Chapter 14. Eastern Alaska
(Bert) Although our string of caravans has now ended, we still have more
adventure in store in the Yukon and Northwest Territories of northwestern
Canada. Meanwhile, we have a few more places to visit in Alaska and we may write
an occasional journal until we get there. Here is a summary of the last week.
July 20-21 – Anchorage – catching up with errands.
July 22 – Anchorage – heard an enthralling sermon from an Eskimo native of Wales, Alaska, with many tales of his grandfather when Swedish Lutheran missionaries brought Christianity to this remote part of the state 121 years ago.
July 23 – Williwaw Campground (Turnagain Arm) – Most birds have left Potter Marsh, although Mew and Glaucous-winged Gulls still fill the air. Not much to do in the rain this afternoon at Williwaw.
July 24 – Seward – Great weather in the morning encouraged us to hike around Williwaw. Shari used her new camera to photograph an American Dipper, or at least try to zoom in on it. Surprisingly, lots of birds are still around the wetter areas near the salmon streams. Almost all of the snow is gone in Turnagain Pass, a stark contrast to our visits in spring. From our campsite fronting Resurrection Bay in Seward, I watched a half dozen Double-crested Cormorants with strikingly bright yellow bills.
July 25 – Seward – Marbled Murrelets are changing plumage and I photographed many from our campsite. I built a campfire on the gravel beach, just in front of our RV, and we sipped wine at 5 PM, watching the small fishing boats and the large tour boats return to the harbor. Again, just fantastic weather with perfectly clear blue skies and snowcapped mountains across a marine bay.
July 26 – Seward – How long can this intoxicant wonderful weather keep up? I took a long walk along the shore front and forest edge, surprised to find White-winged Crossbill again and photographing still more Marbled Murrelets. We sat around a campfire with a French-accented couple from Quebec, enjoying conversation, and also talked to the Wisconsin couple in the next campsite who know–and he worked with–a grade school and high school classmate of ours.
July 27 – Anchorage – Back in the city for last minute errands before we leave this part of Alaska. Finally get to dine at Wee-Bees, famous for its hamburgers, fries, and chocolate shakes.
(Bert) A summary:
July 28 – Anchorage to Wasilla – The bill came to $1,917.13, a bit more than we expected to have our tires rotated. One thing led to another and before we knew it we had the shop replace the brake linings, shoes, and balance the tires–six hours of labor. At least we will no longer hear the brakes squeak at each stop. We camped under a dark forest at Lake Lucille City Park.
July 29 – Wasilla – We joined many other visitors for services at a very friendly church. Many of the men of the congregation were absent. It’s salmon fishing season. We watched people swimming at Newcomb Park on Wasilla Lake. I am surprised that a family of Red-necked Grebes allowed swimmers to within a dozen feet of where they floated.
July 30 – Glenn Highway – Fireweed marks the seasons. Pink blossoms start at the base of the bloom stalk and week by week new ones open above it, while spent blooms fall off. I know summer is near its end when the flowers open at the top of the stalk. Yes, summer is ending. Camping tonight is beside Lake Louise, with just us and a porcupine. = Bald Eagle steels fish from Common Loon
(Bert) I look at the outside thermometer as I leave the RV at 5:10 AM. It is 40º and I am glad I put on my long johns for this morning’s walk. Across Lake Louise the sun is just rising over the horizon. It backlights pinkish orange through cracks in low lying purple clouds. Mew Gulls are having a loud party somewhere across the lake. Above me a Red-throated Loon creates a black cross as it wings across a deep dark blue cloudless sky. A Red-necked Grebe calls from another, smaller, lake that is invisible below a white mask of surface fog. I keep walking.
I am hoping to see a Great Gray Owl or a Northern Hawk Owl that I know reside along this road, but I do not count my chances high. Mostly I hear the sounds of silence: the morning cluck of a robin, the soft wings of a Gray Jay, the mournful call of a distant Common Loon, the staccato chips of a high flying Common Redpoll. Otherwise the world is silent; no tires whining, no electrical zapping, no engines rumbling. Thousands of white flowers, the five-winged Grass of Parnassus mounted on leafless threadlike green stalks, seem to float miraculously six inches above the ground along the roadside. The shaggy white balls of Alaska Cotton mix with patches of green horsetail. I keep walking.
At 6:15 it is as though God rang the breakfast bell. The warm rays of morning
sun brighten the spruce trees and, suddenly, little birds appear from the depths
of their dark boughs. A half dozen Boreal Chickadees, a couple of Myrtle
Warblers, a pair of Blackpoll Warblers, three Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a
Swainson’s Thrush, and a Slate-colored Junco are all part of the morning
gathering, flitting from spruce to spruce, attracted to insects or seeds too
small to see. I keep walking. Then Shari picks me up with the RV.
