British Columbia, Alberta and Montana, Weeks 13 and 14
Friday, August 8, 2003
Three days in Canada, and already Alaska is becoming a memory, and a faint one at that. The lower 48 is creeping toward us, and with it a shroud of fog that clouds the dream of the American frontier. Though we have been driving mercilessly since we left the 49th state, these three days haven’t been totally uneventful.
Just after we left the Yukon for good and passed into “Super, Natural British Columbia” we saw a solo bicycle tourist thumbing it near an unincorporated town. Since we have the big trailer with plenty on room for a fully loaded bike, we picked him up. His name is Hans. He’s originally from Denmark but he resides in North Carolina, which is where he was headed on two wheels from Anchorage when we found him broken down.
Monday, August 11, 2003
One hundred and fifty miles to the Utah border. Today we will be home – though a day early, not a moment too soon. The last five days could only be characterized as infuriating. Each day since we were towed to Fort St. John the van has broken down with other annoying coolant system-related problems. Geoff and Chris have removed and replaced everything from the radiator to the thermostat, and we’re still overheating on a regular basis. The fact that we’ve climbed to 6,000 feet several times doesn’t help the situation, nor does our immersion in 96-degree temperatures. The mechanical problems forced us to abandon our original route through the Canadian Rockies for a flatter route through the Alberta prairie.
Monday, August 11, 2003
As we head toward home, our last day on the road, I’ve found myself today thinking a lot about the days and weeks gone by that made up this summer. I’ve thought about all the things we saw and did as well as all the things we learned. I’ve thought about the things I really enjoyed the most as well as some that I enjoyed the least. Here’s some of what I’ve been thinking about:
He had a broken spoke, his fourth of the trip, and needed a ride to Fort Nelson, the nearest town, which was still 150 miles away. We were planning on camping before then, so we invited him to camp with us. We grilled up some halibut and discussed everything from road biking to northern European politics as evening sunk into the sky. Hans was a great conversationalist, and a tough cyclist, too. He told us he averages over 100 miles each day, with his all-time daily high topping 178 miles. He carries only 15 kilograms of gear, even though he camps every night in the sub-arctic Alaskan wilderness. Among that gear is two liters of water, which he feels comfortable refilling only about once a day, and his only food is cold oatmeal and his emergency can of ravioli, and whatever restaurant or grocery store food he can find along this remote road. Despite his minimalist belongings he seems to be truly enjoying himself – he loves the physical challenge of these rolling hills, and he plans to be in North Carolina in six weeks. Hans is my hero. We dropped him off in Fort Nelson and headed down the road.
A few hours later the van started to overheat. We pushed it up one last hill as it sputtered and steamed, finally stopping it about 100 miles shy of Fort Saint John. A quick look under the hood confirmed our fears – a hole blown clear through the water pump meant the van could no longer hold a drop of coolant. We’d have to be towed 100 miles, and our AAA insurance had just expired a week ago. Rats! However, with blind hope that maybe AAA would take mercy on us, Jen, Geoff and I bicycled to the nearest phone we knew of, 12 miles back, down a 9 percent grade hill that finally totaled my eroded brakes. I hit them one last time down that steep highway, skidded, and screeched to a terrifying stop just inches from a thick patch of loose gravel. It is there, about a mile from the phone, that I stopped and waited for Geoff, knowing that, luckily, the ride back was mostly uphill. By some miracle, whether by the grace of God or just blind luck, AAA had granted Jen a tow and by 8 p.m. Adam the tow truck driver had arrived to transport the four of us and our entire rig to the metropolis of Fort Saint John, pop. 36,000. The whole way there he told us the gruesome stories of local car wrecks, throwing in every Canadian embellishment from “Eh” to “Holy Toledo.” Thoroughly entertaining. Adam let us camp that night in the front yard of the tow lot, right next to a building that was appropriately named “Rat Hole Drilling.” It was slightly uncomfortable, but it was home, and the next day we put the van in the hand of a one-armed mechanic (for real!) and saw the sights of Fort Saint John, a town full of oil workers with very few tourist facilities. Still, nearly everyone we met was exceptionally kind and generous to us – with the exception of the lady who runs Sourdough Pete’s RV park and a computer snob who charged us $22.00 for 20 minutes of Internet time and proceeded to lecture us on why we were getting a great deal (those damn Internet geeks think they rule the world.) Still, the one-armed mechanic was awesome – only charged us $386 Canadian for parts and four hours of labor, and we were on our way again, toward the states, toward home. Ah, driving.
Posted on August 8, 2003 by Jill
For three days I explored three cookie-cutter towns of Midwestern Canada, so startling in their similarity that by the time I got to Edmonton I knew if I saw a Canadian Tire there would be a Safeway, an IGA and a small indoor mall within close vicinity. I was glad when we cleared our last customs check and headed into the high, hot, dry desert of my home, the mountain west.
I’m excited to get away from this rolling heap of junk, but at the same time I feel some anxiety and sadness from ending the voyage through Alaska. A road sign just read “Salt Lake City – 194 miles,” and now the proximity is really starting to set in. Today I will see the smoke-scorched August sky of my hometown, and this road trip will only be a memory.
