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Travelogue - 08/12/04                                                                                                                               Links to all Travelogue pages


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Well, now that I've sobered up I'll get on with my travel notes. After Denali National Park I spent a few days in Fairbanks, an inoffensive city as cities go. Everything is available and it's relatively easy to drive around once you understand the layout. I picked up snail mail from General Delivery, did laundry, re-provisioned, caught up on email and Internet stuff and took care of a few other city-type errands. I was preparing to drive 500 miles north to Deadhorse, literally the end of the road in Alaska. Deadhorse is on the coast of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean, well above the Arctic Circle and just 1200 miles from the North Pole. It is the northernmost road-accessible town in the hemisphere, if not the world. Having come so far over the roads of America and Canada these past months, it just seemed like a fitting destination.

However, that was before I read the guide books and talked to some Fairbanks locals about the road and the terrain I would have to cross to get to Deadhorse. As the Rough Guide to Alaska put it, "Travelers' folklore has it that the Dalton (Highway) is always in one of two states, muddy or dusty; worse still, the forty-odd eighteen-wheelers that ply the road each day supplying Prudhoe Bay have a nasty habit of hefting large rocks through windshields." They went on to say, "Allow for a couple of punctured tires (take two if you can) and a cracked windshield." 

If you survive all that, you arrive in Deadhorse. "Deadhorse is a weird place; not really a town at all but an industrial area where venturing outdoors (and there is little reason to do this) risks stumbling into restricted territory or getting bowled over by a fifty-ton truck." In fact, this industrial complex, which is the beginnings of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, entirely blocks access to the Artic Ocean, which is another 12 miles north. Visitors can only catch a glimpse of the sea aboard special tour busses operated by the Pipeline company, for which they charge around $60. It is generally regarded as a rip-off and a worthless thing to do. Even lifelong Fairbanks residents I spoke to said they had never bothered to drive up there. The most they'd do in that direction is go camping in the Gates of the Arctic National Park, a remote region of mountains and tundra through which the highway passes.

In the end I decided to skip Deadhorse, opting instead to drive 75 miles back the way I'd come and attend a bluegrass music festival I'd read about. It was just about to begin. Looking back, I think I chose the more fun option.

One my way to the festival I camped overnight just off Route 3. As I was finishing my supper, a couple of pickup trucks pulled in towing trailers, apparently to spend the night. I moseyed out to meet my new neighbors. Turned out the guy I talked to was an old Alaska miner, now moving to Arizona. I asked him if he knew Jack LaCross, the Alaskan mining legend that Megan Leary married. Well, did that ever start him going. Sure he knew Jack! They'd mined together back in the old days. He knew Megan, too. This fellow had lots of stories to tell about Jack. Then he got going about all kinds of other wild & crazy Alaskan characters he had known over the years and what life was like up here in those days. His tales flowed like pages from a Jack London novel and we talked well into the evening.


The Anderson Bluegrass Festival

Bluegrass is excruciatingly simple music - rarely more than 3 chords, usually in the key of G, often sung in tight nasal harmonies - but there's an upbeat spirit and a kind of nostalgia Americana to it that bonds people who normally wouldn't party together.

This year's annual Anderson Bluegrass Festival attracted a cross section of celebrants; local families with their kids, old timers with fiddles and banjos, spry 20-somethings from Fairbanks, crusty hermits from the Interior, gray-haired retirees in RV's. Young and old, quiet and rambunctious, everyone got along for the three-day event and everyone had a good time in spite of some rain and mud.

Anderson, Alaska is some miles off the main highway. It has a part-time post office in the town hall building, a friendly bar/restaurant, and a small general store. Several dozen houses, some with a rough, homemade look about them, string along back streets in a sub-suburban manner. The front yards are mostly mowed, some cluttered with rusting car parts and kids toys, some trim as the Jones', but everyone's backyard melts quickly into the trackless taiga that covers much of Interior Alaska. I doubt whether Anderson gets many visitors the rest of the year, but under the auspices of the Anderson and Clear Lions Club they do a fine job of welcoming hundreds of revelers to their annual bluegrass festival. 



Some of the best pickin' happens in the mornings and evenings in small campsites throughout Anderson's sprawling Riverside Park, a temporary city of camper vans and tents.

Parties went on late into the night. Even I made it to midnight once or twice, listening to musicians jamming, drinking moonshine and making new friends.



Onward, Upward and Downward

As I said earlier, I spared my vehicle and myself the ordeal of a thousand mile roundtrip to Deadhorse on the infamous Dalton Highway. However, after the Anderson festival I did traverse a dirt & gravel road (not to be confused with the smooth highway pictured in the photo above), which crossed 135 miles of tundra east of Mount McKinley. Until 1972, the Denali Highway was the only road to Denali National Park. Today it's just a leftover track through the wilderness that roughly parallels the Alaskan Range, the same mountains that form the backbone of Denali National Park before swinging eastward across the state. This road bears a reputation similar to the car-eating Dalton Highway up north, minus the eighteen-wheelers. However, unlike the Dalton, the Denali Highway rewards those who brave it with Alaskan Interior scenery at its most spectacular.

