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North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

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Our first night out of Smithers we stayed at a Provincial Park at Meziadin Lake (N56 05.235 W129 18.481) and very quickly had a run in with the voracious mosquitoes which attacked us from the moment of our arrival. I was very grateful for the floppy hat complete with mosquito net that I had
bought in Norway on our Cape to Cape trip which is designed to protect one from these annoying bugs and covers one’s face and neck

thumbnail.xlarge.1.1371713984.fishing at meziadin lake North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

Fishing at Meziadin Lake

. Many parts of Scandinavia suffer from mosquitoes like northern Canada and Alaska; they have similar climates and landscape with plenty of fresh water in which these nasties can breed.

We had travelled in a sort of loose convoy with Chris and Janet and had agreed when leaving Smithers to meet up with them at Meziadin for the night. They were there and all set up when we arrived. The lake being a supposedly good trout fishing spot enticed me to get out a rod and try my luck. Sadly, not being prepared to fork out the hefty fee to hire a boat from which to fish and the fact that the bank around the campsite was not open enough to cast with a fly rod I was forced to try with my spinning rod. But even trying a couple of very different lures had zero effect on any trout in our part of the huge lake and my catch resulted in lots of bites – but on me and from mosquitoes!

That evening the four of us sat down to a potjie supper of mince and veggies as a somewhat poor return match for Chris’ earlier and very good curried prawn dish that he had knocked up for us all at Dave’s cabin in Smithers.

The campsite was a pleasant spot next to the lake but apart from the mozzies also suffered from another “buzzing” annoyance – that of the generators carried by many of the RVs and trailers also camped there that seemed to start up in unison in the morning

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Bear River Glacier

. I have still to establish what it is that these so called camping vehicles carry that needs so much electrical input  which cannot be derived by invertors, solar panels or the vehicle’s alternator. These small gasoline powered units in
themselves are not that noisy but just that background buzz rather detracts from the solitude and peacefulness of these otherwise attractive camping spots.

The next morning after packing up we all headed westwards along the Stewart Cassiar Highway towards the little town of Stewart which lies on the border with Alaska. We stopped briefly within sight of the Bear River Glacier above Strohn Lake. Like most glaciers around the world this one too is sadly receding due to global warming, one of the odd ones out being the Perito Merino glacier we had visited at the bottom of South America earlier in our trip which is in fact growing in size thereby bucking the trend.

We had been told that it is at Stewart that one has an excellent chance of spotting grizzly bears feasting on salmon in the wide and aptly named Bear River that flows past the little town. But we were too early as the salmon had yet to put in an appearance on their long journey from the
Arctic to their native spawning grounds in the rivers of northern BC, the Yukon and Alaska. So no salmon, no bears which was a bit of a let down. But we drove out of town and surprise, surprise found ourselves at a sign saying “Welcome to Alaska” at the entrance to the virtual ghost town of Hyder. There was no border post to check in at going out of Canada so we continued on up the road past some tired and somewhat ramshackle timber buildings that make up Hyder to arrive at road works (in north America the warning signs say “Road Work” in the singular) on the only road out of town

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Hyder, Alaska

. After following the usual “Pilot Car” (that up here is felt necessary at road works in case one drives into a grader or similar – very cautious the Americans) through the road building we found ourselves on a gravel track climbing into the mountains in this remote corner of southern Alaska. We had heard there was a big glacier to see up there somewhere but after quite a few kms and seeing no sign of it we all headed back to Hyder where this time a Canadian border official kindly asked us if we had bought anything in Hyder. This was quite funny as we had seen nothing open! From there it is a hop and a skip into Stewart, back again in Canada, where along with Chris & Janet we stopped for a brief lunch of chowder and sour dough rolls at one of the few eating places in town.

We backtracked along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway to the junction near where we had camped at Meziadin Lake and then pointed Jambo north again in the direction of Dease Lake where we had been told back in Smithers that the Cassiar Highway had been earlier blocked by flood water. The general consensus was that the maintenance guys would have it all cleared in a matter of days, the road being a major link with Alaska to the north, and we never in fact saw any evidence of flooding when we got to Dease Lake a day or so later.

Along the way, together again with our English overlanders we found a nice spot just off the highway to bush camp (N56 54.123 W130 03.529)

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At US “Road Work”, Hyder

. After getting a fire going and settling in for the evening who should put in an appearance but a lone black bear who crossed the highway and
without any interest in us spent some 30 minutes grazing on the vegetation some 50 metres from us. He occasionally looked up to see if we were still there as we snapped away with the cameras. After supper and with just the occasional truck passing by we took to our beds for a peaceful and free night. We had by now acclimatized to sleeping through 24 hour daylight which is of course par
for the course at these high latitudes.

