A short distance from the coastline of Venezuela, Trinidad remains relatively unscathed by tourism which I assume is primarily due to exploitation of its rich natural resources and the resultant income. In any case, the lack of kitsch, hawkers and tourist development leaves it refreshingly authentic. Of course, it means accepting the oil fields, quarries etc.. that dot the landscape in some areas… A good example of picking your poison I suppose.
As with certain other parts of the Caribbean, loud music is a way of life – where else would you have auxiliary rear shelf mounted speakers in your rental car? I half expected to see a boom box in the trunk!
In spite of the wet season appearing to be somewhat extended, I’m still hoping for a sufficient break from the dark clouds and torrential downpours to enjoy a short bushwhacking hike. Now, where did I put that machete?
Pictures from my Baja trip in November 2009 can be found here. The first part of the trip was shared with an overland group before I headed south to the southern tip of Baja, Cabo San Lucas. The return journey was via ferry from La Paz to Topolobampo and across the border at Nogales. Interestingly my first attempt to cross was prevented by US Agriculture who stated that I had too much mud on my truck and that I might bring ‘foot and mouth’ or a similar disease into the US! I thought that cleaning ones car at 9.00PM in the evening in Nogales would be easier said than done but after pulling in to a gas station a man ran over with a dirty rag and offered to wipe my wind shield. I pointed at the car and suggested that my windshield was fine but he could help me with the whole car! A few minutes later we agreed a price and soon after I had ten or so people assisting me with the job. Given there was no water tap close by one person relayed buckets and I heated the water using the heat exchanger on my engine. An hour or so later and the truck was deemed passable and I proceeded back to the border where this time round I was fortunately granted permission to cross.
For the petrol heads out there click here for pictures of what served as my home for much of the summer in Alaska & North West Canada and carried me approximately 16000 miles with a damage report that consisted of only two broken windshields, two broken antennas, a couple of snapped struts on the swing-out rear tire carrier and a few minor bumps underneath suffered in the “Maze” at Canyonlands, Utah. The vehicle is currently resting while being fitted with a new front bumper, winch, suspension mods, front and rear lockers and anything else that comes to mind before the next trip! Click Slee Offroad for more information on all the upgrades that have been made.
As I began the journey south the weather hadn’t improved. With the prolonged rain the road became more muddy by the hour and on the hilly sections it was noticeable that some vehicles were beginning to struggle. In particular one vehicle pulling a trailer was sliding all over the place on one downward section.
Once I had made the two ferry crossings things started to look up and the drizzle relented for some of the second half of the days drive although the low cloud meant poor visibility in the higher sections once again. I forgot to mention that I had spotted a bear on the drive up to Inuvik crossing the road but didn’t have an opportunity to take a picture. Today I was more fortunate. Not only did I see one but rather than run into the bushes he stayed in the open and I was able to photograph him. While doing so, a truck pulled past me and on noticing the fact I had my camera pointed out the window stopped as well. Strangely, the occupants not only stopped but decided to get out and take pictures as the bear crossed the road! As you can see, it looks like they had been hunting based on what is protruding from the back of their truck.
After watching the bear for an hour or two and taking the picture that heads this post, I continued on and with the weather appearing to clear still further, by the time I crossed the Arctic Circle the views were good and things were looking quite promising.
Not long after stopping at the Arctic Circle sign I arrived at Eagle Plains, my resting point for the night.
Today I made the long drive north on the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, once again crossing the Arctic Circle. Unfortunately the weather of yesterday continued and much of the journey was fraught with blanketing fog and drizzle. The road was muddy and slippery in certain sections, particularly where construction teams had been working, and I thought what a contrast this experience was becoming when compared with the conditions I had experienced on the Dalton. The redeeming feature of today was the sighting of numerous caribou framed by the gray skyline creating a mystical feeling in the dreary conditions.
Originally I had planned to camp somewhere north of Eagle Plains, where I stopped for fuel, but with the weather looking unlikely to abate I pressed on to Inuvik, crossing into Northwest Territories and making two “on demand” ferry crossings, the first being at the Peel River, close to Fort McPherson and the second at the confluence of the Mackenzie/Arctic Red Rivers next to the town of Tsiigehtchic (“mouth of the iron river”), a Gwichʼin community. During the winter, these ferries are replaced by ice bridges and it reminds me how locals say driving the Dempster is often easier in winter because the ice packed road is more forgiving than the muddy or dusty summer conditions, all of course assuming you have the correct tires. Further more, in winter you can travel beyond Inuvik to the Arctic Ocean on the ice road across the delta.
