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2 - 14 July 2015 Alaska

Thursday 2nd July – Day 8

Woke up to a dull cloudy day and the temperature had dropped. Went to the Lodge café with Peter and Suzan for a breakfast of ham, fried eggs, potatoes and toast with lots of coffee. We had a nice view over the lake but the mountains were shrouded in cloud. The owner of the lodge warned us that the next stretch of road would be difficult in parts due to ice heaves damaging the road caused by the permafrost. He commented that the gravel RV park outside was laid on top of permafrost. Saw a helicopter in the distance with something dangling on a wire underneath, too far away to work out what it was. We did okay on the road until just past the Donjek River Bridge when the road became pot holed and ripplingly uneven. Everything in the RV was shaking, cupboards were flying open and we were down to under 15 miles per hour at times. Just before Edith Creek the road improved. The route went through low growth forest with plenty of road side lakes and ponds. At Pickhandle Lake we came to roadworks that slowed us down in a small convoy led by a ‘follow me’ car.

Still in our convoy we came to Reflection Lake, apparently the Kluane Mountains are usually reflected in the water but not today with all the rain and cloud covering the view. Here we waited for vehicles to come past on the opposite side. By the time we reached the White River Bridge we were back on the open road and it was raining heavily. We were soon slowed down again because of the condition of the road. Just before Beaver Creek we came across a sign saying Permafrost Research Project. Along the side of the road are structures and pipes going under the highway testing special construction techniques to minimise the amount of permafrost melt in an effort to reduce road damage. Went through Beaver Creek the last town in Canada and past the Canadian border post.

The US border post is about twenty miles further down the road. We asked for our passport to be stamped for a further six months, in the belief that we had left the US in June before the required six months stay was up on the 19th July, however, the border guard said that we would still need to be out of the US on the 19th July, we can contact the USIS online and ask for an extension. Well, an unexpected set back that we will have to look into.

Continued on into Alaska and Tok where we were to meet up with Peter and Suzan. On the way to Tok we passed Tetlin Wildlife Refuge, thousands of miles of hills, lakes and rivers. It provides a good habitat for waterfowl and mammals such as black and grizzly bear and wolf. We arrived at Tok RV Village where we booked two RV spaces and Peter and Suzan joined us about 40 minutes later. A short walk next to the camp was the Husky Lounge, a local bar where the four of us went for a drink after our long day on the road. It was a friendly place and we had a chat with the locals.

Friday 3rd July

We said a sad goodbye to Peter and Suzan today. Because our stay has been curtailed due to the immigration issue we decided to move on and head on down to Anchorage and The Kenai Peninsula to spend a few days in the area before heading back to Canada. We got onto the Glenn Highway (Alaska Route 1). Saw a large female moose and calf crossing the road and then another lone moose crossing into the forest a little further on.

The mountains came into view about 20 miles down the road as the highway passed through the Alaska Range. Followed the Slana River for some miles, saw a bald eagle land gracefully in a tree above the highway, they have some wingspan. The road climbed and we had beautiful views of the valley and lakes in the Wrangell - St Elias National Park. Crossed Indian River Bridge and parked in rest area. We walked to the river to check if we could see any salmon spawning but no luck. Next was the Christochina River bridge and road access to Christochina traditional Athabascan village, there was also a private airstrip adjacent to the road. Past the Gakona historic lodge and trading post and on over Gakona River Bridge. Here the road climbed with scenic views of Gakona and Copper River valley. Fourteen miles west of Glennallen we pulled into Tolsona Wilderness Campground. We followed a track some way off the road into the forest and came to Tolsona Creek and the campground laid out either side of the creek amongst the trees. The owner of the site booked us in. He had been there for 45 years and was trying to sell up to retire. As a young man he had been in the UK at a US air force base in Huntingdon teaching the flight crews children. The site was well equipped and very rustic, the only problem was the mosquitos!