From there we split up again with Chris & Janet for a while to drive at our own pace with a plan to meet up again later on our way north towards Anchorage.

Along the Cassiar Highway we stopped at a beautiful lake which we thought was aptly named Good Hope for us from SA and soon after we encountered a lovely elderly horse making his sedate way along the road, on his own and unsaddled. His owner had thoughtfully posted a warning sign on the road earlier about his wandering equine friend who we guessed walked daily from his home to some nice grazing down the road before ambling home again

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Black bear near our bush camp

! It was obviously wild life
spotting day because we minutes later came upon our first Dall sheep grazing next to the road. These animals, looking more like large goats, prefer mountainous terrain and are hunted by Canadians and others in this part of the world.

After quite a long drive we came to the border between British Columbia and the Yukon where we stopped to take a picture and chatted to some Dutch motorbike overlanders who had done many more kms than us on their travels. Their main concern was the big distances up here in northern Canada and Alaska between filling stations. With our two tanks and a 20 litre reserve jerry can on the roof we can do well over 1000 kms which is way more than most bikes can do. Jambo still does around 11l/100 kms overall which for a very unaerodynamic and hefty full time 4×4 is good going. The engine is now pulling better than ever and doesn’t use a drop of oil between changes which compared with our old tD5 makes a nice change!

Just up the road from the Yukon border we came to a road which we had been thinking and dreaming about for some time with visions of vast distances, challenging driving and maybe even unfriendly weather – the Alaska Highway

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Bush camp antics

. For now it was left and west for Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse, but the day was already too long so we joined up with our two overlander companions again at the quaintly named Baby Nugget RV park (N60 01.667 W129 04.956) just down the road from the highway junction and where Chris & Janet managed to get us in for a free night’s stay parked on a rather spartan gravel surface and quite a hike from the showers and loos. Thanks guys, we owe you on that one! The wifi was good there too even if that entailed sitting in the park’s laundry room to stay warm! We also learnt at Baby Nugget about pay showers where a quarter (25 cents) lasted less than a minute. Trick is to take 4 coins and if the machine allows (some don’t) to put only three in the slot in case one is still covered in soap when the clock stops, the fourth one being the emergency coin!

Next morning we said another goodbye to our two companions who had different travel plans to us from here on as they had a limited amount of time left on their US visa and also were not planning on driving right to the top of Alaska as we were. We felt sure though as has happened before that we would hopefully see them again before we both ended up on the Canadian east coast to ship our cars back to the UK and SA respectively. It has been a lot of fun and laughs sharing our experiences of this maybe slightly unusual (to others at least) form of extended travel and we have
enjoyed their company and friendship enormously

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The long road north

. If we miss you before you ship home, we certainly hope to catch you back in the UK later whilst we stop over on our way back to Cape Town. We think a good night out at a really nice restaurant where someone else does the cooking, the mozzies don’t put in an unwelcome appearance, and one can go to bed afterwards without fighting for changing room space would go down a treat…..

Next stop was the Yukon capital, Whitehorse, fair and square on the famous Yukon River. Although the biggest city in northern Canada at some 25,000 residents it’s really a town in today’s parlance. Its history is closely linked to the early days of gold and copper prospectors who initially found gold in 1896 in the Klondyke and copper soon afterwards both of which caused a stampede of hopefuls into what would become the settlement of White Horse. It later changed its name to the present day Whitehorse. In those early days the only way to travel was by river and later by train. In 1921 the first of two classic shallow draught stern wheeler river boats, the “Klondyke I”, went into service providing a link on the tortuous Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City some 600 kms apart. Steam powered and burning timber logs at a prodigious rate the “Klondyke I” carried over 250 tonnes of cargo as well as mail and passengers until in 1936 she ran aground and was damaged beyond repair

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Good Hope Lake

. Her owners, the British Yukon Navigation Company, cannibalized much of
the remains to build the “Klondyke II” which operated in similar fashion up until 1950. For a while thereafter she ran unsuccessfully as a river cruise ship and the old lady was beached in 1955 in Whitehorse and initially left to rot. But over the next decade she was gradually restored to her former glory and in 1966 when complete was moved from her spot at the Whitehorse Shipyards
some distance overland and through the city streets to her present location next to the Yukon River. This 3 week journey entailed the use of three big bulldozers and no less than 8 tons of Palmolive soap to enable her to slip over the timbers placed along her last route! Today she is a stunning and popular tourist site and we spent a while walking around the old ship complete with her original steam boilers and double steam engines that drove her mighty stern paddle wheel. She still smells of tar and hemp rope and her cargo space today contains relics of those days such as wooden cases of Standard gasoline, shredded wheat and Klondyke soap. Her beautiful observation lounge and saloon must have seen some interesting and colourful characters. What a way to travel back then!

