020 - ALASKA
Updated: Sep 27, 2018
Alaska, you make it so easy to fall in love with you.
Your endless untrampled and pristine wilderness. Tundras stretching out across the land. Taiga forests offering a sanctuary for all the wild things. Your luscious green valleys decorated with waterfalls that crawl down the cold stone walls. Mountains so tall our eyes can't follow. Clouds reaching lower than the towering peaks, softly hugging the landscape. Your never ending summer days with their warm golden evenings. Glaciers marking the years, whispering their history in the surrounding silence. Your wind is the only voice that speaks. Your lakes so very placid and still, they reflect the scenery and clouds above. Rivers sprawling through, connecting everything.
You showered me with views I will dream about for the rest of my life.
July 8th | Day 132, 12'175 miles / 19'594 km
Although we left Dawson City very satisfied, with the previously mentioned free Ferry to cross the Yukon river, we both had mixed feelings about the upcoming events. On one side we were ampted to drive the 79 mile long (127km) unpaved Top of the World Highway, which delivered magnificent views and feelings exactly like the name implies. And we were even more stoked to finally get to Alaska, but unfortunately, that also brought another border crossing with it, one we hadn't really been looking forward to.
Although Mattia had the 'right' to reenter the US once again, (his visa is valid for the next ten years) the officers that made the decision, did not actually have to let him in. We had done plenty of research by this point and we were well aware of the different scenarios people went through to reenter the US when driving through Canada. We decided to take the approach with the 'more than 30 days departure' rule or loop hole, whichever is more correct here. Most people that come this way, don't actually know that when you stay in Canada for more than 30 days, that the departure from the US counts. If you stay under 30 days, it doesn't, unless you do not reenter by land, meaning you fly somewhere in between. And of course an official exit stamp from the previously exited US border helps here, which we had. Still you have to make your purpose for reentry believable. For this, we booked our return flights for the 29th of October, making our stay just short of an additional 4 months. We did not want to max out with another 6 months like last time. Also, we wanted the officers to know that we had every intention of actually leaving the country again.
Thankfully the amazing scenery while driving had a way of calming us down. So by the time we pulled up to the first officer at the border station, we were calmer than the last time. Or at least it seemed that way. My heart was still practically jumping out off my chest, all the different possibilities of outcomes of this very moment racing through my head in high-speed. As usual, we handed the officer our Swiss and US passport and he asked the general questions. His game face hard as steel. Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, followed by how long we wanted to stay. The answer to the last question, as anticipated, opened a few more questions. His face now showing a hint of annoyance as well as lack of credibility. We were asked to join him indoors. With our hearts dropping into our stomach and our throats dry, we did.
Inside, we were greeted very friendly, and I stress very here, by the second officer, Mr. Robinson. The first officer handed him our passports and some unspoken secret messages, and went back outside. Mr. Robinson started typing away at his computer, before asking where in Florida we were headed to. I replied, and he immediately answered, "oh yeah, nice, I used to live down in Lehigh Acres." Unbelievable, the very one officer that was responsible for our reentry, at the northernmost border of the US, lived in the city next to where I did, in the southernmost state of the US. He proceeded with asking maybe one more question (it got a little blurry from here), asked Mattia for his four left hand fingerprints, and handed us our passports back. Mattia's visa has been re-stamped until January 2019. We have made to to Alaska.
Overwhelmed by the very thought, we scrambled back into our camper, drove on, and while doing so, started half crying / half screaming: we made it to Alaska. The feelings that were rushing through us, are indescribable. Thank you, Mr. Robinson.
We continued the last stretch on the now Taylor Highway, before turning into a town called Chicken (summer population 50, winter 8). A kind of Downtown we had never seen before took in our front view. Four, very small, very wanky buildings, all with a small porch and live chickens filling the gaps in between made up the entire 'Downtown'. As hungry and whirled up as we were, we entered the last of the four structures, the restaurant, and both ended up eating chicken in Chicken. The still only road from here, down to Tok, was terrible. Although the Top of the World Highway was all gravel road, this now (sometimes) paved road was more worn and torn, with potholes reaching down into the very center of the earth, and bumps that shot us right into the sky.
Arriving in Tok was a blessing all together. We were tired, overwhelmed, and really needed the break. We pulled into the cheapest campground in town and were stunned by the now even longer days. The sky didn't even get dark anymore.