The first picture below is from the Peel River ferry crossing and the second is from the approach to the ferry at the Mackenzie/Arctic Red rivers confluence. The white church is in Tsiigehtchic which lies between the two rivers just before they merge.
Although I was well north of the Arctic Circle, it struck me how lush the vegetation was compared with the tundra at the same latitude on the Dalton. There were even trees! I later discovered that this is due to the Mackenzie river delta, the relatively warm waters of which keep the permafrost at bay allowing for more top soil in which life is able to flourish.
The weather of the last 24 hours has consisted fog and virtually non-stop drizzle making me appreciate the fact it has been pretty favorable for most of my trip. Leaving Tok I headed NE on the Alaska Highway until I reached the turnoff for Chicken and the Top of the World Highway.
Not long after the pavement ended I pulled into Chicken, a town that has a population of 6 during the winter according to the Milepost! Swelling to a party sized 21 during the summer, I asked the person serving me tea in one of the three trading posts if she was one of the six. The reply was “no” but was informed that the woman in the Post Office was one of the year rounders.
Leaving Chicken I continued to the turnoff for Eagle which was about 65 miles due north and situated on the Yukon River. Milepost recommended visiting Eagle so I meandered along the dirt road for a couple of hours until I reached the small town stopping at the one cafe there for lunch. A tour bus was just leaving, I suspect to drop people off at the boat that transports tourists to and from Dawson City. The cafe was akin to a roadside “greasy spoons” in England and it struck me as strange that there appeared to be no desire in the one eatery in town for some quality food! Perhaps it is lack of competition, few visitors and a short season, I’m not sure. I suppose that as with most frontier towns, most food arrives by way of the distribution system rather than relying on a locally cultivated cuisine. May be I just missed the more exquisite menu items.
Passing through Canadian Customs on the Top of the World highway fog engulfed the vista. I asked the officer about the view and she said it is usually spectacular and maybe if I waited for a few hours I would see it. She then said it had been like this all day. Despite my suspicion that it would be in vain, I pulled over a few hundred yards on and waited.
A couple of hours later and my skepticism was born out. As I began descending toward Dawson City the cloud cleared and I at least got some idea of the views I had missed at the top. Once at the Yukon River I drove on to the ferry that still makes the Alaska Highway the only true overland route between Canada and Alaska and entered Dawson City where I would spend the night before beginning the Dempster Highway in the morning.
Today I leave Anchorage behind and begin the journey south back to the lower 48. With that being said, I will be first traveling north in order to tackle the Dempster Highway and cross the Arctic Circle one more time.
After breakfast I had a new windshield fitted, bought food provisions and sought out a tire shop to have my tires rotated and wheels balanced. With clear glass in front of me I left Anchorage stopping in Palmer to visit Bob & Rhonda who I met during my time at McNeil. A few hours later I set off for Tok, about a five hour drive.
I thought I might offer a little diversion from my usual post format which generally only documents my activities, at least those that might be of some vague interest to anyone reading, and instead provide a few thoughts and observations on a single aspect of my Alaskan experience while I await my ferry back to Homer. Generally, I have tried to avoid giving opinion in this blog as I know those reading it have various views on certain topics and I don’t wish to get into extensive debate at this time! In fact, this post was considerably longer when I first wrote it – I think I got carried away! I tried to cut it down to the bare bones of the question on my mind at the time.
Sitting in Henry’s Restaurant in the center of Kodiak I noticed that many people were playing the lottery and other gambling games. It appeared to be traditional to drop the used tickets on the floor and in some places it was as if there had been a ticker tape parade. It was about 5.00PM (on a Wednesday) and the place had more people than you might expect for this time of day and they weren’t all tourists/visitors like myself waiting for the ferry. I don’t necessarily think it is strange here because Kodiak is a working fishing town and fishermen rise early in the morning so presumably go to bed early. However, it reminds me of an issue concerning the subsistence fishermen of remote Alaskan villages. I have heard from people I talked with and also read that alcohol and substance abuse is a problem in native communities across Alaska and Canada as people transition from subsistence living to what we might consider ‘conventional living’. Often associated with a transition to ‘our way of life’ it is worth mentioning that these excesses are in fact a component of ‘our way of life’ and the indulgences are not exclusive to a particular group. Even though statistics might suggest otherwise they often offer no direct or provable correlation to actual causality thereby distorting or even completely masking the most relevant information. Problems experienced in our inner cities and elsewhere don’t seem a whole lot different to me and although alcohol highlights or exacerbates many of the symptoms, it in and of itself is not the root cause of the problem as we might do well to remind ourselves.
