Archive for August, 2010

Okanagan Valley, British Columbia – Wine tasting and school bus inhabitant

Dienstag, August 31st, 2010

We are reaching Okanagan Valley in Vernon, one of the most developed touristic areas in British Columbia. The area is known for relaxingly un-Canadian weather, dry and hot. Today this is scarcely noticeable, because it has 12°, and it rains continuously. Okanagan Valley is Canada’s largest wine-growing area with nearly 90 vineyards. We will not even basically manage to visit all of them, but we will try hard and heroically to fight our way through the wine tastings. What a hard day!

The few campgrounds are expensive and loud because of the nearby highway. It is not easy to find any other solution in this densely populated area. We are going uphill on a road where are nearly no houses yet, but beside the turning area in the end of the cul-de-sac a scrapped school bus is parked that doesn’t seem to be in best condition. Inside somebody is pottering about and burning something on the open flame of a camping cooker. A – put cautiously – not very wealthy man is looking from the window. He obviously lives in the bus, and not very comfortable. He has long grey hair to save the money for the hairdresser, as well as the money for razor blades, what degenerates into an untamed beard. We are asking Ralph if we might park our truck beside him for a night. But he is evidently afraid that two vehicles could attract more attention than just one and might fear competitors. He was looking for a job as a picker. Cherries, nectarines and plums are ripe, and apples won’t be a long time in coming. We could park on an unsold plot a few metres further down, nobody should be bothered. As soon as we are convincing him that we don’t want to pick anything, we’ll leave tomorrow morning, and that our truck even has a valid license plate, he is well reassured and makes concessions. But we already decided to use the neighbouring plot. An hour later, we are cooking dinner, it is knocking on the door. It is Ralph with a pretty big water canister in his hand. He would like to make a coffee, but he ran out of water. Could we help him out? We have enough water. Besides he didn’t manage to buy sugar. Do I have some packs for him? I am filling some sugar in a bag and adding some of the ciabatta breads from the restaurant sack. He is apologizing that he has nothing in return. Singing and whistling he is jumping back to his bus. Obviously we made somebody happy.

Kamloops, British Columbia – Warm climate with heavy storm

Montag, August 30th, 2010

Kamloops is industrial town, traffic junction, and ideal supply point for travellers. At Costco we buy the obligatory broiled chicken, some ham, cheese, and cake – of course everything more expensive that in Alaska. The funniest thing we take is a bag of the size of a half potato sack with 18 small ciabatta breads. It lies now under our table since there is no space elsewhere. The city might not hold a particular attraction, but its location is fantastic. It snuggles up to a river triangle between numberless brown-green hills, covered with grass dried in the summer heat. Rivers carved valleys and canyons into the hills millions of years ago. Green areas are only found with irrigation. Forests grow only sparsely, but slowly more southern trees like cypress and weeping willows are put in the picture. Kamloops is regarded as the warmest city in Canada. To our great delight it meets our expectations today. Today is the first day with continuous sunshine, pleasant temperatures, blue sky and little white clouds after a long bad-weather period along the Northern Pacific.

We finish off our 16th wedding anniversary with a bottle of wine and a nice dinner on a pitch at a lake outside the city. A heavy storm befalls us during the night. Without any precipitation, but waves on the pond grow to a remarkable size and wind howls frighteningly.

Wells Gray Provincial Park, British Columbia – High trees, deep waters

Sonntag, August 29th, 2010

Wells Gray Provincial Park is with 540.000 km2 one of British Columbia’s largest provincial parks, the main part is undeveloped wilderness. It is regarded as one of BC’s highlights and free of charge at the same time. The park is known for its connected lakes, rapids and waterfalls between the alpine appearing Caribou Mountains. Canoe fans as well as white water rafters find a paradise here. There are even rapids of category 5+ – something like a dark-black ski run. Many attractions are accessible by car or short hikes. E.g. the Spahat Falls where the water of a brook falls from a cave-like canyon deep down, and continues its journey in a deep canyon with huge steep faces. A view platform does not only offer glances to astronomical depths but over the green forest scenery of the park.

The sharp bends of the feeder track to the more than 1000 m high Green Mountain are problematically narrow for motorhomes. A view tower was erected up there from where we have a great view to the surrounding mountains beyond the treetops. Dawson falls are less worth seeing due to their only 18 m height than because the immense water masses at 91 m width. The spectacular signature spot of Wells Gray Park is Helmcken Falls. Water shoots from a defile in free fall 141 m deep where it lands in a huge semicircular bowl that must have been created thousands of years ago. The river flows on as well between canyon walls rising as straight as a die.

In August and September of every year you can watch a special spectacle of nature at Bailey’s Chute Rapids. Chinook salmon – up to 22 kg heavy – try with vast leaps to overcome the rapids. None of them makes it to more than the half. In the end of their journey they have to realize that they miss power for this last act of strength. They have to turn and drift downstream where they spawn in calmer waters and die. Clearwater Lake is situated in the end of the 70 km long park road and rightly carries its name due to its crystal-clear water. It offers access to diverse – non-motorized – water sport options. In the whole park very old huge red cedars stand out. The conifers can grow up to 30 m and their stems are up to 180 cm thick; further south they can grow even bigger. They achieve an average age of 300 to 700 years, but can become up to 1000 years old.

Tête Jaune Cache, British Columbia – Caesar – emperor or cocktail?

Samstag, August 28th, 2010

In Tête Jaune Cache Yellowhead Highway splits into the main route # 16 east to Jasper National Park and feeder road # 5 called Yellowhead South Highway. We are following the southern route.

In the evening we allow ourselves a Caesar. That’s the Canadian national cocktail, not dissimilar to a Bloody Mary. Main difference is puréed clam meat. Ugh, yuk, yuck?!?!?! Not really. First of all clams serve as flavour enhancers, similar to fish sauce or oyster sauce in Asian dishes. Basic ingredient for a Caesar is called clam juice, available in every grocery, consisting mainly of tomato juice and the said clam juice, salt and spices. You add vodka and ice and season with Tabasco, Worcester sauce, and celery salt. Cheers!

