Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Cabin in the Woods

Day #23 - 

When you think of Alaska you probably think of moose blocking roadways or Sarah Palin shooting 12 gauge slugs at a grizzly bear. Alaska has long had an image of being a wild and dangerous place...the last frontier. This is because of things like Hollywood and The Discovery Channel. But don't be fooled by what you see on TV. 

Yesterday was our 9th wedding anniversary and we wanted to do something unique with the whole family. After looking into excursions and local B&Bs we were left with a small handful of not-so-exciting-but-ultra-pricey options. Then we looked into the National Forest and there it was. An inexpensive, remote
cabin in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.

The Caribou Creek cabin is along the Resurrection Pass Trail in Chugach National Forest. The only way to get there is to hike 7 miles through remote and wild terrain. Here's where the Hollywood images of Alaska started haunting me. I had a wild encounter in Yellowstone ( a couple years ago that has since left me slightly scarred whenever we go backpacking. Most times I hit the trail and knock out a few miles and it's all good. But this is ALASKA. The moment I clicked to confirm our reservation I felt nervous. And I am not a person who typically suffers from any kind of anxiety. I had Images of Grizzly bears and wolves running through my head. I kept playing out different scenarios and NONE of them ended with us making to and from the cabin without encountering a large mammal. That just doesn't happen in "The Last Frontier" does it? 

In preparing for our adventure I kept singing the Billy Ocean song "Caribbean Queen" but replaced the words with "Caribou Creek". Try it, it works quite well. Anyhow, on the day of our adventure I was listening to the radio station (and I mean THE radio station, there is ONE station in the Kenai) and wouldn't you know, my song came on. I took it as a good sign and sang along to Billy with my revised lyrics. 

The Resurrection Pass Trail begins in Hope which is a small town with dirt roads. It's a quaint town that started like most Alaska towns - with a turn of the century gold rush. Of all the places we have been to so far, Hope is the city that looks most like the Alaskan town that I pictured in my head. While driving the Hope Highway we saw a demoralizing scene unfolding on the roadside. A dead whale had washed ashore and a large crowd had gathered around to gawk. There were also people on the scene collecting samples of some sort. Not sure what agency they were with but that had official looking tool kits and jackets. Like whale CSI or something. I joke but seeing a dead animal of that size really gets ya. It's a truly devastating loss of life. It's also the first time we have seen a whale. Bummer. 

We got on the trail just after lunch. I strapped some bear bells to my wrist with my Ontario survival knife on one hip (thanks Joe) and my bear spray on the other. Bear bells, for those of you who don't hike, are basically sleigh bells that you strap to you so that bears can hear you coming. The idea is if they hear you coming they'll avoid you. Unless it's one of those rare cases where a bear turns predatory against humans, in which case you now have a bell on you making it easy for the bear to track you. (No joke. Shit that goes through your head when you're afraid.) I stayed mentally strong though and knew the odds were in my favor. Bang the HELL out of those bear bells and hopefully we can cross bears off the list of animals we will encounter. 

About 3 miles in, something happened to me. I saw people hiking and biking by with their dogs and smiles on their faces. "You guys going to camp? Oh that will be FUN." They said as they passed. Some of them didn't have bells or bear spray. Some were alone. It was then that I realized I had been acting like a wuss. I had let the Hollywood depiction of Alaska get to me and forgot that this is nature. Just like every other nature that I had ever enjoyed. Stunning views, unique smells and the sounds of song birds that I had never heard before. My nature side was waking up. I was enjoying myself. 

Around dinner we arrived at the cabin. IT. WAS. AWESOME! Our own little slice of heaven. A cozy cabin nestled next to a rushing creek with mountains and pine trees all around us. We hurried inside and claimed our beds. I made dinner for the gang and we had dessert while playing cards. When the kids went to sleep Jessica and I enjoyed some time to ourselves and celebrated our anniversary on the porch, drinking beers that she had carried in her pack for us. 

This morning we woke up, made breakfast on the wood burning stove and hiked back. We had ZERO animal encounters. When we got back to town we ate greasy, fattening food at a small diner because that's just what you do when you get off the trail. If you find yourself near Chugach National Forest I HIGHLY recommend staying in one of their 40 wilderness cabins. They range from cabins that are just 2 miles up the trail to cabins located next to wilderness lakes in the alpine regions that require a sea plane to access them. Find the one that meets your level of adventure and go. You won't regret it. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Look for Alaska - Days 13-18 - Alaska Begins

Day 13 - For our final day in the Yukon we did a little hiking in the canyon and poked around town for a while. Then we came home and watched Jumanji while eating nachos and tortilla soup. 

