Wrangell-St. Elias, a Loo with a View, and Onward to the Kenai Peninsula

IMG_6361Tuesday July 31, 2018

I had hoped to spend another night in the Wrangell-St. Elias  area, but I wasn’t about to spend a 2nd night overlooking the cable spools, cell tower and the yellow and brown port-o-let by my tent-site. Any other tent camping prospects were dismal due the contraindication because of bears in the area,, I broke camp with the intent of spending a half day in Wrangell St. Elias NP and then push the last 350 miles to Soldotna. It was a sunny clear morning and I headed out with great anticipation of another day of drop dead scenery and rugged glaciated land. The drive from Copper Center to Chitina – the gateway to the route to McCarthy/Kennicot was miles of feasting on the lofty summits, glacier sweeps, forests, lakes, and the braided Copper River east of the highway.

The town of Chitina is a classic AK town that has mostly gone bust with the closing of mines and demise of the railroads as the primary movers of freight. It is the gateway to Wrangell-St. Elias, marked by a very narrow rock cut entrance.

I anticipated another challenging 61 mile, minimally 2 hour upwards of 3 hour drive from Chitina to the Kenicott River just west of McCarthy Historic footbridge. I was not in the least disappointed. The area is so vast and with its remoteness, and there were very few other cars. So I merrily bumped along the gravel road, with my heart and soul singing. Numerous bridges cross the rivers and the old  Kuskulana River Railroad bridge build in 1910 is still is being traversed. 

With the road rapidly elevating, I was soon above the clouds, thus obscuring the meandering rivers in valley below but glimpses of the mountains looming above previewed the grandeur of these glaciated mountains.

The road abruptly ends at the Kennicot River –  icy cold silt laden water rushing powerfully off the fingers of the Kennicot and Root Glaciers. Before venturing across, we made our way towards the edge of the glacier with a brief stop at my #1 rated pit toilet on this trip. It was definitely a loo with a view.

The only public access to McCarthy was an open-grate footbridge which crossed the river to the old mining town of McCarthy. The campground I had briefly considered was definitely not conducive to tents or privacy. 

 I started to  meander over to McCarthy and though the grated bridge is quite safe, there was something unnerving about seeing the icy swirling water rushing below. Once my wobbly legs made it across the grating, Kili and Simba had their first ATV ride from a local worker who offered us a transport across a shallow tributary so we didn’t have to wade through the icy ankle deep water to get to McCarthy.

This was a quaint old mining town to explore, but knowing I still had many hours of driving left, I only stayed for an hour and then began the 61mile torturously slow, rocky, winding gravel road down back to Copper Falls.

The upside of the slow-mobile was better viewing of wildlife, the best of which was a bear running across the road  and further on down two moose grazing in an open meadow and adjacent slough.  The clouds had lifted so there we’re good views of the Copper River and its network of sandbars, islands and channels. 

My intent was to gas up in the town of Copper Center. For some irrational reason I expected this to be a cute quaint little town but was sorely disappointed in its offerings and was a tad nervous about fueling up at the rusted old gas pump.  I was in need of a restroom and asked the proprietor of this sparsely stocked store if there was one.  There was, but he very ungraciously gave me permission to use it.  Didn’t like the fact that so many visitors, upwards of 300 daily,  could be compromising his septic system and he would prefer if I used the port-a -john across the street. I opted for his restroom since I felt I was entitled to stress his septic system after filling up my gas tank for $45.00. Back on the road around 3:00 pm, 

I headed back through Glennallen and the straight out the Glenn Highway, Route #1, to Palmer. Once I hit Palmer, a sizable town, I felt I had left the remoteness and wilderness behind and was soon on a limited access highway to Anchorage. The scenery out of Anchorage  to the Kenai Peninsula continues to be stunning, but driving  along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook inlet and then on through Girdwood and Portage became tedious due to the high volume of traffic. It was still the height of the tourist and sport fishing season so traffic abounded. Before long, perhaps 2.5 hours, my little 650 square foot house with its Tyvek covering and my wonderful daughter were a welcome sight when arriving around 10:00 pm and having clocked 3370 miles of the most rugged and remote, yet exhilarating , driving I had ever done. 

Smoke, Glaciers, Pit Toilets and the Raw Beauty (and Roads) of Wrangell-St. Elias

IMG_6302Monday July 30 , 2018

Last night was the first time I was up and out in the middle of the night for this entire trip!!! The special treat was a bright beautiful moon shining on the lake. And we awoke to warmer am than we had anticipated at 57 degree.  The sky was a cerulean blue, the sun bright (yes at 5:30 in the morning). I anticipated a wonderful day.  I was packed and ready to go around nine after a conversation with the next door campers.  They mentioned that there was a large forest fire in Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Preserve.   Within five mile, heading toward that National Park,  I began to see smoke shrouding the mountains in the distance.  I had such a sad feeling that more and more acreage of wilderness was going up in flames even tough I know it is the cycle of nature – not to mention impact of climate change.

