Baja 2009

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Baja 2009

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.

My wheels for 16000 miles

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My wheels for 16000 miles

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.

South on the Dempster Highway

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South on the Dempster Highway

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.

Bear crossing Dempster Highway

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.

Arctic Circle
Not long after stopping at the Arctic Circle sign I arrived at Eagle Plains, my resting point for the night.

The Emerald Isle of Kodiak, AK

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The Emerald Isle of Kodiak, AK

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.

WWII Artifacts on Kodiak?

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WWII Artifacts on Kodiak?

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!

Bear portraiture

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Bear portraiture

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.

Back to civilization!

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Back to civilization!

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.

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!

Fairbanks to Galbraith Lakes, north of the Arctic Circle

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Fairbanks to Galbraith Lakes, north of the Arctic Circle

My Location

Leaving Fairbanks mid-morning I drove the 80 or so miles to the start of the Dalton Highway where a woman who worked in Coldfoot was waiting for a lift to the Yukon River Crossing where she was meeting some other people. After re-arranging some of my gear to make room the journey began and I learned from her what it was like to work in a town of 13 people! She also told me I might see a group of Irish school or college students riding the highway to Prudhoe before beginning the long journey to South America (minus the Darien Gap of course for the well informed reading this) hoping to become the youngest to achieve the feat. This stretch of road was actually quite busy in the sense that there were plenty of other vehicles including a tour bus! I would discover later that most of the non-commercial vehicles generally traveled as far as the Yukon River, the Arctic Circle milepost or possibly Coldfoot. Less made the journey all the way to Deadhorse. Once at the Yukon River Crossing I met a group of bikers who were also making the journey to Deadhorse. Our paths would cross a number of times during the journey ahead. Crossing the Yukon river you begin to appreciate the effort involved in building the road and pipeline especially considering winter temperatures that can reach 60 degrees below zero Farenheit. Somewhere between Yukon Crossing and Coldfoot my CB antenna must have snapped off because I noticed it had disappeared! Of all the places! When traveling the Dalton highway a CB is extremely useful because you can use it to listen for trucks heading your way or ask whether you can pass or more likely if you should pull over to allow them to pass you! Trucks have the right of way and from my observations generally travel at higher speeds then most other vehicles.

Stopping in Coldfoot for fuel and a break I ran into the bikes again and we chatted some more about where everyone was planning to stop for the night. Originally I had intended to stop near Coldfoot but on examining the map discovered a camp ground about 150 miles south of Deadhorse and a few miles off the highway at Galbraith Lake. It looked like a good spot out on the arctic tundra and north of the last spruce. They thought they might ride through to Deadhorse as they had a reservation at one of the hotels there.They had started their respective journeys in Seattle (Rick/Steve), San Jose (Chris) and Chicago (Jay). Chris and Jay met and teamed up along the Alaska Highway and subsequently with Rick/Steve on the Dalton. With the number of bikes I had already seen riding both ways it was clear that more independent travelers along the highway were on bikes than in vehicles.

Traveling north of Coldfoot the spruce began to thin out. The further north you travel the shorter the trees become due to the shorter growing season eventually disappearing altogether. The Brooks range loomed ahead and I thought about the fact that I had traveled most of the length of the Rocky Mountains (the Brooks range is the northern most extension of the Rocky Mountain range) from Colorado through Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, British Columbia and Alaska. Climbing over Atigun Pass and once more I was on the Continental Divide (I wonder how many times I have crossed it during this trip? ) and the highest road pass in Alaska at about 4800ft. Although it isn’t high by Colorado standards the thing to realize is that timberline is at 2500ft or so in much of Alaska versus 11000ft or so in Colorado and once you cross the arctic circle and reach 66 degrees north as I said earlier, there is no timberline to speak of because there are virtually no trees! In fact the northern most spruce is at mile 235 on the Dalton, 120 miles or so north of the circle.

The scenery isn’t unlike what you will see on the central plateau in Colorado which is also designated as arctic in climatic terms. That said and not withstanding the fact that parts of Colorado can also be extremely remote if you get stuck on an unmaintained road somewhere it just feels more remote, somewhat detached, here.

Pulling into Galbraith campground a few miles off the Dalton, I noticed the bikes were also there and we spent a couple of hours chatting around the camp fire watching the sun make its way slowly around the edge of the horizon. Additionally, there were a few other people in the campground a few of whom had been there a few nights. Seemingly strange for somewhere so far north was the fact that the temperature was around 70F (at midnight), the air was still and the place was swarming with mosquitoes. In case you wonder why mosquitoes are so prevalent here, I believe it has something to do with the permafrost beneath the ground which traps any moisture on the surface. The combination of warm, still air and standing water brings the mosquitoes out in force.

Sub-blog for McNeil

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Sub-blog for McNeil

I created a sub-blog of taxidialogue for my McNeil visit here.

American Bald Eagle

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American Bald Eagle

I caught this American Bald Eagle today on Homer Spit as he conveniently flew behind an American flag. The reason the flag is not in focus is because I used a long lens and focused on the eagle which was beyond the flag. I think it adds to the effect!

Back in Alaska

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Back in Alaska

I arrived back in Anchorage late last night and after breakfast and a trip to REI drove down to Seward on the Kenai peninsula, named after William Seward who was responsible for the purchase of Alaska in 1867.

I’m staying in one of the campgrounds along the front all of which seem well maintained, pretty clean and have WiFi access! As with many city campgrounds there is an eclectic mixture of folk here! That is when compared with the more wilderness oriented campgrounds I have been to so far.