Tomorrow we are headed back to the United States to a town called Tok, AK (pronounced Toke). I have been warned about this town by my cousin. He said it gives him a bad vibe. I tried to take it off the itinerary but there is a campground where they do a Sourdough Pancake toss every night and Jessica, for some weird reason, is obsessed with seeing it. 

Speaking of my cousin - He did this drive alone in an old Chrysler back in his early 20s. Then he spent a year in Alaska working at a fishery cleaning fish. After this trip I have a new respect for what he did that year. He has balls. Colin, I got mad respect for you

Day 14 - 60 Miles. That's how far we were from Alaska when our uneventful journey started giving us problems. It was like the Alaska Highway was saying "Not so fast, Yums. We have unfinished business..."

The day started with frost heaves. Lots of them. And just so we are clear it started and ended with frost heaves with no breaks in the middle. I'd be cruising along at 50 MPH and BAM...suddenly it felt like we were jumping huge waves in a speed boat. The hitch occasionally banging on the ground and everyone on the car grabbing onto their seats. For the large potholes and frost heaves they have orange flags sticking out of the side of the road. They were everywhere. The road was a mess! 

In between these sudden hills and drop offs there were construction zones. The kind where you had to wait 15 minutes for a pilot car to come and guide you through a rutted, rocky, muddy road with construction vehicles moving all around you. As the construction zones became more frequent, people started shutting off their cars and getting out to stretch. The waits were agonizing. 

At one such stop the guy behind me started to pass me when the pilot car came to get us. I said to Jessica, "what is this asshole doing?" And he yelled as he went past "YOU HAVE A FLAT TIRE!"

The road had become so bumpy that I didn't even notice one of my trailer tires was as flat as a pancake. I pulled over, rolled the front tire on some blocks and went for my spare kit. Luckily we found a nice turnout next to a lake and the family got to stretch out while I changed the tire. 

I surprised myself with how quick I changed that sucker. I tossed the tools in the bag, not concerned with packing them away neatly like they'd been, and hopped in the truck. Ready to roll I remembered...I'm in a construction zone and I have to wait for a pilot car to guide me out...suddenly a southbound pilot car appeared with a line of cars behind it. So we sat and waited forever for it to turn around and come back. Onward north! 

We crossed the border shortly after and celebrated our gas purchase at $3.65 a gallon. I know, not cheap, but HALF the price of Canadian gas. We are it Tok, Alaska in a really nice RV park that I mentioned before. A few things are a miss. Some wiring got knocked loose, our stuff was scattered ALL OVER the camper and our rig is covered in a sheet of dried mud...but we made it. We survived the Alaska Highway. 

Day 15 - The pancake toss was interesting. It was everything you'd expect of such an event. You throw a pancake and if you can get it in the bucket you win free breakfast. Then there was Tim, the campground owner. 

Tim is a bearded, bald guy with a sharp tongue and a fantastic sense of humor. He plays with audience members the way a magician or hypnotist does, minus all the cheesy jokes. He's just an Alaska dude, originally from Arizona, who knows how to take jabs at people while still keeping it fun and not causing any permanent damage. Make no mistake - Tim IS the show. 

He started by rounding up all of the people standing around the perimeter, the people who were trying to get away with being inactive participants. He made a point to embarrass all of them and give them nicknames. 

Then he went around the ENTIRE pavilion and had each person introduce themselves - name, where they're from, how many miles they've traveled. It made me realize we were among people like us. People who have driven thousands of miles, slept in weird places, skipped showers and got oil changes in tiny Canadian towns. The introduction took the better part of an hour yet there was never a dull moment. Tim facilitated some good conversation and this room of strangers became friends. 

Now, the rules are simple, like I said. Pancake in the bucket = free breakfast. However, there are a few nuances that also need to be adhered to. The person tossing the pancake must yell "READY!" Before each throw which cues the audience to start clapping and yelling "BUCKET! BUCKET!" If you fail to clap and yell at this point you WILL be singled out and brought on stage and embarrassed. The first throw is a practice shot. The second is the money shot. It's NOT as easy as it looks.