Saturday 4th July

Happy Independence Day

The day is cloudy but we had better views today, we could see the snow covered Chuckash Mountains and the Nelchina Glacier along our route west to Anchorage.

The highway descended into river valleys between two mountain ranges. We had great views of mountains, valleys and the Matanuska Glacier.

Stopped to take photo of Matanuska River.

Descended on winding road past the bottle green coloured Long Lake where people were fishing for rainbow trout and arctic char. Past the pyramid shaped King Mountain

we travelled on a tree lined highway, as we came out of the trees the road descended with views of the fast flowing Matanuska River. We parked by the side of the river rapids for lunch.

Our campground for the night is Ship Creek RV Park near downtown Anchorage. It is situated in an industrial estate area so not a pretty side of town but within walking distance of downtown which makes it very convenient. The park itself is well run with good facilities and the office staff are very friendly and helpful. The railway track runs beside the park and the station is just along the road. It is pretty noisy when a train comes through as the bells go and the train hooter is sounded as it approaches the nearby rail road crossing. Luckily it is mainly tourist trains with observation platforms and large viewing windows going out in the morning and returning in the evening. The Merrill Field general aviation airport is also nearby, therefore we see a fare few light aircraft overhead. We have reasonable wifi but still can’t down load photographs. Went off to Walmart to get supplies and sort out the phone. It seems our US phone can’t be used in Alaska, to cut a long story short we bought a 30 dollar phone that gives us email and 4G. We were pleased to see that our favourite shop was just down the road from the campsite, Pro Bass Outdoor World so we had to pay that a visit.

Sunday 5th July

Went to the Anchorage Market and Festival this afternoon. They sell a selection of Alaskan made or grown products. There was also live music and plenty of food outlets. Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and is built at the side of Cook Inlet with the Chugach Mountains as an impressive backdrop. The city is celebrating its centenary this year. It started on Ship Creek in 1915 with the construction of the railway into the interior. Had a chat with the Visitor Centre staff about tours on the Kenai Peninsula and if we could take the dog on any. They sent us on to a local tour broker who had many years of experience in the area. They said it would not be possible to take Sandy with us on any of the boat trips etc. but they were very helpful and pointed out the places we should visit.

Monday 6th July

Today we made our way down the Seward Highway south of Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula. This scenic road runs along Turnagain Arm (a stretch of sea extending from Cook Inlet) next to a single rail track with granite walls to the left and a view of the mountains over the bay.

Stopped off at Beluga Point to Whale watch – no luck.

We entered Chugach State Park as we continued our 127 mile journey to the town of Seward on the east coast of the Kenai Peninsula.

Booked in at Stoney Creek RV Park which is about six miles north of Seward with nice mountain views and set alongside Glacier Creek.

Tuesday 7th July

Seward is located on Resurrection Bay at the gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park. We took a look around town and found our way to the historic district. The town was established in 1903 and there are some nice shops and coffee houses in well preserved buildings dating from this era. One shop we went into was originally part of a large department store which also included a bank, it still had the original counter and bank vault. Went to Salmon Bake Restaurant just outside Seward for dinner. A large wood cabin style restaurant with a bar, it was busy but they managed to find us a table and we had a nice fish supper.

Wednesday 8th July

Today went on a Kenai Fjords Tours boat cruise on Resurrection Bay and visit to Fox Island. The day was grey and windy out on the water when we started.

On the way out of Seward harbor we spotted a juvenile bald eagle perched on a marker post in the water, fish spotting.

We made our way down the bay towards the Gulf of Alaska. The bay has steep forested cliffs and mountain backdrops. As we went along the Captain gave a good commentary on the area, its history and the wildlife. We approached Fox Island and could see Bear Glacier in the distance.

We were on a half day tour because we didn’t want to leave Sandy too long, therefore the boat did not have time to go up to the glacier. We saw more bald eagles, one in a tree and one flying low over the water scooping up a fish, plus several cormorants.