The next day, (we are in Alaska, still crossing through our thoughts every 10 seconds), we treated Henry to the very well deserved car-wash, ourselves to some donuts, and filled up our border empty fridge at the Three Bears grocery store. On the way to our next stop, Delta Junction, we saw our first Alaskan moose cross an open field in the distance and also had our first chat with fellow Floridians, this far away from home. Besides bringing gutsy winds and fantastic coffee and being the official end to the Alaskan Highway, Delta Junction isn't a must see place. But it did allow us to overnight and not drive through all the way to Fairbanks after the previous long day.
Shortly before entering the limits of the second largest city in Alaska (population 30'000), we exited the highway and landed in North Pole. The small suburb, still a bit away from the actual North Pole, is the home of none other than (the largest fiberglass) Santa. The streets are decorated accordingly with huge red and white candy cane street lamps and named just as themed. Down St. Nicholas drive is the famous Santa Claus House, with thousands of glitzy and kitschy Christmas ornaments as well as a reindeer pasture next door. The Christmas fanatic in me was happy as can be.
In Fairbanks we somewhat failed to find the downtown and instead bunkered down in a city campground that could aim for a few more stars. The following morning we (or I), as suggested by Mattia's friend Nora (who spent an exchange year here, thanks Nora for all the inside tips), got great coffee at the Alaskan Coffee Brewing Company, we got Henry's overdue oil change taken care of, and briefly visited the Pioneer Park before the rain got us drenched. We intended on driving out to the Chena Hot Springs after that, however when we filled up our gas next to the Regal Cinemas, and I had seen that Jurassic World was starting in 5 minutes, we spontaneously squeezed that into our always improvised itinerary.
The movie was prehistorically fantastic and the drive to the Chena Hot Springs was winding and long. The rain was still coming down, and with an already activity packed day, we decided to bathe in the springs in the morning. While they were as promised, hot, the rest of the springs did not impress us much. Maybe it's because we really just hit the jackpot at the truly natural hot springs in Gila, back in New Mexico, or are used to the fancy ones in Switzerland, but the construction all around us and the very dirty water distracted us just a little. But we got our zen that we came for, felt a little more relaxed and even got to see more reindeer from up close. The same day, we returned to Fairbanks to the not very missed city campground.
The following morning, we checked and filled Henry's tire pressure, noticing that one of the rear dualies was a little lower than the others. Keeping it in mind, we drove out of the city toward Denali National Park. Because we had reserved our campsite at the park a few weeks ago, we still had two days to spare. Usually we never plan ahead like this, but because of the high demand around this time of year, we wanted to be safe, rather than sorry. So our first spare day was spent in the tiny less than 400 count town of Nenana, where we hooked up at the only RV park in town, that even offered complimentary bikes as well as a home built miniature golf park (park being an extremely generous word here). We grabbed two of the complimentary kid bikes with very low tire pressure (it must be because of all the gravel roads) and rode them up the street to the one room visitor center, which also doubled as a small gift shop. Outside I ordered a refreshing pink lemonade from a little boy at the lemonade stand who only took donations but kindly filled the cup past its rim with a very runny nose and we had a quick chat about what there is to do in town with the boys dad inside the 'visitor center'. Upon getting a recommendation of a small hike on private property, his parents owned most of the land back there, we decided to continue our bike ride down to the river. In the one minute ride, we passed the entire town center of Nenana, including a small grocery store, saloon, and a free exchange library. We cycled down the half mile stretch of the river, quickly poked our heads into the Alfred Starr Cultural Center and Museum (not really knowing what it was) as well as the abandoned train outside, before returning to the RV park around the next two blocks. Our little excursion took up an entire hour.
The next day we continued to Healy, the town right before Denali National Park, as well as the home of the Magic Bus from the movie Into the Wild (the film set edition, the real bus is still out on the Stampede Trail). After many people have attempted to try their own luck in finding the bus, some unfortunately losing their lives in doing so, the 49th State Brewery decided to buy the film set version, in the hopes of sparing some people the far hike. We instead, decided to book a night at the RV park in town because we needed to fill our house battery and charge all our electronics before heading into Denali. With that luxus came a whole 12 TV channels. So in the evening we turned on our TV for the very first time, I binge watched the two Harry Potter movies that were on as well as Mama Mia, while Mattia tuned in to the World Cup finale in the break of dawn. By the next morning, we were ready to get out into what we came here for, the undisturbed wilderness.