Before I knew it I saw the signs for the US/Canadian border approaching and it was quite an exciting moment to think not only that I had come this far ( probably 6500 miles from Florida) but I was now entering what would now be my new home state. Of course it was monumental to take the obligatory picture at both the sign and in front of the demarkation line.

The next stop was  to find out more about the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, a landscape made up of forests, wetlands, tundra, lakes, mountains and glacial rivers against the backdrop of the  snowy peaks of the Alaska Range. My main interest was in the nesting trumpeter swans.   Prior to getting to Snag Junction yesterday, I had seen a pair nesting in a lake, thought about stoping for a picture but opted not to. Since I never saw another pair there, I wished I had stopped, but the reminded myself, I may well have disturbed them.

 

I decided to take the one road through the refuge to Northway, a small town within the refuge. It was a pretty decent gravel road and the first part it was mostly bordered by rivers, swamp, ponds etc.  When I reached Northway I was quite taken aback  to see such a very poor community. Folks in gated communities with deed restrictions would be horrified.  It seems that anything that ever came in via that road never left and the town was strewn with rusting out cars, machinery, broken furniture , houses cobbled together with what wood was available etc.  I was quite surprised to see a good sized school and perhaps even if the community does appear broken in the level of maintain a clean environment, they make up for it in friendship and helping others.

I headed back out and was on the road again and had a couple hundred miles ahead of me.  Gradually the sky became bluer and the smoke disappeared.  The road in general was good but there were many rough, gravel, and heaved sections.  So we heaved, and dipped and bumped along. I find it quite a lot of fun to drive as there is no risk of getting bored nor a glazed feeling from miles and miles of flat smooth surface. I am glad that I wasn’t planning to drive mega miles because it is not possible to maintain a steady speed and even the speed limit at time. Most of the other people I talk to in the campgrounds put in 7-8 hours of driving each day, making the grand circle.  That does not seem particularly enticing to me. 

I was now headed to Wrangell-St. Elias NP, designated as a Work Heritage site because of the natural owner of the largest aggregation of glaciers and mountain peaks  above 16,000 feet. Imopted to take the Nebesna road down to the town of Nabesna in Wrangell-St. Elias NP. .  This trip into the preserve and refuge would be 40 miles each way on varied surfaced road.  The first part was chip sealed and then relatively smooth gravel. But as the miles wore on and I had to drive slower and slower as it became rockier and narrower. 

At a couple of points there were stream crossing the road to drive through.  Lady Spitfire was so excited.  It was the first time she went into 4 well drive and she was ready . Poor deceased Pretty Priss Prius, my faithful work horse of a car that managed four coast to coast trips,  would have loved to attempt this, but had she had any miles left in her by now it would definitely done her in.  But Lady Spitfire was up to the challenge.

As we got further in, the snow and glacier decked mountains were getting in closer range.  The scenery during every hour  of the drive today just got more and more breathtaking. The road deadened at the town of Nebesna. Several of the homes/buildings had planes parked in the front yard with a grass take-off and landing tip along the road. This clearly is by far the best option to get anywhere given the 40 mile arduous drive in.   

After the drive out and a stop at the ranger station I headed back down Alaska 1 and continued to ooh and ahh every inch of the way.

The stop for the night was at Glenallen and I had made a reservation for a tent site at Norther Lights Campground and RV Park.  Well the fears that I had about the previous park had been unfounded and the campsites were lovely, BUT in this case they were well founded. The sites are not all in a row in a parking lot because  the have a very few skinny trees between them, but there is not much privacy.  My tent site overlooks the cell phone tower storage lot with its many cable spools and other equipment.  All the picnic tables are yellow and things all a round are painted “cutesy.”

One can hear the traffic whizzing by quite clearly. Since I was not sure about wilderness camping in the area I did not want to go into a park where there is active bear activity etc. especially with my two dogs. The one  campground in Wrangell-St. Ellai does not allow tent in the summer months so I thought I would play it safe and stay near town.  Bad choice.  However I got through the whole routine of camp setup though opted not to use the squeaky sagging plywood tent platform. But the six previous campgrounds were great so I guess, I won’t dwell too long on this one. I however do think I will steer clear of these private RV parks in the future. All of the pit toilets elsewhere are far better the chemical toiled across from my site  (and yes it is painted yellow also!)  Now for my photo gallery of the pit toilets along the way.  that had a more tolerable aromas and dean features. The worst was this night.  

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The best was at McCarthy, Wrangell- St. Alias.

The rest of the cast!

