Friday, July 30, 2010

Alaska Trip Table of Contents

I know I've posted a ridiculous amount of content the last three weeks. I'm assuming that unless you're a teacher on summer vacation, you haven't had time to read through all of it. That's why I'm closing the Alaska trip recaps with a nice, neat "Table of Contents". This way, you can quickly see what you missed and catch up! Yay! (If you want to, of course. No pressure.) And even if you have read through everything already, this post does provide some new material: links to Amber's last two photo albums.

This will also be the last post I apply the "alaska" tag to. That means from now on, this will be the first thing to come up when you click the "alaska" label over there in the right column. So, this table of contents will always be just one click away, whether it's tomorrow or two years from now. How convenient!

With you go:

Amber's photo albums - They're posted on Facebook, but you can view them whether you do Facebook or not.

Amber photo album #1 - The drive from Durham to Dawson Creek, BC
Amber photo album #2 - British Columbia, Yukon, and Skagway, AK
Amber photo album #3 (new!) - Most of mainland Alaska, including Seward, Anchorage, and Denali National Park
Amber photo album #4 (new!) - Fairbanks, and the trip home

My excruciatingly detailed blog posts - In chronological order, which is the reverse order they now appear on the blog, of course.

Day 1: Durham to Dayton-ish - Every trip has to start somewhere.
Day 2: Dayton-ish to Minneapolis-ish - The world's largest truckstop, my first ever experience with tornado sirens, and some excellent cloud pictures.
Twin Cities Traffic - Minnesota has its stuff together when it comes to dealing with traffic.
Day 3: Minneapolis-ish to Regina - North Dakota and southeastern Saskatchewan. More interesting than it sounds.
Day 4: Regina to Grande Prairie - Pleasant Saskatoon, and the world's largest Ukrainian Easter Egg.
Day 5: Grande Prairie to Watson Lake - Lots of pictures from the first third of the Alaska Highway, and the Watson Lake Sign Post Forest.
Day 6: Watson Lake to Skagway - The first real "touristy" day of the trip, mostly spent in the Skagway area. Includes the White Pass & Yukon Route train ride.
Day 7: Skagway to Haines Junction - A ferry ride from Skagway to Haines, and a visit to Canada's Kluane National Park.
Day 8: Haines Junction to Seward - A 14-hour drive, part of which was along the most challenging part of the Alaska Highway. 16 pictures.
Day 9, Part 1: Kenai Fjords National Park - 17 pictures from the hike up - waaaay up - the Harding Icefield trail. (But not all the way up. Darn snow.) And, helpful advice on what to do if a bear attacks you.
Day 9, Part 2: Seward - A pleasant, small Alaskan town.
Day 10, Part 1: Seward Sea Kayaking - Lots of pictures for those of you who think water and mountains go well together.
Day 10, Part 2: The Seward Highway - Drivers in Alaska are crazy. And, a sort-of-related political discussion about the Alaskan attitude towards government.
Day 10, Part 3: Anchorage - A bike ride along Anchorage's Coastal Trail, a reindeer burger, and a grocery store discussion.
Day 11: Anchorage to Denali - A pretty uneventful day, but I still managed to write 600 words and post 5 relevant pictures about it.
Day 12: Denali National Park - The highlight of the trip. Lots of pictures of wildlife and mountains, including the mountain.
Day 13: Fairbanks - A brief trip to Chena Hot Springs, and some thoughts on Fairbanks local news.
4,300 Miles in Five Days - How did we manage to drive all the way from Fairbanks to Durham in five days, anyway?
Day 14: Fairbanks to Whitehorse - Really large (fake) mosquitoes, Kluane take two, and Canada's opinion of the World Cup,
Day 15: Whitehorse to Fort St. John - More pretty Alaska Highway pictures, and a story about helping a stranded motorist in the middle of nowhere, Yukon.
Passing Through Customs - Not one of my favorite pastimes, but a necessary part of travel to and from Canada.
Days 16-18: Fort St. John to Durham - Highlights include my fascination with Lloydminster, and the "Happy Rock".

More stats than you can shake a stick at

Alaska trip gas log - How much did we spend on gas throughout the trip, and where?
Fairbanks to Durham drive detail - contains drive times, distances, average speeds, and posted speed limits for 30 segments of the five-day drive home from Fairbanks.
By the Numbers - Lots of other useless stats. I'll keep the Alaska Trip Updates section up through the weekend, then By the Numbers will revert back to normal.

