Hunting the Northern Lights in Alaska

When we planned our Alaska trip to stretch into September, we were hoping to see the northern lights. I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much, because it can be unpredictable and several things have to go right. In order to see the northern lights, it needs to be dark enough, far enough north, not cloudy, and there needs to be solar activity.

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Fortunately for us, in early September we were nearing Denali, which is far enough north for aurora. It’s possible to see the northern lights in Alaska from September through April, the rest of the year it doesn’t get dark enough. It’s more likely to be cloudy in the fall than in the winter, and a clear night is necessary. There are forecasts of the solar activity, which we used, but we didn’t find them to be all that helpful. Either the forecasts weren’t that great, or I wasn’t interpreting them right (probably the latter).

The first time that the forecast looked good, we went out to look for the aurora. I was so nervous that we would miss it, because I had heard that it can come and go quickly. We drove to a river just outside Denali National Park, and parked in a pullout. It was a beautiful clear night, and we could see a million stars. We set up our camp chairs and waited. At first there was a bit of a glow on the horizon, that looked more like light pollution than amazing natural phenomenon. It didn’t really look green, but we pointed our camera at it, and took a long exposure photo, and it looked green in the photo.

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So, okay, we had found some lights! We sat there for a couple of hours waiting for it to do amazing northern lightsy things, and a couple of times it got a little more interesting. Parts of it shimmered and danced a bit, but then it quickly went back to a band of light.

We spent a significant amount of the time we were freezing out there, questioning if this was all it was? I mean, technically we could say we’d seen the northern lights, but we’d heard people say it’s magical, and this wasn’t really. What was it supposed to look like? It looked brighter and greener through the camera, and we wondered if northern lights really only look amazing from camera tricks? Were we not far enough north to see it overhead?

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A couple nights later we were inside Denali at Teklanika campground having a campfire outside, and the northern lights came out and literally went from end to end of the sky. There were rivers of green all the way overhead from horizon to horizon. Stripes and swirls and other patterns were dancing in the sky. It was visible and green and beautiful to the naked eye as well as through the camera. It went on for a long time. All our questions about how good the northern lights could be were answered. It was amazing.

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It was funny because the other night we stayed up for hours watching for the northern lights and it really wasn’t worth it. It was freezing, and not a very good show, but we didn’t know any better. Though, we were in a beautiful place under a starry sky, so it wasn’t exactly a waste. We learned that the band of light near the horizon is visible most clear nights, and is caused by solar winds, but the really amazing shows are caused by solar storms, which happen less often.

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We had fun with the camera, trying to capture the movement and color with different settings. Since we were confined to the campground (no driving out of Teklanika), we couldn’t go anywhere more picturesque, but we just gawked at the sky and kept pointing in different directions. Look over there! Oooh, over there! After an hour and a half we were cold and tired, and the lights had faded some and weren’t dancing much so we reluctantly called it a night.

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A few more times we tried to hunt for northern lights with limited success. We were hooked at that point, and we really wanted to see them and take photos. It can come and go so fast, and different camera settings can produce really different pictures, so it was fun and challenging and honestly exhilarating to take pictures and see how they come out. And it can look even cooler in pictures than in real life sometimes.

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We went out in the campground in Tok, Alaska, and saw a little. While he was fishing, Brian scoped out a spot on a bridge over the Little Tok River. A couple nights later when the forecast was good, we went out and waited for the sky to light up, but it was so cloudy. We went back to the car and hid from the cold, and then jumped out when we saw something. The clouds parted just enough to see a green band, that danced for us a little bit. It was so fast though, it was gone barely after it arrived.

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On our drive home from Alaska, we saw northern lights out the window of the truck as we were driving, but couldn’t find anywhere we could pull over with the trailer! So, we tried to watch out the window as we drove.

On our way home, at the end of September, we were boondocking overnight in Canada near Kluane National Park.  We were on a little peninsula in a lake, where were would be able to see the northern lights no matter where they were, but barely anything came out, and it disappeared quickly.

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A few nights later we were in a campground behind a gas station in Watson Lake, Yukon. I popped my head out of the trailer and saw a green sky. I instantly was yelling at Brian to get his coat on and get outside!

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We were across the street from the sign post forest, so we went into the forest to take pictures and ran around all by ourselves. There was no one else around. The show lasted forever, we watched for about two hours.

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When we were finally frozen and exhausted, we went back to the trailer, and the lights were still swirling and dancing in the sky. We were so happy to get another amazing show before we headed south towards home.

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Aurora can be yellow, green, red, blue, and purple, but we mostly saw green. Especially on the nights with vibrant overhead shows, it was all green!

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Each time we saw some northern lights, it just made us want more. We were so lucky to see it a few times over the three weeks we were looking.

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The Alaska Highway

We headed north from Denali a few hours to Fairbanks. The trees were yellow all the way there. It was a nice drive, and we spent it trying to figure out where we would camp.

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We wanted to find hookups to charge up our battery, but were finding that the campgrounds had all very recently closed for the season. We thought we were in luck at Chena Wayside Campground with electric and water right in town. After we drove around the campground a few times, picked out a site, and paid for 3 nights at the kiosk, the camp host came out and told us that they were closing for the season at 9 am the next morning. Ugh. We charged up our battery and dumped and filled our water tank, and decided to cut our Fairbanks visit short. It felt like Alaska was ejecting us.

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We moved to the local Walmart. We enjoyed the “big city amenities” like stocking up on groceries and gas. We got our furnace fixed just before our two year warranty expired (with some ordeal at the local repair shop). And visited a few of the shops in town. The Great Alaskan Bowl Company turns bowls out of local birch wood.

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North Pole, Alaska is about 20 minutes east of Fairbanks, and we visited on our way out of town. They have the Christmas spirit all year, with light poles and sign posts wrapped like candy canes. We visited the Santa Claus House, which is what it sounds like. There was a really nice Christmas Shop with Christmas music playing, and we saw Santa and Mrs. Claus! I loved when Santa had Brian sit on his lap. There were even reindeer next door.

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We drove the Alaska Highway in reverse, from end to beginning. The official end is at Delta Junction, Alaska. The Alaska Highway (or ALCAN) was constructed during World War II to get supplies to the military in Alaska. It was built from each end, meeting in the middle, and covered 1,422 miles. The Canadian portion was turned over to Canada after the war ended, and in 1948 it was opened to the public. It was finally all paved by the 1980s.

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We drove to Tok, Alaska and saw 10 moose on the way! One crossed the road in front of us, so we drove extra carefully. We stayed for 5 nights at the only campground still open in Tok, Sourdough RV. We celebrated Brian’s 35th birthday with goodies we acquired in Fairbanks.

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Brian fished for Arctic Grayling in the Tok river. He was really excited to fish for Grayling, since they are no longer found in Michigan. He caught the daily limit of two and brought them home to cook. They tasted like mild whitefish, similar to trout but less firm.

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The next day he went fishing again in the rain and was treated to a rainbow. A beaver scared the shit out of him with a loud tail slap on the water. I guess that’s what happens when someone gets too close to the den. He caught and released the second day.

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Sourdough RV turned off the water after the first 3 nights, but we still stayed two more, getting ready for the big drive.

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Once we got on the road again, we drove a couple hours before we crossed into Yukon, and had an easy and friendly border crossing. Fall colors seemed to be past peak, but it was still beautiful and we had some nice sunny days.

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The first day of the long drive we made it to Destruction Bay and overnighted on Kluane Lake.

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We were right next to Kluane National Park (the Canadian St. Elias Mountains) and saw so many Dall Sheep way high up in the mountains. We estimated we could see about 125 sheep with binoculars, from the vehicle pullout.

