Dawson City, YT to Inuvik, NWT

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Dawson City, YT to Inuvik, NWT

My Location

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.

Crossing from Yukon into Northwest Territories

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.

Peel River Ferry
Approaching the ferry across the Arctic Red and McKenize rivers

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.

9 hour crossing to Kodiak.

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My Location

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.

The Return Leg

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The Return Leg

Excuse the cliched image but I couldn’t resist the temptation to show that the car might as well have been black and white except the tail lights! Just to be clear I masked out the car from the black and white conversion so that is its color thanks to the calcium chloride on the road.

In case you are wondering about the difference between Deadhorse and Prudhoe, Deadhorse is the town at the end of the Dalton Highway and Prudhoe Bay is where the oil fields are located. To reach the Arctic Ocean which is a couple of miles beyond the end of the highway, you must go through Prudhoe which is private land and you can’t drive your own vehicle there. Therefore you have to fork out $40 for the tour.

The tour was OK, nothing remarkable. I suppose it is what you expect in a place which is essentially there to extract oil from the ground. I was glad to see the Arctic Ocean as you imagine a typical ocean and not frozen. Of course I could have taken a swim like a few people who have that experience as one of their ‘life goals’. However, given that you don’t need to drive here to take the swim, you can fly (as most do), I passed! Had the only way to swim in the Arctic Ocean been to drive here it might have been a different matter!

Around 10.30AM I stopped at the hotel where Jay was staying and we headed south on the Dalton the 70 or so miles to where he had left his bike. Once his wheel was on I followed him down the highway but 10 or so miles later and his tire was once again flat. Another repair that included wrapping the tube with duct tape and a few more miles on, another flat. It looked like he was going to have to either go back to Prudhoe assuming we could flag a north bound traveler or ride with me to Coldfoot and find someone there to take him to Prudhoe. Either way, he would need to have a new tube and possibly tire shipped to Prudhoe. After many minutes of contemplating this, it was already around 4.30PM by this time, three more bikers arrived who turned out to be his guardian angels. One of them was carrying an additional tube to his spare that fitted Jay’s tire. Another of the three was also a bike guide who I got the impression had seen it all before many times over and the sort of person other riders are probably glad to see when they get stuck.

The tire is finally being fixed!

An hour or so later and the bike was ready. We headed south once more with Jay riding a few minutes ahead just in case the damaged rim caused more problems and I was able to stop along the way to take a few pictures at various points. When I pulled into Coldfoot we ate some food and took a break before making the final leg down to Fairbanks.

In terms of the actual surface, the Dalton is really not a terribly bad road and certainly not a technically difficult road but that isn’t really the main issue. Though I wouldn’t recommend driving it in a saloon car or minivan as a number of people do, it is certainly possible though you will increase your chance of underside damage without sufficient protection. The real issue with this road is it’s remoteness and the heavy trucks that use it. As I said, I have a cracked windshield from a rock thrown up by one of the trucks. Although most slow down some do not and most use the downward sections to gain speed for upwards sections of road. I saw a number that were traveling at 70 or 80 miles an hour on such sections!

Byers Lake to Savage River Campground, Denali National Park

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My Location

Leaving my cabin at Byers Lake around 7.30AM the sky was clear and Denali was clearly visible with small clouds floating by its summit. I stopped at a couple of points along the highway to view the mountain and take a couple of the pictures you will see from everyone else that visits the area. Interestingly, only about 20% of visitors get to see the summit because it is shrouded in cloud most of the summer.
On arrival at Denali National Park, I drove to the Wilderness Access Center where you reserve bus tickets for the shuttle that takes you into the park. Private vehicles can only travel as far as the Savage River about 14 or so miles into the park. Past that point only shuttle buses and tour buses are allowed with the exception of those with special permits or those staying at the Teklanika campground for 3 or more nights. I originally wanted to stay there but it is temporarily closed due to being engulfed by more than 3 feet of ice! The park road runs a distance of about 95miles to Kantishna but at this time of year is only open as far as Toklat for buses, about 53 miles. One piece of advice that I already learned is that if you wish to visit the park during July make sure you book the bus tickets well in advance! I was lucky because this time of year things are still only beginning to open. I could spend all day writing about the logistics of maximizing the enjoyment of a visit to the park because it is not the most straight forward of places I have ever visited. For example, although I booked my camp spot at Savage River Campground (mile 13) in advance I had to check in at Riley Creek Campground near the park entrance. I realize I probably missed something I should have read somewhere but I didn’t find out until I arrived at Savage and read the pertinent information on the entrance sign to the campground! That meant an hour or so round trip drive back to the entrance to check-in. If you want to visit the park I suggest you either phone the reservations service or throughly read everything on the park’s website! Of course if you come to the park on a tour it will all be pre-arranged.