This was one of my favorite vacations ever, and is certainly the best of the four major vacations Amber and I have taken together (Nova Scotia, Ontario/Manitoba, and U.S. Highway 50 from end to end - those trips were lots of fun, too, but they can't top Alaska). So, forgive me if I'm promoting our Alaska trip too much. It'll be a while before we do anything like this again.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Alaska Trip Days 16-18: Fort St. John, BC to Durham, NC

I've already talked about the drive back from Alaska in general; all that's left is to provide a few more pictures and random thoughts from the drive home. Next up...aww, screw it, let's just go the whole way!

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I'm combining the last three days of the drive home from Alaska into a single post because, well, I think this trip recap has gone long enough. I'll try to keep this short.

Alaska Trip Day 16 (Fri Jul 9): 938 miles; 14 hr 14 min

Fort St. John, BC looks like it's very far away from home on the map, but that's just because of the map projection. It's actually no further than Seattle.

It's going to be pretty much all prairies and flatland for a while. You sure can see the rain from far away out here. Maybe that's why I like the plains so much. It's the weather geek in me.

Quiz: where was this next picture taken?

There's only one possible place where this sign could exist. Notice that one side of the sign says "Alberta" while the other side says "Saskatchewan", implying that we're near (or, in this case, on) the provincial border. And where does Trans-Canada Highway 16 cross the Alberta/Saskatchewan border? Why, Lloydminster, of course!

Lloydminster is a single city with status in both Alberta and Saskatchewan. Is it one city, or two separate cities? From what I could tell, it's one city, and it's more associated with Alberta than Saskatchewan. That's based on two things: Lloydminster follows Alberta time (Mountain with Daylight Saving) rather than Saskatchewan time (Central without Daylight Saving), and the gas prices are more reflective of Alberta gas prices no matter which side of the border you're on in Lloydminster. I found that second part really intriguing. Let's talk about it some more!

Gasoline taxes in Alberta are 6.5 c/L lower than in Saskatchewan (source), yet, gas prices on both sides of the border in Lloydminster were about the same. Are the gas stations on the Saskatchewan side of the border in Lloydminster subject to Alberta provincial gas taxes? Must be; otherwise, why would anyone want to open a gas station on the Saskatchewan side? Maybe this helps explain why the Highway 16 Alberta welcome centre is actually located on the Saskatchewan side of the border. This town doesn't really know what province it's in. It's a "tweener". Sure, there is technically a "provincial border", but I don't think the locals really care. The two sides of the border seem to get along just fine. What provincial border?

This is up there with the Welcome to California sign along US-50 as one of the smallest state or province welcome signs ever. At least the California sign has graphics and color. Maybe they feel the border is barely even worth marking?

On the other hand, the case can be made that the border does actually matter here. In addition to the non-descript sign, there are some interesting-looking red poles erected along the border (visible in the background of the Highway 16 sign photo). The town's slogan is "Canada's Only Border City". And, the two sides of Lloydminster are in different area codes (306 in Saskatchewan, 587/780 in Alberta). The border does matter after all! I'm really surprised by the separate area codes. How can the two sides of the border can have the same time zone and the same gas taxes, but not the same area code?

The map geek in me finds the border town of Lloydminster absolutely fascinating. What an interesting town!

Moving on...

Yep. Looks like Saskatchewan.

Amber really likes the yellow.

I always like the lame slogans that some of these small towns come up with. Wynyard: "A town with a future."

Finding a gas station is more difficult in Canada than it is in the United States. When you're on an interstate highway, blue signs at each exit will point you to various gas stations. In Canada, though, there are no blue directional signs. Instead, all you get are signs that tell you if a particular town has a gas station. But where is it, exactly? Who knows? We had to take a rather interesting detour through suburban Saskatoon to find a gas station, but that's okay, because it was a nice part of Saskatoon.

Like many hotels in Canada and the Upper Midwest, our hotel in Yorkton, SK had a water slide. We felt obligated to ride it a few times, despite the fact that we got to the hotel less than 7 hours before our scheduled wake-up time the next morning. Weeee! Seriously, hotel water slides are very, very common up here. These aren't wimpy slides, either; they have twists and everything, and many are over 10 seconds long!

Alaska Trip Day 17 (Sat Jul 10): 997 miles; 14 hr 59 min

Good morning! This picture was taken in the early morning hours, just east of the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border. Literally, as soon as we crossed into Manitoba, the terrain became more interesting. Manitoba (which we visited in detail on our honeymoon) is more interesting than Saskatchewan, but I think I'd rather live in Saskatchewan, given the choice.

