Chapter 9. Interior Alaska
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2006 All rights reserved.
(Bert) I wasn’t looking forward to driving the Tok Cutoff again, and now in the midst of the construction and miles of gravel road, I’m still not happy about it. We trudge along, often at only 15 mph. At least we have sunny skies and warm weather again. Leaving Valdez this morning the fog encompassed us and going over Thompson Pass I could barely see the road ahead. Once past Worthington Glacier – and on the interior side of the Chugach Mountains – the weather cleared. When we reach Tok, I pick a gas station that offers free car washing. Even though I’d thoroughly washed R-Tent-III in Valdez, now it is covered with road mud, so I use the power hose to wash of the bulk of it. Almost all of us walk two blocks to a salmon bake and indulge in halibut, reindeer sausage, ribs as well as salmon. When Shari and I return to R-Tent-III the temperature is so warm we turn on the air conditioner, something we’ve only done once before during this year’s stay in Alaska.
(Bert) Today’s events all relate to fire. We leave Tok and turn north on the Taylor Highway, a dirt road when we took it 10 yr. ago, newly paved 8 yr. ago, in good shape 4 yr. ago and somewhat dilapidated today with frost heaves and broken pavement. The road is of no matter, since the scenery is the best in a decade. We’ve only traveled past the first 7% grade and the 5 % downhill when I notice the charred spruce of the fire two years ago. Our CB chatter turns to woodpeckers and in the same instant I announce I see one on the left, suspecting Black-backed, Three-toed, or possibly Hairy. I stop in my lane, as does Bill and Chris, and we jump out to relocate the woodpecker. I find it again, not far from its original location and quickly recognized it’s an American Three-toed Woodpecker. These birds are attracted to the insects that infest recent burns and Great Gray Owls also show up, so I’m not surprised when we finally catch up with bicycling May waiting beside the road for an owl to reappear after her quick glimpse of one earlier. May started two hours ahead of us and finished 22 miles – mostly uphill on 5-7% grades - before we catch up with her. We envy her stamina.
Stopping a mile farther along the highway, we again survey the burned out forest. Thousands of acres of bare tree trunks stick up like black toothpicks, but below them is a carpet of green and at the edges the pink Fireweed is beginning to intrude. Across the highway is the scene is of a much earlier fire, years before. Here the under story has already grown up with lushly green aspen. Another ten miles down the road, we see another variation on fire succession. Fields and hillsides are profusely covered in Fireweed, painting the landscape pink – thousands of acres of pink. Now to add yet another episode to the fire story, we see smoke arising on a distant hill and then see several more spirals of sooty gray clouds. Getting closer, a rocket of flames jets up a spruce and then another. Over the hill we see the fire is closer to the road and a black cloud shrouds the highway. R-Tent-III penetrates the dark wall and we are relived when we exit the darkness in ten seconds. In another half hour we reach our campsite in Chicken. At our social, we have fire again, but this time it is in an enclosed ring, a campfire circled with friends chattering about the day’s events.
(Shari) I told the group that we would work like a family by the time we were finished with the caravan, but sharing a cold is not what I meant. It starts with a sore throat and goes into a cough. I guess I can blame Bill for starting it but who really knows. I do know that I caught it and have fought it for the past week. Mostly it has made me tired. So if you were wondering what I have been doing on the days I have not written, it has been sleeping. One day I took a 2 hr. nap in the morning, another 3 hr. nap in the afternoon and then went to bed by 8:30 PM. This morning we have a leisurely start and May began riding her bike a good 2 hr. before we even pulled in our RV slides. The first 12 mi. of her ride are flat and I do not start wondering where she is until we turn onto the Taylor Highway and the road starts to climb. I just figure that is way farther than I would have ridden. I now worry she have missed the turn but Chris is not and figures she will be about 20 mi. into the trip. Sure enough, we pass her half way up a long 9% grade. I want to tease her about whimping out before she reached the top, but even I feel guilty about that one, knowing I would not even be up my first hill. She is amazing.