Once at my camp spot I got set up for 4 nights and then made salmon marinated in lemon juice with vegetables for dinner. No tinned food at my camp! It’s good knowing that I don’t have to pack everything away in the morning for a few days. The other major positive is that I’m not one of only two people in the campground for a change! Many of the sites are occupied and I actually have neighbors. This evening I shared my fire and good conversation with one set of neighbors, Lynsey and John who were here from the East Coast. They would return the favor two nights later. Thanks for leaving your leftover firewood for my last night!

Anchorage to Byers Lake via Talkeetna

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My Location

A relatively lazy day. After a late brunch and searching out various stores for provisions, I slowly made my way north toward Denali National Park taking the Old Glenn Highway in a couple of places and rejoining the George Parks Highway further on. I reached the turnoff for Talkeetna and decided to check out the campground there. Talkeetna is where many of those wishing to attempt a summit of Denali begin their trip. They can fly from here directly to base camp at 7200ft. You can also take a tourist flight to view the mountain and even land on a glacier. Talkeetna itself is a rustic village but unfortunately the campground looked more like a local garbage site today. There was litter everywhere. Apart from the National Parks it is amazing just how much litter there is in both established campgrounds and National Forest areas. You might be in the middle of nowhere but evidence of humans is still abundant. In fact, while I’m on the subject, driving along the Alaska Highway I don’t think I ever traveled more than a few hundred yards without seeing a plastic bag floating about. I decided to stop for dinner here and find somewhere else to stay afterward. Cafe Michele in Talkeetna is a must visit – a culinary oasis might be an overstatement but the food was truly excellent. Having had the opportunity to see their website since I now see that it is very well known! (Also impressive that they secured the domain name ‘cafemichele’ here in Alaska!) It is certainly worth making the detour to Talkeetna if you visit Denali just for Cafe Michele. After dinner I traveled back to the George Parks Highway and continued north. By around 10.00PM I hadn’t spotted anywhere to camp so pulled over at a log cabin inn at Byers Lake where they had one cabin left. I suppose that is the good thing about this time of year – the season is still early and if you see somewhere to stop there is a good chance they have room for you.

Tangle Lakes to Anchorage

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My Location

No early start today. The weather was overcast and chilly and it was only when it started to look like rain that I made the effort to pack up. After steak (grass fed!) and eggs for breakfast I made my way on the Denali Highway. In some small way parts of it reminded me of driving through the Peak District or Lake District in England during winter only on a much larger scale and on an unpaved road! Of course, the overcast day prevented many of the more spectacular views from being visible today. Before the George Parks Highway was built that connects Anchorage to Fairbanks and passes Denali National Park this was the only road to the park. It is now a less traveled road, gravel much of the way and links Paxson (pop. 20) to Cantwell (pop. 218). During the winter season the 134 mile road is unmaintained but left “open” which means you travel at your own risk and I assume increases the probability of having to turn back or even become stranded by either rocks on the road or bad weather or both. The road actually continues West from Cantwell for a number of miles but I didn’t take that today. Before this road existed,you would have taken the train or plane to Denali and before that you probably needed sled dogs in winter and a good pair of walking boots in summer, not to mention a few weeks to get there! I forgot to mention in my last post that due to it being Memorial Day weekend, I couldn’t reserve the campground I selected in Denali National Park. In any case, the park would be more crowded over the holiday (if it is possible to be crowded in Alaska) so I elected instead to book it for 4 days from Memorial Day (Mon 26th) and check out Anchorage in the meantime. A 250 mile each way detour wouldn’t amount to very much in the grand scheme of things and it would also give me a chance to clean up a bit after two weeks on the road!