I thought this was just too funny. This is in the town of Gladstone, Manitoba. Get it? "Glad stone"? Hahahaha!

I'd like to have been there during the Gladstone town meeting when they came up with the idea for the "Happy Rock". That must have been a fun meeting. Amber thinks the Happy Rock is kind of creepy, but I love it. (This is also the last Mo the cow puppet picture of the trip.)

Skipping ahead to Minnesota:
- I-94 through downtown Minneapolis was closed, preventing me from "clinching" I-94 through the entire state. Darn.
- It seemed like the Minnesota Twins game was on like five different radio stations in the Twin Cities area.
- We stopped for gas at a "Kwik Trip" (not to be confused with "Kwik Fill"). Kwik Trip has its own brand of sports drink: "Kwikade"! We saved the bottle.

As for Wisconsin...oh, I don't know. It was getting dark.

Alaska Trip Day 18 (Sun Jul 11): 952 miles; 14 hr 15 min

The last day of any vacation is always the least fun, right? And there isn't really anything you can do about that, especially when you're driving. Sooner or later, you have to drive that two-hour stretch close to home that you've done a million times before and you absolutely loathe. I wouldn't say that I loathe the I-40/85 Durham to Greensboro drive; it's just gotten old. It'd be nice if they built a teleport from the Durham/Orange county line to, say, the Virginia border.

So, here's a brief summary of the last day:
- Illinois: We didn't take the most direct route through Illinois, mostly so I could visit more new counties along I-39 and I-88. And it doesn't really matter which expressway you take through Chicago; you're going to pay a toll sooner or later.
- Indiana: After driving through Minneapolis/St. Paul and the endless Chicago suburbs, Indianapolis seemed quite small. That's it?
- Ohio: Amber's parents drove down from Toledo that day to meet us for lunch in Dayton. Just like with us, a two hour drive for them is basically nothing.
- West Virginia: This was the first time I'd ever been in West Virginia so soon after being in the Rockies. West Virginia's mountains have never seemed so small. Still pretty, though.
- Virginia: Are we there yet?
- North Carolina: Home at last, at 10:45 PM that night. Good thing we didn't have to go back to work the next day. It's always good to have a day to catch up at home after a long trip without having to worry about work, so we planned for that extra day off.

So, there you go! One awesome trip to Alaska recapped in excruciating detail. I'm going to go take a nap.

Alaska Trip Day 15: Whitehorse to Fort St. John, BC

I've already talked about the drive back from Alaska in general; all that's left is to provide a few more pictures and random thoughts from the drive home. Next up...

Alaska Trip Day 15 (Thu Jul 8): 829 miles; 13 hr 46 min

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This was a full day of driving, so we wouldn't have much time for lollygagging. But that doesn't mean we didn't take a bunch of pictures along the way!

"Turn in 1330 km". I like my maps and my GPS, but you don't really a map to drive the Alaska Highway. Just keep going straight. (Except for that turn in Haines Junction, of course.)

We saw a coyote on our way out of Whitehorse, a picture of which is included in Amber's 4th album, which I'll provide a link to in tomorrow's be-all, end-all Alaska Trip summary post.

Sure, we got up really, really early (4:30 AM local time), but the sun was already up by the time we hit the road. Hooray for being north of 60°! I don't know what town this is, but it wasn't far from Whitehorse.

Most of these pictures, I have no idea exactly where they were taken. But this is the bridge over Nisutlin Bay (near Teslin), also pictured here from above.

I think I've been posting too many mountain and lake pictures and not enough plant pictures. So, here you go.

Most of the bears we saw on our trip were grizzlies, but here's a black bear. Amber thinks black bears are way cuter. I don't have a preference.

Now...a side story. Somewhere between Teslin and Watson Lake, we saw a small pickup pulled over on the side of the road, the driver waving us down as we passed. "Hey, we broke a fan belt...can one of us get a ride to the next town?" Let's say you were in my shoes. What do you do? What do?

Well, here's the thing. I would almost NEVER give a complete stranger a lift in my car. It's too risky. Besides, this is what AAA (or, in this case, CAA) is for, right? But here's why I made an exception. For one, we're in the middle of nowhere. Pretty much the only chance this guy has is if someone gives him a lift into town. There is no cell phone reception up here (at least not on our phones - maybe with another provider?), and even if you could call a tow truck, tow trucks up here are REALLY FREAKING EXPENSIVE. (I'm totally guessing here, but...myabe $1,000 for a 40 kilometre tow to Watson Lake?) If that were me on the side of the road, I'd be trying to wave someone down too. And up here, it could be two hours or more before the next car comes. Really, I wasn't all too worried that the stranded motorists on the side of the road were criminals in disguise. They didn't seem to fit the profile. (Maybe I'm too trusting of rural Canadians. He did have a really awesome Canadian accent, you know?)