We are back on the highway again, slowly finding our way out of Alaska, with no urgent schedule marking our time. We stop at Wrangell St. Elias National Park and while Shari watches a video at the Visitors Center, I walk along a park trail. I hear an empid-like bird I am slow to recognize, either by sight or sound. It is joined by another and soon I notice this is a family group gathered around a nest no longer in use. Then it dawns on me: these are Western Wood-Pewees, the first I’ve found this trip.
Slana Slough is where the ducks are, although the attrition of ducklings is apparent. Single hens guarding ducklings include Canvasback (3 ducklings), Greater Scaup (6), American Wigeon (6), Bufflehead (5), Mallard (3). I also see a pair of Trumpeter Swans with four cygnets. From across the road, high and far in the tall forest I can hear a Northern Hawk Owl calling repeatedly. Fifteen minutes of searching tree tops does not afford me a view, however.
We stop for the night at a pullout, actually an abandoned gravel pit beside the Tok Cutoff highway. Plenty of nearby firewood contributes to a campfire that warms the early evening chill. It will be a quiet night.
(Bert) We continue on the Tok Cutoff Highway to Tok, enjoying another excellent weather day. At 4 PM Alaska time, our daughter texts Shari to state it is 104º in Dallas (7 PM) and their A/C cannot keep up with the extreme heat. Our thermometer reads 54º.
(Shari) I feel quite sad as we pull out of Tok this morning, heading to Chicken. I soon have to say goodbye to Alaska, a state that I have grown to love more with each visit. When Bert and I first started the trip, we thought it would be our last one to Alaska in our lifetime. Now we plan to come again. We just cannot get enough of the scenery, the wilderness, the animals and, of course, the bears. This year my activity list did not include fishing as I did none, but that is just another excuse to make it back another year. We have boon docked for three of the last four nights: once at Wal-Mart in Wasilla, then on the shores of Lake Louise, and then at a roadside pullout on the Tok Cutoff. No way would I have done that during our first two visits to Alaska as I was a scaredy cat about it. Now I find I search out those places as they epitomize Alaska and its wilderness, all alone with the sounds of loons or the footsteps of a porcupine. Sourdough Campground was our last night’s home; we stayed here in 1996 and 1998 and had the most delicious sourdough pancakes for breakfast. They still have the pancakes but now it is all you can eat, including reindeer sausage. We ate so much that we skipped lunch and dinner and had only popcorn for a night time snack.
As we pull into Chicken, we see the familiar yellow stickers on the caravan rigs already parked. Wagonmasters Madi and Spence come out to visit and invite us to their social and chicken dinner this evening. What fun! I miss caravans. We spend the afternoon catching up on photo editing, receipts and journals before heading to the covered picnic area. We listen in on the travel meeting and talk to a bunch of neat folks who are having a ball on their trip. For Madi, I take photos of their Crazy Hat contest. Mike, the owner of the campground, gives a presentation to the group about why he is here and how he lives. Later he and his wife serve blueberry cobbler with ice cream but since we are “extras” they do not have enough for us. Well, that is okay since I certainly do not need the calories.
(Shari) Just as we are about to walk to the other campground for lunch, Norm and Cindy pull in and park next to us. What a treat! Together, we walk over to the cook shack and order food. Bert has his favorite breakfast and I have a fish taco. Then Norm and Cindy take the tour of the place made famous by the book “Tisha” and Bert and I do things on the computer. Later we take a walk to Downtown Chicken. Every year Chicken gets better. At first there was only one ramshackle campground with a parking lot and no facilities to stay the night. When Mike opened his campground, the other one had to spruce up to compete. Now there are two campgrounds, both having electricity, water, WiFi, restaurant, and gift store. One is more upscale and the other is friendlier. The stores in Chicken are the same, but their façade has been upgraded. Since tour buses now stop here, a “Chicken Poop” has been added for their rest stop break. Everything is decorated with a chicken theme. I have not bought much for the past three months but find a cute T-shirt for myself, a shirt for Bert, and a box for my granddaughter’s collection at the gift store. Cindy and I take a look inside the bar and notice underwear and hats hanging from the walls and ceiling. The underwear is ragged and Cindy tells me that it is shot from a canon. We wonder if they’d shoot our underwear from the canon if we went up tonight for the bar scene. Probably not! When we get back from our shopping spree, we start a campfire for our social. Just as I come outside with a glass of wine, the rain starts. So we move inside our rig to continue our conversation. Cindy and Norm are another one of our caravan couples that have become close friends. We are able to talk and talk as if we never stopped. Tomorrow we plan to go to Eagle with them.