Beaver Creek, Yukon to Tangle Lakes on the Denali Highway, AK

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My Location

Leaving Beaver Creek I crossed back into the US/Alaska at Port of Alcan feeling that I had really arrived given that Skagway and Haines are not connected to the rest of Alaska by road without passing through Canada. However, my sense of arrival in Alaska made me feel somewhat complacent with respect to distances. Everything after all was still a long way away! After reaching Tok, the only town you have to pass through whichever way you enter Alaska by road from Canada, I headed SW on the Tok Cutoff Highway to Slana where I made the 80 mile or so side trip along Nabesna Rd through the Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve. I need to make sure I don’t start taking the spectacular scenery for granted. Back to Slana and continuing SW I passed through Gakona where I would need to turn north on the Richardson Highway to Paxson in order to reach the eastern end of the unpaved Denali highway. I continued on to Glenallen where I refueled and given the wonderful evening light headed back north to Paxson turning onto the Denali Highway for the first time. It was now after 11.00PM and after stopping a couple of times to take in the late light views I stopped at the Tangle Lakes campground which lies shortly before the second highest highway pass in Alaska, MacLaren Summit, the highest being on the Dalton Highway on which I expect to be traveling in a few weeks time. As with previous campgrounds I was one of only a few braving the early season. In this case there appeared to be one other tent although a French couple appeared to have registered at the entry point earlier. In actuality it wasn’t as cold as the 2 nights I had spent camping in Colorado earlier in the month and at least the wind was calm compared to the pass at Summit Lake in Canada.

Skagway,AK to Beaver Creek, Yukon

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My Location

Leaving Skagway behind at 7.00AM I watched the humpback whales spouting in the harbour from the deck. Unfortunately they barely emerged from the water hence no picture. There were now 4 newly arrived cruise ships docked at Skagway. A number of my fellow passengers were on their way to various adventures in different parts of Alaska their activities hinted at by the various equipment carried by their vehicles.

What a contrast Haines was to Skagway. The town that turned down the cruise ships may have paid the price in terms of the ‘spick and span’ effect but perhaps it has been left with more substance. Its real. On reflection, Haines is to Skagway as Crested Butte is to Aspen. North to the eagle preserve where more than 3000 bald eagles gather during the October to Dec late salmon run. That must be a tremendous spectacle. Today I was told there are a couple hundred pairs or so in the preserve. During my time there I spotted half or dozen far away on their lofty perches. Even with a long telephoto lens they were still tiny in the frame. This is a place that would certainly be worth visiting for a few days during autumn.

Onward and a long drive through more spectacular Yukon country stopping the night at Beaver Creek just before the Alaskan border. This Beaver Creek is very different from the one in Colorado! As with many of the roadside service towns it is only just awaking from its winter slumber – the restaurant there was opening for the first day of the season and staff had arrived from various parts of Canada for their summer stint. The lodge/restaurant/campground staff here have their own “hotel” because they are only here for the summer months. I quoted hotel because from what they told me about the standard of their accommodation hotel is probably not an apt description!

Atlin, BC to Skagway, AK

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My Location

It appears that waking Atlin in the morning is akin to rising the dead! Although the inn was supposedly full, there was still nobody about by 10.30AM so I left my key in the room and drove back north to the junction with the Alaska highway before heading to Carcross and then Skagway. The drive south to Skagway was amongst the most spectacular so far crossing White Pass. You can still take the train used during the gold rush from Skagway to White Pass.

Summit Lake to Atlin, British Columbia

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My Location

An early departure after a windy, sleety, noisy night at Summit Lake and I stopped for eggs at Toad River Lodge, Toad River where I deposited a hat – number 7433 with the collection they started many years ago.

Crossing into Yukon I arrived at Watsons Lake where I visited the information centre, watched the film about the construction of the Alaska highway and read a few of the many thousand signs displayed outside the visitor center. Do I spot a trend here?

West to Jakes Corner and I made the turn south for a side trip of 100km each way to Atlin. The road was paved part way but a good portion of it was gravel/dirt.