Prince George, British Columbia – Where the hell does climate change come from?

Freitag, August 27th, 2010

British Columbia does a lot of self-advertising. In folders, at signs, and on posters they advertise the slogan “Super, Natural”. That’s a trade mark, believe it or not! Every now and then signs post “BC is idle-free”. During in Europe cars are designed to turn off their engine as soon as the car stops and start automatically on setting off, Canadian drivers keep their car engines running, even when they leave the car for example to go to the washroom. Of course this behaviour requires a low crime rate, since in other places in the world the car would be gone during driver’s absence. The truck driver who arrives at night at the same rest area where we overnight already turns off his engine after half an hour. Unfortunately he decides to leave in the early morning. It seems to be necessary to warm up the engine for more than an hour before departure. Asked about glacier retreat, change in the weather or extreme weather phenomenon most Canadians answer: That’s climate change. Where about does that come from?

Prince George is the only bigger city in the area. There is Wal-Mart, Costco, diverse groceries, fast-food restaurants and whatever you need. Good for shopping, but otherwise you can pass on the main road, there is nothing to see.

Yellowhead Highway, British Columbia – Theories about toilet paper

Donnerstag, August 26th, 2010

Do you know those useless sociology studies that publish some statistical numbers without dealing more precisely with prerequisites or reasons? I’ve read one study about toilet paper. Essential topic. Half of mankind is said to fold toilet paper, the other one crumple it. Europeans tended to fold during Americans would more likely crumple. Who ever visited a public washroom in America or Canada, especially those ones on rest areas, knows that the only option to handle their paper is crumpling. This human behaviour has nothing to do with preference, but only with material texture. North American toilet tissue is not only single-layer, but thin as parchment so that you could read the newspaper through it. At least it is somehow soft. First you are forced to unwind a couple of metres to achieve any effect. Then, it is very difficult to fold this snake especially as you would have to step onto the bog seat not to drag the paper on the ground. Therefore even a European is forced to be a crumpling one.

Smithers, British Columbia – Canadian beer and German waitress in the „Alpenhorn“

Mittwoch, August 25th, 2010

After oil change and shopping we are meeting two “old” friends we’ve met in the Rockies and getting to know four new German globetrotters. A parade is taking place tonight in Smithers that we want to watch and afterwards we are going to the “Alpenhorn” for dinner. Unfortunately, they do not have German beer, but at least there is a German waitress.

Yellowhead Hwy, British Columbia – Changing Native traditions

Dienstag, August 24th, 2010

The Yellowhead Trail guides us to the south. In ‘Ksan, a historic Indian village, we are visiting some naves that are built a copy of ancient originals and contain a school of arts for traditional wood carving, a museum, and an art exhibition. A couple of totem poles were erected, some of them copies of historic totems. A few kilometres further, in the Gitxan Indian village Kispiox, you can find 15 more piles carved from red cedar wood. By the way, totem poles are read from solid plinth to the figure on top that points to the sky and unlimited possibilities. Ironically – or shall it express hope? – the upper figure of the totem, erected in remembrance of the open-air museum’s opening 1970 in ‘Ksan, depicts a white government representative in upright posture with top hat and bow tie. Underneath symbols for the local clans like eagle, wolf, fish, and mosquito are found.

35 km south Bulkley River has to pass the narrow Moricetown Canyon. Under a raging waterfall salmon pile up to wait for the right moment to jump upstream. The Wet’suwet’en-Indians living there kept for years their right to stick the salmon with hook-armoured rods. We stay with the salmon fishers for long time but have only once the opportunity to watch the traditional catching method. Even for the First Nations times have changed. The number of fish, especially the popular Jack Sockeye, decreases. The Natives have built a fish ladder to make ascend easier for the salmon. Most fishes are caught today with a dip net; they are weighed, measured, and registered. Only every third fish is intended to be food for the community, the other animals are bundled off into a water container, loaded onto pick-ups and abandoned upstream to improve their chances to spawn. The salmon dedicated to consumption are distributed only among the Indian community members, and they are as well registered to make sure distribution happens justly. There is a single sales outlet where outsiders can buy fresh and smoked salmon for steep prices.

Hyder, Alaska – Moaning glaciers and a hunting wobbly bear

Montag, August 23rd, 2010

Stewart Highway is another dead and and leads to the most southern corner of – one last time – Alsaka. We are passing Bear Glacier that lies photogenically on the opposite riverside. Stewart, British Columbia, has nothing to offer than a visitor centre and two small groceries where we can buy dried toast bread. The American border post in Hyder was given up since there is no connection at all to another Alaska or US territory. The harbour at Portland Canal, one of the world’s longest fjords, was put out of operation years ago. Hyder appears accordingly: abandoned. There is nothing than motels, bed & breakfasts, campgrounds, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Everything is not very inviting. There is just a road full of potholes. The gravel road continues for 50 km to an old copper mine, but there is still silver, titanium, and copper mining going on. Some kilometres behind Hyder the road crosses back to Canadian territory. Again you can spot the aisle that was cut into the forest to mark the border. In the same moment the road improves to a normal and maintained gravel road. The Mining Road wasn’t meant to be a touristic route but was laid out nicely anyway. It was carved into the mountain on one side of the valley, high above Salmon River, and leads to 1200 m elevation. Unfortunately there are regular rockfalls on the mountain side of the road, in-between chunks of several tons, and on the valley side there is no crash barrier. Then Salmon Glacier comes into sight, the world’s largest glacier that’s accessible by road. It is really impressive how Mining Road accompanies the winding “glacier highway” for several kilometres, before the glacier turns off into the mountains and disappears there somewhere. When a glacier flows downhill, horizontal grooves appear, dozens of metres deep crevices that create the impression a blue light glows in the inner glacier. We are completely alone up here, no noise is disturbing us: We want to hear the glacier. And really, when it moves, when it breaks, then it cracks, it creaks, and sometimes it moans as its back is aching.