We spent one night in Whitehorse at the Hi Country RV Park (N60 40.986 W135 03.604) just outside town after driving around for some time looking for a reasonable place to spend the night

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On his daily walk

. It was the best of a poor bunch and we were crammed in amongst loads of RVs, the only solace being that we had some friendly and fun young Americans on their way from Chicago to new jobs near Anchorage camping next to us with their Jeep, trailer and tent. We showed them the quick way to get a good wood fire going with a cupful of gasoline! 21 Canadian dollars and extra for a hot shower might be OK for the locals; at nearly10 Rand now to either the Canadian or American dollar over R200 a night to camp is pushing it a bit!

From Whitehorse it’s around 425 kms to the Alaskan border so we elected to stop off at Lake Kluane to bush camp just across the road from the southern corner of this huge 80 km long stretch of water. Apart from a lone RV who pulled in not far from us late that night and shot off early in the
morning we and the inevitable mozzies had the place to ourselves. There was a bit of drama whilst we were there when I discovered that after apparently running at freezing temperatures all night for no reason the fridge suddenly stopped working. A bit of checking around with the multi meter later
established that it was not the fridge that had packed up (thankfully) but the solar panel regulator to which the fridge, the solar panel and our second battery are connected

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Dall sheep

. Luckily I still had the more basic regulator with us that we had used on our Cape to Cape trip but which never seemed to quite
provide enough voltage through the system. But once in place it at least allowed us to get the fridge up and running again until we could buy a proper replacement for the busted one. That one had come from Arusha in Tanzania so had done a few hard overland kms…..

Next morning not far down the road we came upon two grizzly bears chowing away on the vegetation next to the road. Not full grown by any manner of means but still potentially dangerous if aroused so we sat quietly on the verge with the engine running whilst we photographed them ready
to take off should they decide to come and check us out. These were the first grizzlies we had seen on the trip and after hearing a few horror stories of what grizzlies can do to humans we have quickly become wary of them and avoid any likely situations where a confrontation with one or more of these powerful animals might occur. Unlike the smaller black bear grizzlies will not usually
back off from humans even if one shouts and waves ones arms about to make oneself look bigger etc. Furthermore they move around very quietly and can cover the ground very rapidly if needs be; they are also known on occasion to stalk people who they might consider as prey

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Dutch bikers at the Yukon border

. No, we do NOT want a meeting outside the car with one of these big and potentially dangerous animals!

Not far short of the Alaska border we stopped briefly at the little hamlet of Beaver Creek, had a look at the strange little roadside Catholic church made from timber and corrugated roof sheeting and bought some fuel at the lonely filling station. Round here it is unwise to let one’s tank go below half.

And then it was fun and games time as we pulled in to the US border post after a quick and painless exit from the Yukon and Canada. On presenting our passports to the immigration official he checked on his computer and noted that the visas granted to us at Tecate on the so called Visa Waiver Program after crossing into the US from Mexico almost 3 months ago were about to expire. We knew this and were not concerned as both from the US Embassy in Mexico City and at the Tecate border their officials had told us quite clearly that when the first visas expired we could obtain new visas for up to 3 months without any problems. “Not so”, the somewhat unpleasant immigration guy at the Alaska border told us. “You may not have an extension”, he told us in a petulant and unfriendly way. Initially, we were totally distraught – this could mean ending our trip into Alaska right there

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Klondyke II, Whitehorse

. The official went on to say we could enter on the fact that we still had 3 days left on the validity of our first visas “and when they expire that’s up to you”!  Which sounded odd to say the least. What would happen if we kept travelling in Alaska beyond the validity date? “That’s a
chance you could take”, he said. All we could do was stand our ground insisting that contrary to his version we had been told that we couldapply at the Alaskan border for a new visa and that this had
come from not one but two different US immigration officials who we could quote and identify by location. Maintaining his rude demeanour and accompanied by some poor language to his colleagues within Diana’s hearing, this unpleasant individual eventually climbed off his high horse and in a very patronizing manner said he was prepared to make an exception in this one instance and grumbled “how long do you want to stay in Alaska anyway?” We did some quick sums and said 2 months, and low and behold he carried on with the usual procedure of handing us green visa application forms to complete, taking our finger and thumb prints and our photos. I had to control my feelings at the latter by not sticking my tongue out at his web cam….. So unlike Chris &
Janet who had run into the same problem and who had been refused a new visa we had won through and were legally in US territory again for up to 60 days. What a palaver and such a waste of time and breath.