We each took our turns at different times. I failed and Jessica failed. Jessica also got called out for not clapping at one point and she is extremely shy so I enjoyed watching her public shaming. Sammy failed BUT he didn't even want to go up there until a woman bribed him with a dollar so you can't call that a fail. Noah was one of the first people to go and he totally nailed it. He was the only kid to do it and one of only a few people overall who made a pancake in the bucket. 

Noah saved me money on breakfast, Sam earned $1, Jessica got her chops busted. The night was a success. Come to Tok. Camp at Sourdough. 

Pancake Toss Winners! 

Day 16 - Gave the bikes a good cleaning and tune up today. Also tied up some urgent maintenance with the RV (including repairing the flat tire I swapped out the other day). Afterward we took a family bike ride to town. 

We played at the Tok school where they have a surprisingly modern and fun playground. 

These bugs are EVERYWHERE. 

Afterwards we ate Thai food at a small food truck in town. It was actually super good thai food. The meal wasn't without issues. Jessica got a FLAT TIRE on her bike when we pulled up. So we repaired ANOTHER flat. Again, we were prepared. 

On the way back we stopped to see Hugh Neff of Iditarod fame do a talk / demo about dog sledding. He had his dog, Walter, named after Walter Payton, there with him and he was fun to listen to. It was pretty informal. He talked candidly about being a professional musher while Walter walked around the room receiving pats on the head. 

After a fun day we biked back, packed in our stuff and turned in. Tomorrow we have a long haul to the Alaska interior. 

Day 17 - Frost heaves. Again. I guess it's just the name of the game when you're this close to the arctic circle. 

We drove through Anchorage today and it was very flat and ordinary. Almost disappointing. Then we drove highway 1 along he cook inlet and things got AWESOME. Mountain peaks shooting from the water and bright green vegetation everywhere. 

We are in the Kenai Peninsula in a town called Cooper Landing. The RV park is nothing special but this is just our home base for the next 2 weeks. We plan to venture out and get into trouble in true Yum fashion. 

Day 18 - We took it easy today. We slept in, ate breakfast, then headed off on foot to explore this resort. 

The RV Park we are staying at is on the same property as the Kenai Princess Lodge which is owned by Princess Cruise Lines. They use the resort as a jumping off spot for people who take excursions in Alaska. These "excursions" are basically sterilized versions of real adventures that rich people pay for and in between they stay in high end lodges or cabins on this property. 

I am not complaining though because we have access to a bar, restaurant, lodge, gift shop, shuffle board, horseshoes, hiking trails and a hot tub. 

We had some afternoon beers and some fancy lunch, hiked all of their trails and poked around the property amongst retired people in straw hats. Then we said good bye to the tour bus crowd and retired to the RV ghetto down the hill. If only these yuppies knew they were sharing their resort with us shady folks...

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Look for Alaska - Days 7-12 - The Alaska Highway

Day 7 - we are in the bush. This is BY FAR the most remote wilderness I have ever driven through. Instead of gas stations along the route they have these fuel stops that look like shipping containers and they are totally self serve. You go through a door in the back and swipe your card. Then you go outside and operate the pump. The whole thing is very unusual. I think they're called "Card Locks" and the gas is super expensive. 

So, the Alaska Highway is NOT paved the entire way. In fact, there are spots where you are following a bumpy dirt road and it splits in two with no signs directing you. If you go SLOW you can see where all the tire marks are and following the path becomes easier. You don't really want to speed anyhow because curves, hills, potholes and wildlife are abundant and if you're going 65 with a 7000lb trailer hooked to your ass, you're gonna have problems. I have been cruising along at 50mph most of the day. It's exhausting but you can't beat the scenery. 

Sometime in the early afternoon we arrived in the Northern Rocky Mountains. Ho-Ly-Shit. That's all I can say. It literally made my heart beat faster seeing summit lake and stone mountain from a winding, 2 lane highway that has no business being in such a pristine and otherwise inaccessible wilderness. 

We are camped out at Liard River Hot Springs. There is a short boardwalk from our campground that leads to the springs. It's 100 degree water...which sounds awfully inviting after driving in the chilly rain all day. When I was filling my fresh water tank I met a retired couple from Grand Rapids on their way to Alaska. They asked where I was from and I told them the Detroit suburbs. Then the woman said, "Hey, that's where our dogs are from. We got them from a dog breeder in a city called St Clair Shores." 