On our way back we are stopping six kilometres in front of Hyder at the main attraction. Fish Creek is a small brook where grizzlies, black bears, golden and bald eagles untimely exit the migration of many salmon. Because more and more onlookers went to see this place in the past years, a long boardwalk was built, rangers supervise, and collect entrance fee. The early morning or the evening offer the best watching opportunities and we don’t have to wait long. An adult male black bear is stalking a group of fish. If the salmon spot the enemy they are well able to accelerate a couple of metres in the shallow water. They aren’t an easy prey. The bear is starting to move his autumnal cushions of fat and his wobbly tummy and is reaching a considerable final speed. Nevertheless only every second attack succeeds. If the bear snaps one of the gill animals it squirts its eggs in a high arch into the water. Since the brook is only shallow and slow, it only burbles quietly, and the following heart-rending sounds can be heard clearly. When the bear fixed the fish with his claws on land he hits his jaws below the head into the fish. His teeth scratch along the backbone until it breaks. The flesh rips loudly when the predator tugs at the filet. He repeats this with the other side, and head and bones are left. Then the fur animal starts to trot predating the next salmon to secure his own survival during hibernation.

Cassiar Hwy, Yukon + BC – The forest burns

Sonntag, August 22nd, 2010

During the whole day my eyes burn and there is an undefined smell in my nose. 20 km before Watson Lake at Cassiar Hwy junction where we want to finally leave Alaska Highway we are getting a shock. A sign informs that Hwy #37 south is closed. My mobile phone doesn’t work here, so I can’t call the highway hotline, and I have to ask in the gas station. The forest fire rages since nearly three weeks, the gas station attendant informs us, temporarily the road was completely closed. Now it was passable with a pilot car in one lane traffic, the convoy ran six times a day. We hear at the road block that the dangerous stretch is 50 km long. After 45 minutes the pilot car is picking us up. In the beginning the forest fire shows a mosaic-like pattern. It smokes here and there, and burnt areas alternate with green expanses. But then smoke becomes thicker and we are passing big areas burnt down. Clearing is pushed at the roadside. Dead trees that threaten to fall on the street have to be felled. I neither envy the loggers nor the pilot car driver that have to spend the entire day in the dense smoke.

Atlin, British Columbia – Big shy cat

Samstag, August 21st, 2010

Atlin town, surrounded by mountains, has natural charm. It is still attractive to boat drivers and anglers, but its touristic height is passed. After the short gold rush the railway line Skagway – Whitehorse was used for touristic purposes. In those days travellers were transported between by ship between Scotia Bay and Atlin. Nowadays Atlin seems a bit lonely, deserted, and gone to the rack. But now and then optimistic new buildings strike. Leaving town on Atlin Road, something light-brown with a dark, short, and stubby tail approaches from the right, jumps sleekly across the street in front of us, and dashes further downhill into the forest: a cougar! That’s their Canadian name; in the States they are called mountain lion. We are stopping immediately. Just one more time the big cat dares to come out between the trees to look closely at us, and then it disappears. Despite the prepared camera in my hand we can’t take a picture – it is too fast. In the end of Atlin Road we get back to Alaska Hwy to tackle the last 340 not driven kilometres.

Whitehorse, Yukon – Supported salmon migration

Freitag, August 20th, 2010

We are continuing on the Klondike Highway north, from BC back to Yukon. The Carcross Desert, one of the numerous “North America’s smallest deserts” isn’t really a desert. It is neither particularly hot, nor cold, and not even dry. But there are a couple of sand dunes partially overgrown with grass, bushes and trees that offer a good subject for photo. The sand comes from ancient glaciers that ground stones to dust and that has been blown over here. Some kilometres further at Emerald Lake I learn that even limestone sediment at the lake bottom in the form of calcium carbonate can cause water’s green shade.

Back on the Alaska Hwy we first turn north not to miss Whitehorse. 24,500 inhabitants, about 75 % of Yukon’s entire population, live in its capital. The city’s name comes from the rapids in Miles Canyon that reminded the former prospectors of the fluttering mane of a white horse. Schwatka Lake reservoir permanently increased water level in the canyon and made the rapids disappear. But it is still an experience to look from the small suspension bridge how Yukon River’s forest green waters squeeze through the dark red-brown vertical rock faces.

Schwatka Lake dam causes a completely different problem: It obstructs salmon migration. To surmount the 20 m height difference the world’s longest wooden fish ladder with 165 m – that’s what is said – was built. As soon as the fishes enter the ladder the constant contercurrent encourages them to continue swimming. Windows were set in the side panel of the fish ladder not only to allow visitors to glance at the upstream moving salmon. Closing some bars the animals are caught for few minutes to identify and count them.

We are following Alaska Hwy south to Jakes Corner, where we are heading into 100 km long Atlin dead end. Atlin Lake is British Columbia’s largest natural lake and known for its beautiful scenery. In Atlin town adjoin another 24 km unpaved lake road. Right before it ends, between 2nd and 3rd recreational area, you find on your left hand side the Public Warm Springs that rise from a shallow natural pond. The water is warm with nearly 30°C, but with 8° outside even Joerg’s enthusiasm for a bath is limited. It isn’t good for more than the legs.