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We stopped in Whitehorse, Yukon, and were really impressed with the downtown area. We parked in the RV parking at the visitors center, in the only spot not taken up by cars that couldn’t read the ‘RV Parking’ signs, and went to The Deli for delicious sandwiches, and to stock up on tasty Canadian deli meat. We walked next to the river that runs through town.

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Our next stop was in Watson Lake, Yukon to visit the Signpost Forest. It was started in 1942 when a soldier repairing the directional sign included a sign for his hometown. Since then many many people have added signs for their own hometowns, and there are now 77,000 signs, and they just go on and on. We didn’t add a sign, but maybe next time!

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We stayed in an RV park behind a gas station, which was a parking lot with electric, but it was cheap and charged up our batteries. They didn’t have a water fill, but they did have a laundry room, and Brian somehow managed to fill our 5 gallon jug from the water line into the laundry on the back of the washing machine. It felt a little shameful, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

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We drove from Watson Lake to Liard Hot Springs in the dark, and had to try not to hit a herd of buffalo just near the road. We also saw a few fox and a lynx! The upside to night travel is seeing wildlife that’s out and about, but the downside is no photos. The next day we set up camp at Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park and backtracked a few miles to get to see the buffalo in better light, doing things that buffalo do.

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In the evening we went to the hot springs. There is a 10-minute walk on a boardwalk over a marsh to the springs.

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At the springs there is a deck and a changing room and benches. I was so cold taking off layers and my feet especially were freezing, until we got into the hot water. The spring is at one end, but it’s a flowing river, and they’ve damned it in a couple places creating pools of different temperatures. We started in the lower pool, which was cooler. It was strange how all over there were pockets of hot and cool water, and in some places the water at the top was hottest. We stayed in the hot springs for four hours, alternating between the temperatures, and occasionally getting out to cool off. The sun went down and the stars came out. There were at least 20 people there, and it’s much more crowded in summer.

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It turned from fall into winter overnight. When we woke up on October 1st, there was over an inch of snow on the ground, and it was still coming down.

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We walked on the boardwalk back to the hot springs, to see it in the snow. We thought about taking another dip, but we didn’t want to get covered in sulphury water again, since we were planning to drive all day. In retrospect we should’ve hopped in!

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Northern British Columbia was beautiful in the snow. We drove through the Northern Rockies, and were gawking the whole time. Brian stopped the car and got out to check out a beaver dam.

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As the snow came down, the drive got more treacherous. We learned why tire chains are required starting October 1st! We didn’t have any, and thought we would make it south before the snow hit, but no such luck. We later learned that Calgary, Alberta (south of where we were) had a much bigger snowstorm, and people were stuck for hours on the roads.

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The area between Muncho Lake and Fort Nelson got a little dicey, and at times I was pretty nervous. At one point we were climbing up a hill, and a truck coming the other way flashed their lights at us. I was freaking out thinking “what does that mean?! are we going to slide down the mountain to our deaths?” and I made Brian stop on the road until another vehicle came the other way that we could ask about the conditions. They said it was fine, but there were some caribou on the road. Thankfully, we made it down this mountain and the others.

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Past Fort Nelson, we drove the next bit in the dark. We couldn’t see, but it didn’t seem like we missed too much exciting scenery. Even the lakes had names like “Borrow Pit #2”. Fortunately there wasn’t too much traffic on the road, but there were some giant trucks, that roared past and created a mini-white-out of blown up snow. We stopped for the night at the only place open between Fort Nelson and Fort St. John, Pink Mountain Campsite.  We slipped around on the road a bit just before we got there, so it was a relief to pull in and plug in. After this experience we did feel like “we survived the Alaska Highway!”

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The next day the sun was out and it wasn’t snowing and the road conditions were much better, which made us question why we had driven a hundred and forty miles in the dark the night before. It was getting dark by 7 now, which is a big change from two and a half months earlier when it was light until 11 pm!

Dawson Creek, BC is the end (or beginning) of the Alaska Highway, but besides that, it’s a pretty industrial town. We continued into Alberta, and passed the town of Beaver Lodge, that welcomes visitors with a giant beaver.

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We overnighted at Walmart in Grande Prairie, which is appropriately named because we drove through prairies to get there.

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We were pretty tired from all the days of driving, and we were sitting on a bench in the front of the Walmart using the wifi, since the cell service was so scarce. Suddenly Brian looks down at his McDonald’s coffee cup and said “we didn’t go to McDonald’s…” he had been drinking an abandoned cup of coffee that was next to the bench! Ewww. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to contract any diseases from the momentary lapse. I guess all the driving took more out of him than he thought.

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Since we wanted to try a Canadian delicacy, we had King of Donair for lunch. Originally from Halifax, a Donair is basically a gyro with different sauce. Donair sauce is sweet and tangy, and I was really glad I got it on the side. Not because I didn’t like it, but because Brian’s was smothered in it. We bought tire chains in Grande Prairie, so of course we didn’t encounter any more snow storms.

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We stayed overnight at Gregg Lake Campground in William Switzer Provincial Park. It was still open, but not manned and absolutely deserted. We didn’t see another person or vehicle while we were there. Since we arrived at night, it was a little creepy. The next day we drove into Jasper National Park and back to civilization!

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Day 735| Mile 75,288

Denali National Park

Denali National Park includes the Alaskan Mountain Range and the surrounding tundra and wilderness. There are many impressive mountains in this range, but the most famous is Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. Native Alaskans have called the mountain Denali (which means “the high one”) for centuries. It was named Mount McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector after William McKinley, who never even visited Alaska. The state of Alaska had been trying to change the name since at least 1975, (and it was still commonly called Denali within Alaska) and in 2015 the name was changed back to Denali, officially.

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At 20,310 feet above sea level, Denali is so tall that it makes its own weather. It is often shrouded in clouds, so much that they say that only 30% of visitors to the park see the mountain. I tried to prepare myself for the possibility of not even seeing the tallest mountain. We had such clear weather when we visited though, that we saw the mountain from miles away, though we rarely saw the very top! Even clear blue sky days can be cloudy on the mountain.

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We couldn’t believe how great the weather was during our visit. In early September it was cool and crisp and sunny most of the days we were there. The trees and grasses and mosses had changed into fall colors and everything was red, yellow, and orange.

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Denali became a national park in 1917, but there were no roads to the entrance until 1957 when a road was built from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The park is vast, (9,492 square miles!) and most of it is wilderness. The lower elevations of the park, like the area near the visitor center, are boreal forest, full of coniferous trees. Much of the rest of the park is tundra, and instead of trees there are mosses and shrubs. There is a 92 mile road that goes into the park, from east to west. The road runs parallel to the Alaskan mountain range and alternates between running alongside the rivers in the valley, and hugging the cliffside treacherously high above the valley floor. The views from the road go for miles.

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Cars are only allowed to drive the first 15 miles of it, to Savage River. Beyond that, the park can be explored by bus. The road is generally restricted to cars to protect the wildlife, which is very important in a National Park, and also because it is a one lane dirt road, and a lot more maintenance and better roads would be needed if cars were able to drive on them every day.

There are tour buses and transit buses and it can be confusing. The tour buses are narrated and stop for wildlife sightings, and the transit buses are intended to be hop-on/hop-off buses that allow visitors to explore different areas of the park. Most people have learned by now that the (much cheaper) transit buses provide some narration and stop for wildlife too, so they are used as an alternative to the tour buses and there aren’t many available seats for hopping on/off.