Denali National Park: July 15th - 19th
We spent four nights in Denali National Park. When we first arrived, we checked in at the Mercantile, before heading to the Riley Creek campground to chose our spot. It took us about three rounds through all the loops, one failed back-in into a very insanely uneven site before we finally found our perfect spot. After settling in, we ventured out and took advantage of the free shuttle bus that took us to all the different areas. We stopped at the visitor center to read all the labels to the various displays, sat in the back row of theater to watch the end of an informative backcountry hike video, got some information from the ranger at the help desk about our bus tour the following day, and finally laid back at the Morino Grill to sip on a lemonade and nibble at a blueberry scone. Back at the campground, we had an unwanted visitor, who was extremely daring. A squirrel decided to scratch at our screen door trying to get inside and when I walked back to shoo it away, I caught him jump as high as the door lever to try his luck anew. Mattia ended up chasing him away outside, but the little bugger decided to return multiple times, even trying his attempt from above, scurrying back and forth on our roof.
The next day, as mentioned, we had previously reserved a bus tour into the park. The road that allows visitors to drive into the park is only paved the first 15 miles, and after that the rest is unpaved and only accessible by tour or with a camping permit from a campground further in the park. With fair reasons. We booked the cheaper of the two touring options (55 USD per person instead of 180), the non-narrated bus tour, which would also allow us to hop off at any stop in case we wanted to and just catch the next bus. Because the park road is 92 miles long, our tour started at 9:15 in the morning, lasting a total of 11 hours. We made sure to be one of the first ones in line at the bus depot, backpacks packed for the day and rain jackets on, so we could snatch that front seat, and we did. Laurie, our bus driver, was so incredibly nice and informative, we even had the impression we accidentally landed on a narrated tour. Because of that and our fantastic seats we decided to stay on her bus throughout the entire day (there also was only one more bus after ours, so we did not want to risk getting stranded in the middle of the Denali wilderness).
Upon boarding the forest green skoolie, within our first two miles of the drive, we had already spotted our first moose. The moose was followed by 8 grizzly's throughout the day, a herd of female caribou running alongside the bus, a fox by it's den, lots of dall sheep on the far away hills, a marmot, a beaver, and a few rabbits. Due to the cloudy and rainy day however, we couldn't even make out where Mount Denali was located, but that was okay too. The gloominess fit the tundra perfectly. Besides seeing these amazing animals in their natural habitat, we were blinded by the unspoiled and immaculate wilderness stretching out miles and miles beyond us. Driving through the park, allowed us to get a small glimpse of how grand this wilderness actually is. And of course, how incredibly important it is to protect this wonderful ecosystem and everything that thrives and depends on it. It also showed how immensely stunning the area is, when people do not affect it. There are no defined hiking trails beyond the paved road, no interference from any humans, besides the very few backcountry campers, that know exactly how to "leave no trace". Everything out there, is wild. It was in a way, almost emotional to experience something so raw and truly natural.
Because Laurie was such a great bus "driver", we also learned a lot in between. For instance: We learned the sign language words for moose, sheep, and bear. We learned that about 75 wolves, divided into ten packs, call this place their home. And while there are ca. 350 grizzly's roaming the area, who mostly feed off roots and the vegetation around them, but sometimes catch a ground squirrel for extra nutrients, there are only a few black bears, because they prefer the forest over the tundra. There have been 4 dinosaur species confirmed in the region, based on prints found in the park. Climbing Denali the 'old school' route, meaning from the north, takes about five weeks. These days, the west buttress is the preferred route however, which takes climbers about 2-3 weeks, because they fly to the base camp at 7'000 feet, and climb the 20'000 feet summit from there. Denali is one of the seven summits in the world, that's why about 1'200 people a year attempt the climb, but only about half of those actually reach it. The best time to climb Denali is between march and early July, and it snows almost every single day of the year up on such great heights. The skoolies used for the bus tours through the park, were in fact the same school buses as the ones from the Fairbanks schools, until school and high season of the park had an overlap in the summer. Now Denali NP has their very own fleet. And boy do they drive this road with confidence.