It’s a strange thought that compels me to reflect on the three months passed. Geoff already composed a “best of” list for our Alaska vacation, which I agree with for the most part – except for the part about not liking Anchorage and Fairbanks, and the fact that he has any “favorite” van repairs. He did, however, mention the most notable aspect of our trip – how much we’ve learned – about history, geography, and biology. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves. And we’ve seen some strange and remarkable things. We’ve seen the sun linger over the horizon at 2 a.m. We’ve seen grizzly bears tear salmon carcasses out of two rivers. We’ve seen the remote and rugged Brooks Mountain Range. We’ve seen orca whales glide through the continent’s deepest fjord. We’ve seen massive rivers of ice calving into gray glacial lakes. And we’ve seen these things because we weren’t even looking – because we didn’t even know what to look for.
Everything about Alaska was an opening door to us. We learned the delicate movements of the environment and we followed them, collecting fragments of time and startling, saturated images that will forever haunt my memory. And the best part about our Alaska experience was the fact that we lived in the open, and we were sheltered from nothing. Wherever we were, we experienced what was really there. When the temperatures dropped, we were cold. When it rained, we got wet. When we saw bears, we were afraid. When the sun didn’t set, we struggled to sleep. But when we carried ourselves over the rocky trails and witnessed an expanse of wilderness as far as we could see, we felt awake and alive, and no amount of discomfort can take that away.
In closing, I’d like to make a list of some of my favorite and least favorite things about my Alaska vacation.
Top 10 Favorite:
10.) The Anchorage Daily News
9.) The Muskoxen that live at Happy Valley airport
8.) Kincaid Park in Anchorage
7.) Exit Glacier Trail
6.) Biking on the Russian River trail
5.) Valdez, Alaska
4.) Denali National Park
3.) Fishing in Resurrection Bay
2.) The Dalton Highway
1.) Resurrection Pass Trail, hiking and biking
Least 10 Favorite:
10.) Grizzly Bears (sorry, but they’re scary)
9.) Looking for places to use the Internet
8.) Working for Dave in Haines (could also be a favorite)
7.) Homer, Alaska (too many people)
6.) Camping at the Juneau Ferry Terminal
5.) Bushwhacking along the Bettles River
4.) Golden Nugget RV Park in Anchorage
3.) Slimy mud puddles that pepper every trail
2.) Van troubles
Posted on August 11 by Jill
1. Dalton Highway (north of Fairbanks to Arctic Ocean)
2. Stewart / Cassair Highway (British Columbia)
3. Denali Highway (Cantwell to Paxson, Alaska)
Favorite small town (< 500 people)
1. Wiseman, Alaska
2. Hope, Alaska
3. Chicken, Alaska
Favorite medium town (500 – 5000)
1. Seward, Alaska
2. Valdez, Alaska
3. Haines, Alaska
Favorite city (5000+)
1. Whitehorse, Yukon
2. Seattle, Washington
3. Juneau, Alaska
Least favorite city
1. Whittier, Alaska
2. Prudhoe Bay, Alaska
3. Cantwell, Alaska
1. Sukakpak mountain (Brooks range)
2. Resurrection pass (Kenai Peninsula)
3. Mount Riley (Haines)
Favorite bike trail:
1. Russian Lakes
2. Resurrection pass
3. Stampede trail
Favorite fishing hole
1. Resurrection Bay (charter out of
Seward). (Halibut, Silver Salmon, Rockfish)
2. Lower Russian Lake. (Arctic Char)
3. Landmark Gap Lake. (Lake Trout)
Favorite food “baked” on our campstove
1. Blueberry pie
3. Chocolate chip cookies
Most commonly seen animal
1. Moose – over 100
2. Caribou – over 50
3. MuskOx - over 30
4. Black Bear – about 15
5. Grizzly Bear – about 10
Favorite van repair
1. Heater core (Chris did the whole thing)
2. Finding out that our overheating problem can be fixed by hitting the instrument panel by the temperature gauge.
Least favorite van repair
1. Brakes (2 extra days in Anchorage and we didn’t even get to do the work ourselves)
2. Thermostat [after putting everything back together we discovered it was leaking. We completely redid the thermostat only to discover that it was actually the hose that was leaking. We then proceeded to cut a hole in the hose with the radiator fan after we put the hose on the opposite way because we had to cut it down to eliminate the leak, and it seemed to fit better that way after it had been cut. The best thing about this repair though was when we discovered 2 days later that we never had any problem with the thermostat in the first place, just a bad temperature gauge (see favorite van repair)]
Overall favorite things about Alaska
1. The weather (for real, never hot or windy)
2. The intensity of the landscape and of so many of the people
3. The Diversity of landscape.
Least favorite things about Alaska
1. Ultra Conservative politics. (for example, a publicly elected governor who says that he’s morally opposed to signing any bill that keeps private individuals from owning and developing larger amounts of public land.)
2. Traffic on the Kenai Peninsula
3. Too much stuff to do. Too many mountains to climb, rivers to fish / paddle, and untracked miles of wilderness to explore. I guess this just rates as a least favorite thing about only spending a couple months in Alaska.
And that’s that for thinking back. I think now of my time ahead. Returning to Salt Lake and heading back out on bicycle. It’s nice to have times like these when it feels like the fun just never stops. I guess there are lulls in the fun every now and then, but as my mom always used to say, “money doesn’t grow on trees. I wish it did, but it doesn’t.”