So, anyway, we made room for one in the back seat and drove him to Watson Lake (40 km or so), where he knew some people who could get him a new fan belt and take him back to the broken down vehicle. It went completely without incident, and I don't think he stole anything out of our back seat, either.

What should you take from our experience? 1) If you're going to drive the Alaska Highway, make sure you bring a reliable car, so that you don't end up like this guy. 2) If you see a stranded motorist on the side of the Alaska Highway asking for help...well, for safety's sake, I don't know if I should completely advocate stopping. You never know. But if you're only going to help one stranded motorist in your life, northern Canada is the place to do it. I'm sure there are lots of places in the world where thieves take advantage of sucker tourists by posing as broken-down motorists. I just don't think the Yukon is one of them.

Back to the pictures...

This is where we stopped for lunch - Cranberry Rapids, near Fireside, BC.

More stone sheep. They like to hang out around here.

Muncho Lake, still my favorite part of the Alaska Highway. The drive wasn't as much fun coming back, though, because it seemed like they started about 5 new construction projects that week compared to what we encountered heading north. How do most construction projects start? By pouring gravel all over the road. My only guess is that this is how they repave for cheap up here: pour gravel everywhere, apply an oil or something to hold the gravel together, ground it down until it becomes relatively smooth, and ta-da - new pavement!

(Side comment: Is the Alaska Highway a "north/south" road, or an "east/west" road? Depends on where you are. In British Columbia, it's signed north/south; the Yukon signs it east/west; and in Alaska, it's north/south again.)

I really like this picture of the road next to Muncho Lake. Desktop background, anyone?

On the bright side, all of the newly begun construction allowed Amber to take lots of pictures.

Good to know the fine people of Fort Nelson have something to do in the winter.

Bye bye, mountains! Hello, straight road. The Fort Nelson to Dawson Creek stretch is mostly flat.

Now...we hit rain at some point pretty much every day heading north, so that kept the car fairly clean. Coming back south, however, we didn't see any rain at all between Day 11 (Anchorage to Denali) and Day 17 (Yorkton to Madison). That allowed the car to collect quite a collection of dead bugs:

I don't think I've ever gotten a car wash in my life - I'm always inside the car, so why should I care what it looks like from the outside? - but when we got home, I gave my car its first ever non-complimentary car wash. And it still didn't get rid of all the bugs. I think I'm going to have to scrub.

On that note, here's another Alaska Highway top tip: if you don't want your car to look like mine, get a car bra before you go.

Passing Through Customs

Amber and I love Canadian road trips. Unfortunately, going to Canada means passing through customs a couple of times, and that, I don't like.

Let's say you're a border patrol agent at the port of entry in Pembina, North Dakota (at the north end of I-29, along the main road between Winnipeg, Grand Forks and Fargo). 90% of the people passing through today are Canadians driving to Grand Forks or Fargo to go shopping. Then, someone with a North Carolina license plate drives up. "Where are you coming from?" "Alaska." You're probably going to take your time with these guys, aren't you?

Now...I understand that border patrol agents have a very important job, and they have to suspect everybody. Nobody wants to be the person that lets a soon-to-be-famous terrorist into the country. I get that. And, I'm more than willing to spend a few minutes at a customs station as part of the process to keep this country as safe as possible. But that doesn't mean I necessarily enjoy the process.

The problem we usually face with customs is that whether we're going to Nova Scotia in March, Manitoba in October, or Southwestern Ontario just for the heck of it, our trips are far from ordinary. They can't help but get suspicious. Wouldn't you? I mean, why would two people from North Carolina want go on a vacation in Manitoba of all places? And why in October?

Besides that, I don't think I'm very good at the customs game. It always feels like a test, and sometimes, I think even the right answer is the wrong answer. One of the first questions the agent asked me in Pembina was if I knew my license plate number. Being good with numbers and memorization, I gave it to her. Do most people know their license plate number off the top of their head? Is perfectly reciting my license plate number actually a tell, suggesting I came overprepared and might be trying to hide something? I don't think my perfect license plate memory is to blame, but the agent in Pembina definitely thought we were trying to hide something. She asked us lots of seemingly irrelevant questions ("How long have you lived in North Carolina?" - how is that relevant?) while searching the car for clues.