From the border we headed towards Tok on the much better surfaced Alaska Highway as compared to the roller coaster ride we had been subjected to on the Canadian section of this major communications link

thumbnail.xlarge.1.1371713984.on board klondyke ii North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

On board Klondyke II

. The building of the Alaska Highway is quite a story. Originally some 2700 kms long the road was completed and paid for by the USin just under 8 months, an incredible engineering feat in such a hostile environment. It joined the lower 48 states of the US with Alaska at a time of growing security concerns over the possibility of a Japanese invasion during the early part of WW2. Unfortunately, although nowadays completely tarred the road annually suffers the ravages of a huge variation in temperatures between the summer and winter months. When the permafrost beneath the road base is able to melt this causes the whole structure to deform causing
hollows, bumps, cracks and occasional total break up of the road surface. It is said that having to repair this damage after each winter the maintenance cost of the Alaska Highway is some 10 times that of a normal highway.

That night we camped at the Tok State Forest campsite, one of many such sites where the payment of camping fees is self service by filling out an envelope, placing the camping fee inside, tearing off the stub for display on one’s chosen site and posting the envelope with the money inside
into the sealed box provided. The only amenities at these basic campsites are long drop style loos, steel barbeques on the ground and sometimes fresh water

thumbnail.xlarge.1.1371713984.1 on board klondyke ii North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

On board Klondyke II

. But at around $15 for a site per night they represent fair value and are often located in attractive, remote areas away from residential areas.

At Tok we took the turning southwards onto what is known at the Tok Cutoff which in time would become the Richardson Highway. This passed through the usual billions of spruce and pine trees, looping around meandering rivers most of which were carrying high loads of silt from recent rain of which we saw very little from here on. Also, oddly the temperatures were slowly climbing even though we were now some 63 degrees north of the Equator….

Around the middle of that day we were feeling hungry having foregone a proper breakfast back at the State Forest campsite so pulled into the little hamlet of Copper Center, named not after the metal but after the nearby river of the same name. At a little all timber café we sat down along with a handful of locals to an excellent brunch complete with Indian canoe and bear skin tacked to the ceiling.

Then it was back onto the Richardson Highway otherwise known as the AK 4 headed for Valdez on the coast. Driving along the Richardson we got occasional glimpses of the famous Trans Alaska Pipeline which brings oil from our trip destination at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean some 1300 kms south to Valdez from where it is shipped out by tankers

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On board Klondyke II, Whitehorse

. It was near here back in 1989 that the tanker Exxon Valdez struck a nearby reef in Prince William Sound after loading a full cargo of oil at Valdez. Some 2,000 kms of coastline and 28,000 square kms of ocean were devastated by the resulting huge oil spill with severe consequences for wildlife and local communities dependent on
fishing for their survival. The following clean up operation lasted for months and cost Exxon a small fortune as being held to blame for the accident. To this day it is estimated that a sizeable amount of spilt oil remains in the sands of Prince William Sound.

Before getting to Valdez we stopped for a while to walk to the base of the Worthington Glacier close to Thompson Pass. There was still plenty of snow around the path to the glacier even though the sun was shining and we were in shirt sleeves. Then it was up and over the pass surrounded by
snow covered slopes before the descent to Valdez.

As in Whitehorse earlier we battled a bit to find a pleasant place to stay overnight in Valdez but ended up at the Eagles Rest RV Camp (N61 07.904 W146 20.769) where we parked Jambo on the mostly gravel surface (fine for RVs but not for us who appreciate a bit of grass to step on)

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Bush camp, Kluane Lake

. So we tried quietly to cheat a bit and put just the car’s rear wheels on the very edge of the dog-eared grass that passed muster for the “tenting only” area, only to be ticked off for so doing and being ordered back onto the gravel. This sort of customer relationship coupled with the mile long lists of “don’ts” that one encounters at almost all north American camping or RV places tends not to
endear one to the owners or management. Seems the inmates actually like to receive their camping orders on arrival……Sorry guys, this sort of heavy handed approach and treating the paying guests like kids is not our idea of fun.

Just before getting to Valdez we had stopped briefly on the road to take pictures after passing a couple of girls on bicycles also headed for Valdez. We had chatted to them then and were pleasantly surprised when they pedalled into our campsite and asked if they could camp in their tent next to us. Because the camp management had been nasty to us about how we parked we suggested to the girls that for the night they become our two “daughters” and part of our Jones camping family, thereby doing the park out of more camping fees! We felt little remorse and next morning when we had to be up early to catch the ferry to Whittier the girls were still fast asleep

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Our first grizzly, Yukon

. We hope they got away with it.