Today was quite prolific in terms of wild life sightings – 3 black bears, a bull moose, mule deer as usual, buffalo, porcupine all beside the road. Photo wise not a great day because all of the animals ran as soon as they saw the car.

Grand Prairie to Summit Lake…

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Grand Prairie to Summit Lake...

Having arrived late at Grand Prairie I set off mid-morning the next day for Dawson Creek, mile 0 of the Alaska Highway, crossing into British Columbia along the way.

Side note: it seems that everyone rides around on ATVs and Quad bikes in these parts.

After driving through what seemed like days of forest I stopped at Fort Nelson for fuel and a well prepared piece of Halibut (surprising in a place like Ft Nelson!) Rather than stopping here for the night, I pushed on and the scenery soon reverted to the familiar Rocky Mountains as I passed into Stone Mountain Provincial Park. Its strange how you have to actually visit these places in order to discover their existence. Although it is covered reasonably well in Milepost I suppose my mind had been consumed with other preparatory matters until now. As I passed through Summt Lake I noticed a provincial campground nestled at the top of a pass between snow covered peaks and decided to stop for the night. That decision turned into a test of the Technitops wind resistance capabilities! Although you can’t tell from the picture which was taken late in the evening, the wind was already picking up which is why the fly sheet isn’t fully extended. During the night I learned a lot about the tents design for dealing with wind. Basically it moves around like a suspension bridge which while seemingly effective isn’t exactly quiet!

My Location

Through the icefields and on to Grand Prairie

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My Location

Waking up to the sound of glacial melt flowing in the nearby stream with the sun rising over the snowy peaks around me is what makes camping in places like this worth while. I would have posted a photo of the view from my tent but couldn’t bring myself to get out of my sleeping bag to fetch my camera! Pictures and words can rarely capture the real essence of experience anyway.

A quick breakfast of steak, spinach and eggs cooked in my cast iron skillet and it was time to pack out. Passing from Banff to Jasper Nastional Park I briefly took in the ice fields before heading east on 16 and then west and north to Grand Prairie via Grand Cache.

Calgary to Banff

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After waiting at the Toyota garage for a couple of hours while they gave the Land Cruiser its first service I picked up some provisions, fixed a loose antenna fixing with a washer (probably loose because it clipped the height restriction at the bank) I set off for Banff National Park. A quick stop at Banff with its many visitors and I took the less busy 1A to Lake Louise where I planned on camping at one of the grounds due to open for the season today. About 20km out of Lake Louise I came upon a stranded cyclist who was having cramp problems. After supplying him water and food the bike was strapped to the roof and I dropped him off in Lake Louise village passing his fellow riders on the way.
Unfortunately, as with the US Rocky Mountain parks most of the campgrounds are not yet open and although the one at Lake Louise was supposed to be open it was only open for hard sided campers. They say it is to protect the bears! After a brief stop at the still frozen over Lake Louise, I headed for the more remote and higher Mosquito Creek campground about 23km north of Lake Louise. This was open to all and was more akin to the National Forest campgrounds in Colorado. i.e toilets only and “no trace” camping.

Third road closure in three days

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OK, I’m an idiot. The first two closures were out of my control. Snow on Monday night meant the closure of the South Entrance to Yellowstone from Grand Teton despite the fact I had diligently checked before hand that it had opened as planned on May 9th. The road to Canyon Village from the south was closed the next day due to a burst water main that was causing the road to subside. This meant missing out the northern section of the ‘Grand Loop’ and retracing back via Old Faithful. The third closure caused me to drive unnecessarily from East Glacier to West Glacier because I hadn’t been as diligent about checking the opening dates for crossing Logan pass on the Going-to-the-Sun road, supposedly one of the most spectacular drives in the US. When I found out that the road doesn’t generally open until mid June it meant retracing back to Browning before heading north to Canada. I suppose I need to get use to the extra mileage for the long legs ahead of me in Canada and Alaska.

My Location

I crossed the border at the very quiet Port of Piegan. No lines, no people, just the US and Canadian border and customs officers. Having declared my food items and answering the usual questions I was on my way again finishing the day in Calgary where the first service was due on the Land Cruiser.

Finally departed

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