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There are two exceptions to the ‘no cars past mile 15’ rule, and we took advantage of both of them. There is a campground at mile 29 called Teklanika and if you camp there you can drive to and from it, one time. There is a three night minimum, and no hookups or services available in the park. Once you get there, you can take the bus into the park, but can’t go back to the park entrance. We booked a five night stay at Teklanika.

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The other exception is that for five days a year, at the very end of the season, they allow cars to drive on the road. They hold a “Road Lottery” in May, and people apply to win a road lottery permit. It’s $15 to enter, and winners pay $25 for the permit. The odds of winning are about 1 in 7. Brian and I each applied in May, and I won a permit for the first day of the Road Lottery, September 14!

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We camped for a few days at Denali RV Park, 10 miles north of the park entrance, to explore the front of the park. We went to the visitor center, and picked up our permit for the road lottery, and then went to the Wilderness Access Center (the bus depot), to check in to the campground and pick up our bus tickets.

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The next day we took the bus from the entrance visitor center to the Sled Dog Kennels for a demonstration. There were few month old puppies sleeping in their puppy house, and the other dogs were hanging out on top of or next to their dog houses. One dog was available for us to meet and pet.

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When it was time for the demonstration, the rangers ran alongside the cages and the dogs got all excited! They all wanted to be picked to pull the sled! They picked the dogs and got them harnessed and they ran along the outside of a circle and stopped in front of the stands. The dogs love running, and they should’ve let them run longer!

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Rather than taking the bus back to the visitor center, we hiked back on the Rock Creek Trail. It’s about 2 miles, and climbs up to a beautiful view where we could see the yellow trees. We stopped along the way to admire the mushroom variety. At the end, when we were just about back to the visitor center there were two moose (a cow and calf) on the trail.

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After a couple days outside of the park, we moved to Teklanika Campground. We enjoyed driving to mile 29 to set up camp. The campground has a length limit of 40 feet, and first come/first serve campsites of all different sizes, so we were a little nervous about getting a site big enough for us. When we arrived there were about 10 sites available, many of which would’ve fit us, and we picked out a nice one.

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One of the benefits of staying at Teklanika is the Tek Pass. It’s a bus pass that’s good for the duration of the camping reservation, with one bus with a reserved seat, and after that it’s hop on/hop off on a space available basis. It’s a good deal at $40 per person, since that’s the price of the cheapest transit one-day bus ticket otherwise, and going all the way to Kantishna (the end of the road) is $60 otherwise. We scheduled our ‘reserved seats’ for the bus to Kantishna the day after we arrived at Teklanika.

Another benefit of staying at Teklanika is that we were already at mile 29, so we cut off about 2.5 hours from the round-trip to Kantishna. If we had gotten on at the front of the park, it would have been a 12 hour bus ride! As it was, it was a long day of riding on a bumpy dirt road on a dusty schoolbus. Though we had guaranteed seats on the bus to Kantishna, we didn’t have any seats in particular reserved, and when we got on at Teklanika, every seat had at least one person in it. No one wanted to give up a window seat so we could sit together. A group of three girls who were traveling together were taking up three separate seats rather than sitting together. One of them eventually moved to sit with her friend when she realized that Brian wasn’t going to spring up for her to move to the other side of the bus whenever she felt like it.

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Denali attracts hard core wildlife viewers and the buses have the feeling of a safari. Visitors want to see Denali’s big five: Moose, Wolf, Caribou, Dall Sheep, and Grizzly Bears. Along with the moose that we saw in the front of the park, we technically saw all of the big five, but most of the wildlife is so far away! We joked about seeing bear-shaped dots and sheep-shaped dots. Denali is a place where we were glad to have binoculars.

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The bus stopped at several rest areas and viewpoints for 10 or 15 minutes at a time so people could use the bathroom or take pictures.

At mile 46 is Polychrome Overlook, which is a beautiful view of the braided rivers in the valley below.

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At mile 53 there is a bookstore (in a big tent) and bathrooms at the Toklat River rest stop.

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At mile 62 is Stony Hill Overlook, which may be the most beautiful and popular view of Denali.

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At mile 66 is the Eielson Visitor Center, we stopped here for about an hour and we ate the lunches we packed.

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Mile 85 is Wonder Lake, and mile 92.5 is the end of the road, at Kantishna.

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We took the bus all the way to the end, because we wanted to see the whole park, but were surprised to find that it isn’t as pretty after Wonder Lake. The road isn’t as elevated so the views aren’t as good. Kantishna was an old mining settlement, and now has an air landing strip and a few private lodges.

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Though the transit buses are technically hop on/hop off, no one got off our bus. Very few buses go all the way to the end of the road, so if anyone got off, they wouldn’t be able to see the whole park. A few hikers and campers did hop on for a ride back to the front of the park, and all the seats were filled on the way back, and several people weren’t able to get on that wanted to.

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The next day, we hung out at camp and rested. It was cloudy and rain was forecasted, and honestly after 10 hours on a school bus we were beat. Just before our Teklanika reservation began our furnace stopped working. It got cold at night, nearly freezing! We didn’t want to change any of our plans though, so we used an extra blanket and dealt with it. One morning when we woke up it was 38 degrees in the trailer! We had our solar panel out, but even with blue skies we still probably wouldn’t have been able to run the furnace all night using our battery, so I guess it’s better that we weren’t tempted. We made a fire and cooked steaks to keep warm.

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The day after, we hopped on a nearly full bus to the Eielson Visitor Center. We got seats in the front rows, near a couple that had been to Denali every year for the past 27 years! They come for the wildlife, and told us stories of some of the best sightings they’d had in their years of visiting, like watching a wolf take down a caribou, and then get chased off the meal by bears! They were fun to talk to, and certainly had the run of the park. They made friends with the bus drivers, and kept up on the best places to see animals. We saw three wolves for just a couple seconds as they walked on the road and disappeared into the trees.

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At the visitor center we ate our packed lunch and watched the dated but interesting video on climbing Denali. That is a brutal climb. This year 1,114 people attempted to climb Denali, and only 45% were successful. The cold temperatures and unpredictable weather are the biggest obstacles. Eielson Visitor Center also has an amazing quilt on display, a work of art by Ree Nancarrow, using hand dyed fabrics to illustrate the view of Denali from the visitor center windows.

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We hiked the Gorge Creek Trail, which dropped 600 feet in a mile to Gorge Creek. It was fun to get close to one of the beautiful braided rivers that are all over the park. The fall colors on this hike were incredible. We couldn’t believe our luck with the weather.

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Sometimes we felt silly taking so many pictures of Denali, since there is so much more to the park than just the mountain… but it really is so beautiful that it was hard to stop ourselves.

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We also gawked plenty at the braided rivers that run throughout the park and fill the valleys. The shallow rivers are fed by glaciers and are constantly changing course on the wide gravel floodplain.

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On our bus ride back to camp (2.5 hours!) we saw a mama bear and two cubs pretty near to the road, eating all the berries they could find to fatten up for winter.

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The final day of our stay in Teklanika was the first day of the Road Lottery, and the day we had a permit for! They opened the road at 6 am, and let people leave from Teklanika at 7. We were in line to leave about 6:45, and were about the 8th car. We had all day in the park but we wanted to get in early to see the park in the morning light. Our first glimpse of Denali, it was all pink.

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As we drove into the park we saw the light come into the valley.

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After two days in the park on the buses, I wasn’t sure if the road lottery would be as magical as I had built it up in my head to be, but it was really nice to be able to drive through the park at our own pace, with all our stuff with us, and be able to stop wherever we wanted to.