Skagway, Alaska – Big hopes and merciless disappointments during gold rush

Donnerstag, August 19th, 2010

Cruise ships stop every day in Skagway. This city depends on the ship tourists much more than Haines does and has appropriate souvenir shops – jewellery, and Indian clothing and art. The berth is in the end of the main road, and so it looks like the luxury cruisers lay in the middle of the city. The fronts of the old wooden houses were restored or exchanged in a manner true to the original so that we get the impression to stroll though a town a hundred years ago. The old-timer bus drivers who wait in front of the quay for clients willing to make an excursion are dressed up true to the original style, as well as the rangers who offer complimentary guided tours. In the visitor centre a lot of information about the Klondike gold rush is available; also a movie that shows much of the hopes, strain and the chaos of those days.

Since most of the stampeders couldn’t afford the expensive transportation Pacific-Yukon by water they only took the ship until Skagway or the vanished neighbour town Dyea and walked on foot further to Lake Bennett from where they shipped the Yukon with self-made boats to the Klondike gold fields. One hundred thousand people from all over the world, even from Australia, set off naively and unsuspectingly just before the turn of the century. They all hoped to make the deal of their life. Some even believed that gold nuggets grow in bushes. They had no idea which deprivations the trail would demand from them. Most of the soldiers of fortune choose the route from Dyea over the Chilkoot Trail that was shorter but steeper and could be managed only on foot. The North West Mounted Police that was later agglomerated with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police tidied things up then and required from the stamperders to carry along annual stocks of food as well as 180 kg equipments and clothes. Among others flower, rice, beans, salt, sugar, coffee, tee, and bacon belonged to the 520 kg food. It took around three winter months to transport the legendary Ton of Goods piece by piece the 53 km long trail uphill and walk down empty or even slide down in the snow on their seat of trousers. 2000 km accumulated easily that had to be covered in deepest winter and in unimaginable cold to make the boats at the lake, and to start when the ice broke. In early summer they wanted to reach the claims to start prospecting when the ground thawed.

The alternative from Skagway over the White Pass was longer and less steep so that pack-animals could be used. More than 3000 horses and mules shall be perished, most of them died of exposure. Despite the merciless harshness of the venture most men – and women – arrived in Dawson City alive – just to realize the vain endeavour. Right after discovering the gold all claims were already allocated and the stampeders had either to head back or enter poorly paid service at the gold fields. But there were success stories as well like the ones of Diamond Tooth Gertie and other nightclub hostesses or more serious ones: One woman became rich with baking apple pie; later on she managed the largest gold mine at the Klondike.

From Skagway we ascend steeply to White Pass. Just behind the crash barrier a young Alaska brown bear is eating dandelion. There is nothing to disturb him, not even me, working on the camera two metres away. As a precaution I do not get out of the truck. But this is just to not make the bear used to humans…

One more time we are passing the border to Canada. White Pass is situated in the midst of landscape of divine beauty. Tiny Christmas trees grow between scattered rocks covered with pastel yellow moss. There are numerous ponds; many of them show a somehow misplaced appearing Caribbean blue. But instead of palm tree islands with sandy beaches rocky islands with furs raise from the water. Mystic clouds and wafts of mist are hovering above everything. Somehow I am expecting some elf or a fairy flying around the corner and I am preparing my three wishes.

Alaska Highway + Haines Road, Yukon + BC + Alaska – Also grizzlies love salmon

Mittwoch, August 18th, 2010

The whole night wind shakes the camper cabin, rain splashes on the roof, and in the morning the thermometer reveals 6°C. The view from the window doesn’t improve things. The green mountains from yesterday are covered with a thick blanket of snow. Kluane Lake, with sunshine of intense colour, appears only pale blue-green today. Mount Logan, part of the St. Elias Mountains and with 5.959 m the highest peak in Canada cannot be seen from the road. The only way would be to book a flight. The first bushes turn yellow, and autumn will reign soon.

We are leaving Alaska Hwy at Haines Junction to follow Haines Road. Via Haines and Skagway we want to go to Whitehorse and back to Alaska Hwy. This stretch is said to be the “super route” in northern Canada, but we can’t see too much scenery due to continuous rain. Haines Road follows the route of the old Dalton Trail that was used during the gold rush as alternative to Dawson City. Already in 1890 Frank Dalton had established a first part, and later on a trading post. High tolls for using his trail brought him more money than most gold claims. With completion of the railway line from Skagway to Whitehorse the Dalton Trail lost in 1900 its importance, but then the gold rush was already gone.

When entering British Columbia we are crossing a 75 km long treeless plateau that offers glorious vies to mountains and uncounted glaciers. 1065 m high Chilkat Pass descends steeply and continuously down to the sea. Somewhere in the middle is the frontier crossing-point that is announced well in advance to allow even heavy trucks to stop. The Americans are asking us for fruits and vegetables, but all we have is from Anchorage. They believe me and let us pass. As we are heading off three officers are stopping us. They have curiously watched us for a while. One of the Federal Agents seems to have jumped directly from a TV series: bulletproof vest, boots polished till they shine, perfect haircut, cool sunglasses. We have a lot of fun with the three of them, since they just stopped us for private reasons, and as we have answered all their curious questions we may leave.

In Haines we are first booking a ferry to Skagway. Since we’ve got a couple of hours, we are following Mud Bay Road along the fjord. Views to the glacier went murky due to clouds, but we are luckier at Chilkoot Lake State Recreation Site. The outlet of the lake into the river is known for the possibility to watch fishing grizzly bears – or Alaska brown bears, as they are called here –during salmon migration. Altogether we will see seven grizzlies today: two mothers, one with a twin couple, and one with three cubs. They stay on different sides of the river and don’t appear at the same time not to get in their way. The cubs are all from this year, this means still not big and fairly clumsy. They roll and tumble around and drop the salmons often that their mothers fish patiently. But woe betide her if she doesn’t bring the next fish fast enough. Then they whine, cry, and growl like any hungry baby in the world. Of course, there are anglers at the river as well. It’s getting funny as a group of three bears is leaving their fishing grounds and strolling along the shore into the anglers’ direction. Panicking, half of them escapes into the middle of the river, the other half spurts ashore. Who wants to pick an argument with an adult grizzly mother? To allow bear and men to get out of their way there is a marked zone on the street where one of the bear families usually crosses from forest to river and the other way round. This area may be passed only by car, not on foot. Most men respect this –not the bear mother. When we want to leave she’s jumping in a completely different spot in front of our truck, and the cubs right behind her. So we have to stop again, taking the camera and more pictures.