 

Whitehorse YT to Snag Junction

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Sunday July 29th 2018

We had a nice cozy  night at the Hidden Vally B & B in the Blue Room with its two twin beds and as I anticipated the two dogs and myself would only use one. Slept well again and naturally we were up by the very late hour of 5:30 am. It was a bit of a challenge getting myself dressed, and the dogs down the stairs and out the door to pee (I did remember to pee in the house though I could have just as well used the woods as I have doing in the night and first thing in the morning while camping). Of course Kili had to join me in the bathroom as his loud bark at my abandonment of him for all of 1 minute would wake the whole household. I think we actually managed to not wake the other guests.while tromping down the stairs.  We hung out on the first floor by the kitchen, drank coffee and Kili begged the whole time JoAnn, the woman managing the B &B, cooked breakfast.  He smelled people food and would not eat his dog food.  i took the dogs for a walk and then parked Simba in the car so I did not have to carry him up and down the stairs again while I packed up.  If I had let him wander in the house he would probably find the basement stairs to fall down. I was packed up and ready to go before breakfast and went through the now very consistent routine of getting Kili to leave his newly established home! Breakfast was served at 8:00 so I also put Kili in the car so he would not be hanging around the table begging and pestering all the guests. 

IMG_6221We were off by 9:00 am to find a real grocery store in this real town!!!  Once I resupplied the lunch food, got ice, coffee and gas we were off to Snag Junction – back to camping.

Generally speaking the Alaska Highway is in good condition but the further north I got there was more road damage, bumps, dips, gravel breaks, and sections where the road had heaved significantly due to thawing and refreezing. It probably goes without saying but I will anyway.  The scenery got more beautiful and mountains higher and more rugged than the days preceding. Once heading north out of Haines YT,  the  Alaska Highway bordered Canada’s  Kluane National Park and Reserve to the SW and the Insling Range to NE and in the distance several peaks sported long glacial fingers crawling down their crevices.  I decided that if we were to engender mountains I would see them as female — they are so awesomely beautiful, extremely varied and colorful, they are bold and strong, they have curves and bumps and rumps, and teats, and tits and nipples etc.  They could not be male as there was not much in the line of phallus unless you count the thousands of fir trees adorning the slopes.

An exceptionally beautiful area was Kluane Lake. From the first glimpse at the Boutillier  and on through Destruction Bay and Burwash Landing, the waters shimmered and the many hued mountain slopes makes for an idyllic ride. It is the largest lake in the Yukon.  Fireweed  lines the highway in many many areas.  I have commented previously on the scarcity of services and on closer look, the population of most of these town identified on the map is less that one hundred.  And they are mile and miles apart.  Just re-supplying food and gasoline is a challenge according to one shop keeper. Additionally most of them have a historical significance either as a trading post, grew out of the building of the Alaska highway, or popped up in the era of the Gold Rush.  By now road conditions are only fair continuing so we were  undulating, rolling and bumping, and jostling over frost heave areas and many spots of construction to repair seasonal damage. I have read that this area was one of the toughest sections to build due to the nature of the glacial soil and the lack of suitability for road embankments. Further on down the road were great views of the Icefield Ranges of the St. Alias Mountains.

The intention was to stop for the day at Snag Junction Yukon Government Campground. It was a delight small campground (15 sites0 overlooking a lake.  I was able to get a lakeside site and we set up and settled in for the late afternoon and evening, 

 

Rocks and Bears on the Road to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory

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Saturday July 28th.

Simba woke me up at 5:20 and we followed our normal am routine – except he did not want his breakfast.  The traffic started around 6:00 am, with intermittent RV heading out.  I surmised  that this campground was perhaps a family get away week-end destination given that it was filled to capacity. But by the time I left at 9:00 am Saturday it was almost empty.  Than I thought more rationally and since there is no city, town, village, community of notable size within a 200 miles driving distance that was unlikely. And given, most of the time, I thought this highway I was on was a dedicated RV only traffic highway, it was people on the move. 

After a bit of a walk and my normal 1 hour breaking camp routine we were on our way to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The road continued with no centerline or shoulders thus remaining a lot of fun to drive. It felt like I was rocking and rolling around the curves and the ups and down of a roller coaster. Early on in the drive I came upon a large area devastated by wildfires in 2010 and 2012 and another in Tisgar Lake area in 2001.  It felt quite eerie to see mile upon mile of tree skeletons with an occasion lone fir surviving in this ghostly wilderness. 

Soon I heading north on the Alaska Highway 1, back to  lines and shoulder. I was in Yukon Territory and with each mile the scenery appeared to get more rugged –  the mountain peaks sharper and higher, the sky bluer, the forest denser and predominantly pine and fir tree, and many shimmering lakes along the route, and of course rimmed with wildflowers. 