Having been told by the two biking girls that there was a ferry from Valdez to Whittier on the Alaska Marine Highway route which they intended to take we thought this was a better idea than retracing our route back along the Richardson Highway for quite a way to drive around to Anchorage. So
next day we queued and paid for the 6 hour ferry ride which turned out to be a truly spectacular run, passing ice bergs from the nearby glaciers, the odd sea otter scared off a berg by the passing ship, and simply beautiful snow draped mountain scenery on all sides with the sun shining down throughout the trip. The ship even made a slow 360 degree turn around the biggest berg so that all
on board could get good photos. The $257 it cost us with the car was worth every cent and made up totally for the disappointing Inside Passage trip we had undertaken back in 2001 when the weather had not cooperated.

We got off the ferry in the little port of Whittier and no sooner had driven out of town than we had to queue to wait our turn to traverse the 4 km long Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel through the surrounding mountains

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Catholic Church, Beaver Creek

. We had to await our turn as the tunnel is shared by both road and railway and can only accommodate traffic of either sort in one direction at a time. But it was all controlled like clockwork with ticker style signs telling us when to start our engines etc…… Is this theme becoming familiar?

After a brief picnic lunch stop at the far end of the tunnel where we chatted to a Swiss couple in a MAN overland truck along with some others interested in who we were we drove the impressive road that for some 60 kms follows the north shore of the mighty Cook Inlet. This huge expanse
of water is tidal and seemingly quite shallow. The colour of the water like so many of the rivers we had passed was an unattractive grey brown brought about by the high volumes of silt being carried seaward after rain rather than from melting snow and ice on the mountains which usually gives the water a pretty aquamarine hue.

Anchorage is a fair sized city and the capital of the state of Alaska so offers every type of facility that one could wish for. We even managed to find an identical make of solar panel regulator for the car there. But in suitable budget places to sleep it was sadly lacking. Sure it had its share of RV camps, one expensive hostel, but not much else

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A real border crossing

. We ended up staying at the Ship Creek RV campsite (N61 13.334 W149 52.137) located in a less than attractive part of town next to the railway line, some ugly industrial buildings and well within sight and sound of Anchorage’s big and
busy airport. We ended up there because Chris and Janet had told us they were staying there whilst they had their camper’s brakes checked out at a nearby workshop and there didn’t seem to be much else to choose from. We soon were treated to the extremely noisy if spectacular aerial antics of fighter jets taking off in pairs at regular intervals from the Air Force base not far away.
This entailed a maximum thrust vertical climb out of sight directly over the city which shook the air with thunder and which presumably is a contributory factor in the trillion dollar US fiscal deficit….We also had frequent, passing multi diesel trains which just had to let rip with their strident and almost as loud horns as they passed our RV camp. Factor in the now all too familiar endless list of user rules posted on every conceivable surface around the RV site and you have the ingredients for “a less than desirable place to rest one’s weary head”. They also had the irritating procedure of issuing a new wifi password every day to campsite inmates. The problem was they only would issue a new password after the office opened each morning at 9am, long after we wanted to get on the internet to maybe call home on Skype or do some early e-mails

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Typical Recreation Area campsite

.

But we adjusted to the ridiculous background music of jets and trains and for some exercise the four of us took off for a “short” walk along the coastal trail that runs along the shoreline to escape at least the trains. What with diversions off the path due to rebuilding of the trail, we ended up on a much longer than planned walk that took us several hours and which apart from a welcome lemonade stop set up by some kids outside their home was not that interesting or fun. In fact it all but crippled me due to in no small way to one of my relatively new shoes having a hole in its sole. Give me a bike to ride any day….

Next to us at Ship Creek was parked a very large, very smart, pale green truck originating from Calgary. Its cab windows were curtained from within and it had no trailer attached. On our last day there its driver arrived in a rental car, not a male as we had assumed but in the form of Virginia the truck’s sole owner and driver. She had decided to sell her home and buy a truck after gaining her commercial licence, and here she was in Anchorage with her very smart and technical rig complete with satellite communications and vehicle tracking, a double bunk sleeper cab, Webasto heater
for the freezing winter months at 30 and more below, close to 300 gallons of fuel tankage and lots more

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Brunch cafe, Copper Center

. This petite and slightly shy woman had us engrossed as she told us of her trucking travels all over Alaska, Canada and the US and how proud she was that her 3 year old truck was almost fully paid for from her haulage contracts. In Anchorage she had just delivered a trailer to the US Air Force base and was ready to pick up her next load south after a couple of days rest. What a lovely
lady and one who quite patently could hold her own in what is usually held to be a largely male dominated industry. Well done Virginia, we salute you and “Keep on Truckin”!