Now, you see...Mo the cow puppet is not the only stuffed animal we brought with us. We also had three other stuffed animals in the car. (Yeah, we like stuffed animals. So?) The border patrol agent took that as a clue that we had undocumented kids hiding in the trunk or something. How do I know? Because she said so. "Do you have any kids?" "No." "I see a lot of stuffed animals in the car. What is that about?" "Well...ummm..." Seems like I can never make it back into the United States without having to pop the trunk at customs.

But hey, at least we didn't have to pull off to the side like one person a few cars in front of us did, and a 20-minute wait at customs (most of which was spent in line) isn't that bad when you compare it to the wait at the busier Detroit and Buffalo crossings. And I'm sure crossing the US/Canada border is nothing compared to crossing the US/Mexico border. Actually, we've never really had a problem passing through customs. We've always had our documents, we've never been denied entry, and it's never taken more than a few minutes. So what am I complaining about, anyway?

Either way, we have a much easier time with the border patrol agents when Amber is driving, so I think I'll let her handle customs duty from now on.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Driving 4,300 Miles in Five Days

Only five days remaining on our Alaskan vacation. Yet, here we are still in Alaska, 4,300 miles away from home. Uh oh...better start driving!

Fortunately, I had it all planned out.

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When I was planning our "mad dash" home, I basically used the following criteria: 1) leave a little extra time after the first day in case we feel like doing anything in Whitehorse; 2) assume 16 hours or less of drive time (approximately) each day. With that, I developed a plan to get home from Fairbanks in five days. Sure, that looks good on paper, but we've never even done two 16-hour days in a row, let alone four at the end of a two week vacation. Could we handle it?

I actually had my doubts, and part of me thought we should have just taken an additional day and cut those four 16-hour days down to five 13-hour days, giving us more time to enjoy the drive. (Yes, for us, a 13-hour driving day is "taking it easy".) But I had already made all of the hotel reservations, so...let's give it a shot anyway! I was actually looking forward to the challenge. It would be an adventure, an accomplishment I would be proud of.

Well, we did it! We had to wake up super early (4:30 AM local time, usually) every day, in part because you lose four hours going from Alaska Time to Eastern Time. (That's actually something I failed to consider when I planned the trip. Whoops!) But actually, it was fairly easy. We usually made it to the hotel between 9 and 10 PM local time each night, got 6-7 hours of sleep, made up for lost sleep while our spouse drove, and switched driving duties pretty much every two hours. We have to stop every two hours due to Amber's blood clot history, but I think that's a good road trip rule regardless. Stopping every two hours - even if just for a couple of minutes - certainly cuts down on driving fatigue, and it makes the drive go by much more quickly.

To be perfectly honest, we didn't get tired of driving until we got to Virginia, three hours from home. That really shocked me. Since this will be our last long road trip for a while - potentially a long while - the idea was to wear us out to the point where we wouldn't want to do this sort of thing again for a long time. Well, from that standpoint, it didn't work! We've barely been back two weeks, and I'm already starting to feel the road trip bug again.

Anyway, there are two main keys to doing this kind of marathon road trip. You need at least two drivers, and you need drivers that really like to drive. I would never have attempted this much driving alone. I've done a 16-hour one-day drive by myself before, but over multiple days in a row, I think 10 hours each day would be all I could handle alone. For two young and enthusiastic (read: crazy) drivers such as Amber and me, 14 to 16 hours per day is reasonable.

What's the most challenging thing about driving to Alaska? It's not the drive itself. The hardest part is just finding someone to come with you. There aren't many people out there who would want to drive to Alaska just for fun. Maybe 1 out of every 50 people we told about our trip sounded the least bit interested in doing it themselves. But we are out there. And if that person just so happens to be of the opposite gender (or, if you're homosexual, the same gender) and has a lot in common with you besides just a penchant for driving, bonus! I think I really hit the jackpot there.

(Side note: Vacation compatibility is very important towards building a successful marriage. I've never been to, but I would hope that "What is your idea of a perfect vacation?" is one of the questions. No matter how much else two people have in common, if one person prefers backpacking in the mountains and the other person prefers drinking margaritas on the beach, it'll never work.)