The river is famous as well for its bald eagles that find plenty of food here. But they come in thousands, when bears and men are gone – between October and March. But some early birds have already arrived. We have to leave, frozen stiff, to not miss the ferry. It will take us in an hour through the fjord to Skagway, Alaska.

Alaska Hwy, Alaska + Yukon – Back to Canada

Dienstag, August 17th, 2010

In Tok we are reaching the Alaska Highway. There is no border control on leaving Alaska. Right after the American border guard at the Yukon welcome sign a six metres wide aisle was cut exactly on the 141. longtitude into the forest. The path marks since 1925 for 1000 km between Demarcation Point at the Arctic Ocean and Mount St. Elias the border between Canada and Alaska which was fixed in 1908. The Canadian border crossing-point is 30 km further south just before Beaver Creek.

We reach Kluane Lake in the evening. The Alaska Highway follows the shoreline for more than 50 km, skirted by the Nisling Range in the north and the foothills of St. Elias Mountains in the south. The mountains are shimmering green in the last sunlight. We just have got time for a beer at the lake, then the clouds are brewing and a thunderstorm is arising.

Valdez, Alaska – A fishing bear

Montag, August 16th, 2010

Approaching Worthington Glacier, clouds are crawling downhill. We can only see the terminal moraine and a piece of the glacier toe. You can reach this glacier that’s close to the road over a short trail, but the visibility is so bad, we skip this hike. From 816 m high Thompson Pass right after the glacier there shall be a magnificent view over mountains and woods – theoretically. The area is famous for bad weather with fog and rain and it preserves its honour. An even steep slope down to sea level brings us to Valdez. The 1287 km long oil pipeline, foundation-stone for Alaska’s prosperity, ends here. The pipe is owned by five oil companies and is said to be rotten and leaking. The parts presented to the visitor seem clean, nearly sterile. Also oil spill has disappeared completely. Major cleaning efforts and nature’s self-healing power did one last thing to wipe out the traces of the catastrophe.

In March 1989 supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef due to a navigational error. Nearly 41 million tons crude oil escaped from the leak, more than 200 km coastline were contaminated, and uncounted animals perished. Valdez gained a profit from the disaster: Thousands of helpers had to be accommodated and fed partially for years, fishermen were generously compensated, and eventually lucrative disaster tourism established. Oil spill might be gone, tourism stayed. Fishing is the big topic in Prince William Sound and the rivers. Even amateur anglers fish huge halibuts from the sea, and from rivers others pick out Coho salmons by the kilo. Such a salmon migration is nothing for sensitive natures. At low tide fishes crowd body to body in the remaining rivulets, during the already dead ones decay. The usually pugnacious seagulls stroll around the stinky fish cemetery with filled stomachs. They first peck the eyes of the still fluttering specimen. Then they try to open the belly to get to possibly remaining eggs.

In a brook where silver scaly anteaters crowd densely a huge black bear fishes. The big specimen amble along the water, just picks up a salmon, goes ashore, lies down, takes some delicious bites, and fetches the next fish again just to nibble it. What apparent nature’s waste. But the decomposing corpses will fertilize Valdez’s cold rainforest and help to new ample growth.

On the way back all clouds of the area gather together at Thompson Pass and visibility drops to below 50 m. Glacier and Wrangell – St. Elias Mountains can only be sensed. After Glenallen we take the Tok-Cut-Off named highway back to Alaska Highway.

Glenn Hwy, Alaska – That’s Alaska: red slopes, white sheep, high mountains

Sonntag, August 15th, 2010

Back to Anchorage, we are taking Glenn highway east. Again and again there are wonderful views to Chugach Mountains. Matanuska Glacier winds for kilometres through a valley, but its retreat is visible here as well. It is only accessible through private land and 20 $ entrance fee per person – way to much for people who have seen other glaciers before. However, the view to some orange-red coloured slopes is completely free of charge. Gypsum from volcanic origin mixed with copper oxide attracts Dall sheep due to its abundance of minerals. The sheep lick on the stones. They are related to the Rocky Mountain sheep, but they do not like warmth. They always follow the snowline. There is no snow at all, but we can find them with our binoculars lying on an exposed slope high up in the mountains. They pepper the slope like white spots a fly agaric.

The road ascends very slowly to the 1013 m high Eureka Pass and descends as gentle on the other side. A little black bear is getting a freight from our big tyres and is jumping off the road. On Glenn highway east you directly face Wrangell – St. Elias Mountains. Several times we can catch dramatic views to the 5000 m high snow-covered mountains lightened up with sunlight. In Glenallen we are heading south into another blind alley. Richardson Highway escorts Trans-Alaska-Pipeline to Valdez at Prince William Sound.  Temperature dropped from 25°C only two degrees, but the initially warm wind gets ice cold soon, and we are expecting a weather change.

Seward Hwy, Alaska – Dying glaciers, dying salmons

Samstag, August 14th, 2010

Who ever wrote about instable weather in Kenai Peninsula must have been wrong. Since one week there are dependable 13° C, constant drizzling rain and patchy fog. From far we can’t see the glacier even today, but on the easy 5-km-roundwalk you get to the glacier toe. Signs with years on them document the dramatic glacier retreat. A glacier consists of fluffy snowflakes at the surface that become thicker further down, gradually thickening to firn and finally, when nearly all air is extruded due to the weight of the glacier, melting together to a compact ice mass. A melt layer develops between glacier and mountain due to the enormous weight on which the glacier slowly drifts downstream. Crevices arise from the movement that allow to loo into the interior of a glacier. The compressed ice absorbs yellow, orange and red light rays but allows high-energy photons to pass and evoke a blue shimmer. But the Exit Glacier is completely blue, missing its protecting snow- and firn layer on top that will feed the glacier to built new ice. Its innermost is bare. Maybe summerly melting is one of the reasons, but I can’t displace the idea of looking at a dying glacier.