Before leaving Anchorage we shopped for some essentials. A new pair of shoes for me, the new higher amperage regulator for the solar panel which I fitted at the campsite, four Ulus from the factory shop near the campsite (we’ll let on in due course what an Ulu is!), some more much needed mozzie spray and a bottle of “Stop Leak” in case we ever need it for the Land Rover’s cooling system (memories of leaking radiators in Guatemala…). And of course the usual supermarket run for food and the like.

Again we split up with Chris and Janet and soon were on our way towards Seward entailing a rerun of our drive along the Cook Inlet, and then heading south on what else but the Seward Highway, a lovely road past gorgeous lakes and mountains, the usual dense pack of trees stretching in all
directions and little hamlets along the way such as Moose Pass where we stopped to sharpen our hand axe on the local water wheel driven grinding wheel and where we bought some delicious fudge from a home industry shop

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All so beautiful

.

Just before reaching Seward we took a short diversion off the main highway to go and see the Exit Glacier some 13 kms north west of the town. It was a “park and walk” scenario so we did just that and followed the looping trail first through the trees at the base of the glacier and then part way up the lower slopes of the mountain down which the glacier was minutely making its way. But like almost all of these huge sheets of compacted snow this one was also slowly receding. It was quite an eye opener to see markers along the approach road for many earlier years showing where the glacier had previously reached, some almost a kilometer from its present foot. Nevertheless, being able to get up close and almost within touching distance of such a natural phenomena is truly impressive.

Seward is not a big place and its main claims to fame seem to revolve around it being a deep water harbor for visiting cruise ships which disgorge their human cargo into trains for Anchorage and other destinations such as Denali National Park along with it being the location of the start point of the original Iditarod trail. It is this trail that gives its name to the extreme dog sled races held every year and which run from Anchorage to Nome along two different routes on alternate years

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Worthington Glacier

. Held in sometimes whiteout conditions which cause windchill down to minus 90 degrees Celsius the race covers some 1800 kms of extreme winter cross country travel with sleds pulled by up to 16 highly trained and very valuable sled dogs. Winning times in recent years are now down to less than 10 days and several women have participated and won this, Alaska’s most popular sporting event. We wish we could have been here to witness it but just thinking about it gives one the shivers!

On our way down to Seward we had noted the location of a nice looking forest campsite named Ptarmigan Forest so headed there on the way back up the Seward Highway passing some gorgeous lakes with mirror smooth water just begging for photos. We spent a pleasant night at Ptarmigan Forest campsite (N60 24.320 W149 21.970) and which was good value at $14 a night. It was now warm enough for us to rig our bush shower for the morning, as usual heating the water in the old kettle and hanging the shower bag from a nearby tree branch – round here there’s always one!

For those who just might be interested we have an unloading routine on arrival at a campsite where we plan on sleeping in the back of Jambo. This is because the space at the back of Jambo above our drawer system is cargo space on the move and everything in there – clothes bags, folding table, laptop, rucksack, pillows, bedding, and other loose items have to come out and be stowed up front on the two front seats before we can lower the partition that creates our 2 metre long bed space. Over this three sections of high density foam mattress are then placed, followed by pillows and sleeping bags and even an extra blanket if it’s really cold. In addition, useful items such as chairs, firelighters, wood, braai grids, kettle, ground mat and maybe an external 12V lamp are unloaded from the roof rack boxes

thumbnail.xlarge.1.1371713984.thompson pass nr valdez North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

Thompson Pass nr Valdez

. If it looks like rain we extend either just the side awning or both this and a rear door awning both of which need pegging if there’s any wind around. The two rear side windows are opened for ventilation and must be fitted with their velcroed plastic rain deflectors. Those windows are also equipped with removable mozzie screens to keep the b——-s out at night. Then it’s G&T time, get the fire going, make supper on the fire or with the multifuel stove and go to bed. Next morning, repeat in reverse after a shower. We do this for fun folks!

Next down the road was the coastal town of Homer which claims to be the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World. If catching one of these monster flat fish weighing up to 200 kgs is a requirement for making this claim Homer would certainly qualify as sport and commercial fishing for these
monsters is big business here. But we came mainly to look, and so on coming over the hill above the town to look down on Cook Inlet and the town we were surprised to see nothing but a blanket of cloud enveloping everything below us right out to the far side of the Inlet some 12 kms distant. We drove down the hill and out onto Homer’s famous 6.5 km long spit along which are stretched
dozens of sea food restaurants, tourist stalls, windy RV camps and a few ramshackle buildings of unknown origin

thumbnail.xlarge.1.1371713984.in case we forget North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

In case we forget

. The whole spit was crowded with visitors, it being a weekend. It was cold and windy which brought on the hunger pangs, so we surprisingly easily gave up the idea of sandwiches and fell into a sea food restaurant run by a likeable Mexican – who else! And there we had one of the best meals of our trip to date,served on piping hot plates and at speed. What a pleasure, only slightly spoilt by the somewhat cheeky addition on the bill of an 18% service “gratuity”. But it was sea food at its best without any doubt and a lesson to many restaurants on how to do it well.