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We decided not to drive all the way to the end of the road, since it wasn’t that interesting past Wonder Lake. Just past Wonder Lake we pulled off at a pull out and hiked up a social trail to the top of a hill. A ranger had told us about this trail, it was steep and overgrown with waist-high bushes. It was mid-day by now, and the lighting on Denali and Wonder Lake wasn’t the best for photographs, but the view at the top was incredible.

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On the way back we stopped at a beautiful pond rimmed with yellow grass and got out to take photos. The ground was squishy, and it was like walking in a bounce house.

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We noticed wild blueberries growing all over, and started to pick handfuls. We had previously checked with a ranger that this was okay to do, and there are no poisonous berries growing here that are blue. There are some poisonous red ones though (baneberries). Another couple saw us and pulled over. We told them we were picking blueberries, and they joined us and gave us a paper bowl, which was a real help. We had brought store-bought blueberries with us, so we had a taste test. The store bought kind are way bigger and sweeter, but less flavorful. The wild blueberries have more flavor, but it isn’t always consistent, so it tasted best to eat 4 or 5 at a time. Later when we had eaten all our berries, we stopped near another pond and picked more! This was one of our favorite parts of road lottery day.

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We saw a few far-away bears and Dall sheep, but our favorite wildlife sightings were the animals we saw close up. The first one we came across was a red fox.

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We also saw arctic ground squirrels near the road, getting ready to hibernate for winter.

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We saw a Snowshoe Hare, changing its colors for the winter season. It stayed around and posed for me on the road. Later, when it was getting dark, there were hares everywhere, darting away from cars and running across the road.

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We saw six or seven ptarmigan, which are an arctic bird similar to a grouse that doesn’t migrate. They turn completely white in winter, and grow long feathers on their legs to keep warm. The ones we saw looked like they were losing their summer camouflage plumage.

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We had made it back to about mile 45 by 6ish, and weren’t ready to be done, so we turned around and headed back into the park. Brian made some enemies at this point, because there is a stretch of the road on the edge of a cliff, that is just barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Many people were heading out of the park, and they had to pass us on the outside. This was the only point in the road that was a bit sketchy. Brian wasn’t concerned, because he’s done a lot of driving by now and is pretty bold, but I can understand other people being apprehensive about this part of the drive. Everyone took it slow and there weren’t any problems.

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We got back to the Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66) around 8, and the sun was setting. We stayed as long as we could, until rangers told us we had to head back. They start sweeping people from the west end of the park so that everyone is back to Teklanika by 11, or the park entrance by midnight. We were surprised they wouldn’t let us stay until the sun was done setting, because seeing the sun set on Denali is rare due to the timing of the bus schedules.

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After the sun set, there wasn’t much to see, so we went straight back to camp and got there about 10 pm. We stayed out as long as possible, because we didn’t want to miss anything!

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We loved our road lottery day, and it definitely felt like a special privilege to be turned loose in the vast park. Sunrise and sunset in the park were beautiful. There were 400 cars on the road, but it never really felt crowded. Most of the other permit holders were Alaskans, many of whom apply every year. We felt lucky to have won a permit the first time we applied.

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We also couldn’t have had better weather during our visit. It was in the 50s and 60s during the day, and clear blue skies most days. The fall colors were on display everywhere, and we were told they were a little late this year, many years everything is brown by the Road Lottery, and some years the whole road isn’t open because of snow.

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Denali isn’t an easy park to navigate, but it’s worth figuring it out. I think the combination of camping at the entrance, using the bus system and camping at Teklanika, and winning the road lottery was the perfect way to explore this beautiful park.

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Day 716 | Mile 72,953

Driving to Denali

We drove out of the Kenai Peninsula and followed the north side of Turnagain Arm, which is the skinny inlet that separates the Kenai Peninsula. Turnagain Arm experiences huge tidal changes up to 40 feet. When the tide is out it’s a mud flat. A few days each month, when the difference in low tide and high tide is big enough, it comes in as a big wave called a bore tide. The wave can be big enough to surf, and takes 5 hours to make it all the way through the inlet. We weren’t there at the right time to see this.

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We spent a couple days in and around Anchorage, running errands and doing some shopping and overnighting in Cabela’s parking lot. Anchorage has about 300,000 residents, which is 40% of the entire population of Alaska. It certainly is the “big city” in Alaska, but we didn’t spend too much time there. We briefly visited the downtown area, and went to Stewart’s Camera store and some souvenir shops.

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As we made our way north of Anchorage, we stopped in Palmer at the musk ox farm and took a tour.

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The musk ox is an ancient arctic species. They roamed Alaska 600,000 years ago, but due to harsh winters and hunting, by 1865 there were no more in Alaska or Siberia. Fortunately Greenland and Canada protected them, and in 1930 the U.S. Government paid $40,000 to buy and transport 34 young musk oxen to Alaska. They were moved to a wildlife refuge on Nunivak Island, off the west coast of Alaska. There are now about 4,000 musk oxen in Alaska.

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The musky smell that contributes to its name comes from fermented urine, that males cover themselves in to mark their territory during mating. Brian was disappointed to learn that the mating males were in a different field up the hill, and the tour didn’t visit them, so we couldn’t smell their stink. Since the smell doesn’t come from a musk gland (like the muskrat), ‘musk ox’ isn’t the best name for them. They are called umingmak in Inuktitut, which means “bearded one” and is a much better name.

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They have a long coarse coat, that covers a soft undercoat of wool, called qiviut (pronounced kiv-ee-ute). It is the softest and warmest wool, and very expensive! They shed this undercoat each year in spring. In the wild, qiviut is gathered from fields, where musk oxen rub it off on branches or the ground. At the farm, the musk ox are put in a small pen to keep them in place, and the undercoat is combed off. The average yield for an adult is four and a half pounds of qiviut.

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They are large, but not as large as we expected them to be. We thought they would be the size of buffalo, but they are smaller, only about four and a half feet tall.

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The musk ox farm is the only place where musk oxen are being domesticated. The domestication process is still early, and Brian asked which traits are being selected in the breeding process. Since they are being farmed to harvest qiviut, which is pretty much the same for all musk ox, they are breeding only for docile, well-behaved musk ox. Surprisingly, Alex Trebek is one of the musk ox farm’s biggest supporters.

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The Iditarod Headquarters is in Wasilla, Alaska, which is about an hour from Anchorage. There is a small museum with a video about the Iditarod race, and tributes to some of the famous racers, both human and canine. The Iditarod is a 938 mile race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. Mushers race on sleds being pulled by teams of 16 dogs. Sled dogs are a traditional form of transportation in Alaska, used for exploration and mail delivery, and are still used in rural areas.

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Alaskan Huskies are the most common dogs in the Iditarod. It’s not considered a breed, but rather a type of dog. It is bred specifically for the traits useful for sled dogs: speed, endurance, strength, and a warm coat. Siberian Huskies, Malamutes, Pointers, and Shepherds have been bred into the lineage and Alaskan Huskies all look a little different.

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The Iditarod began in 1973, and revived the mushing heritage. It commemorates an event in 1925, where diphtheria antitoxin was transported by train from Anchorage to Nenana by train, and then 674 miles from Nenana to Nome by sled dog relay in just over 5 days, to ward off an epidemic.

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Members of the Redington family bring some of its dogs in a dog-mobile, and they set up outside the headquarters and offer sled dog rides. We sprang for the ride, even though it was very short, just one lap around a circle track in the woods. It was interesting to see how quickly the dogs went from lying around to ready to run! We could feel how powerful and fast they were during the short ride.