If we had a third crazy driver, we might have actually done the Fairbanks to Durham trip non-stop. Which begs the long would that take? Well, I timed the entire drive back! Not just from beginning to end, but split into segments. You can see the details by clicking here. That spreadsheet includes lots of details, including our average speed in each segment and what the speed limits are along most of these roads (that's something I was curious about beforehand). Or, if you're just interested in the final numbers: 4,307 miles, 68 hr 38 min, 63 mph average. That doesn't include stops, so if we did the drive non-stop, you could theoretically drive from Durham, North Carolina to Fairbanks, Alaska in three days. Instead, we spent a few hours each night in a hotel did it in five.

So, there you go. If you like driving (a lot), have a reliable car, and come prepared, driving to Alaska and back is easy! Coming prepared mostly means acquiring a full size spare tire (which we didn't need in the end) and a copy of The Milepost. It also helps to plan ahead - way ahead - with regards to gas, food, and lodging stops. Not just on the Alaska Highway, but basically all of Canada.

Alaska Trip Day 14: Fairbanks to Whitehorse

I've already written a summary about the five-day, Fairbanks-to-Durham drive; that post immediately follows this one. ("Follow" in the temporal sense, not in the blog sense, meaning it'll physically appear above this post on the blog.) Beyond that, I'm just going to post a few pictures and other random thoughts from the drive home, complain about passing through U.S. Customs, and I'll be done recapping the Alaska trip.

Let's start with the first day of the long drive home...

Alaska Trip Day 14 (Wed Jul 7): 588 miles, 10 hr 39 min

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Today's drive was intentionally left "short" (by our standards) to give us time to do stuff in Whitehorse. I'll get to Whitehorse later. But first, we have to get back to the Alaska Highway.

Officially, the Alaska Highway ends not in Fairbanks, but at the Richardson Highway in Delta Junction. This is the commemorative 1,422nd milepost. Alaska actually does label its portion of the Alaska Highway with mile markers in the thousands, referencing the start of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek. This has to be the first time I've ever seen mile markers in the thousands. Yukon has kilometre posts also referencing Dawson Creek, and also in the thousands; British Columbia doesn't really have formal kilometre posts at all.

We skipped a couple of chunks of the Alaska Highway on our way up, but on the return trip, we'd finish the Alaska Highway in its entirety, albeit in reverse. How long did it take to drive the 1,365-mile* road from end-to-beginning (not including stops for food/gas/sleep)? 23 hours, 37 minutes, for an average speed of 58 mph. (At the time, I tweeted that the total Alaska Highway drive time was higher than that, but I mistakenly included the Fairbanks/Delta Junction segment in that calculation. 23:37 is the correct time. In real time, it probably took about 44 hours, including two overnight stops.) That's not to say you'll be able to average 58 mph on this road, though. It's highly dependent on construction, which appeared to just be starting up in earnest in early July.

(* - The Alaska Highway was originally 1,422 miles long, and that's the distance upon which historical mileposts - including the Delta Junction commemorative - are based. Over the last few decades, sections of the highway have been rebuilt and the total distance shortened. Google Maps says the road is now 1,365 miles long. Not all current documentation agrees with that number, but how should I know who's right and who's not?)

Fortunately, these fake mosquitoes would be the largest ones we'd see on our trip. I have to say, Alaska's mosquito infestation didn't really live up to the hype. Sure, there are places throughout Alaska where mosquitoes are a big problem. But most of the time, we were fine, including in Denali National Park.

Here are some more random pictures from the drive:

We tried really hard not to take the scenery for granted, even though we were basically just retracing our steps at this point, so we continued taking pictures and going "oooh" and "aaah" all the way to the end.

We took our vacation during the FIFA World Cup, so I was somewhat curious how much of a thing the World Cup is in Canada. Turns out, it's a really big deal! World Cup discussion was everywhere on Canadian radio, especially CBC Radio. CBC Radio broadcast many games live, including the Germany/Spain semifinal which we listened to while driving through the Yukon. That's surprising, considering that Canada has only played in one World Cup ever (1986), and hasn't even come close to qualifying the last few go-arounds. Apparently, the American attitude towards sports - "if we're not good at it, then why should we care?" - doesn't apply in Canada.

(Side comment: One of the Canadian commentators compared the scoreless first half of the GER/ESP match to the fictional Mexico/Portugal match from The Simpsons. "Halfback passes to the center. Back to the wing. Back to the center. Center holds it. Holds it. Holds it..." Have I mentioned I love Canada?)

Recall that on the way up, we stopped at Kluane National Park near Haines Junction, only to have it rain almost the whole day. Well, Day 14 was a much nicer day, weather wise. How about we give Kluane another go?

These pictures are from the Tachal Dahl area north of Haines Junction, which we didn't visit at all on the way up. Gee, I really wish we could have spent more time here...