We stopped off at Fox Island which is about 12 miles from Seward on the east side of the bay. The island is forested with a nice shoreline and pebble beach. Here there is a dining room and gift shop. A buffet lunch of Alaskan salmon, prime rib and Alaska King crab, plus salad and vegetables. This meal was absolutely delicious, one of the best we have had here. During lunch there was park ranger giving a talk on the Kenai Fjords National Park. Back on the boat the weather had improved and most were out on deck. Shortly after we set off we saw three humpback whales gently circling, coming up for air and then diving down again. It was thought that they were probably sleeping.

As we came to a place called Bear Lagoon there were small ice burgs floating in the water that had calved off the distant glaciers.

Further on we saw another six humpbacked whales. On rocks at the bottom of the cliffs was a colony of Steller sea lions all lying lazily in the sun.

At the top of Caines Head, a headland jutting into the bay, can be seen the remains of a US fortification built during World War 11 to defend against invasion. The boat went close to a cliff wall of kittiwake nests, a very busy place.

It was fantastic having such a close view of all the activity. Next we were in a cove with dark green water and saw puffins flying low across the water and a lone humpback whale.

High on the cliff above was a white mountain goat perched right on the edge.

We had an explanation on how the cliff walls and coves had been formed by tectonic and volcanic action. The grey colour of the sea in the bay is attributed to the glacial run off that contains silt or rock flour. As glaciers move over the landscape the rocks they pick up along the way grind against the mountainsides creating fine dust particles. We headed back to Seward after having a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, a really worthwhile trip. The close up view of the wildlife and the scenery was wonderful. It left me thinking that we have just seen a tiny fraction of the abundant and varied wildlife that exists here.

Thursday 9th July

Set off back along the Seward Highway towards Whittier. Stopped off at Summit Lake to bird watch. Turned off the highway onto the Whittier/Portage Glacier access road. Booked in at Portage Valley RV Park which is set in the forest and has large pond at the back. The Portage Lake Visitor Centre has information on Chugach National Forest and its natural and cultural history. There are exhibit rooms and recordings of people who have lived in the area and displays that focus on the animals of the Chugach Forest. There is a film theatre that shows ‘Voices from the Ice’ a film about how glaciers are created and how the land changes once the ice flows move over it. After the film a curtain rolls back to reveal a glass wall and magnificent view of Portage Lake, a wonderful demonstration of what they have been talking about. A really excellent facility.

Next we moved on to Whittier located on Prince William Sound. The only road access to Whittier is through a mountain tunnel that is shared with the railway. The tunnel was built in 1941-3 for rail access. Years later the tunnel was modified to handle both railroad and vehicle traffic. The tunnel has a computerized traffic control system that regulates the flow of rail and vehicle traffic. It takes 6-7 minutes to get through the tunnel driving between the rail tracks.

Whittier was created by the US army during WW11 as a port. The population is housed in a couple of multi-story buildings one of which was originally used to house US army families. Now it seems fishing and tourism are the main activities and it has a busy harbor with regular ferry and tour boats, plus cruise ships arriving and departing across Prince William Sound.

Friday 10th July

This morning we visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre. There are large parcels of land in the centre for the larger animals to roam but with excellent opportunities to see them up close. Visitors can choose to either drive or walk through the winding roads around the animal enclosures. The organization is nonprofit and is dedicated to preserving Alaska’s wildlife. They have conservation and education programmes and take in injured and orphaned animals. For example, they have two Lynx that were brought in by a fire fighter, he found them as kittens with burnt paws following a forest fire. There were three kittens but one died. They are unable to be released back into the wild because they have had no parenting to teach them how to survive so they will live at the centre. Just at the entrance to the centre there is a stand of dead spruce trees. This occurred in the 1964 earthquake which caused the land to sink in the area and as a result many trees had their roots systems covered by salt water. It is a weird and ghostly sight.

First we came to the moose herd then past the porcupine and musk ok enclosures to the animal shelter where there were two orphaned moose.