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After our ride, we were shown to the puppy cage, where a musher handed me a puppy… and then casually walked away. It took every bit of honesty I have to not sprint away with it, it was so snuggly and cute!

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After our adventures near Anchorage, we finished the four-hour drive to Denali National Park.

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On the road, we had our first glimpse of the mountain, and pulled off at Denali View South Viewpoint as the sun was starting to go down.

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As we neared the park, we started to see fall colors! It was early September, and everything was red and yellow.

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Day 707 | Mile 72,280

 

Homer and Cooper Landing, Alaska

We drove past the Kenai River to the west side of the Kenai Peninsula to visit Homer, a fishing community on Kachemak Bay.

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We camped at Homer Spit Campground, which is near the end of Homer Spit. The Spit is a long skinny strip of land, that reaches 4.5 miles into Kachemak Bay. It was likely created by a retreating glacier, ages ago. It was a beautiful place to camp, though the gulls screeching woke us up each morning.

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It makes a great location for marinas and has a fun, beachtown touristy feeling. We really enjoyed walking on the beach, since sandy beaches are rare in Alaska.

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All along the spit there are cute shops and restaurants on stilts.

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Homer Spit has a funky vibe, and we enjoyed the fun places to take photos.

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We visited Bear Creek Winery and tasted their fruit blend wines made with Alaskan and Pacific Northwest fruits like blueberry, rhubarb, raspberry, and currant. They were surprisingly good!

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We had a really nice meal at Fresh Catch Cafe. There are several nice restaurants on the spit.

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Since Homer calls itself the halibut fishing capital of the world, it felt like the right place to go on a halibut fishing charter. Brian showed me how to catch halibut using circle hooks.

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The weather was spotty with rain during our stay, so we picked the nicest day in the forecast and called around to some of the many charter fishing companies. The nice thing about the halibut charters is that they are typically on a 6 passenger boat, and they will pair up groups so we didn’t have to reserve a whole boat just for the two of us. We booked an all day halibut fishing trip with North Country Charters, on the Julia Lynn with Captain Pete and mate Brett. Captain Pete’s niece and her husband were on our trip, so we knew he’d do a good job.

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Even though it was a nice sunny day, the ride from Homer Spit out into Kachemak Bay wasn’t as calm as I hoped. The hour-long ride out about 15 miles to our first fishing area felt like a million tiny roller coasters. I hate roller coasters. By the time we stopped l was good and seasick.

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Halibut are flat fish that swim at the bottom of pretty deep water. When they are born they look like normal fish, but when they are only about an inch long, one eye migrates to the same side of their bodies as the other eye, and the no-eye side of them turns white. They are funny looking, tasty fish. They can also get to be huge, the record for largest halibut caught is 459 pounds!

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Pete anchored us in about 120 foot deep water, while the current was strong. Halibut are typically caught on circle hooks, and they were baited with combinations of octopus tentacles, herring, salmon, and garlic scents. It was like a sushi bar for fish. The garlic scent was especially nauseating when already nauseas. We lowered our hooks to the bottom and they bounced there in the current. When we felt a fish tug, we reeled up. We also periodically reeled up to see if we still had bait or if a fish got a free lunch.

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The limit for charter halibut fishing is keeping two fish per person, where one has to be less than 28 inches long, and the other can be any size. We each caught our ‘under’ fish pretty quickly, and then were looking for our big fish.

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Brian wanted to jig fish, and Pete got him set up to do that. He caught a few halibut that way, but threw them back looking for a bigger fish. He caught a small flounder that we kept and used as bait. One person on our boat caught a big fish, but the rest of us didn’t have that luck. The same guy also caught a huge ray that was released.

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When the currents changed, the halibut stopped biting, and we moved to another location where we didn’t anchor and fished while drifting. We had to keep moving back to the start to drift back.

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As soon as I caught my second keeper fish, I somehow perked up. Previously I had temporarily perked up earlier after, uh, “chumming the waters”… a couple times… but this time it lasted. I was glad I was still able to fish and have a pretty good time, in spite of the seasickness. Three of the six guests on our boat were seasick, so I had company.

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Unfortunately, the boat had engine issues, and we had to idle back to the marina. It took longer, but I preferred the slower speed. The mate fileted the fish on the boat while we drove, so it was easier for him too.

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We ended up with over 18 pounds of halibut from the four fish we caught. Brian vacuum sealed and froze it himself, so we didn’t use one of the many fish processors in the area, and carried our fish home in a garbage bag.

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Over the next few weeks we enjoyed halibut, many ways!

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After we left Homer, we backtracked two and a half hours east to Cooper Landing, on the Kenai River near Kenai Lake. We stayed at Kenai Princess RV Park. Brian spent a few days fly fishing in the river. There were red and silver salmon in the river, but not in very large quantities. Brian practiced a two-handed cast, and hooked into a trout.

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He went on a guided fishing trip on a float boat with a few others. They caught dolly varden and rainbow trout using egg imitation beads, and pink salmon (“humpies”), many of which were in various phases of dying after breeding. They didn’t see any silver salmon. The guide helped Brian with his two-handed casting, and he caught a pink salmon on a fly.

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There was a popular fishing spot nearby, where there is a ferry that takes people across the river. Brian didn’t fish here, because it was starting to look like combat fishing, though I think it gets worse when the silver salmon are running in the river.

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There are many good hikes nearby. We did the short but steep mile and a half Bear Mountain hike, that went 400 feet up to a beautiful lookout over the Kenai mountains and Kenai River watershed and Skilak Lake. We spotted mushrooms in the forest. We were lucky to have beautiful weather in Cooper Landing, it was a nice break from all the August rain, and it was starting to feel like fall.

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We went out to dinner at Kingfisher Roadhouse the night before we left the area, and were surprised at how good the meal was! We had crab enchiladas for an appetizer and I had caribou stroganoff and Brian had a steak for dinner. Everything was delicious!

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Day 705 | Mile 72,001

Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, Alaska

After a lot of rain in the Copper River Valley and Valdez, we got some nice weather on our drive on the Glenn Highway to Anchorage.

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We passed the Matanuska Glacier, which is the largest glacier in Alaska that can be reached by car, 26 miles long and 4 miles wide!

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We stopped in Anchorage to run a few errands, but couldn’t spend long because we had to get to Seward. The weather forecast was predicting two straight weeks of rain, after only one nice day. I really wanted good weather to take a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park, so we booked that for the first day of our visit. We got to Seward late and the Waterfront campground was full, but I was relieved to find there is an overflow lot with dry camping. Early the next morning we went to the harbor to catch our boat.

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We booked our Kenai Fjords boat tour with Major Marine. They have several different tours and we debated between the 7.5 hour and 8.5 hour tours. The 7.5 hour tour is very popular and has a park ranger on board, and the 8.5 hour tour is on a smaller boat that can get closer to the wildlife. We’ve decided to default to taking the longest tour available, and it worked out pretty well this time.

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It was a clear blue calm day, with about 3 foot seas in the bay. The forecast for two days later predicted 16 foot seas, so I was very glad we booked the boat tour for our first day in Seward. It was cold though! Temperatures were in the 50s and when the boat was moving (which was nearly the whole time), it was windy, I was wearing two pairs of pants, two shirts, two jackets, a hat and gloves, and I was still cold. Even Brian was wearing a light jacket.

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Kenai Fjords became a National Monument in 1978 and a National Park in 1980, which is basically when all the National Parks in Alaska were created with the passage of Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

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The first thing we learned on our tour was the definition of a fjord. It is a deep U-shaped valley filled with water carved by glaciation. Fjords are only found in 6 areas in the world, Alaska, Chile, Norway, New Zealand, Greenland, and Antarctica.

