Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Mail Plane to Chisana (pronounced Shushanna)

Cars and trucks will only let you see a little bit of the Alaskan interior. ATVs will get you a bit further into the backcountry. A snow machine, at least in winter, will get you even further. If however, you want to really 'get out there' you need a plane.

After being here only a few days I knew that one of the best ways to really see Alaska would be by plane. Luckily, flightseeing is a big business with lots of companies offering multi-hour tours in small planes...but for big prices. Luckily also, I have an awesome and resourceful husband! On one of our town days in Tok he suddenly turned right into the airport and stopped in front of the office of 40 Mile Air. "What would you think about a plane ride for your birthday?' he asked.

Vanessa in the office explained the various tour options. I listened with one ear and watched the little tiny planes taxi down the narrow runway. Little tiny planes are definitely cuter than big ones, but boy were they getting tossed around in the light breeze. Turning my attention back to the flight options I heard Vanessa mention that there are also 3 seats avalaible on the Tuesday two-hour mail flight to Chisana. "If the weather is good" she added, "Brownie usually flies back over the glacier and through the canyon."
Flying over the Tanana River Basin

And so it was on the morning of Tuesday, August 23 that Brownie, Dave and I lifted off in one of those tiny planes with 80 pounds of mail for Chishana. Chishana, once and very briefly a gold mining boom town of 10,000, has a current year-round population of 6 to 8. Not sure why the U. S. Postal System keeps delivering mail there, especially at what must be significant expense. That's just one of those things you wonder about in Alaska. Irregardless, it is the best flightseeing deal in the state.

Air Strip in Chisana
Dave and I sat back, watched the Tanana, Nebesna, and Chisana rivers running silver grey with glacial silt beneath the little blue plane. After about 15 minutes we crossed the flood plain/tiaga and began flying over the foothills of the Wrangell Range, one of the highest mountain ranges in North America. Minutes later we were flying through canyons, alongside mountains. Brownie dipped the plane to the right and pointed out three distinct white shapes standing nonchalantly on a clift-side. Dall Sheep, so clear we could make out their giant horns. Righting the plane, Brownie then pointed ahead to the foot of the Chishana glacier, and left, to what apparently was the airstrip. It may have looked like a field to us, but Brownie landed that little plane without a bump. Standing beside the runway were three people. Half the town had turned out to meet the plane.

During the 15 minute layover, while the plane was loaded and unloaded, Dave and I wandered over to the public cabin and outhouse. We'd heard about the use of blue foam insulation for toilet seats, but this was the first we saw. Apparently this is the thing to keep your tushie from freezing to the seat during the winter! Then it was time to leave.

The weather was good (enough) and Brownie did fly over the glacier and through the canyon and wow, was that spectacular. More Dall sheep, more mountsides aflame with Aspen, more snow covered peaks, more Alaska!

It was also bumpier. The sky was clouding over and the canyon winds were starting to lightly toss the little plane and my stomach. Gliding over the reddening bear-berry covered hills we landed back in Tok just before the storm. This week's mail run to Chisana was done.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Gold Fever! A Holiday to Dawson City via Chicken and the Top of the World Highway

Having gotten into the swing of the whole campground host thing, it was time for a new adventure.  We'd heard a lot about Chicken and the road to Dawson City and thought it would make for a great overnight adventure.  Leaving the trailer behind, and with hotel reservations made for the big city of Dawson, we headed out early Tuesday morning.

Roads are always a major topic of conversation in Alaska.  Not so much where they are going, it's the condition they are in that can be the subject of hour long conversations and spirited debate. We knew that the road repair crew was currently working on the Taylor Highway, the 64 mile road from Tok to Chicken. Like many roads in Alaska the part being repaired, the gravel section, was much better than the potholed, permafrost wracked remainder.

Then there is the 72 mile road from Chicken to Dawson City called the Top of the World highway.  Primarily rough dirt, and narrow, with steep drop offs over 1000 ft clifts, the road winds along the ridgetops, above treeline. Dave did the driving. I pointed out the numberous gold dredging operations we passed along the Forty Mile and Mosquito Rivers, the magnificent alpine views and counted down the miles, first to the Canadian border and then to Dawson.

But note, I wrote that the road was 'primarily' dirt.  There is one section, the last 12 miles in Alaska, that is beautiful, smooth, wide asphalt. Nothing but horrible dirt up to it, nothing but bad dirt afterwords.  But there it is, the best road in all of Alaska.