What time we were going to spend in Whitehorse that evening, we spent in the Kluane area instead. So, we missed the touristy area of Whitehorse and only saw the somewhat sketchy "other side of town" where our hotel was located. Add Whitehorse to the list of places we didn't have enough time to fully experience. Such are the choices you have to make when you want to drive 9,800 miles in 18 days.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Alaska Trip Day 13: Fairbanks

Alaska Trip Day 13 (Tue Jul 6): 250 miles; 4 hr 41 min

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In retrospect, I don't think Fairbanks really got a fair shake on our trip. We were tired, we weren't all that prepared, and I don't feel like we really "experienced" all that Fairbanks has to offer. I'd like to give Fairbanks another shot. Let's go back!

Part of the reason we weren't all that prepared going into Fairbanks was because I wanted to leave the day open in case we needed to address car issues. So, really, our only plan for the day get an oil change. Exciting, hmm?

I was a little worried going into the oil change that being an out-of-towner from very far away, the mechanic would try to pressure us into getting additional work done. "You've got a really long drive ahead of you, so I strongly recommend you get a new (fill in the blank) first, just to be safe..." But we didn't get hassled at all. I guess they make enough money from oil changes alone ($60 for just the oil change - welcome to Alaska!), they don't need every third customer to get a transmission flush in order to make a profit. (Side note: I asked the mechanic if they get a lot of business from out-of-towners like us. His response? "Ohhh yeah.")

Okay, so we got the oil change out of the way, and it's not even noon. Now what? Well...there is this place called Chena Hot Springs about an hour away. If nothing else, it'll be a nice drive. And we can't check into our hotel yet, so why not?

Chena Hot Springs is a resort in the middle of nowhere, Alaska. As the name implies, they have hot springs, plus many other expensive things to do. But they do offer one free activity: a "Geothermal Renewable Energy tour". Sign me up!

I honestly thought that the tour could very well be nothing more than a walk around this here little room, and that's it. But they did actually show us the power plant, a binary cycle power plant that gets its hot water from the hot springs. It was interesting, even if we may have known more about this sort of thing than the tour guide himself. The guide admitted that he basically just learned about all of this by watching a short video before he took the job. I think he said he was a business major or something.

Correction - there are actually two things you can do for free at Chena Hot Springs resort. You can also feed the goats.

We didn't actually go swimming in the hot springs themselves. That would have been $10/person, and I think taking a Chena Hot Springs dip is more of a winter thing anyway. I've been told that Chena Hot Springs is an excellent place to go when it's 40 below. So, if you're ever in Fairbanks in January or February (God forbid), go to Chena Hot Springs.

The drive out there was nice, too. The road to Chena Hot Springs is in excellent shape, which I find very interesting, given that the resort is the only reason this road even exists. The road ends at the resort, and there is nothing else around for miles. I have to wonder whether the resort subsidizes the road maintenance costs. That would make good financial sense, because they won't get as many visitors if the road is rubbish.

Statistical note - my personal record for "the farthest north I've ever been" was set along Chena Hot Springs Road: 65°4'N. I'm thinking that mark will hold up for a while.

After that, it was back to Fairbanks, where we ended up doing...almost nothing. We tried, though. First, we raced against the clock to get to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks bookstore before it closed in order to buy some UAF apparel, but we were too late. ... Well, sort of. It was supposed to close at 5:00, we got there at 4:55, and the doors were already closed. Booo! I know I could just order a UAF shirt or hat online, but it's not the same. Shopping for souvenirs online feels like cheating.

There's also this tourist trap called "40 Below Fairbanks". Experience a temperature of 40 degrees below zero in the middle of summer! Warm clothes provided! As tempting as that sounds (yes, I'm serious - I think it would have been awesome), we didn't feel like it. We were tired. Instead, we went back to the hotel room and watched local news.

Speaking of which...first off, I think it's interesting that Fairbanks even has its own local news. The entire state of Utah gets its "local" news from Salt Lake City. So why does Fairbanks need its own newscasts? Why don't they just piggy-back off of Anchorage? Do Anchorage and Fairbanks not like each other or something?

In any event, the Fairbanks DMA is one of the smallest DMAs in the country (population-wise - it might be the largest in the country size-wise), and is certainly the smallest one for which I've ever seen the local news. I had high expectations for the quality (or lack thereof) of the Fairbanks local news, and those expectations were met. It was pretty sweet. I feel bad for the four, maybe five people who work there. It actually wouldn't surprise me if the sports guy works the camera during the weather report, and vice versa.