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Kenai Fjords National Park contains six major fjords and the Harding Icefield, which is over 700 square miles of ice up to a mile thick. The Harding Icefield feeds 38 glaciers. All this, and it’s the smallest of Alaska’s 8 National Parks. At over 1,000 square miles, it’s still bigger than 42 of America’s 59 National Parks.

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The 8.5 hour trip tours through Resurrection Bay near some islands and into Northwestern Fjord. The islands had sea lions laying around, and birds flying everywhere.

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We were on the tour that is the one that is best for birdwatching, so we had some birders on board. There was a downside to being on a birding boat that I didn’t think of until a few gulls flew overhead and both Brian and I were pooped on.

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The upside is we saw a lot of puffins! I mean, we saw a lot of different types of birds (Kittiwakes, Common Mures, Cormorants, and more), but the puffins were our favorite. The birders were very excited to see some rare birds.

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We saw horned and tufted puffins, flying and swimming and nesting. We really liked watching them run on water to take off. Puffins load their beaks with small fish to bring back to their nests, and we saw a few with full beaks. They dunked under the water suddenly if they were spooked, or maybe just for fun.

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The boat pulled up really close to a few of the islands and saw nesting birds and waterfalls. We were surprised at how close the boat was able to get.

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Kenai Fjords National Park would be impressive enough without the glaciers, but it also has some of the most beautiful glaciers we saw in Alaska. We parked near Northwest Glacier, and spent time there.

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There were seals laying on the icebergs near the glacier, that were unfazed when big chucks of ice fell from the glacier.

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We saw icebergs calf into the water a few times, as we were pulling away a big section sloughed off and made a big splash!

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After we left the glaciers we saw several sea otters and two humpback whales that flapped their tails into the air as they dove underwater.

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We felt very lucky to have a calm sunny day for this tour, since we had really been looking forward to it. The tour goes into the Gulf of Alaska, and if the seas had been rough it wouldn’t have been comfortable on the small boat. Starting the next day, it rained for about 5 straight days. We moved to a site with electric as soon as we could, since our solar panel wouldn’t work with the rain. The whole waterfront of Seward has been made into a no reservations campground, so around 11 am we drove over and were lucky to get a site right on the water. The only reservations the campground takes is for caravans, and a few days into our stay we saw the Airstream caravan pull in, we counted 35 Airstreams.

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We spent a rainy day at the Alaska Sealife Center, the aquarium in Seward. It’s not a very big aquarium, but it has a lot of interesting exhibits with local sea life, and they rescue and rehabilitate animals. The touch tank had all kinds of sea stars and sea cucumbers, and there were exhibits on the impacts of pollution and plastic waste in the ocean.

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Our favorite exhibit was the large, two story tank that had fish swimming below and puffins and ducks above. From the tank below we could see the puffins dive underwater when they were fed, they are good swimmers and can dive pretty deep and stay down awhile. One puffin kept trying to steal a duck’s food rather than go after his own. We watched the bully jerk puffin for awhile, then we went upstairs to see the puffins up close.

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Brian almost made it to the end of our visit to the aquarium without trying to eat any of the exhibits.

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We were lucky to have one more beautiful day at the end of our stay in Seward and we went to the only part of Kenai Fjords National Park that is drivable, the Exit Glacier area. We drove the only road that goes just barely into the park and did the short walk to the toe of Exit Glacier. There were signs with the years on them, indicating where the glacier had previously been, since, like nearly every glacier, it is retreating.

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We spent a week in Seward and we had time to check out the town and Brian did a little fishing. Even with a daily alarm going off each noon to remind us of the possibility of tsunami, we really enjoyed our waterfront site. The view is hard to beat.

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Day 694 | Mile 71,401

Valdez, Alaska

Valdez is a small town surrounded by mountains on the coast of Prince William Sound. Its nickname is the Switzerland of Alaska because of its picturesque mountain setting. We spent two and a half days there, and the sun didn’t shine once. It was rainy off and on the whole time, so I don’t think we saw Valdez in all of its beauty.

The drive on the Richardson highway into Valdez took us over Thompson Pass and through Keystone Canyon, where we saw beautiful waterfalls, including Horsetail Falls.

We drove up to Worthington Glacier, which is one of only a few glaciers in Alaska that are still accessible by roads. It has been retreating for the last 150 years, but not as dramatically as many other glaciers in Alaska, because Thompson Pass is the snowiest place in Alaska.

The pink salmon were running in the rivers, and we drove down Dayville Road and parked near a shallow stream that was full of salmon and had attracted a flock of seagulls.

After just a little while, a black bear came out of the woods, and fished for salmon. It caught them easily, put them up on the bank, took a few nibbles, and went back for a different one.

This went on for awhile. Another bear came out of the woods and went down the creek looking for its own fishing grounds.

Valdez has been the site of two major disasters in the last 60 years, which we learned about at the Valdez Museum. Originally, Valdez was located squarely between the sea (Prince William Sound), and Valdez Glacier. Gold prospectors thought they could get to the interior of Alaska over the glacier, but it wasn’t as easy as they expected.

In 1964 there was a huge magnitude 9.2 earthquake lasting four and a half minutes and causing destruction all over Alaska. An underground landslide in Prince William Sound collapsed the Port Valdez docks and killed 32 people. Tsunamis killed 23 of the 68 residents in nearby Chenaga. A few years after the earthquake, the city of Valdez was found to be unstable, and the whole town was moved to a new location, just a few miles away.

The land for the new townsite was donated by Owen Meals, a wealthy business owner in Valdez. My grandmother’s family lived in Valdez for a few years. My uncle likes to tell me that his Aunt Louise (my grandmother’s oldest sister) turned Owen Meals down when he wanted to date her.

We visited the “old townsite” but there isn’t much to see. There’s nothing left but some small signs saying where buildings used to be. Many of the buildings from the old townsite were picked up and moved to the new town. There is a detailed scale model of the entire old townsite in a second location of the Valdez Museum. Some people must’ve been really dedicated to that cause.

The second disaster, of course, is the grounding and oil spill of the Exxon Valdez in 1989. 10.8 million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound. The currents carried the oil away from Valdez and down to the Kenai and Alaska Peninsulas. 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean were affected.

Initial cleanup efforts were botched and Exxon’s response was slow. Thousands of animals died. Food chains and ecosystems were damaged throughout Alaska, and many fishing towns suffered. Nearly 30 years later, a lot of impacted areas and species have recovered, but Exxon appealed paying damages for so long and ultimately paid greatly reduced amounts.

The Exxon Valdez was carrying all that oil through Prince William Sound because Valdez is the southern terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Built between 1974-1977, it covers 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay at the northern coast of Alaska, to Valdez. Oil is pumped from the Prudhoe Bay Oil Fields to Valdez, where it is transferred to tankers.

Presumably for security reasons, the public isn’t allowed close to the Valdez Marine Terminal, but a section of pipeline was on display outside the museum.

We went to find the Valdez Glacier, and weren’t able to see it. We made it to the lake at the base of the glacier, but it has retreated around the corner. There were huge icebergs floating in the lake, and we checked it out during a quick break in the rain.

We camped at Bear Paw Campground which is near the marina. It wasn’t too memorable, aside from being overrun with bunny rabbits. In fairness, that was true of the whole town. Since the rain wasn’t forecasted to stop anytime soon, we left Valdez. I hope we are able to return one day and see the mountains.