In Canada, the road ends at the Yukon River just across from Dawson.  The ferry runs continiously, is pretty quick, and gave us a chance to say we've rode the Yukon.

Dawson City itself, is pretty cool. A gold town that sprang up in the late 1900's and is still the center of Yukon mining and tourism today.  The old 19th century architecture and character is well maintained, and really classy.  The streets are dirt but there are wooden boardwalk sidewalks butted up to false front stores, victorian theater houses and saloons.  We had a great dinner is an old fish house.  The rain hammering on the tin roof only added to the boom town ambiance.  But there really isn't much there even if you include a visit to the Jack London and Robert Service cabins. I did, and have, often wondered how "the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell."

The next day it was back over the Top of the World, but with a stop at the community of Chicken. Named Chicken because the locals could not spell ptarmigan, the town isn't much more than two restaurants, four stores three RV parks, an old mining dredge, a few current mining operations, and a 'learn to pan gold' tourist sluice box.

It being a beautiful day and as gold panning involving playing in water, as well as being a quintessential Alaskan experience, it was time to give it a try.  Best decision ever!!!  Gold panning is taking a shovel full of dirt and washing it and swirling it until nothing is left but gold!  Shinning, gleaming gold.  We panned 5 shovel-fulls and got 'color' in every one.

Now we're back at the campground.  Looking north I keep thinking about the gold in them thar hills...and thinking about going back for some more.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Day in the Life of an Alaskan Campground Host

Weed Wacking at Lakeview!
Like mornings everywhere, the morning of a camphost starts with a good cup of coffee. Unlike everywhere however, we're in a primitive Alaskan campground miles from town. After that first cup of coffee, the day evolves into multiple tasks that fall into two categories; maintenance and hosting. The maintenance jobs are predictable and straight forward. The hosting...that's where we're never entirely sure what the day will bring.

There are actually two campgrounds in our 'domain'. The one we live at, Deadman Lake, is 1.2 miles from the highway. It has 14 primitive sites, well-spaced along a 3/4 mile loop. The campground also has three sets of outhouses, a 1/4 mile interpretive trail with observation deck, a small boat ramp, a dock, and a screened pavilion.

Dock at Deadman
Lakeview Campground is 10 miles North west. With one outhouse, and 10 sites set closer together and closer to the road, Lakeview is often as busy as Deadman.

After coffee and breakfast we start the maintenance portion of the day by cleaning the outhouses. Word on the Alcan is that our outhouses are the cleanest ones for hundreds of miles. We've driven those miles, visited some of those other outhouses and we agree. First we walk the loop to clean the outhouses. We also check the dock and boat ramp for pike racks, or lost underwear, the sites for any garbage (which we rarely find) and the trash cans. If the cans are full then we fire up the camp truck and throw the bags into the back. Then it's off to Lakeview campground, where we do it all over again. From there it's another 6 miles down the road to Northway to throw the garbage into the Fish and Wildlife dumpster. If the truck needs fuel, there's a small store here. Then we drive back to Deadman, pulling off to check the occasional roadside interpretive pull offs.

Weed Wacking at the Border
At this point we'll also do some of the other maintenance work. Weed wacking, painting, dock cleaning, door repairs, road maintenance, etc. About once every two weeks we dig out our passports and head for the Alaska/Canada border. One of our jobs is to maintain the "Welcome to Alaska" pull off. Usually it needs a bit of trimming and some trash pick up. The job takes longer than it should as we spend about half the time there taking photos of folks standing in front of the Welcome sign. To get back to the campground we pass through U.S. customs. That takes a little more time, and if it's not busy, even more as we stop to chat with the customs officers. It's a lonely job out on the border!

Back at the campground, campers have generally moved on by noon. One or two might stay a few days, three guys actually stayed a week pike fishing, but most just spend the night on their way in or out of Alaska. This is generally our off time. We relax, take of hike, go fishing, etc. and keep on eye on the road into camp. Around 3:00 or so, the campers start rolling in again and the 'hosting' begins. We try and touch base with everyone letting them know about the local dogs who loop through the camp, the 7pm Ranger Talk and remind them not to burn down the forest. It's also good to remind them that they can only use dead and downed trees. No felling is allowed, and no, we don't sell firewood. The taiga may look wet, but with the black spruce and Labrador tea plants this place is a tinder box. Other hosting tasks have included helping a guy fix a flat, providing fishing and hiking advice, orientation (amazingly a number of folks aren't really sure where they are), and general chit chat.
The Official Truck

If it's Saturday or Sunday, our hosting duties also include giving the Ranger Talk. I talk about Moose The Alaskan moose is a fascinating animal and an integral piece of the Alaskan experience. If you want to know more, stop by the pavilion at 7:00!