70 km south of Anchorage we are turning into Portage Lake Road. After a few kilometres you can watch spawning salmon in a clear brook from Willow Fish-Watching Platform. Little ducks are diving against the current to catch some fish eggs. From late July to early September there are pink, chum, coho, and chinook salmon. Depending on their species they become two to six years old, and return for spawning from the sea to the creek they hatched out. Unlike Atlantic Salmon the Pacific Salmon migrate once in their life and die then.

Behind the Begich, Bloggs Visitor Centre at Portage Lake you can see small icebergs even during summer that Portage Glacier calves into the lake. Portage Glacier can be reached only by boat. There is a short hiking path to the neighbouring Byron Glacier. Although signs warn from walking on the ice since you could fall into a crevice, there is no cordon to hinder you from doing it. We are following hundreds of other footprints until we’ve got enough glaciers for today.

Homer + Seward, Alaska – Russia in America

Freitag, August 13th, 2010

From Homer viewpoint I am counting at least seven blue shimmering glaciers on the opposite shore. It would be probably more with better visibility. They all belong to the jagged, deeply snowy Alaska Range. Homer is inn the end of Kenai Peninsula, a small town with an ice-free port that lives from fishing and tourism. Homer Spit is a 7 km long slender sand promontory looming into the sea. Campgrounds neighbour souvenir shops. In the end of the promontory anglers are standing in 10-metres-distances, getting fish out of the water at minute-intervals. A female angler is enlightening us: Halibut is good fish, but flounder is much sought after. Cod is an all-eater and stinks, the big ones taste muddy, but some people prefer the big cods. Salmon is the best, a “clean” fish, but they don’t bite yet. In Homer. From time to time it is blubbering foamingly from an underground pipe. Nobody seems to take notice, but we are doing without the offered fish. Beside a Russian couple is angling. Americanisation must have missed them completely. The stout shoes, the long flowered skirt and the differently coloured floral headscarf belong to another age.

Many things point to the originally Russian settlement. First settlers probably came 12,000 years ago from Siberia across the dried up Bering Strait. The name Alyeska, “mighty land”, dates from this time. After Danish Vitus Bering found 1728 by order of Peter I the Great a strait instead of the expected isthmus he started in 1741 another expedition across the strait later named after him. Behind the Aleutian Islands he reached the North American continent at the Gulf of Alaska and took possession of it on behalf of the tsar. Ignoring Englishman James Cook’s surveying Russian trappers and fur traders settled from 1784 on in Alaska. After nearly exterminating sea otter and efficiently decimating numerous other fur-bearing animals the colony caused more expenses to the tsar than gaining profit and was offered for sale in the middle of the 19th century. The whole world laughed at that time at US Foreign Minister Seward who bought the assumingly useless “ice box” for 7.2 million Dollars from the Russians. It didn’t laugh long. Only 13 years later Joe Juneau discovered the first gold. In 1959 Alaska was constituted as 49. US state and 1968 petroleum was found in Prudhoe Bay as you know. Many town names like Skilak, Soldotna, or Kachemak still today bespeak the Russian heritage as well as some street names as for instance Kalifornsky Beach. In Ninchilik and also in Kenai that was originally founded as Nikolask Redoubt you find Russian Orthodox churches with their characteristic onion spires.

On our way back we are turning into Seward Highway. This road is said to be especially attractive because leading through Chugach Mountains. Unfortunately clouds are hanging into the valley so that there is nothing to see except the road and from time to time a turquoise rivers or lakes. We are driving to the end of the road in Seward that is shockingly touristic. At the shoreline one campground is glued to the next, but actually they are just ordinary parking lots where hundreds or more thousands of motorhomes, trailers, and tents are parked. We are leaving the horror quickly and turn into Exit Glacier Road north of town. Visibility isn’t better here, so we are parking and hoping for more weather luck for tomorrow.

Sterling Hwy, Alaska – Smoking volcanoes in the very west

Donnerstag, August 12th, 2010

On our way south-west to Kenai Peninsula we are following the Turnagain Arm that shows with eleven metres the greatest tidal change of North America. There is a 30 km long side road along Skilak Lake not only with pretty views and complimentary campgrounds, but with tons of mushrooms as well. We can’t resist. At Anchor Point a short trip brings us to the most western point in North America that you can reach by car: 151° 52’ western longitude. There you find an amazing panorama of the mountains on the other side of the Cook Inlet, belonging to the Ring of Fire. Just from here you can see five active volcanoes that spit ashes from time to time.

Two Golden Eagles are sitting on the gravel beach sharing a fish. A seal curiously puts its head out of the water and an osprey is passing by to see if there might be some fish left for it. Hundreds of seagulls are sitting shrieking around the eagles awaiting their opportunity. As I am thinking that eagles must have got nerves of steel they are taking off enervated and leaving the screaming folks.

Anchorage, Alaska – Pleasantly large cheese and worrying huge chicken

Mittwoch, August 11th, 2010

If you want or have to shop in Alaska, it is best to do it in Anchorage. Alaska’s mainly high price level is lower here, and there are no sales taxes. At Costco we eventually find edible cheese for reasonable price – even when it means I have to buy a kilo-plate feta, a double-double pack mozzarella, and carriage wheel-sized brie.