Day 685 | Mile 70,858

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest National Park in America. It’s a vast wilderness, about five times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Like a lot of things in Alaska, it isn’t easy to visit. Even though it’s huge, only a small part is accessible without an airplane. There are four mountain ranges in the park, the Wrangell mountains, Saint Elias Mountains, the Chugach mountains, and the eastern part of the Alaskan range.  Nine of North America’s tallest sixteen mountains are in the park. It also contains some of the largest glaciers.

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Most of the huge park is inaccessible wilderness. There are only two roads that go into the park, one in the north and one from the west. The road from the north is Nabesna Road, and goes for 42 miles. We didn’t drive this road, maybe next time! The road from the west is McCarthy Road and it goes 60 miles into the park over rough terrain. In the center of the park are two towns, Kennecott and McCarthy. Historically, Kennecott was a copper mining town, and McCarthy sprang up five miles away, to give the copper miners somewhere to spend their money.

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We camped in Chitina on the Copper River. Chitina is a popular place for dipnetting, which is a type of fishing only open to Alaskan residents, where fish are caught by dipping a net into the river. It might sound easy, but the rivers are rushing and the nets are long and the fish are big, so I don’t think it’s as easy as it sounds. Dipnetting was closed at the time due to lower than expected fish populations, so there was plenty of space at the free forest campground just about a mile down McCarthy Road.

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The night before we were planning to head there, we heard the there was flooding in the park and on the road. They hadn’t closed the road, but the trail to Root Glacier was closed. We decided to brave the road anyway, though we heard it’s hazardous. It’s 60 miles, but takes at least two hours to drive. It took us three hours, because we kept stopping to take photos. A few areas were rough or nearly washed out, but we went slowly and didn’t have any problems.

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Since Kennecott is a remote location, a railroad was built south to Prince William Sound. It was called the Copper River and Northwest Railroad, the CR & NW, nicknamed the “Can’t Run and Never Will”. It was a feat to build the railroad in 1910, especially over rivers. The single-lane Kuskulana River Bridge was built in the winter 238 feet above the river. The mine and railroad shut down in 1938, and in the 1950s the railroad route was converted to McCarthy road. The Kuskulana Bridge was the only piece built for the railroad that was used for the road. For years the one-lane bridge over a steep canyon had no guardrails, but thankfully it does now.

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An interesting thing about Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is that it is a patchwork of park land, preserve land (where hunting is allowed), and private property. Some of the private properties are nice lodges and restaurants, and some are homes. Some of the homes we went past had multiple vehicles rotting on the lawn, antlers mounted everywhere, and signs saying “Back Off!”. It’s definitely a different atmosphere than many other National Parks! There are private concessioners in the park. We used St. Elias Alpine Guides for tour guides, and we took the private shuttle service, which is $5 each way. The road ends at a footbridge, and it is still about half a mile to McCarthy and five miles to Kennecott.

The first thing we noticed when we got to Kennecott is the terminus of Kennicott Glacier (they are spelled differently, weird, huh?). It’s totally covered in dirt and rocks, and looks more like dunes than ice. When the mine was in operation, the glacier was so much thicker that the mountains couldn’t be seen behind it.

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The Kennecott Copper Mine was financed by J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheims.The mines produced $200 million in high-grade copper before the deposits ran out in 1938. Even after paying the high costs of building a railroad and a town and mining for copper, they still made $100 million in the 27 years it was in operation ($1.5 billion in today’s dollars).  In what was known as the Alaskan Syndicate, these jerks controlled the minerals, transportation, and even the salmon industry in Alaska.

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There were 500 miners working there at a time, 7 days a week. Some lived in bunkhouses, but many just slept in the mines (it would’ve been warmer in the mines in winter). While the engineers and administrators lived in “Silk Stocking Row” (a row of nice houses up on the hill), the miners weren’t allowed to have their families with them in Kennecott. The mine paid slightly more than mines in the lower 48 states, and the company would pay miners’ travel expenses if they worked there for 6 months, so many people came and worked there for just the 6 months and then moved on. I may be slightly bitter on the miners’ behalf because my great-grandfather was a miner who died in a rock fall accident in 1916 at Beatson Mine on Latouche Island in Alaska, which was owned by Kennecott Copper Mining Company at that time.

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There are exhibits in the post office, grocery store, and engineer’s office that are open to all visitors and have displays on what life was like during the mine’s operation. The 14-story mill building and the powerhouse are only accessible on the tour.

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Touring the mill building was really interesting. It was built over 10 years onto the side of the hill. We climbed the hill and started at the top. The copper ore was transported to the top of the building from the mines in buckets on trams. As the ore made its way down to the bottom, it was sorted into quality levels using various clever methods, like putting it out on a table with ridges and shaking the table so the densest pieces would sort themselves onto one side of the table. At the bottom, the ore would be bagged into canvas bags and loaded onto the train. The canvas bags were used because the ore would freeze and there would be a huge heavy copper ore-cicle if they didn’t separate it into smaller quantities first.

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The fun part about touring a building over a hundred years old, is being told that the National Park Service is keeping the building in “suspended decay”, and the tour guide pointing out how strange the construction is, and “can you believe it’s still standing?!” when we are 10 stories up, and looking down out the window at the town below.

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We didn’t learn much about what the miners did, since the tour was in the processing buildings, but the basic gist was they would drill holes and stuff them with dynamite and a sock full of sand and explode the ore. Then they would load the heavy ore into carts and tramway buckets to get it down the mountain to the processing plant.

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At least twice during the day we heard that it was ‘two for one burger night’ at The Golden Saloon in McCarthy, so after our Kennecott tour, we indulged in burgers and beers with what seemed like every tour guide and local in Kennecott/McCarthy.

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While we were buying tickets for the Kennecott Mill tour, we asked about the status of the trail to Root Glacier, and when they thought the glacier hikes would start back up. They were already open! So we cursed the fact that we weren’t prepared to stay the night, booked the next day’s guided glacier hike, and drove two hours home to our trailer in Chitina.

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We were up at 5:30 am to make it back down McCarthy road for our full day glacier hike. It was in the 40s with spotty rain while we were driving there, and we were determined to enjoy the hike regardless of the weather. We got fitted for crampons (big metal spikes worn over our shoes), and headed out on the 2 mile hike through the town to the glacier.

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We were on the full-day tour in a small group, with a family of three from England and our guide, Sam, who is a recent college grad about to embark upon an accounting career. Walking on the glacier was harder than we expected, but the crampons made it possible.

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It was hard to judge depth perception on the glacier, and it was so uneven. I expected the ice to be smooth, but it was all ridges. We had to stamp a bit to get the spikes to dig in. Going downhill was the hardest. Sam had to hold my hand sometimes!

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Brian expected the glacier to make noises, but it was pretty silent. The only noise was the crunching of our crampons. Another person in our group had a crampon break, and Sam was able to put it back together. Later it happened to me too. The crampons had gotten a lot of use during the summer season, so it was really good that Sam had the tools and experience to fix them on the fly.

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Sam did a great job of leading us around and showing us the interesting features of the glacier. The meltwater was cold and clear and blue, and we filled our water bottles. It wound serpentine rivers through the glacier. Where there was sediment, the ice melted beneath it.

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The coolest features were the Moulins, which are holes drilled into the glacier by water. They are very dangerous, falling in means near-definite death. Sam showed us a couple of them, and to be safe, he brought us over one at a time, and steadied us while we peered into the ice abyss.

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The weather ended up being pretty nice for us. The temperature got into the 50s and since we were moving nearly the whole time we kept warm. It was cloudy, so even though the ice was bright blue-white, we didn’t need to wear sunglasses. Staring at the blue-white ice for so long made the sky look purplish. Brian was the only one on the glacier that wasn’t only coatless but had his sleeves rolled up too!