The following day, we were incredibly tired from the previous long day and all the impressions it left us with, so we decided to sleep in a little longer. Around noon we finally took the bus to the visitor center where I got my morning coffee at the Merino Grill and we made our way to the line up for the Sled Dog Demo. It just so happens, that Denali National Park, is the only national park in the US with a sled dog team. They have their very own 31 canine rangers. These rangers, are probably the most excited government employed workers around. It all started out in the 1920's when the sled dog team was used to patrol the park to protect the dall sheep from poachers. Today, though they still patrol the wilderness, they mainly help out in the winter months, when man-made machines fail to comply. The 31 Alaskan huskies, it's own breed, all look incredibly different from afar (unlike a breed like a lab or e German Shepard). Some have wider faces, longer snouts, short ears, long ears, brown fur, black fur, white fur, some are bigger, some are smaller. But when you look closely, they all have large paws, a big coat, a bushy tail, and they are bred to have strong and big hearts and lungs, to help them with their endurance. These dogs are bred for the Alaskan climate, to work in the harshest winters, not for looks. And at the demo, we were able to see how insanely enthused they are to do so. When the dogs were picked and brought to the fall training cart to be put into their position, they were barely able to be restrained. When the break was loosened, they all sped off, around the track, no reigns, no force, only controlled by four simple commands. These rangers also only work until their 9th birthday, getting an early retirement and get put into only the most fitting Alaskan home. The dog lover that I am, melted away, when we were told we could pet the ones that allowed us to. Cupcake, Party, and Lucky all made my day a little sweeter that afternoon, while Rupee practically stole my heart by just looking at me with her warm eyes. I guess I'll just have to move to Alaska within the next two years, so I can adopt her when she is ready to retire.
Back at the campground we picked up Henry, drove him to the Mercantile where we did our laundry and caught up on our blogs in the meantime. After that, we left the park for some delicious pizza at Prospector's Pizzeria & Alehouse and upon returning into the park we spontaneously decided to drive partly down the paved part of the park road in the hopes of maybe spotting the peak of Denali or some more wildlife. The lighting around this time was absolutely stunning, coloring the entire scenery a golden hue. We unfortunately did not see Denali, but we did see two moose, one of which was massive with a matching big shovel.
On our last day in the park, we ventured out again with Henry so we could be a little more flexible on where we wanted to stop. We first hit the dump station down by the Mercantile, where we also noticed our incredibly low tire pressure again (or wrongly indicated, because the tire did not show any lack of air). And although we did not find parking down at the overcrowded Savage River, a very popular hiking trail, we did instead at Mountain Vista and walked along the river with a perfect and uninterrupted view of the grand Denali. The entire mountain decided to present itself that day, a view that can only be enjoyed about once every 3 weeks. Wow.
After parking Henry back at our campsite, we walked the short but sweet McKinley Station Trail to the visitor center, to once again find ourselves standing in line for the Sled Dog Demo. I just had to get some more cuddles from the Alaskan huskies that stole my heart.
With our unforgettable stay at Denali taking an end, we drove to Talkeetna the next day. The drive itself was spectacular, with Mount Denali peeking through the clouds every now and then to our left, showing its grandness to us once again. We did unfortunately however, somewhere on the way, lose another one of our wheel covers (one of the new ones too), but because we had been through that situation before, we didn't fuss about it much. In Talkeetna we turned into the Talkeetna Boat Launch and Campground, just a short walk away from the main street. We took the very horribly marked footpath, which led us down to the river and over the train tracks, but eventually also into the small town center.
Talkeetna, a tiny hippy village (or a nice little drinking town with a climber problem) in the heart of Alaska is a popular tourist stop on the way down to Anchorage. And with the sky being clear and the sun making its appearance all day, the streets were filled with tourist and locals alike. We walked up and down the main street, occasionally stopping at a shop, and sat down for drinks at the Denali Brewery.
The following day, we grabbed two muffins and a coffee at a small drive through espresso hut before making our way toward Anchorage. Because we were feeling a little uneasy about our tire pressure situation, we decided to make that our priority when we arrived in the state capitol (population 290'000). We had the guys at the Tire Factory check it out, and upon the mechanics suggestion, he filled it back up, and we kept an eye on it once again for the rest of the day. We stopped at a local grocery store after, each devoured a take away box of Lo Mein noodles from the deli, and couldn't resist the Goowdwill next door. In the evening we again got lucky with the very last spot at the Eagle campground just outside of town.
In the morning we checked our tire pressure on the rear inside dualie again, and soon realized something had to be done. We returned to the Tire Factory and the guys had the broken valve repaired within the hour for just twenty bucks. Sometimes we are left baffled by how lucky we are. The tire itself was fine. And upon paying our balance, our kind mechanic even offered us in a low whisper, 6 brand new tires for 500 bucks, privately sold of course. His, what we assumed to be his boss, had previously given us a quote of 166 USD per new tire, including the work. Tempting.