In Canada a fresh chicken costs around twelve appetite suppressing Canadian Dollars. Conveniently broiled you can get it for 8 $ – a mystery. Canadian mothers complain of their daughters tending to precocious growth and getting huge bosoms they had dreamt of their entire life, or paid a lot of money to the plastic surgeon. Most of them accept this shrugging their shoulders. At Alaskan Costco we buy a huge broiled chicken for less than five US-Dollars; we will eat three times from it. There was no remark not to be treated with growth hormones. I just hope that my growth phase is yet completed. But taste was good…

Hatcher Pass Road + Anchorage, Alaska – Earthquake at Earthquake Park

Dienstag, August 10th, 2010

Instead of following the boring main road we are turning in Willow into Willow Fish Road. The 80 km long track leads over the 1,184 metres high Hatcher Pass to Palmer. In the beginning of the west side and on the eastern end there are some kilometres asphalt, but mainly it is a narrow one-lane gravel road with pull-outs and very narrow serpentines. It is not suitable for large motorhomes and trailer combinations, but one of the most beautiful routes we drove. From the west you quickly reach treeless tundra. The trail accompanies a mountain creek that shoots over big round rocks into the valley. Then the road rises higher and higher, on the right side a deep valley opens. There is still a lot of active gold mining in this area; whole families seem to spend their holidays here seeking for the precious metal.
From Hatcher Pass you have a beautiful view onto the road and a couple of ponds. On an August 10th we are stocking ourselves with thick jackets and wool caps, and hiking up to one of the surrounding mountains. We are rewarded with a breathtaking view to both sides: The frugal west, just covered with a green carpet, and the high, jagged, and snow-covered mountains of the east with the glittering waters of Matanuska River in-between. The city of Palmer is situated in the middle of a fertile green valley, the only agriculturally important region in Alaska where many kinds of vegetable grow excellently due to 165 frost-free days in an average year and long daylight hours in summer. On descending you pass the Independence Mine where you can inform yourself about the history of gold mining and prospect for gold on the public claim. On the east side the road squeezes itself together with a romantic brook through a canyon. Separated through the mountains from Alaska’s cold back-country bushes and trees grow rampant in the balancing climate of the Gulf of Alaska, part of the North Pacific.
Anchorage is situated at the Cook Inlet, again a part of the Gulf of Alaska, between Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm. With 283,000 inhabitants Anchorage is Alaska’s second largest city, but its capital is still Juneau at the Gatineau Channel in the state’s inaccessible south. The Gulf welcomes us with more than unpleasant weather. 10° C, 65 km/h wind, and upcoming drizzling rain make even Anchorage’s residents shudder. We are going to Earthquake Park where on Good Friday 1964 during North America’s strongest earthquake in the New Age parts of the land and 75 houses plunged into the sea. You still can see old cars, nearly buried in the gravel beach. Later we will get to know that exactly as we had a coffee in our cabin at Earthquake Park a nearly imperceptible earthquake of intensity 4.1 vibrated Anchorage. The city lays at the Ring of Fire, the active earthquake and volcanic zone around the Pacific. Less intense earthquakes and volcanic ashes regularly strike the area, stronger quakes are fortunately rare.

Denali National Park, Alaska – Claustrophobia in Denali National Park

Montag, August 9th, 2010

Mount McKinley is with 6.194 m (20,320 feet) not only the highest mountain on the North American continent; it has to offer a world record as well: The vertical relief between the lowlands near Wonder Lake and the mountain’s summit of some 5500 m (18,300 feet) is even greater than that of Mount Everest. Mount McKinley reins in lofty isolation over the Alaska Range that divides south-central Alaska from the interior plateau. The mountain is covered at 75 % from permanent snow fields, feeding many glaciers at its foot. Unfortunately it is rare to see. Statistically clouds cover it during half the year. As today. We were lucky to see it from Fairbanks, even when it was not completely clear then.

In Denali National Park where the mountain is situated we buy an annual family pass “America the Beautiful” for 80 $. About half of what Canada asks for. You are only allowed to go the first 24 km with your private car. With reservation for the campground you may go another 22 km. You can do some short hikes in the entrance area. If you want more than just a bit of sightseeing or even want to see Mount McKinley in the park you depend on the shuttle bus system. That costs pretty much money and you have to reserve well in advance – without knowing how the weather will be then. It is high season and there are so many people in the park. We are getting kind of claustrophobic, are happy to see two caribous and continuing to Denali State Park. There are viewpoints from where you can see the “High One”, the name Athabascan native people gave the massive peak. But meanwhile clouds fell off the sky and we can just imagine that there must be a mountain range somewhere beside the road.

Fairbanks, Alaska – Forest fire and no end

Sonntag, August 8th, 2010

We are taking off to Denali Park and Anchorage. From a viewpoint behind Fairbanks we get a good idea from the mosaic-like forest fires. Their smoke covers Fairbanks since nearly two months, but due to former military use of the area and probable ammunition remnants the fire can only be fought from the air. Forest fire is stopped six miles in front of Fairbanks, but that’s all what is done.

Fairbanks, Alaska – Saturday night disco

Samstag, August 7th, 2010

After finishing shopping and whatever we have to organize in Fairbanks, we park in the parking lot of DIY centre where a good Wi-Fi signal is. We are skyping and working into the night. Saturday evening disco starts – unexpectedly – at eleven. At half one we decide to leave the city to find a quieter place.

Dalton Highway, Alaska – Friendly truckers

Freitag, August 6th, 2010

On Dalton Highway truck drivers officially have priority. They are known for driving carelessly with full-speed in the middle of the road and whirling up gravel that often destroys windshields and headlights. We can’t really share this experience. Only few truckers behaved that way. Most of them slow down and keep to the right – if you do it as well.