(Bert) Trivia questions: 1) number of grains in a dram?, 2) number of children adopted by Tisha?, 3) largest city in area in the U.S.? The questions relate to gold, a teacher in Chicken in the 1920s, and Alaska. After our 1996 visit to Chicken, I had read the book called Tisha that relates experiences in this remote gold mining settlement and, today, I walk to the now-dilapidated building where Anne Purdy held her classes. Overgrown with Mastodon Flowers, birch and spruce, it is now the delightful playground of young Yellow Warblers, Alder Flycatchers and Pine Siskins. Best finds are a prowling Rusty Blackbird and a silent Olive-sided Flycatcher. [Answers supplied by owner Mike: 14, 10, Yakatak (Alaska). However, I looked up dram and grain on the Internet and got a different answer: 1 troy ounce is 480 grains and 1 dram is 27.34 grains].
(Bert) I check the thermometer at 5:50 AM and find it is a freezing 32º. If it had an official weather station, Chicken would probably hold the records for extreme weather in Alaska, as it has reached over 100º in its short summer and 80º below zero in severe winter. Yesterday, Norm and Cindy joined us in Chicken and today we take an early start on the Taylor Highway to Eagle. Shari and I have only been to Eagle once before, in 1998, and then drove the gravel road by car, not RV.
(Shari) Cindy and Norm have the benefit of our experience and also the pain of it. We are up at 5:30 AM to make a 6:30 departure. We know the road ahead is narrow and we do not want to meet any traffic on in. Every year we hear of some rig falling off the edge. Going early eliminates most oncoming traffic as the U.S. Customs does not open until 8 AM and no one can come through from Canada. That only leaves 45 mi. of local people who had spent the night along the road. Unfortunately we do meet traffic–probably local gold miners and workers–and we meet that traffic right at the narrow spot where vehicles sometimes topple over the sides.
The tow truck and rescue people are trying to get the motorhome out from its tumble down the cliff two days ago. Apparently it went over the edge but did not fall on its side and just crashed straight down about 150 ft. One year we passed a wreck that looked like a collapsed house of cards. This one just looks like an accident with bent fenders, broken windows and open seams with clothes and belongings sticking out. The motorhome is on the road facing us as we approach, followed by the tow truck. Unfortunately, it has the inside lane and to me it looks like the road is not wide enough for us to pass on the outside. Bert stops and I tell the workers we cannot pass. I don’t know why the driver of the tow truck doesn’t want to move, but he seems belligerent when told of our predicament. He slowly gets into his cab and maybe gives us a few inches more room. I still tell the worker we can’t make it. He says we have plenty of room. I get out and direct Bert. His RV tires are on the very edge and I want him to move over to the inside but he can’t without hitting our mirrors against the sides of the truck. I tell him to stop and luckily am able to fold in our mirror so he can move 6 in. to the inside. Now we have no trouble passing. I sure am glad I wasn’t driving nor looking down over the edge.
(Bert) Two days ago we heard about an RV that went over the edge of the cliff road and the occupants had to be airlifted to a hospital. Now we come upon a wrecker that has just pulled up the Class A motorhome from the valley. A worker says the RV plunged headfirst, without rolling, straight down for 150 ft. Shari snaps a few photos of the wreckage as I slowly drive. Outside storage doors are popped open, clothes are hanging out, debris is scattered down the drop off, windows are shattered, and a big hole is in the front windshield. The wrecker is parked on the inside lane of the gravel road and we recognize there is not enough room for us to pass on the outside lane. At Shari’s urging and after much reluctance on their part, the workers finally pull the wrecker a foot closer to the mountainside. Shari gets out of our RV and helps me negotiate the road. The left side of the RV brushes against the red warning flag positioned at the edge of the fall, while I can only edge the RV past the wrecker after Shari pushes in the extended side view mirror. This is the third year that we have seen a wrecked RV along this stretch of the Taylor Highway. Sadly, the road has not been improved since our first trip in 1996. And also, sadly, accidents such as these could be avoided if drivers were more attentive and cautious about passing oncoming traffic.
Shortly thereafter, we are past the steep cliff-hugging road and on to a
wider road through the flat valley where gold diggers still work the stream. I
see a suspicious rock on the side of the road. It is not moving, but I keep my
eye on it. When I am almost on top of it, we see it is a grouse. Only after I
retract the window, push out my long lens and take four photos, does the Ruffed
Grouse walk into the bushes.