Kenai Peninsula: July 21st - 25th
Because the day was still young, we continued onward toward Homer on the very tip of the Kenai peninsula. The drive down was unbelievably beautiful, with the highway following the coastline and the snow covered mountains as a backdrop. We overnighted at the free recreation site at Kelly Lake, saw our first black bear in Alaska on the way, and walked a bit of the shoreline of the lake before dinner.
Homer itself was not very special, but the Homer Spit, the 4.5 mile long and very narrow tongue reaching out into the Katchemak Bay is definitely worth the drive down. The atmosphere was great, fishing clearly being the main attraction, source of income, and hobby down there. The small shops on stilts, hovering high above the waters edge offered a fantastic foreground for the picturesque mountains in the background. We enjoyed a very savory lunch at the Little Mermaid including the serenation from the cook in the kitchen jamming out to Jimmy Buffet and took in the view which was great, our little window next to the table perfectly framed the marina outside.
Unfortunately, the weather did not want to play along on our entire stay in all the coastal towns (our weather app also didn't show any change in the following days), not giving us a chance to book a boat into the bay areas. Halibut Cove will have to wait until our next visit. Nonetheless, we stopped in Kenai and watched the hundreds of optimistic net dippers stand on the shoreline, each hoping the salmon will swim into their trap. Apparently, there weren't even a lot of fishermen out that day, the weekends were way more packed. We couldn't even imagine. With an overnight at the Russian River campground, we headed toward Seward, but with the rain still pouring down and the view across the bay completely blocked, we also did not book a boat tour into the Kenai Fjords. Instead, we got a beachfront camping spot, strolled through town, and walked the trail up to the very foot of the intimidating Exit Glacier, to at least get a little glimpse into the Kenai Fjords National Park. Before leaving the Kenai peninsula, we also included a stop in Whittier, where the highlight was driving through the one way tunnel and back.
I had seen a few pictures from Hatcher Pass before, so I wanted to drive up while we were in the area. And the detour turned out to be well worth it. The drive of course was beautiful following alongside the Little Susitna River, and at the summit (we spontaneously decided to hike to the very top), the views were remarkable. You could see all the ridge lines from the surrounding Talkeetna mountains and even Anchorage in the distance. A little further down from the summit, we visited the once booming Independence Mine, learned a little more about the Alaskan gold rush, and marveled at the peaks surrounding us. One of the quotes on the information plaques around the mine stood out to me, it said something along the lines of: "Wind, water and silence once ruled these mountains, before the Alaska-Pacific Consolidated Mining Company and its Boomtown took over. But today wind, water and silence have reclaimed these mountains." How true that was.
That evening we settled into a campground in Palmer and the next day we took on the longer drive down to Valdez, our last stop here in Alaska. The drive east to Glennallen and then south on Highway 4, was probably one of the most spectacular drives on our entire trip. The road took us through the most jaw-dropping views, over the 2'805 foot high Thomspon Pass in the Chugach Mountains, through the clouds that surrounded us from all sides, and down along the Lowe River in the lush green Keystone Canyon. Although Valdez itself did not blow us away, we were glad we came. Again, the rain held us back from booking an expensive tour into the Prince William Sound, the clouds having their way. Still, we enjoyed a quick breakfast in town, watched the myriad domestic rabbits hop around (someone once released one, and now they hop in every side street, and yes, if we didn't have to cross another border, I would have taken one), and were impressed by the fishermen down in the marina getting their boats ready for sea.
Our drive back north up to Tok took us through yet again mind-blowing scenery, but also over incredibly uneven pavement, showing us one last time the two trademarks of Alaska. We parked in the same spot, back at the same campground we had stayed at on our first night in Alaska, on our last night in Alaska. And because Alaska wouldn't be Alaska if it didn't leave you speechless, we were surprised by the most vivid sunset we have yet seen, giving us a perfect ending to our unbelievable time in the oh so very mesmerizing last frontier.
Leaving Alaska in our rear view mirror was tough. On our last day I tried to take it all in one last time. I noticed myself walk slower, grasping the views and storing them deep in my memory, letting the sun glare its rays directly on my face, waking one more smile, thinking these weeks were irreplaceable.
Alaska, I have to confess, I fell in love with you. And although we had to leave for now, one thing I know for sure, we will be back. I have to see you again.