Dalton Highway, Alaska – Sixty six kilometres

Donnerstag, August 5th, 2010

Of course the weather has to change when we parked on an island in the middle of a river, and the island is very obvious flooding area due to missing vegetation. Since the early morning we look again and again out of the window if water level of the river is rising because of the rain. It doesn’t, but we can’t sleep any more and start our way.

We manage only 66 km today. We meet another travelling couple and decide to spend a day together at the Arctic Circle.

Dalton Hwy, Alaska – River bath in the Arctic

Mittwoch, August 4th, 2010

Our overnight spot on an island in the middle of a river (it was shallow enough to drive through) guarantees not only exclusivity; we like it so much to decide staying one more day here. We want to save water for showering and go bathing in the river instead. We didn’t cross the Arctic Circle yet, so we are swimming in an Arctic river! The water is warmer than expected; my thermometer shows nearly 14°C, cosy for Arctic temperatures. Anyway, who ever bathed in such cold water knows what I’m talking about…

Prudhoe Bay, Alaska – Turning point: with the feet in the Arctic Ocean

Dienstag, August 3rd, 2010

The security officer is dogsbody: At eight o’clock sharp he is turning on the introducing video tape. He drives the bus we are riding on, and he is tour guide. At a time, 5,500 people work here, another 5,500 are off to replace them when having their off-time after a shift, usually two weeks on, and two weeks off. Caribou are walking around in the village. They seem to feel safe here since hunting season started. After the security gate 1400 drill heads are installed to produce oil and gas as well. The field was discovered in 1968, production started 1977 after finishing the pipeline to the ice-free port of Valdez in southern Alaska. During the pipe is well insulated to keep the petroleum warm and liquid, radiators for cooling were fixed on many pipeline carriers to not thaw the permafrost and sink into the ground. Weights partially hang on the pipes to minimize vibrations with strong winds. There isn’t too much precipitation in the “Arctic desert”, half of the one in Phoenix/Arizona in the yearly average. And it’s pretty dry there already. But the stormy winds can whirl up the little snow so that visibility tends to zero. During this time, Beaufort Sea is frozen and you can drive on ice. Now we are getting towels and can bathe our feet or more in the Arctic Ocean. It seems to be milder than expected, but our tour guide is explaining the water temperature to be 4°C. No wonder, the pack ice shall be just two miles off the coast, and the North Pole is only 1200 miles away. The whole excursion takes two and a half hours. The 45 $ for it are a worthy investment. There is a lot of information about oil production, but about nature and environment as well, you can visit an oil field what is very difficult otherwise, and you have access to the Arctic Ocean.

From now on we will go for a long, long time in the main direction south. On our way back we see again two musk-ox herds and are following one of them for a long time to take pictures. Unfortunately we aren’t prepared very well, and today is less wind than yesterday. Few enough to not matter mosquitoes. For the first time we really get to know Alaska bugs. They ARE big. But more worrying is their number. Dozens of them are immediately sitting down on our jackets; hundreds are buzzing around our heads and stinging into any exposed piece of skin: hands, face, scalp, and ears. Sometimes the girls (Only the female ones shall sting, isn’t it) seem to forget to inject their narcotic so that already the sting hurts like the one of a wasp. That’s not funny and most probably not the place to settle down.

I’d like to tell you a curiosity: Alaska is the most northern, western, and eastern US state. The first two attributes seem logic. But eastern? A part of the Aleuts belonging to Alaska crosses the date line and is therefore east of the rest of the United States.

Dalton Highway, Alaska – Arminius in the end of the world

Montag, August 2nd, 2010

James Dalton Highway is not everywhere built on a thick layer of gravel like e.g. Dempster Hwy. The secret is an insulating Styrofoam layer that separates road from permafrost.

Alaska’s tundra appears less lovely, but rougher and jaggier. It’s just beginning of August, but colours are changing fall-like. Birches are getting yellow leaves, and bushes are becoming brown. White clouds are glued to a white sky like cotton buds on a piece of paper. The road starts climbing gradually from Coldfoot on, then steeper and steeper into Brooks Range. We are leaving the last trees behind us. We will not see any ones more north. We are crossing 1448 m high Atigun Pass, highest elevation of the entire route. Only some lichen, weeds, and moss grow here, or else it’s naked. Only the tour through these mountains is worth to make this trip. Grandeur and beauty of this landscape are mind-blowing. First only the valleys between the stone giants are grown with grass. Glaciers rest in shady depressions. On descending grey colossus become smoother green mountains and hills then, until land flattens to just one green plain that slowly slopes down to the sea. It is called North Slope. Blue brooks and ponds cling to it. A lonely caribou skips away during ground squirrels try to shout cars off the road.

It has still 27°C, but it’s not hot anymore, because there is wind, wind, and wind. It is coming from south; I don’t want to know how it is when blowing from north. Snow has to be expected any month of the year, and there is still snow from last winter, like a white ribbon on the foot of a brim. Something dark brown, wavy is galloping on skinny stilts through the tundra: a musk-ox with short bended horns, flatly grown together on the forehead. Its bragging long hair is fluttering in the wind like the flag on our truck roof. The hair of a musk-ox is said to be eight times warmer than sheep fur. Right after we are discovering a whole herd of wild musk-ox of nearly 20 animals. Around 1800 they were nearly rooted out. Their population recovered, but is still endangered. It is not allowed to hunt musk-ox, but there is meat from raised animals available.

I imagine the north to be like this: Stormy wind with 65 km/h on the endless flat plain. We arrived in the end of the world, at least in the northern end of the American continent that is passable by car. We are in Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay. After the gold rush that seized Alaska as well, the US state gained importance one more time when oil was discovered. Today there is an ugly container village on piles that contains of fleets of vehicles, workers’ accommodations, and simple hotels. At Caribou Inn Hotel we are booking a tour to the oil fields and the Arctic Ocean. The whole facility may only be entered with a security guide. Deadhorse, five miles in front of Beaufort Sea, is the end for private vehicles.