In the shelter one of the interns was training a fox to respond to commands. Then of course everyone’s favourite the brown bears. There were three bears in the enclosure playing in the ponds and they are fascinating to watch, they were definitely having fun.

The next large enclose was for the wood bison or buffalo. They became extinct in Alaska and the centre is involved in a programme of reintroduction. In the last month eighteen wood bison bulls have been released into the wild. This was a mixed herd inside the enclosure with small calves and one of the adults decided to charge at Tony, luckily there was a fence.

At the end of the road was a rest area with seats looking down Turnagain Arm, wonderful scenery.

After a rest to admire the scenery we went around to the elk and caribou herds.

This is a really worthwhile place to visit. We learnt a lot about the animals of Alaska and the Centre’s conservation efforts.

This afternoon we went on a Portage Lake cruise to view the Portage Glacier up close. On board was a rep from the Forest Service who gave a talk about the glacier and the lake. The lake was formed by the melting glacier which has been retreating for many years. The boat went up close to the wall of the glacier which looked blue/white. It was explained that glacier ice is densely compacted and therefore most of the air is squeezed out. When sunlight hits it only the high energy blue colour is reflected back to the eye, the other colour’s in the spectrum are absorbed – I think that’s right! Anyway, it looks blue. Again beautiful pristine scenery and dramatic backdrops.

Saturday 11th July

Got back on the Seward Highway this morning to make our way back to Anchorage and the Ship Creek RV Park. It is the time of year for the salmon to make their journey from the sea up the Alaskan rivers to the spawning grounds. Therefore, we went to Ship Creek, just a short way from the camp ground to see if we could spot any salmon as they started on their journey. There were a few fishermen and women with rods and nets at the creek hoping to be lucky enough to intercept a fish on the way up the creek. We went onto a bridge to see if we could catch a glimpse of any fish and sure enough there was a large group of salmon right below the bridge. They looked like they were resting and had obviously got past the rods and nets lower down the creek. It was almost as if they knew they were in a safe area because a cable had been placed high above the creek with a notice to say no fishing between the cable and the bridge and that was exactly were the fish were. After our fish watching we went into Anchorage for a look around. Had a drink at the Glacier Brewhouse which actually has its own brewery at the back of the restaurant behind a glass screen so that you can view the brewing process. We sat at the bar and watched their very efficient cocktail barman produce drink after drink in lightning speed. Very entertaining.

Sunday 12th July

Went to Alaska Native Heritage Centre this morning. There is a Welcome House and outside in the grounds are six traditional village settings. In the large Welcome House, Alaska Native culture is introduced through storytelling, singing and dancing, it was really entertaining and there was an opportunity to go up and show your own dancing skills.

There is a small theatre where we watched a film about Native Games and one particular young athlete whose disciplines included high kicks and jumps involving great skill and strength. It showed him taking a flight to a relative who was to teach him the traditional way of seal hunting which he had never done before. It clearly showed how his athletic skills proved invaluable when he was jumping and traversing over the ice flows where one wrong move could mean disaster. You could see how the sporting skills had developed from essential traditional native hunting techniques. We went out to see the native dwellings that were positioned in woods around a lake. There was a house representing each of six Alaskan native cultures. There were demonstrations of traditional skills and the making of everyday objects. Each house had a young native Alaskan there to greet you and talk about the buildings contents and answer questions, we were particularly impressed with Trenton.

He gave a detailed explanation of how an Athabascan house worked and how all the baskets and utensils were made. Windows were made out of bear intestine. Outside was a small wooden log cabin style structure set up high on top of four long wooden poles (we had seen these along the road side outside a few places). This was the food cache and only one member of the family had access to it. It was up high so that animals and unauthorized humans could not get to it. The poles were coated with bear grease so that squirrels would slide off. It was positioned out in the wood away from the house. Along the way to the cache the step ladders would be hidden and only that one member of the family would know where they were. Trenton knew so many facts and reeled them off so quickly he could hardly breathe when he had finished. Brilliant! On our way around the dwellings we stopped off to see the dog team and husky puppies who were of course adorable.