Small world 

Day 8 - There is something about standing in a hot spring in the pouring rain that makes you feel one with nature. You're not running for shelter or waiting for the rain to pass. You're just taking it all in. Every last bit of it. 

I met a European couple today. They were standing in front of the camp "store" across the street with discouraged looks on their faces. I could tell they were on a long cycle tour based on the amount of gear they were hauling on their bikes. It turns out they were expecting the "store" and "restaurant" to have food and groceries. The problem with the Alaska Highway is sometimes supplies run low and they don't get replenished for a while. Sometimes never. So they were fresh out of food, in one of the most remote places in North America, wondering what to do. Since These folks were fellow Ragers (what me and my bike friends call other touring cyclists) I knew I had to hook them up. I invited them to the campsite and started grabbing camp food and energy bars. 

Turns out this couple, Johan and B, Dutch and German respectively, have been cycling all over the world for the last 4 years. They have been to 57 countries and they're currently biking from Anchorage to Montana. They said they don't like to plan too far ahead so that's the basic plan, for now. Things can always change. 

They're extremely pleasant people and I am glad I got the chance to help them. I always pay it forward to hikers, bikers and travelers because it boosts my gypsy karma. 

Day 9 - Another day of off-grid camping next to the hot springs. I know I keep mentioning it but the long days are a trip. Easily the most bizarre part of being in the far north. The sun stays just beyond the horizon all night and it's never truly night as a result. 

We are just a couple hours from the Yukon Territory. We plan to make a short drive tomorrow and spend a night in Watson Lake. After that it's Whitehorse, our final stop before ALASKA! 

Day 10 - The food is awful in the Yukon. And everything is super expensive. A kids meal at the cafe across the street is $11. Gas is $1.50 per liter (about $5.50 a gallon) and an RV site in a place that can only be described as a gravel parking lot is $56 per night. It comes with free WiFi though (one hour of junky, satellite WiFi). 

The wife and kids are off at the sign post forest. I am sitting in the RV watching cable TV that is local to Spokane, WA. I don't know how that works but I am guessing the remote interior of the Yukon is somehow part of the extended viewing market for that city. 

I skipped the trip to the sign post forest because I tweaked my back while driving the other day so I am giving it a rest. I saw the forest from the road earlier and the first sign that jumped out at me said "Welcome to Petoskey". So it looks intriguing but instead I will watch America's Got Talent alongside my fellow Washingtonians. 

Day 11 - We are in Whitehorse. A fully functioning tourist town in the middle of the Yukon. I am currently on pace to break the world record for "Most Consecutive Days Without Showering" so I guess I will go ahead and give up on that. 

I found a place that had homemade butter tarts for $1. In my family, butter tarts are like confectionary GOLD. Neither of my kids nor my wife liked I ate all four. 

Day 12 - If I could give one piece of advice to travelers heading to Alaska it would be this: Stock up on groceries before you get to Canada. Pile up as much groceries as your rig will hold and plan your meals carefully. Because once you cross the border you will start BLEEDING cash. 

We had an eventful day. Jessica and the boys let me pick what we did so I kept it simple. First we went to the Yukon Brewing Company and stocked up on craft beer. They had a tasting room and I bought all the ones I liked...which was most of them. My personal favorite was their Birch Sap Ale. So malty and smooth. 

After some beer sampling we had lunch ($45 for A&W...I'm telling you STOCK UP ON GROCERIES) and then proceeded to a used bookstore. The boys grabbed a new book each and I grabbed "Killshot" by Elmore Leonard. It feels good reading about Walpole Island and Lake St Clair when we are this far from our homeland. 

Finally, we ended the day by restocking our groceries at WalMart and Independent Grocers. Again - STOCK UP BEFORE CROSSING THE BORDER - I am not gonna warn you again. If you want to be foolish after all I have said be my guest. 

Speaking of WalMart, it's a pretty well known fact that most WalMarts allow overnight camping. We have stayed at WalMarts before and there are usually 4-5 other rigs that join us in the lot. But the one in Whitehorse is like a full-service RV park. There are RVs piled in and they have a dump station and fresh water and everything. Some people unhook their trailers and roll out their rugs and everything. It's really a sight to see. 

The new beers are chilling in the fridge. We have some curry in the crockpot and everyone is relaxing. It's gonna be a good night.