We didn’t spend long on the spit amongst the weekenders, the zillions of RVs and tents bravely making out that they were having fun in the chilly wind off the sea and headed back into Homer to look for a place to stay. The local hostel was nothing short of a mess so gave that a miss. So it was back the way we came in and a night’s stop at the campsite at Ninilchik State Park (N60 03.032 W151 38.863) which at $10 for the night was a bargain. There the kindly camp host who came to chat gave us a couple of Alaska State Park decals, one of which went onto Jambo’s window. Diana plans on keeping the other for her car!

We headed back up AK 1 along the coast of the Cook Inlet to drop in at Kenai which traces its roots back to the days when Russia owned this huge area of what is now Alaska

thumbnail.xlarge.1.1371713984.sharing our campsite   for free North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

Sharing our campsite – for free

. Kenai is two distinct towns, the old historical one which is tiny, and the much bigger, characterless, modern one which is spread out over several kms along the highway. The old town revealed its attractive original Russian era buildings amongst which was the quaint old all timber Russian Orthodox church whose dwindling modern day congregation are begging for funds to prevent it from rapidly deteriorating. We stood quietly in the vestry listening to its few followers and a local priest singing their way
through their Sunday service. Afterwards we wandered amongst other old and rather sad buildings including a little timber chapel and what today is a small café, all built of timber in a style unique to the Russian inhabitants prior to the USA acquiring the territory back in 1867 for a paltry 7.2 million dollars. Alaska only officially became a part of the American Union in 1959. It seems the Russians came off a distant second best in the deal as soon after the sale to the USA considerable finds of gold, copper and later oil suddenly made that 7.2 million look like a bargain. Initially, many Americans had thought they were acquiring a sterile and huge bit of territory which they would have great difficulty in populating. How wrong they all were.

From Kenai it was back along the Sterling and Seward Highways to Anchorage where we were determined to give Ship Creek RV camp a miss – more fighter jets and hooting trains were NOT on our wish list

thumbnail.xlarge.1.1371713984.ferry from valdez to whittier North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

Ferry from Valdez to Whittier

! However in a maybe deserved twist of fate we paid for being choosy as we ended up in perhaps what was the worst campsite we have experienced yet at Centennial Park RV & Campsite just outside Anchorage. This is a municipal owned site and sad to say it confirms that very often public utilities just cannot get things right when it comes to amenities such as camp sites as compared to privately owned ones. The fact that the place was undergoing quite major re-landscaping and therefore was part closed to campers was perhaps unavoidable. But the sites
left open were far from tidy, the ablutions were frankly a disgrace in terms of cleanliness and when asked about how the showers operated the receptionist said “just like the ones in jail”! We wondered who had been in jail to know this – had she been behind bars or did she assume that a number of the clients (notice, I did NOT say inmates this time!) had spent time in the slammer? It was definitely not a place we would recommend to anyone (except perhaps an ex con!) but we list its coordinates so as to warn others (N61 13.720 W149 43.351). Maybe, just maybe it will be a mite more appealing after the rearrangements of the sites. They didn’t have wifi either so with disgusting showers the night rate of $25 was well over the top in our view.

Mcdonalds just down the road was our next stop to do some e-mailing etc on their usual free wifi but the first one we stopped at for coffee and breakfast didn’t have their wifi working and no one knew how to fix it, so we moved on to a bigger one nearer the city and managed to get a
reasonable connection

thumbnail.xlarge.1.1371713984.1 ferry from valdez to whittier North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

Ferry from Valdez to Whittier

. We could of course buy a USB wifi modem and airtime running on one of the local cell phone networks and achieve greater flexibility and maybe coverage within urban areas. But why pay anything extra when free wifi is becoming more and more available at public amenities such as libraries, info offices, restaurants and the like. Many of the RV parks have reasonable wifi too although some are still a bit draconian and charge to get connected.

Leaving Anchorage we headed out to start with on the AK 1 Alaska Highway but soon after turned off to the west on the George Parks Highway AK 3 to drive towards Denali National Park and the highest mountain in Alaska, Mt McKinley at just over 20,000 feet and always covered in snow.

