denali Highway which is an unpaved road whose claim to fame is the amazing view of the mountainous area.  We didn’t know if anything could top the road into Denali Park but we decided to drive east for about 70 miles and then head back before continuing South to the coastal towns of Alaska.  We turned off the highway in search of some offroad adventure and found some strange people making their living here in the middle of nowhere.  They had set up some extensive camps were mining for gold in the small creeks.  While having some coffee we heard hunters in the area shooting rather close by.  Gold panning and guns blazing, if it weren’t for the cold I would have guessed we were in the wild west.

The fourth of July was coming up and we figured it was a good idea to be in one of the towns for the festivities.  The accommodation in Anchorage was super expensive and the location of the RV park and actual sites left something to desired.  It was a little more disappointing when we walked out of the Laundromat at 12 am and heard the fireworks from a distance and realized that we had missed this part of the celebrations..  Anyway, we saw the parade the next day and were very grateful for the free lunch that one of the churches in the area was nice enough to provide.  We were hoping for hotdog and we got one…with some popcorn, crisps and a cookie!

By this time the scenery was getting to just be more of the same.  To be fair, it is more of the same pristine mountainous alpine forest wilderness with intermittent lakes and streams of turquoise all around, but still too much of any good thing seem to enough.  How sad that us humans can get spoiled so quickly..  Although it was far and completely out of the way, we felt obligated to go to the coastal towns of Seward and Homer.  Seward offered a pretty amazing close-up encounter with a glacier named Exit whereas Homer just offered more of the same bad whether we had for since we left the Denali area.  We came to the conclusion that these areas in Alaska would be a fishermans paradise.  Actually most of the coastal area had to be explored by some type of boat, be it on your kayak, motorboat or with your trusty rowboat with fishing rod and worm.  In fact, most of the Alaska coast such as Cordova, Kodiak and Nome is only accessible by boat or plane.  It is possible to travel to these places via some winter trial once enough snow had fallen in the winter, but we are talking a LOT of miles.

We met up with Diane, Gary, Jeannie and Bob again in Soldotna where we were treated to our first bowl of freshly dug clam chowder.  Marius even got a pre-birthday chocolate birthday cake that Diane masterfully saved after a slightly uneven oven caused it to spill over while baking.  Jeannie made some clam fritters and special garlic bread whilst Loma (the friends they were staying with) topped it off with more dessert.  Everything tasted amazing and I overate to the point of serious discomfort.  After some good conversation we stayed over in Don and Loma’s yard and got a great breakfast the next morning before we went on our way.  If they invent a word that means more than thank you, that would be the one we would use to show our gratitude for all you guys have given us.

From Soldotna we had one more stop before heading out of Alaska…Valdez.  New friends Kenny and Rachel had invited us to come and visit them at their new house after we met them on our way up in Badlands area.  We jumped at the opportunity to visit with them again as well as to sleep in a room with a soft bed!  We had a great time getting to know them as well as their little boy, Colin, and Kenny’s mom, Laura.  We even saw little Colin crawl for the first time!  The food, the company, the bed and in my case the exercise was amazing!  Thanks Rachel and Kenny for all your hospitality, you are more than welcome at our house in SA anytime!  Valdez was just beautiful, almost ironic since it was where the gas/oil pipeline which we had driven next to for so many miles to get Deadhorse ended.  If Deadhorse was at the one end of the spectrum, then Valdez was certainly at the other end.  The first few days were rainy and cloudy, but by the third day the sun appeared and transformed the area into what we found the most beautiful area we have seen in Alaska!   We went for a hike along harbor and savored the sun on our backs.

Like all Alaskan coastal towns, fishing is BIG in Valdez and from the taste of the fish we had when Kenny and Rachel took us out for dinner, they do it really good!  Another notable thing about Valdez is the Alaskan pipeline which comes to end in this picturesque town.  Kenny showed us the large reservoirs across from the harbor where the gas/oil is  kept in before being loaded and shipped to the lower 48…by the amount of security warning signs and fencing it was clear that getting to close to this terminal could be detrimental to you well-being.  Another thing common to see when you’re out and about in Valdez is bunnies!  No, not the wild dusty brown ones, the cute black or white ones you would get at your nearest petshop.  Apparently, a lady in town had a few bunnies for pets, and like any normal bunny would do, they bred like jackrabbits resulting in a LOT of little baby bunnies.  Finally she gave up on containing them and just let them run free.  Those with gardens hate them while others love them, but what seems to be a sure thing is that they are here to stay.

And so with most of the roads in Alaska covered, we said goodbye to the final frontier with mixed feelings.  It had been some of the most beautiful scenery we could imagine, untouched wilderness for thousands of miles.  It was also some of the most challenging areas we had travelled in, for the most part because we did not anticipate the problems we encountered.  If ever you should find yourself willing to travel for thousands of miles through a giant, expensive void of beautiful wilderness to reach Alaska, do:  Not worry so much about the cold or road conditions.  Do buy every known, and if need be experimental, anti-mosquito paraphernalia you can find – a good guide is..if you wonder if you have enough to combat these vampires, go and buy some more.  Do not underestimate that you are on the Arctic Circle…the sun does not set here in summertime…your sleep patterns will messed up be completely..if possible buy yourself a sleeping mask and do expect to put up with a rather grumpy partner (no, I’m not talking about Marius)!  All said and done, it was nice to be part of this annual roadtrip between the lower 48 and Alaska – probably the biggest annual roadtrip in the world (as far as we know).

Yasmine, Jenny and Dennis from Faro, thanks for the nice chat! Dennis we hope you sculptures do well and congratulations on your wedding!  Fellow travelers Micheal and Carmin on their bikes, hope your trip goes really well!  Josh on his cycle, man we hope you have made it off the Dalton sane.  Farmer Brown from Texas..we did your test and passed…see you in Texas in a while.  The Millers we met at Exit glacier, nice to have met you.  Rajav and Punda at Skilac Lake close to Soldotna, hope that world trip commences soon..let us know when you’re in Africa.  Kahung and Dante, great to have met you…hope the Dempster highway is beautiful!  Craig and Pam, your veggie-oil Cruiser is pretty amazing, hope to see you in California.  Craig and Kimberley from Vancouver, nice to meet you and thanks for the email!

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