(Shari) In 1998 we went to Eagle with our friends Don and Jean. It was a drizzly day so we did not know just how beautiful the scenery is. A top-of-the-world experience, we can see the road stretch in front of us for miles and miles as it curves around the tops of the mountains. I hate it when Bert tries to bird, drive and write notes, so I do some of the driving again. I find myself stopping numerous times to take pictures to capture the scene in front of me in an attempt to recreate the moment again when looking at the pictures in the future. The fireweed is spent but still has beauty as its brilliantly red flowerless stalks reach skyward for the last sun of summer.
(Bert) We turn north toward Eagle. I had forgotten how beautiful the mountains are from the Taylor Highway as it rides along the mountain ridges. Far-reaching panoramas of folding hills sometimes display, in a straight-line view, as many as ten ridges receding to the horizon, each ridge a different shade of green or purple. Miles of mauve Squirrel-tail Grass line the road. We stop at Fortymile River, made famous after gold was discovered in 1886. With the rise in gold prices, the area has seen a resurgence of mining activities and some 40 claims are active. At American Summit we stop to enjoy the view and the Northern Paintbrushes blooming there. Norm spots a bird erupting from his feet and flying a hundred feet. I walk to that spot and the bird takes flight again, calling while it flies. It is an Upland Sandpiper which is not only the first of our trip, but also the first I have ever seen in Alaska.
We descend to Eagle on the Yukon River. Norm and I take a walking tour and learn of the fascinating history of the area. The first incorporated town in Alaska, it also was the seat where Judge Wickersham resided in 1900, one of only three in the territory. His judicial district extended from the Arctic Ocean all the way south to the Aleutian Islands. We visit his courtroom and see the house he lived in. We also visit Fort Egbert, established in 1899 a couple of years after the gold rush. Lieutenant Billy Mitchel was in charge of expediting the telegraph construction between Eagle and Valdez in 1901. Later to rise in rank to general and a World War I hero, he was subsequently court marshaled for his outspoken support of aircraft in the military and exonerated post mortem. His name is familiar to me since childhood since an airport was named after him, close to where I grew up. Today we see the barn with mule stalls and hay loft that was used in Mitchel’s time, although he brought 80 sled dogs and 16 sleds with him for his work in winter to complete the telegraph line. Eagle is also famous as the temporary quarters for polar explorer Roald Amundsen in 1905, during the time that he discovered the Northwest Passage.
(Shari) We get to Eagle, a small town on the Yukon River, with its hey days during the gold rush of the late 1800s. Bert and Norm sign up for the walking tour and I take a nice nap. Bert comes back from his tour and tells me of a pie social. We walk to the community gathering place–The Improved Order of Red Men Lodge established in 1904–and get in line for our piece of pie. I have a delicious pecan piece for $3 and buy a whole chocolate chip pie for $16. Later I exchange it for an assortment of six slices of differing kinds.
(Bert) Among the more recent events at Eagle, the most dramatic is the 2009 flood, the worst in recorded Eagle history and even the oral history of the local Han Native Americans, a tribe of the Athabasca. We can see much evidence of its damage in an island wiped clean of tall trees, a native village (Old Eagle) scraped off the face of the earth, a shoreline of homes so severely moved off foundations and destroyed, and even trucks crushed into compressed metal. After a winter of high snow accumulation in the mountains, spring thawing was accelerated by temperatures in the 70s and rain which flooded the Yukon River, pushing river ice toward Eagle. A blockage caused the ice to buckle and push up to a height of 70-100 ft. We view all of this action on an amateur video shown to us by one of the residents. Eagle has barely recovered at this time and we see much reconstruction in progress.
(Shari) After the social, we go to the visitor center and watch a home video of the ice break up of 2009. This breakup of the river in early May was devastating to the town. The large amount of snow, the deepness of the ice, the unusual warm temperatures and the loads of rain, all contributed to a disaster. The ice could not flow down the river and built to huge heights forming a dam. The dam broke and the ice came crashing into town toppling piers, moving cars and trucks and pushing whole buildings hundreds of feet. The whole native village was whipped out, but has since been rebuilt with some help from FEMA. Most of the damage has been rebuilt but not the scars. The park ranger’s voice emotionally cracks as he relates the events. We walk to the bluff and try to imagine the before and after picture. As we return to our rigs, Norm finds some raspberries. I quickly pick a handful for breakfast. We stay the night in the BLM campground at Eagle. Again we have a campfire and eat a quinqua salad made by Cindy.
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