Between 8 and 10, a second wave of campers arrive. Hosting at this point generally just involves letting them know of the remaining openings and directions to other camping spots. We're tired, they're tired and we're all ready to call it a day.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

If I Wear Sunglasses at Night, Do I Also Need Sunscreen?

Caught my first Pike @ 10:00 - with Sunglasses
Last night the sun set at 10:30, not rising again until 5:30 or so. And it felt weird. Only a month and half ago, at the zenith, it set at 12:30, twilight never ended and the sun rose at 3:30. I've gotten used to the perpetual daylight. You could even say I've grown to love it.

At first it was hard to settle down and get to sleep. The body just wasn't getting those nighttime vibes that come after dusk. It just wanted to keep going. Laying down, I kept feeling like I was missing something. That's when I started wearing my sunglasses after 10:00 pm (and singing 80's songs). Just so I could get to sleep by 11 or so. Dave also covered up the skylight in the bedroom and added extra curtains. With that, we could simulate nighttime enough to get back into a regular sleep routine. Still...I loved getting up at night and looking out...and seeing.

I also loved going on late night hikes and paddles. A day could easily start with a hike, followed by a good five or six hour rest, and end with a long paddle, all in broad daylight. Out on the water at 10:00pm, in full sun, I'd wonder if I should have put on sunscreen.
Late Night Jam Session (Notice daylight)

It also took a while to get used to not seeing the sun where I thought it should be. Yes, it was in the sky, but timewise, not anywhere near where expected. Basically if you tried to tell the time of day by the sun it always seemed to be between 11 am and 1 pm. Occasionally it'd be far enough to the west that it felt like 4 or so.... when it was really 9:00. A single day just went on forever.

By the time we leave Alaska at the beginning of September. The sun will be on what seems a 'normal' track for an Easterner, setting around 8pm and rising around 6:30. I won't need to wear sunglasses to trick my internal clock into sleep mode. I never did end up putting on sunscreen for a 10pm hike or paddle, but it was one of the many thought-provoking experiences of Alaska.

Going to town!

Driving the Gov't Truck to Tok
When you live 70 miles and approximately an hour and half out in the middle of the boreal forest, with no phone, no internet, no TV or radio, the weekly trip to town is a big event. Especially when that town is Tok, Alaska.

Tok is just the right size for a brief visit to civilization. It's just big enough to have one grocery store, one outfitter (owned by the same guys as the grocery store), one restaurant (American), one food truck (Thai), a small library, a hardware store without any signage, a sled dog association, two tourist shops, two liquor stores (neither of which carries more than 7 or so varieties of beer and wine) and the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge office (aka water, laundry machines, wifi and nice people!).

The trip itself is also part of the 'excitement.' Summer in Alaska is also road construction season. At
Following the Pace Car
the same time that the crews are fixing one part of the road another section is disintegrating. Slaloming around ever expanding potholes and flying over frost heaves adds a roller-coaster ride feeling. Then there are the construction delays. Those usually entail a good 15 minute or more stop while all the cars, motorcycles, bicyclists, trucks, and RV's queue up. Folks get out, stretch their legs. talk with one another, and get the latest construction update from the traffic person. Then the pilot car shows up and we all jump into our vehicles for the winding trip down the road, dodging gravel trucks and spreaders.

Of course the scenery is really the highlight. Next week's trip will be our 6th and it's still thrilling to see the Alaska range rising in the West, the Wrangell's in the South and the panoramic views of the Tanana River Valley. This year's rainfall has been much higher than average and the rivers are all running wild. About 10 miles out of Tok we cross the Tanana River and it's always amazing to see how high and fast it is running.
The Bridge to and From Civilization

Crossing the bridge is also where we come into cell phone and data range. As the phone starts buzzing with all the missed call and new email messages we know it's time to transition from back-country to town mode. It's good to catch up with all our friends and family and load up with supplies, but after 5 hours of that, it also feels good to cross back over the Tanana River and back into the wild!