I remained  amazed when I would see a “services in 2K”  sign and then almost miss the dot of an old gas pump and small store.  I kept wondering where the very few people who lived in this sparsely populated area get their groceries – real food not just convenience store muffin, cookies, candy and chips. Another thing than I began to notice was the absence in most section of utility poles and lines.  I got my coffee and ice in Nugget City, at the first rather attractive restaurant, store and bakery I had seen in a few hundred miles. It came shortly after hitting Alaska 1 in Yukon Territory. The road was certainly more civilized but definitely not quite as enjoyable. I can’t say that I missed all of the graveled sections and initially I found myself on a very flat and strait highway. Despite this being one of the main routes through northern Canada to Alaska, the traffic was quite minimal.

The first mishap of the day occurred around 12:30 in Ranchiera.  i was motoring happily along and a larger semi truck was whizzing by me in the other direction. I hear a loud crack and a stone had been jettisoned into my windshield, leaving a two inch circular shattered “spiderweb “ right in the middle of the windshield.  I was so mad that my almost new Lady Spitfire Jeep Compass has this big blemish on her face.  What was even more maddening was that this was major highway and well marked and maintained and I had been driving a couple thousand miles on rougher tar and gravel roads with no dings.. 

IMG_6171Soon i was at the Ranchiera Falls Recreation site and had planned to take the dogs for the walk down to the falls. I was still stewing about the windshield and wanted to skip it (that certainly wouldn’t get the windshield fixed or solve anything). It was a lovely gravel and boardwalk trail through a boreal forest to a picturesque falls.  Fixed lunch in the parking lot and ate in the car as didn’t want to share my wrap with the bees and mosquitoes. Actually I discovered that the bees haven’t been bothering us nearly as much as I anticipated as they are hungrily devouring all of the dead bugs on the front of my car.

Not to far along the road after the falls I finally had to head those warning signs I had been seeing all along the way to watch out for wildlife.  I had anticipated I might see an elk, caribou or deer. However, what did happen was a bear ran across the road not far in front of me and I had to slam on the brakes, thus shifting everything forward in the car. Now I was very glad that it wasn’t the bear that hit the windshield. The windshield is easily repairable and hopefully the bear is thriving.   The better part of the day  was spent “WOWING” and occasionally stopping to feast on some beautiful lakes and mountain scenes as well as after committing them to memory though I would also take a photo for back-up memory!

 

Filling up my very thirsty Lady Spitfire is always an adventure in theses remote parts  – from the burly guy who hung my credit card on a line behind the desk so I could fill up to a sign I am sure we would rarely see anymore in the states: fill up, move car, come in and pay!  And not to forget some ancient pumps and the above ground tanks.

Getting nearer to Whitehorse, I decided to head on down route 8 to Carcross –  I am not sure what prompted me to do so but I think I visited it years ago and found it quite interesting. The drive was pretty but not drop dead gorgeous and Carcross was quite quaint but doubt it is the town I was thinking of. It didn’t seem familiar at all.  I however was not disappointed in that it was a very old, rather run down little town but also a bit of a tourist mecca.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI then headed back up to the to the Hidden Valley B & B in Whitehorse at which I had a reservation.  Upon first glance I was a bit taken aback and was wondering what kind of place i had reserved.  The long approach driveway was bounded by what appeared to be a couple of run down buildings, some rusting out machinery, a house that looked in disrepair, wood piles, a brightly painted barn, a few horse…but once I reached the house and was led into the main house area and gardens it was beautiful. The gardens and outdoor seating areas were exquisitely decked our with flowers and planter boxes with a great variety of graceful flowers. The house itself was lovely.

My biggest challenge was having reserved the Blue Room, with twin beds – on the second floor (this I did not know or think about when making the reservation).  Since Simba can’t climb stairs I had to not only carry him up the grated front steps but up to the  second floor – plus all our stuff.  I took my eyes off Simba for a few minutes while i was fixing his insulin shot and I hear this thud! Simba had wandered out of the room and tumbled down the stairs.  I was so afraid that he was injured as he was holding his front led at a funny angle but it seems he is no worse for the wear.  So hopefully after three strikes there would be no more startling events. Once we were all settled with our stuff in the room, we went down and sat out on one of the patios overlooking the mountains and the beautiful flowers.  The dogs were so welcomed there as the owner has dogs and Kili was able to wander freely.  I sat out later than I had anticipated but with it not getting dark until around 11:00 pm it was easy to loose track of time. Now was the hour for a glorious shower. I think I belong to a different age because  I was perfectly OK with waiting the week while camping for my Saturday night bath. I climbed into my first real bed in a week and could see the sun setting 11:00 ish through my window. What a peaceful moment.