Near the little village of Cantwell next to the highway we pulled over for some diesel albeit at close to $5 a US gallon – the highest price we had paid to date. After pumping just $20 dollars worth to get us hopefully all the way to Fairbanks where we hoped the price would be lower we headed off some 30 kms down the road to our next night stop at Grizzly Bear RV camp (N63 39.185 W148 50.185). We were just about to set up camp there and had already started to reshuffle our belongings in the car when I noticed to my dismay that our diesel filler cap was missing

thumbnail.xlarge.1.1371713984.on board the ferry North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

On board the ferry

. I had forgotten to replace it after buying diesel at Cantwell. So it was a mad rush to pack up again and tear back the 30 odd kms to hopefully retrieve the errant yet vital cap. Thankfully it was where I had left it on top of the diesel pump. Back to Grizzly Bear we went at a more sedate pace with a firm mental note to not do that again. We could have covered 100s of kms before spotting the missing cap, not just 30…..

Grizzly Bear RV was pleasant enough with secluded so called “dry sites” for campers like us meaning no services such as electricity, water or sewer connections such as those needed by RV owners. But the wifi after a free 30 minutes had to be paid for as did hot showers so $26 dollars
for the night was on the high side we thought. As for the horrendous mosquitoes they should offer a seasonal discount when these horrors go on the prowl for human flesh right now at mid year! These bugs also seriously mess up one’s windscreen after driving less than 100 kms necessitating some serious scrubbing with water and an abrasive pad to get it clean.

Next day before heading for Fairbanks we took the road off the highway into Denali National Park until we reached the point some 23 kms into the park where private vehicles have to stop and turn around

thumbnail.xlarge.1.1371713984.icebergs en route to whittier North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

Icebergs en route to Whittier

. One can at a price get into a bus from there which takes one further into different sections of the park. But we had been told that there was an excellent chance of spotting maybe grizzlies, caribou and moose along the publicly accessible road, and in addition one gets quite good views of the north side of Mt McKinley from the park road too. But of animals we saw nothing unfortunately, so empty handed we returned to the AK 3 George Parks Highway for the 3 hour drive on to Fairbanks from where we are sending this update.

We have found a lovely peaceful spot at Sven’s Basecamp (N64 49.635 W147 48.458) on the edge of town where for $60 per night we have our own little timber cabin, excellent free wifi, pay showers (seems that free hot showers don’t exist up here in the wild north!) and a small plastic above ground pool! And wonder of wonders we are experiencing the hottest weather of the trip since Death Valley back in southern California so Diana at least has been in to actually cool off!I Whilst cooking our meals in the community kitchen at Sven’s we have met and chatted to some interesting
travelers from around north America and further afield. Alaska is certainly a great drawcard for others like us who love its incredible scenery and the individuality of its residents who have to be a bit special to want to live in this beautiful, remote and often uncompromising part of the USA

thumbnail.xlarge.1.1371713984.tiny huge and the also rans North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

Tiny, huge and the also rans

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Fairbanks is the last town of any size from here to Deadhorse, our final destination at the top of Alaska. So whilst here we need to recharge our batteries, think about this the last stage of our journey north and stock up on supplies, as up there things are going to cost a bomb. And we’ve noticed that the SA Rand is continuing to slide in value against both the US and Canadian dollars as well as other major currencies. It is going to be a tough 750 odd kms drive up the mostly gravel surfaced Elliott and Dalton Highways which will take us probably 3 days to cover, camping along
the way and filling up our tanks with diesel before we leave Fairbanks in a day or so. Not only will grizzly bears be a potential hazard, but further north their even dodgier cousins the polar bears will need a watchful eye too as inside the Arctic Circle where Deadhorse lies is their hunting ground. Mathew, a young South African we met here at Sven’s recently travelled up the Dalton to
Deadhorse and back again and told us we should have no problems in Jambo. But his rental car sure looked a sight all covered in brown splattered mud from the long haul up and down on the gravel. This after all is the road made famous in the TV programme “Ice Road Truckers”. Wish us luck. We hope to send an end of trip special out from Deadhorse

And we still have to get from there right across Canada to the east coast to ship Jambo home…!.

About Panamericalandy

Starting with the original London-Sydney Marathon in 1968 driving 10,000 miles in 10 days the bug for overland travel (at a much slower pace!) bit hard. We've driven throughout much of southern and east Africa in a tD5 Defender, then changed to the recent Puma version and first drove Cape Agulhas in South Africa to North Cape, Norway in 2009/10. Now engaged on another long one from Ushuaia, Patagonia to Deadhorse, Alaska over 18 months. The two of us travel alone for much of the time but inevitably meet other overlanders along the way and much enjoy swopping stories, info, fun times and others.We live in Cape Town, South Africa. Is there a nicer city to call home?

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One Response to North to Alaska — Fairbanks, AK

  1. libby roberts May 4, 2014 at 9:19 am #

    Hi, I liked your perspective, and you had good pictures. One of which is what drew me to your article. I also enjoyed your writing style. Just to let you know, Juneau is the state capital of Ak, not Anchorage.

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