The dusty, washboard-like Denali Highway was teeth-rattling, but not bone jarring. I found it was actually a little smoother to drive forty miles per hour than twenty. Still, I discovered later that I lost a hub cap somewhere along the way. I hope I'll be able to replace it in Anchorage.

Once across the Denali, the perfect pavement on Route 4, a.k.a. the Richardson Highway, felt like a ride on clouds. It wasn't  too shabby in the scenery department, either. 


As beautiful as the scenery was along these routes, it was merely a warm-up for what lay ahead as I traveled south to the lovely port of Valdez and Prince William Sound.


Valdez (pronounced "Val-dez")

Significant as the seaport terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, Valdez briefly achieved world notoriety with the grounding of the 987-foot tanker, Exxon Valdez, in 1989. The subsequent oil spill desecrated some of the world's most pristine marine habitats in Prince William Sound. Today Valdez enjoys a quiet prosperity, largely thanks to Pipeline employment and tax revenues, bolstered by a sedate flow of tourists and a small commercial fishing fleet. 

Valdez is sometimes described as the Switzerland of Alaska, or as one local tour operator put it, "Many consider Switzerland to be the Valdez of Europe." The surrounding mountains are about as imposing as mountains get. By contrast the village is small and neat, with an all-American hometown feel to it. A laid back, 3-block tourist district faces the small inner harbor. There's not a lot going on in Valdez. But then there's Prince William Sound.

As I did when I was in Seward, I talked to some of the tour boat operators in Valdez about possible employment next summer as a captain. And as before,  as a professional courtesy I was invited to go along on a free cruise, which I happily accepted. The tour I accompanied, aboard the motor vessel Lu Lu Belle, lasted 7 hours and visited just one corner of Prince William Sound, all of which is famous for its natural beauty and abundant marine wildlife. It certainly lived up to its reputation on both counts. Here are some photos I took that day. Click to enlarge them:

No doubt the sea otters above are whispering tourist jokes to each other. "Psst, hey, did you ever hear the one about the tourist and the sea lion?" 

When we got back to Valdez harbor, I spotted the fishing trawler below. It bears the most perfect, most excellent name imaginable (click on photo to enlarge):

Later, along the shores near Valdez, I watched salmon by the hundreds fighting their way up streams to spawn and die. Flocks of seagulls feasted on the fresh carcasses, as do the local bears (although I didn't spot any that day).

While dozens of recreational vehicles crowded the typically tasteless RV parks in Valdez (and paid for the privilege!), I found (as always) a succession of excellent, free campsites just outside of town that I had all to myself. These alternately provided me with private waterfront camping on the shores of Prince William Sound, access to some awesome back country biking in the deep canyon flanking the village, and tranquil riverside views at the base of Thompson Pass. No other campers ever pulled in. I am constantly amazed at the herd instinct that drives most RV travelers into those tacky, barren, expensive RV parks where they are stacked like cattle in a boxcar, and I'm very grateful for it. By corralling them in there, it leaves all of these beautiful, empty campsites available for me out here.

I left Valdez reluctantly, but had some business to take care of in the big city. I'm renewing my Coast Guard captains license, something I've had to do every five years since I first got it in 1978. This entails getting a stack of forms from the USCG Exam Center in Anchorage, filling some out myself, getting a physical exam and a drug test so that a doctor and a lab can fill out others, listing and verifying my accumulated sea time during the past five years, assembling copies of my former boat's title and my current captain's license, plus any other paperwork they want, and turning it all in to them for approval. 

I also wanted to pre-arrange winter storage for my RV somewhere around Anchorage. I plan to leave it here this winter and fly to warmer climates. 

I do not care for cities in general. Anchorage isn't all that big by Lower 48 standards and I'd been there previously, but after the beautiful places I've been lately it jolted me with its concrete, noise and traffic congestion. I could hardly wait to get out of there, so I took care of my business quickly. Twenty eight hours after arriving I headed south, back to the verdant Kenai Peninsula.

A company in Seward, at the edge of the Kenai Fjord National Park, is interested in having me skipper a schooner for them next summer, taking groups out on day sails on Resurrection Bay. I'm not certain that's something I really want to do, and they're not quite certain of their plans, itinerary, pay scale, etc, but I returned here yesterday to talk to them some more about it, with the result that we agreed to wait and see, to sort of go with the flow. That seems to suit us both for the moment. In fact, it summarizes my approach these days to most details when mapping out my future.

So, here I sit in one of my private campsites, just outside Seward, Alaska. The sun is shining. Snow-spackled mountains are reflected in the pond a few feet from my door. Today seems like a fine day to hike up to the high waterfall on Mount Marathon, which flanks the village.

I intend to pass what's left of this summer exploring the mountains and forests of the upper Kenai Peninsula, which is more lush and diverse than the Alaskan Interior up north. I'll keep you posted. 

Next Entry: 08/16/04


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