Thoughts on turning south

Although we will be in Alaska for another week or so and I still have stories to tell of our week in Fairbanks, I am thinking back over the entire trip and our expectations and experiences.  Alaska is a different state of mind.  It is vast distances and a shrunken perspective.   The road network gives access to a miniscule portion of the territory and to maybe 90% of the population.  The people are as varied as anyplace else in the US, but I think a sign we saw the other day “American by Birth (Wisconsin) Alaskan by Choice” says a lot.  To become an Alaskan is to thrive on extremes in weather and in amount of daylight.  To be independent minded and to accept that your neighbor is too.  To stay awake until the sun sets in summer and I don’t know what they do in winter.  People are mowing lawns at 10 at night, we find ourselves sitting up until all hours not realizing the time and on a day like today with temperatures in the high 70s and clear blue sky who wants to waste a precious minute of sunlight. 

We came here knowing that this would be our one lifetime drive to Alaska.  Call it a “bucket list” item, call it a dream, we’ve finally done it after talking about it for years.  It is hard to think about leaving.  It is harder to say we won’t be back.  There are things we want to do, places we have not gone, people we have not met yet.  I suspect we may make this trip again.  If I was a fisherman or hunter, you could not keep me away from here.  We hardly count as outdoors folk compared to Alaskans who drop everything on Thursday and head for the wilderness, to hunt, to fish, to pan for gold, to be in the outdoors. 

It is a small state.  We meet people who are transplants from Buffalo, Fairport, Syracuse and the Adirondacks, not to mention most every other state in the Union, but mostly northern states.  We see RVers in Denali who we met a week ago in Homer.  We make new friends in Fairbanks and they take off to drive the Dalton Highway as we prepare to drive the Richardson for Tok and Haines and Hyder as we think about reentry into the lower 48.  We have not been here long enough to call it “outside” as they do. 

Fairbanks has been a kick.  We are at the Elks Lodge which is across the Chena River from downtown and that is a five minute walk


The population approaches Brighton (for non Rochester people a good sized suburb of about 35,000) and the surroundings comprise maybe a total of 50 to 70,000 depending on how far out you count.  The Fred Meyers Store here, a Kroger store that gives Walmart a run for the money, is the largest in their system and is expanding.  They take orders and ship to the Interior where bulk deliveries of anything stop with freeze up in September or October and resume in early May.  Small items can be delivered by plane, but those are bush planes and it is very expensive. 

The city is defined and divided by a river and rail yards.  We are between them.  This is the northern end of the Alaska RR.  The tracks stop here.  The Chena River flows in a serpentine course through the city and from our window it seems to be a placid little stream.  In 1967 it flooded up 17 feet over flood stage and where we are was deep under water.   The business heart of the city was washed away.  The river has been tamed by flood control devices and the city has rebuilt.  In 1967 the population was less than half of what it is today.  There are modern buildings for the University and Hotels and governmental offices and there are building that date back to the founding of the city in 1906.  Those are mostly log buildings and many are in use as they were when they were built with the later addition of electricity and in many cases running water.  It is not unexpected to see outhouses in the outlying parts of the area.

We have tripped over band concerts and gotten drawn into contra dancing.  We have seen Muskoxen and flowers and have spent a lot of time in magnificent museums and galleries.  We drove out to Circle City, the first gold rush city on the Yukon River, before Dawson.  It was the Paris of the North blossoming from nothing to 3000 people in 60 days and fading to nothing 9 months later when gold was found on the Klondike.  It is a backwater town of natives who travel as much by boat on the Yukon and its tributaries as by car, maybe more. The local bush plane is tied up next to the general store across the road from the airstrip.

We drove four hours out and 4 hours back for this visit.  We have been tracking the gold mania for two months and this was the last of the places we wanted to see.

We departed Fairbanks planning to stop in Tok to refuel and meet Suzette at the Visitor Center.  There were delays in departure, not the least being the US Postal Service inability to deliver mail to the Post Office it is sent to.  After a stop at the downtown PO where our forwarded mail was supposed to be, we tracked it down at the Geist Rd PO, a different Zip code but not too far away.  At first they did not want to even look, finally the worker agreed to look at the USPS printout we were carrying and off she went to to return with our mail.  Free to move on. 

Longer ago than we choose to think, Carol helped a student who had been driven out of her family home get on a train to, as we were told, Skagway.  She traveled by train, plane and boat to Skagway where she was met by her aunt, Suzette, who was living in a cabin in Dyea (see posts from out visit to Skagway).  Later they moved to Tok where Suzette bought some land and built a plywood cabin.   We had a delightful visit with our new friend and spent the night in the coach in her driveway.

Ok, this is turning into a major ramble.  We have not had adequate service or time to be able to post anything in a week.  Tonight we are in Haines, AK, known as”the other Southeast AK town accessible by road.  In a day or two we will take the ferry 15 miles to Skagway and drive out of Alaska for the last time this trip, the drive from here to Skagway is 360 miles!

Road report:  Between Tok and Haines Junction once we crossed the border into Canada we experienced the worst road of the trip, Top of the World was a picnic, it was merely narrow, dirty and frightening for lack of shoulders.  Alaska Highway from the Canadian Border to Destruction Bay is broken by frost heaves and shifting permafrost.  At any moment it was possible to become airborne (think about that in a 22,000 pound vehicle) and then land so you are launched again immediately.  When we stopped at a pullout just before Destruction Bay we opened each cabinet very carefully.  All were in a jumble.  The worst, and funniest was our closet.  Every single item in the closet was on the floor, nothing was left on the rod.  Fortunately they came down with their hangers so it was short work to restore them to hanging. Wrinkles, who would notice?

We continued on into Haines (140 miles south of Haines Junction) and planned on staying in a commercial camp ground as I could not locate an Elk Lodge or any other close in freebee.  Driving down Main Street, Carol yelled “Elks” and slammed on the brakes.  Sure enough there is a nice full hookup RV park located behind the lodge.  Haven’t met any members yet as it is Sunday and the Lodge won’t open until sometime tomorrow.

After we washed the car in a nearby carwash, we drove out to Chilkoot Lake SRA where bears are reputed to feast on the fish right along side the fishermen.  It’s true, they do. 

I will post some bear pictures shortly.  We had no luck getting useable photos on Sunday, but got great shots on Monday.

 Click Here to see the album online at your pace.

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