Driving on Kodiak

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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!

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!

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.

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!

Galbraith Lakes to Deadhorse

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My Location

I awoke to the sound of the bikes leaving and one of them calling out to me that it was time to get up! They had an Arctic Ocean tour booked that morning at Deadhorse and needed to be there by 10.00AM. I was staying there the night with a tour the following morning so had more time to make the 150 or so miles left on the highway. Pulling out of the campground I saw that Jay, Steve and Chris had not made it very far and were fixing a tire. Rick had left a little earlier unaware of their delay. Some time later the three passed me apparently having patched the tire but about 69 miles from Deadhorse there they were by the road mending it again. They said that someone had spotted a muskox and many caribou in the vicinity so I kept my eyes open as I proceeded onward. A few miles later I pulled over to take in the open expanse of arctic tundra that lay below me and scan the horizon for muskox. As I was pulling out my binoculars Steve pulled up and asked if I was feeling hospitable. I asked what he needed and he said that Jay needed a lift to Deadhorse because he wasn’t able to repair the tire anymore. I said OK and drove back to pick him up. We strapped the wheel on the roof and left the bike by the road where he could return assuming the tire could be repaired in Deadhorse. Not much later we passed a truck coming the other way that didn’t or wouldn’t slow down for us and the Land Cruiser suffered a cracked windshield from a flying rock as a result. I have to say that most truck drivers have been very courteous so far, slowing down when they see you have pulled over to give way. Until now, the only vehicle on the highway that didn’t seem to pay much attention to other vehicles was a minivan!

Arriving in Deadhorse around 1.30PM I had reached the end of the James Dalton highway. I checked into the Arctic Caribou Inn and after shuttling Jay and his tire to the repair shop I found the gas station which was a little different to the ones we are used to as you can see below!

Gas at Prudhoe Bay

Rick and Steve left mid afternoon and I dropped Jay at the Dalton where Chris would wait with him to see if he could get a ride to his bike. Chris would then ride with him in case the tire didn’t hold.

Later that evening there was a knock on my door. Jay had been unable to get a ride so it looked like I was his best option to get to his bike tomorrow. He had found a room at the other hotel in Deadhorse and I would pick him up after the Arctic Ocean tour I was taking in the morning.

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.

Off to the Arctic! Homer to Fairbanks.

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My Location

And so the final leg of my journey to the Arctic Ocean began today. Due to the scheduling of my ferry to Kodiak next weekend, this week turned out to be my best opportunity to drive the Dalton Highway although a week to do it from Homer is perhaps a stretch. A long drive through to Fairbanks (579 miles) stopping at Anchorage for provisions left me thankful of a comfortable hotel bed on the night of the summer solstice. I should say that I did find time to time to stop at the Pump House restaurant for reindeer steak before retiring. I have learned since being in Alaska that a reindeer is a domesticated caribou which means that reindeer meat is in fact farmed/ranched. Eating meat from wild animals is generally only possible if you hunt under sustenance or sport permits. There is an interesting dynamic between the different groups who protect lands in Alaska. Native groups , Dept of Fish & Game, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and others all have various conservation, hunting and sustainability agendas and can wildly disagree over the methods employed to meet supposedly similar goals.

Sub-blog for McNeil

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Sub-blog for McNeil

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

Yet more on Al Atkey!

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Paul McNeil has put together the family tree of Al Atkey which you can find here. My original post is here.

McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge, AK

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My Location

I wrote in the guest log at the sanctuary that it was hard to put into words how I felt about my 6 nights living with the McNeil bears. Aside from the fact that those of you who know Paul McNeil and have heard his bear joke will enjoy the obvious irony in the name of the location, this was one of those life experiences that has no benchmark. It is quite simply unique. You can read everything you need to know about the sanctuary by clicking here so I won’t spend time describing it in detail. However, I will re-iterate that the bears are truly wild, there are no fences around the sanctuary and no fences within it. The reason they come to this area during the summer is to fish. Access is by permit only through a lottery system and the boundaries on maps are expected to be respected by back country travelers. The campground for visitors is the only area where bears are not allowed and I stress the words “not allowed” because there are no fences around it. Over time most bears learn to respect the imaginary boundary. Others are asked to leave politely by the guides! Bear etiquette is described in a previous post but at McNeil it becomes possible to really appreciate the rule of standing your ground. We saw bears as close as 20 or 30 feet away without any fences. Why is this possible? Because they are wild bears that are not conditioned to associate humans with food and the guides take care not to surprise them. If bears are surprised their reaction is a defensive one as with any other animal particularly if a mother with cubs is involved. With that exception, they generally only become a threat to humans if we feed them whether it be deliberately or accidentally. When this does happen they are usually killed although some are given one chance in certain areas through relocation and tagging. The people I spoke to says this rarely works unless they are transferred to an island far enough away such that they are unable to swim back. As I think I stated earlier it is why they say in Alaska and elsewhere that a “fed bear is a dead bear”.

Because I took so many pictures and couldn’t possibly select a few for the blog, I created a gallery here. I will also add a link at the top. The gallery may change as I have many photographs to review so please bear with me! It might also take a while to load depending on the speed of your internet connection.

Off to the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary!

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Today I depart for the McNeil River Sanctuary and will not be able to post anything until after I return. Assuming the weather is OK, a float plane will drop me off this evening during the 2 hour tide window and come back for me in 6 days time! There should be around 10-15 people at any one time within the sanctuary which is at the edge of Katmai National Park and Preserve.

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.