Clearly the native groups stand out because many are in a difficult transition often forced upon them for various reasons some more unpleasant than others. It is one thing for a population to slowly transition to a new way of life over a number of generations but what if it happens almost overnight? For example, as recently as the 1960’s, under the guise of a government assimilation policy, families were torn apart in Canada and children forced to attend residential schools in an attempt to wipe out the culture, language and traditions of native populations. (something for which the Canadian government formerly apologized just recently) Imagine having to change the way you live, eat and work over a single generation. The health challenges alone caused by dietary shifts are apparently noted by the medical profession in Alaska as this change takes place. Interestingly Weston Price wrote extensively on the subject of dietary changes as people moved away from their ancestral homes as early as the 1930’s. Read his ‘Nutrition and Physical Degeneration‘ for more information. The trauma caused by a significant change in the way a person lives not to mention the extra time people sometimes gain as a result of shorter working hours and modern creature comforts understandably can lead to problems. I have to wonder if the underlying cause of the symptoms experienced by communities where such changes unfold is simply related to the sense of loss of what was once a clearly defined purpose in life? What could be clearer or more meaningful than being the provider of food directly to your community? It is said that a life of service is a happy one, something we generally associate with the caring professions. It seems to me that the work of those in subsistence roles such as the Alaskan Native fishermen is the ultimate definition of a ‘life of service’ to a community. And what do you replace that with when it is lost, particularly when forced by another people’s agenda? I assume that many Alaskan Natives today have no such direct responsibility as providers to their communities? Those able to remain in the fishing industry or even be involved with modern sustenance hunting might have some connection to a well understood role but fishing for a company that ships the catch to people you don’t know in a far off place is not quite the same as delivering the nights catch to your neighbors and I am certain that taking a tourist on a trophy hunt isn’t the same as hunting in order to ensure the survival of your family. The loss of control, responsibility and fulfillment presumably can have far reaching psychological implications. And what of those forced into the service jobs of modern communities such as working in fast food restaurants? I challenge anyone to explain to someone who has made such a transition how his/her life purpose is still as important. Logically it can be argued in the context of a wider community but I for the life of me couldn’t look an Alaskan Native who has lost his way of life in the eye and give him/her an acceptable answer. Is it no wonder some of those in such situations seek escape through various substances as they transition to ‘our way of life’?
After doing a google search, I found this comprehensive report that provides even more background and also recommendations for dealing with some of the questions I was pondering at Henry’s Restaurant if you are interested.
Driving north on Pasagshak Road I found a spot to show just how green this island is explaining why it is known as Alaska’s emerald isle. Given the obvious implication of it’s green abundance, I have been lucky I think because it has barely rained since I arrived.
This morning I drove along Chiniak Highway and took the turnoff for Pasagshak Bay Road. Much of the road is paved and I believe the whole of Kodiak island will soon have the majority of it’s small number of main roads paved. Nevertheless it is a pleasure to drive here as there is so little traffic and there seem to be a number of 4-wheel gravel/dirt roads to coastal coves and more remote spots. You are allowed to “leave no trace” camp virtually anywhere so if the state camp grounds are full or not your cup of tea, you have plenty of other options.
I read today that the average temperature in July on Kodiak Island is 54F. In January though it is a mild 10-35F when compared with the Alaskan mainland. Fairbanks, in the interior, ranges from -60F in winter to 80F in summer. Quite a difference! This means that Kodiak might be considered a year round place to visit in Alaskan terms due to its narrow temperature band though you can expect a lot of rain especially in the fall months.
After spending the afternoon by the beach at Twin Lakes on the southern end of Pasagshak Road I found a cove a little further back along the road to spend the night. I could see whales spouting offshore and the occasional fishing boat. It seemed strange to have cell phone reception there because it felt so remote compared to other places I had camped. That said, there is actually a commercial aerospace launch pad near the end of Pasagshak Road!