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We saw some gorgeous blue pools on the glacier, Brian was tempted to take a polar bear plunge into one, but he held back.

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At the end of the hike, my ankles were pretty tired, and Sam had us climb up a short steep ledge. As he offered me some help up, I said to him “this better be good”, and it was. There was a river flowing down to us, and curving around us in a horseshoe. One of the other folks in our group dropped their water bottle and it rolled into the river. Sam went around the bend and reached into the river and got it! It was amazing how fast he got down the steep slope into a position that I never would’ve been able to get out of.

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We were exhausted as we drove back down McCarthy road, but our day on Root Glacier was an incredible experience.

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Day 682 | Mile 70,650

Driving to Brian’s “Real Alaska”

It took us two days to drive from Haines to Copper Center in the interior of Alaska. We finally made it to Brian’s “real Alaska”!

Barely out of Haines, we came to a downed tree and Brian whipped out his saw. He’s making a habit of clearing roads, this time with help from a local guy.

The weather was rainy and we went in and out of clouds, so it wasn’t as beautiful of a drive as it could have been, but we still enjoyed it. Parts of the drive, like the area near Kluane National Park in Yukon Territory, were especially pretty.

We had to go through customs to go back into Canada, and drive through the Yukon and then cross back into America on the Alaska Highway. The border into America was really interesting, because the trees are cut down in a strip as far as can see in both directions to mark the border.

On the second day of the drive the weather was clearer and the fireweed was blooming.

On the Alaska Highway we learned about frost heaves. If we drove over an area that was heaved up too fast it felt like a bucking bronco. In a car it may have just felt like a “whoop”, but with a trailer it wasn’t fun. I kept telling Brian to slow down and he occasionally listened. In Yukon they usually marked these with a tiny orange cone. Alaska isn’t quite as nice about it!

We took the Tok Cutoff Highway from Tok to the Glennallen area. The highway borders the west side of Wrangell St. Elias National Park, and we saw 7 moose on this part of the drive! We were able to pull off the road near a moose cow eating grass, and watched her for a bit before two moose calves came out of the woods to eat with her! It was the cutest thing! We saw another mama moose with calves a little while later.

We camped near Copper Center, Alaska at King For A Day Campground on the Klutina River. It was the end of King Salmon season and Brian bought a three-day king fishing license and fished. The Klutina River is a fast running river that is fed by glaciers and runs into the Copper River.

He didn’t catch any fish, but did enjoy fishing near bald eagles. We went for a hike one evening on the gnarly trail from our campground to near the mouth of the river about a mile away. We had to cross a couple small streams and a misplaced step disappeared my foot into mud made from fine glacial silt.

Day 679| Mile 70,330

Haines, Alaska

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The first day of our visit to Haines we went to the Southeastern Alaska State Fair! Alaska is so big that it has multiple state fairs.

The first thing we did was get some fair food! We started with cheese curds, caribou corn dog, and cinnamon roll. Later we had fish tacos, dumplings, and a brownie. The fair food was all delicious.

The main event of the day was the lumberjack contest. The competitors seemed to be a mix of locals with some experience, and tourists with no experience. The first event was ax throwing, and I’m sure some of the competitors had never held an ax before, much less thrown one. It was very fun to watch though, as each competitor had three changes to hit a bullseye target, and were assigned points based on where it landed. I know what sport I’ll be trying next!

Ax throwing had the most competitors, and each of the other events had fewer. There was men’s and women’s versions of some events, and only men’s of others. When women’s chain sawing came up, there was only one woman entered, and they solicited other competitors from the crowd. I wanted to try, but Brian (who isn’t usually that concerned with safety) advised against it. They were using literally no safety gear! No glasses, chaps, boots, nothing. A girl from the crowd who had never used a chainsaw before did enter, and thankfully kept all her limbs, and even won!

There was an obstacle course event, where competitors had to climb over giant logs, attach a rope to the last log, run back into the woods, and over a floating log.

Perhaps the most dangerous event was starting a chain saw, balancing on a suspended splindley log, walking to the end, cutting off the tip of the log, and walking back. Amazingly we didn’t see any injuries! Several contestants fell off the log, but fortunately didn’t land on their running chain saws.

The lumberjack show was a bit long, but it was fun to watch. We also saw all the award winning arts and crafts and there was music too.

Since the fair was going on the first couple days of our stay, I had made a reservation at Oceanside RV about two weeks before, and we were glad to have it since the campground was full when we arrived. Oceanside RV is right on the water, with a beautiful view.

Unfortunately it’s hard to enjoy the view with no space between trailers to be outside. We’ve never seen trailers crammed together like this. After our second night there, the owner knocked on our door and asked if we could put our awning in so she could park a giant fifth wheel basically on top of us.

We did, and then she knocked again and said oh by the way, are you running your air conditioner? You can’t do that, the electrical system can’t handle it in this “record heat wave” (it was 71 degrees). So, with no AC and no awning we sat and stewed for a couple minutes before remembering our house has wheels. This campground isn’t the only game in town, there is exactly one other!

She refunded the rest of our weeklong stay and we drove over to the other campground in town, Haines Hitch-up RV Park. It didn’t have the beautiful view, but it had a picnic table and space and felt like an actual campground rather than a parking lot. This was the first time we left a campground before our reservation was over, and we were glad we did.

There are three small museums in Haines, and we chose to visit the Hammer Museum, which is a museum of hammers. They claim to have 5,000 hammers in their collection, with 2,000 of them on display.

The space was small, and there were hammers everywhere. There were medical hammers, musical hammers, auto body hammers, construction hammers, masonry hammers, pretty much all kinds of hammers. They were displayed artistically, and the employee was very enthusiastic, too.

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Brian was very surprised to learn that a particular type of auto body hammer is called a Roughing Out Hammer, since the only name he ever knew them by was Donkey Dicks (thanks to his father).

The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is just north of Haines. During fall and winter there is a late salmon run, and bald eagles flock to feed. We didn’t see any eagles when we visited, but there can be up to 3,000 bald eagles there at the peak!

We spent over a week in Haines, so we had plenty of time to get to know the town. It was nice to have some time to relax, after a busy first week in Alaska, but it was probably a couple days too long. I feel like we did it all though. We went to the cannery to buy some fish which is in a picturesque spot.

We hit all the cute shops in town, visited the Alaskan Indian Arts gallery, and got fish and chips at Big Al’s Salmon Shack.

We visited both the brewery (Haines Brewing Company) and distillery (Port Chilkoot Distillery) in Haines, and were impressed by both. The distillery makes great cocktails, and Brian liked the spruce tip syrup.

Chilkoot Lake, and the river that flows from the lake to the inlet were great places to spot bears, since sockeye salmon were running up the river. A few nights we joined the many other cars that were patrolling the area. We saw a couple of bears each night, and saw bald eagles there too!

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We had heard that there was a mama bear (that they call Speedy) with three cubs, and I wanted so badly to see them. One of the nights we ran across them! I was so excited that I got out of the car (a safe distance away), and Brian drove up to see if we could get closer. We learned not to split up. Where he pulled over the car was right next the where the three cubs were playing and looking right at him! And, I had the camera. He couldn’t get out and get me for a bit though, since the cubs were right outside his door!

Fortunately, I was able to join him and we watched the family of bears for awhile. I felt a little unsure of how many of us were watching the bears and where we were standing, but fortunately the bears seemed to totally ignore the humans, and it was so cool to see them. The cubs were so cute! Seeing the family of bears was my favorite part of our visit to Haines!

Day 674 | Mile 69,649