A while later I ask Bert if the smoke we see is a forest fire. He does not think so but then why are there two patches of orange. As we get closer, the orange is a whole tree in flames. Smoke covers the road and I get concerned when we can’t see two feet in front of us. Fortunately it only lasts for 30 sec. and the road clears but I wonder if soon barricades will be set up blocking the road to further travel. I am relieved when the last rig pulls into camp. We are in the parking lot of a gift store and share our space with another caravan. We have parked R-Tent-III next to the covered picnic area and immediately I go about placing tablecloths on the picnic tables in preparation for our Klondike Kake supper. Before I start the cakes on the griddle, we have a protracted social hour after walking, visiting the store and/or post office or panning for gold (no luck). It must have been a strenuous day because I run out of batter as the group is hungry for the more than 4 cakes each I originally allotted. After dinner, we reintroduce ourselves to Nancy and Lester whom we met at training in the fall. Their caravan has just begun and they are arriving in Alaska as we depart. They tell us the road we are to travel tomorrow is terrible and broken up. Since we are to depart at 6 AM, we head for bed.
(Shari) I call today’s road the divorce road since the first time Bert and I drove it the road was terrible and I never wanted to come to Alaska again. I must have scared the group since everyone has left BEFORE us this morning and only Barbara and Don are departing with us. It is strange to see a Wagonmaster; one customer and then the Tailgunner pull out of the lot together. Everyone else is well over an hour ahead of us. The first 30 mi. takes us to the Canadian border and the road is much better than previous years, well graded and pretty smooth. Since we left so early, we meet no oncoming traffic, a good thing on the narrow road. I expect the rest of the drive to be smooth sailing as previous years. The road always had a seal coat on it and drove like pavement. This year, however, the road is more gravel than pavement and littered with potholes. Needless to say it is slow and tedious work traveling the remaining 65 mi. to Dawson City, AND the road is dusty. I cannot help but think of our last episode of dust on a road. I bet our filter is pretty clogged up again. We stop less than we’d like because we know the majority of the group is ahead of us. I keep hoping to catch up but we only see Chris and Curt, May and Chris, and Richard and Georgia. I can’t believe more do not want to just stop and soak in the beautiful scene. It is too bad the road is so rough and the scene cannot be enjoyed while driving.
We stop to take pictures at a number of places to capture the 11 layers of mountains that can be seen from the road. Sometimes the mountains are shades of pale blue and at other times, purples, green and black. They seem to go on forever. It is not called Top-of-the-World Highway for nothing. We start our descent into Dawson City and hear Bill and Ginny on the CB. We tell them we are on our way and to wait for us after crossing the Yukon River. Just as we get our place in line, Bill and Ginny are debarking from the ferry and Richard and Georgia and Ray and Nancy are ready to board. The ferry seems to struggle against the swift current of the river as it crosses and Bert and I agree we could never paddle our canoe against the current. When it is our turn to cross I feel a bit woozy as our boat faces up river, we are traveling straight across and the current is going downriver. The driver lands us safely on the bank of the opposite side and we slowly maneuver our “honker” as Chris calls rigs over 40 feet, onto stable land. We reach the campground and take the next two hours squeezing into tiny spaces. I know I, for one, am happy to relax during social hour and Bert’s “Birding 606” talk.
(Bert) I feel I’m on the top of the world, hence of course the name of this highway, but then I look up at the ridge just above the road and on the highest rock lies a Hoary Marmot surveying the world around it. Now that’s really the top of the world. The feeling comes from the geography: we are traveling a road that rides the tops of mountains at the subalpine level, just near the treeless alpine. Nothing obstructs our view of the folded mountains, ridge after ridge after ridge. In one of my photos I count 12 succeeding ridges, all smoothly rounded, starting from grassy green, through shades of mauve and ending in pale blue almost the same as the sky. The first 30 mi. of road – still on the Taylor Highway – was smoothly graded gravel, much better than I expected from previous year’s experiences. A light rain has kept the dust down, at least in some parts, but when we stop at a wayside the tourists from a bus take photos of my towed car and one of them asks how far I’ve driven to get it that dirty. “Thirty miles,” I answer to his amazement. He’s headed in the direction we came, so he’ll see for himself shortly. On the Canadian side of the Top-of-the-World Highway the road deteriorates, especially where the chip seal has eroded and become pot-holed. I’m reminded of the roads of Veracruz, especially when my pace slows to 15 mph as I dodge the holes and ride the bumps. Finally we make the descent to the Yukon River, a steep and long downhill. The ferry carries only two of our sized rigs at a time, plus a car or two, to the opposite side and Dawson City. A few hours later at camp, I present “Birding 606” and explain how to report rarities for possible publication.
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