Today I explored Kodiak and the surrounding area of town by bike and stopped at the Visitor and Wildlife Refuge Centers. There are not very many tourists in Kodiak! Most people who come here do so to fish, kayak or take a bear viewing tour. Having spent 5 days with bears I don’t feel compelled to seek them out here. If I see them, great, if not, I have the McNeil bears in my photo album. You can, as with everywhere else, charter a plane or take a tour by float plane to where the bears are at any given time for a few hundred dollars and a couple of hours almost guaranteed viewing. In fact, it seems that many of the early season tours fly over to Katmai anyway which means you are not viewing the Kodiak bears at all! (McNeil is on the edge of Katmai)
In addition to the Russian history associated with much of Alaska, there is quite a bit of World War II history here too and it feels somewhat unusual to see the gun emplacement ruins on the island. While they can be seen all over Europe the far western Aleutians was the only part of the US mainland occupied (by the Japanese) at any time during WWII. Kodiak had a base here because of the threat although it never saw any action. A group of local volunteers has put together quite an impressive collection of artifacts from the time including communications equipment most of which is in working order and can be handled. They even have working portable radios and a valve based radio station that one of the volunteers operates from time to time. For those of you with a license you may be lucky to reach Curt on the Kodiak repeater at 146.880MHz. His call sign is AL7AQ. He says his signal is a little chirpy for most people at the moment so he doesn’t get too many contacts.
The campground has a distinctly European feel as I have a couple of Dutch guys across the path from me and I heard a number of other European accents last night. One of the Dutchmen who had driven both the Dalton and Dempster highways said he had visited Alaska a number of times and is spending a couple of weeks this time in the vicinity of Kodiak. One of the locals told me there had been a couple of women from Yorkshire camping here a couple of nights ago and I also recall meeting an English guy in Denali heading to Kodiak. So despite the fact there are so few tourists, it is certainly on the destination list of a number of Europeans!
I spent Thursday and Friday making my way back down to Homer from Fairbanks arriving in good time for my trip to Kodiak Island. My ferry was due to depart at 11.00AM on Saturday and I had to be at the ferry terminal on Homer Spit about two hours before hand. Unlike my journey from Skagway to Haines, I had to label all my gas cans and propane canisters which were all stored in the fire safe hazardous materials area. At Skagway they had only stored the gas cans and nothing was labeled. Once aboard I had time to write some blog entries that could be uploaded later. The time seemed to pass quite quickly and the crossing was calm with plenty of whales swimming not far from the ship. There haven’t been many people on the ferries so far although the car decks are usually full. I wonder if the number of foot passengers has declined or whether the ships were simply used in another area previously? Or maybe certain routes have more foot passengers? Of course, had I been connected to the internet right now I would have looked up the “Kennicott”, my vessel, and discovered the answer. But then I suppose you wouldn’t have known of my wondering unless the answer is in some respect a fascinating one! [At the time of posting I am obviously online and there is some information about the Kennicott here. It is a much newer vessel than I would have thought.]
I am staying at the Abercrombie State Camp Ground for 2 nights a few miles north of Kodiak. After that I will head south and camp on the south eastern part of the island that is accessible by road before spending the last night in a motel.
Just got back from a moderately eventful trip up the Dalton Highway but I’ll save creating posts for the last few days until later.
In the meantime, I converted one of my bear pictures into a “bear portrait” with photoshop! It’s a bit of a quick edit at this stage but an interesting effect with a few simple changes. You can see the original color image in my bear gallery here.
The photo was taken at the historic Yukon river on the north side of the bridge and pipeline crossing.
Arriving in Fairbanks about 6.30AM the Land Cruiser was just in time for it’s second service that had become due along the Dalton. I followed Jay to a car wash and we hosed down our vehicles a few times to get as much of the calcium chloride off as possible. Originally I thought they only use this stuff during the winter but have since learned it is also used to keep the road bound together in dusty or gravel conditions. After the wash I wished Jay well on his way as he headed off to a Susuki garage before traveling south to Denali and I made my way to the Toyota garage.
After the service I made a stop at Radio Shack to get a replacement CB antenna and fixture and called Toyota in Anchorage to order a replacement windshield. Then I made my way to a motel to get some sleep! Later that afternoon I learned that the security system in my vehicle disables everything if one of the doors is not closed properly. After spending a couple of hours on the problem including calls to Toyota to discuss various options including resetting the system by disconnecting the batteries I noticed that a rear door was not shut properly. After opening and closing it, something they hadn’t suggested, everything worked again! It makes me wonder what you do if one of the door sensors breaks and you are in a remote location.