Saturday, August 7, 2010

North into Central Alaska

We have always liked Haines. It is a very friendly town and has an old Army fort that was turned back to the local government. Haines did something unique with theirs and sold most of the houses and building to private enterprises. Some are now single-family homes, some condos, some B&B, two are hotels and others are gift shops, museums or civic centers. They are almost all well kept and really add the charm of the town. The central parade grounds are now a lovely park. The area is surrounded by lovely state parks and national forest. Bears and Eagles congregate along the Chilkat River, especially in the fall. Haines certainly has it charm, but after a few days of the typical Alaskan Culinary Experience, we decided to move on up the highway. That experience by the way is mediocre food, in a run down dump with poor service and outrageous prices.

Chilkat River and Chilkat Mountains
The weather turned great again on Sunday, all sunshine and blue skies. How nice was it? We had to use our air conditioner for the first time since leaving Colorado and yes it still worked. Our ride up the Haines Highway was spectacular. We hit the Alaskan Highway and were shocked to find the worst road that we have ever been on anywhere on any of our trips. This part of the highway was not the best in 2006 when we were here, but now it is has deteriorated by ten fold. It made our experience on the Cassiar seem like a new freeway. Fortunately, it was only for a hundred miles, but it was the longest hundred miles that we have ever driven. When we hit the Alaskan border, the road got better. It was all gravel and under construction, but the crew wasn’t working as it was about 7:00 PM. The road surface had been filled, graded and compacted and was pretty smooth. Without the crews on the road we flew through. As soon as we cleared the construction area we got off on a pull out to spend the night.

Mike washing the vehicles
We stopped at Tok the next day to get fuel. It is one of the more reasonable places for fuel cost along the Highway; diesel fuel was only $3.79. The place we filled up offered a free car or truck wash with a fill up, so we took advantage of it. It is not really a car wash; it is a pressure washer in the back of the station that they let you use. It is the first time we have washed the coach since coming up here and it and the Jeep really needed it. Those construction zones take their toll. Mike spent over an hour there blowing off two thousand miles of mud and dust. Not a great job, but at least now we can see the original color of the vehicles.
We left a little after one in the afternoon and planned to drive down across the Tok Cut Off and stop early for the evening. The Tok Cut Off is also not in great shape and we were bouncing quite a bit. But the weather was beautiful and impulsively we decided to drive to Valdez and see if the weather was good there so that we could finally see the town. It was only a mere 250 more miles on not so good road, but with drop dead gorgeous scenery. We got into Valdez about 8:00 PM and the skies were just starting to cloud up. For the first time in three trips we could finally see why they call it the Switzerland of Alaska. It is surrounded by high glacier capped mountains. Yes, it was worth the 12-hour drive as the next morning it was foggy, overcast and raining.

Linda and Jake at the Valdez Harbor
The fog lifted early and in spite of the rain we were able to take the Jeep out and do a little exploring. We drove up to the Valdez Glacier, where its huge moraine is now used as an informal campground. We also drove over to the terminus of the Alaskan Pipeline. We were hoping for a tour, but the area is closed to the public. We did a little off roading in the Jeep until we hit a spot that required us to ford a stream and Linda said turnaround. We also visited the old Valdez town site. In 1963 following the Good Friday Earthquake, Valdez was hit with a 60-foot tsunami and was completely destroyed. The survivors decided to rebuild the present day city five miles west in an area that was better protected from the sea. There is nothing left where the old town was. They still take tsunamis as a serious threat and evacuation routes are clearly marked. During our visit and tsunami test was conducted over loud speakers located through out the city.

In the not so Alaskan tradition, we did have a couple of fine meals there were no more expensive than the slop we had in Haines. We do not want to knock Haines too much as there are a few nice places to eat there, just not the places we picked, trying to save a buck.

Kenny Lake Mercantile
Thursday we drove out of Valdez and were on our way to Chitina, McCarthy and Kennecott. We stopped at Kenny Lake Mercantile to park the coach. It is pretty typical of what you find along the road in Alaska and the Yukon, a do everything place. They have a gas station, diner, hotel, laundry, hardware, grocery store, bakery, sporting goods, bait, tire repair RV park and to our surprise Wi-Fi. Everything you need except for liquor, which we did not need. We drove the Jeep down to Chitina to check at the ranger station on the condition of the McCarthy highway. There we met Dee and Judy Johnson, who are also motorhoming with a Jeep. We decided to meet the next morning and drive our Jeeps to McCarthy together; misery loves company.

Narrow spot on the McCarthy Road
The McCarthy Highway is 60 miles of dirt and gravel built on the old Copper River and Northwester Railroad bed. The write up on the road is pretty ominous; narrow, slippery, sheer drop off with rail spikes and steel still embedded and no services along the way. Make sure that you have at least one good spare tire and plan a minimum of three hours one way. It looked like Mike was finally going to get his off road driving adventure and you can see why we were both glad to go along with another Jeep. It turned out to be quite different; in reality it is just a dirt road. Parts of it were pot holed and you had to drive slow, but much of it was good gravel and you could drive the 35 mph speed limit. The road is wide enough in most places for two cars to pass, although you both want to slow down or stop in doing so. There was no steep grades and where there was steep drop offs there was heavy concrete barriers. No, we would not want to take the coach down, but there were some pick up campers and small Class C coaches on the road.

Linda and Jake in Kennecott
Our objectives McCarthy and Kennecott cannot actually be reached from the road. You have to drive to the end and then walk across a footbridge and then catch a shuttle. They bring the shuttles and other vehicles across the river in the winter on the ice. Kennecott is an old mine and mill town about five miles past McCarthy. It is party owned by private individuals and the National Park Service and is partially restored. It is very interesting to see and they have a very nice lodge and dinning room there. Most people spend at least one night and do some hiking and glacier climbing in the Wrangell St. Elias National Park. We just did a day trip in and out and had beautiful clear and warm weather to do it in. And we made it unscathed except for quite a bit of mud and dirt covering the Jeep.

We are now heading towards Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. We hope that you all have had a wonderful week.

Take care, Love,

Linda, Jake and the Fat Man

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