The picture is my view – the water is about 30ft away from me. For the first time during my trip I unfolded my bike and rode round the town before having dinner. Tomorrow I plan to visit the Sea Life Center which was mostly funded by money from the damages paid as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and was recommended to me by a marine biologist I met on the shuttle bus in Denali. After that, I’ll stop at the Exit Glacier before making the drive down to Homer.

Shuttle Bus to Toklat

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Shuttle Bus to Toklat

Can you spot the bear? This was through a hand held zoom from the bus – he was quite a long way away! Today was my first trip into the park beyond the checkpoint and is probably quite typical of a day for most visitors who use the buses. My shuttle bus was due to leave the visitors center at 7.00AM and pick me up at Savage River campground around 7.30AM. I rose about 6.30AM to snow so after a quick breakfast made my way to the bus stop. The bus arrived on time and once aboard we made our way slowly west towards Toklat which is as far as it goes at this time of year. Toklat is about a 6-7 hour round trip if you don’t get off to hike and service to Kantishna which will open for the season in a couple of weeks is a 13 hour round trip. Due to the snow conditions we didn’t see a whole lot for more than half way to Toklat but conditions thereafter began to improve. The bus must navigate a number of passes along the way and in many places there is barely room for buses to pass each other with sheer drop-offs on one side to be avoided! The bus was full and although it stopped for any signs of wildlife, to really experience the park you need to get off and go ‘walk about’. Shuttle buses will pick you up on the way back anywhere along the road. There are virtually no defined trails in Denali – the rangers ask you to make your own way to minimize the signs of human traffic. Interestingly, although the drivers of the shuttle buses are not obligated to talk or provide information about the park (unlike the tour bus guides), they clearly enjoy sharing their experiences and are on constant look out for wildlife. As a result, although you are only buying a shuttle ticket many people use the shuttles as an informal alternative to a tour.

As we approached Toklat, we heard what everyone had been waiting for the whole way as the driver called out “Grizzly at 11 O’Clock!”. Sure enough, there he was, my first grizzly bear sighting, ambling along the river to the south of the bridge at Toklat! After stopping for a few minutes to watch we proceeded to the parking lot at Toklat where there is a small ranger station. From here, I decided to hike north along the Toklat river (opposite direction to the bear!) for a while and catch a later bus. A few other people also left the bus here but most didn’t seem intent on walking far from the parking lot though I did see one group, under the watchful eye of a park ranger, making their way towards the bridge where we had viewed the bear . The rule is that it is acceptable to be close to a bear if it is not intentional or it approaches you but you must not intentionally approach a bear within a quarter of a mile. Walking toward the bridge would be close to violating this rule hence the ranger’s interest.

The weather was much clearer now but still not wonderful. As the road disappeared from view behind me it was a strange feeling to be somewhere where there is no trail. OK, I was following a river, I had a compass, GPS navigator, map etc… but almost anywhere else in the back country in the US you are invariably on a trail of some kind and are expected to stay on it. Denali is one of the few places that gives you a real sense of freedom in this respect. I saw plenty of bear prints along the river in the sand, perhaps from the bear we had seen earlier, I don’t know. The fact that there were none in the snow suggests the owner of the prints had not been there since yesterday before the snow started. The river flowed in an open landscape amidst glacial debris and the scenery didn’t change much as I walked. Imagine a long pebbly beach with a river, rock pools, bluffs either side, mountains in the distance and you have the picture. After a couple of hours hiking I returned to catch a shuttle back to camp.

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!

Dall Sheep

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Dall Sheep

Perhaps we can thank these relatives of the Big Horn sheep found in Colorado and elsewhere for the establishment of Denali National Park?

Denali or McKinley?

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Denali or McKinley?

Many people visiting Alaska face the decision as to what to call its famous mountain. The choices are Denali meaning “the high one” in Athabascan or McKinley as it has been officially designated on maps since it was renamed after William McKinley, a one-time presidential nominee, by William Dickey who was a gold prospector. Some continue to call the mountain McKinley simply to differentiate it from the park which has been renamed to Denali National Park. Much information on the background and history to this can be found via a quick search but suffice to say I will refer to the mountain as Denali. It is worth noting that the national park is not there simply because of the mountain even though it is named after that which looms above it. We can possibly thank the Dall Sheep for its creation in the early 20th century. Again, there is plenty of information available on the web.

Midnight Reflections on Denali Highway

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Midnight Reflections on Denali Highway

This was taken around midnight shortly after arriving on the Denali Highway and not long before I stopped at a campground for the night. Unnervingly, while I was taking this I heard sounds behind me and on turning saw the head of a moose protruding from the undergrowth. In fact there was more than one but they were so well concealed while they were munching that you wouldn’t know they were there most of the time.

On the road to Nasbesna

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On the road to Nasbesna

Roadside porcupine

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Roadside porcupine

Son of Alfred Atkey?

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Son of Alfred Atkey?

Today I met a homeless chap who was cycling the 400 or so miles from Anchorage to the Canadian border and claimed to be the son of World War 1 pilot Alfred Atkey… He told me he makes this trip on a regular basis and although he is Canadian he never crosses because he doesn’t carry ID. Anyway he had stopped to make some coffee but ran out of water so having supplied him with some and chatting about the exploits of his famous father I took this snap. I’ll let you decide if you agree his story to be true – click for a picture of Alfred Atkey.