As there was no snow we wouldn’t be going on a sled ride but there was a compromise – an off road cart ride. We had a thrilling ride through the forest trails and around some hair raising bends.

These dogs are super athletes, not the fluffy looking husky type but very lean and strong. These guys compete in 300 mile races. The owner of the team had a lovely Siberian Husky as a pet.

Met up with Peter and Suzan. They are here to see a company called Cummins to have work done on their coach. It was great to see them again and we went out to celebrate at the Glacier Brewhouse for a meal. We had a good catch up on where we had been on our individual travels. They had been to Valdez, known for the terrible oil tanker spillage, Exxon Valdez, that happened there in the 1989. It is also known for its beautiful setting with the Chugach Mountains rising behind the city. Following our meal we went the Buffalo Wild Wing’s Bar to play Trivia. We each had an ibook size screen and keyboard and set of multiple-choice questions came up on the screen and on a large wall mounted tv screen. We were not only competing against ourselves but a network of bars that are hooked up to the system across the US. It was good fun. Peter and Suzy dropped us off at our campground and we had to say yet another sad farewell - until the next time. We were moving on in the morning and they were staying to have the work done on their vehicle.

Monday 13th July

Left Anchorage this morning to start our journey back to the Canadian border, the first stage being via the Glenn highway east. In the outskirts of the city we saw a lake on the south side of the road with lines of small float planes along the far bank. Presumably they were parked at the bottom of their owner’s garden ready for take-off. After being held up for a while with roadworks we stopped just past Chickaloon to take a photo of the Matanuska River in the valley with the Chugach Mountains behind.

We came to some great views of the Matanuska Glacier which starts in the Chugach Mountains.

As we approached Tolsona - where we stayed on the way down - the area almost looked like it had been landscaped. Forests of spindly black barked spruce trees, mossy bright green grass with narrow water ways looking like they had been cut out, ponds with lily pads floating on top and lines of lilac and white wild flowers along the road side. Approaching Glennallen we could see the snowcapped Wrangell Mountains in the distance. We turned north onto the Richardson Highway, past Gulkana Airport

turning back onto Highway 1 and the Tok Cutoff at Gakona Junction. Stopped for lunch at a turn off overlooking the valley of the Gakona and Copper Rivers, magnificent view. Came to the Slana River which the road followed with views of the Mentasta Mountains.

This area is predominately wetland ponds with mixed forest. Heavy rain as we approached Tok. Stayed at the Sourdough Campground

Tuesday 14th July

Filled up with gas in Tok and then headed east to pick up the Taylor Highway at Tetlin Junction for the 80 mile journey north to the remote community of Chicken. There was still evidence of the forest fire that took place here in 2004 and displays of the wild flower Fireweed which is common all over Alaska and Yukon and seems to do well in the soil after forest fires. Apparently wild fires are common in Alaska through the summer and are often caused by lightning. Steep winding uphill and downhill grades as we climbed Mount Fairplay, road quite bumpy in parts and slow going on unpaved sections. Came into the Fortymile region with views over the Alaska Mountain Range. Bridge over Mosquito Fork of Fortynine River. Arrived at Chicken an old gold mining camp that now has three lodging facilities, Downtown Chicken, Town of Chicken and we stayed at Chicken Gold Camp.

Each one has a café, shop and Downtown Chicken has the Chicken Creek Saloon

Chicken is in an active gold mining area and it is possible to go out gold panning. After booking in the first thing we did was have coffee and one of the home baked chocolate chip cookies on offer. There is no city water, electricity or sewer service here, everything has to be supplied by the community. The population is 23 in the summer and 7 in the winter. On the arrival of snow the Taylor Highway is effectively closed for the winter, although the Chicken airstrip stays open. There is no phone signal here and the internet is via satellite which with the cloudy weather conditions was not good. We tried to FaceTime Simon and Ninette but the connection kept cutting out.

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