I also watched a show on the local PBS station ("Alaska One") called "Alaska Weather". Now that was awesome. A 30 minute telecast completely devoted to Alaska Weather, including marine and aviation forecasts (which are very important up here)! Yeah! But besides satisfying my inner weather geek, watching the weather report is also a great way to learn how to pronounce local place names. For example, Nenana is "ne-NAN-na", but Tanana is "TAN-na-na".

Finally, after that, we met one of Amber's high school friends (Mike) for dinner. Mike is living in Fairbanks for only the summer. Now that's how you do it!

Fairbanks looks like a great place to be this time of year. I wasn't sure if it would be a nice small-to-medium sized town or the Alaskan equivalent of Thompson, Manitoba (trash everywhere, homeless people wandering the streets, run down buildings, absolutely nobody out enjoying the nice weather), but Thompson, it was not. We didn't actually do much there, other than drive around town a lot and walk around downtown a little. (By the way, any downtown area with ample free non-parallel parking gets my instant seal of approval.) But still, Fairbanks is alright in my book.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Alaska Trip Day 12: Denali National Park

Denali National Park. Home of the highest point in North America (Mount McKinley, a.k.a. Denali) and oodles of Alaskan wildlife, a visit to Denali is the easiest way to sample the vast Alaskan wilderness. In my opinion, this was the main event of our Alaska trip.

Before I get to the pictures, here's a little background on how a visit to Denali works. There is only one road into the park, and private vehicles are not permitted on most of it. So, the best way to visit the park is by taking a bus, either a cheaper shuttle bus (which let you load or unload at any time) or more expensive tour buses (which are more structured and offer more narration along the way). We took a shuttle bus about 3/4 of the way into the park to the Eielson Visitor Center, an eight-hour round trip.

But if you don't feel like a long bus ride, you still can go to the main visitor center and do a short hike around there. That's what we did with our "bonus Denali time" the day before:

Ooo, look, wildlife!

Now, the bus ride. There are a few scheduled stops along the way, but mostly, it's sit and HOLY CRAP THERE'S A BEAR IN THE DISTANCE STOP THE BUS STOP THE BUS!!!

I think wildlife is the main attraction for most Denali visitors, so any time we saw a bear, caribou, sheep, or anything like that, a bunch of people on the bus would just go NUTS. We like wildlife too - Amber especially - but there's no need to get our panties in our wad every time we see a speck in the distance that may or may not be an animal. Just our opinion.

Part of the reason some people on the bus insisted we stop every time we saw an animal off in the distance, even if it couldn't be seen with the naked eye, is because lots of people brought big fancy cameras with them. Which is silly, because there were plenty of bear and caribou close to the road, so why settle for specks? But moose, on the other hand...well, I'll save that for later.

This is called a "braided river". Sure, there are braided rivers all over Alaska, but this one is inside a National Park, so it's special.

I'm glad I didn't have to drive this road myself.

Hey, look, it's Mount McKinley/Denali! For real this time! Here's a closer view:

The summit on the left is McKinley/Denali's South Peak; that's the tall one (20,320 feet). The summit on the right is the North Peak, with an elevation of "only" 19,470 feet. These pictures were taken from about 30 miles away, which was as close as we got, geographically.

According to a local, only one out of every five visitors to the park actually get to see the top of Mount McKinley/Denali during their visit. The rest of the time, the mountain is covered by clouds. So while THERE'S A BEAR STOP THE BUS wasn't always necessary in my opinion, THERE'S THE MOUNTAIN STOP THE BUS was absolutely necessary. Because a few minutes after those pictures were taken...

...McKinley/Denali was gone, not to be seen again the rest of the day. Poof!

But that's okay, because there are still plenty of nice views to be had. The following pictures are from a hike up a mountain near the Eielson Visitor Center:

This would be Mo the cow puppet with McKinley/Denali in the background, except for the clouds, of course. The moments of McKinley/Denali visibility were so frantic, getting Mo in the earlier pictures wasn't really a priority.

Alright, so...we've seen the highest point in North America. Now I want to see some moose, darn it! Our moose quest came up empty on the way out. But on the way back...


That's actually an extreme close-up. Here's the same picture, zoomed out:

This would be the closest we'd get to a moose. We never did get that classic "moose crossing the road" or "moose eating grass next to the parking lot" moment during our trip, but hey - better than nothing, right?

Here's another moose we saw (or, I should say, other people saw and pointed out to us) from a distance.

While there were only a couple of visible moose, we saw lots of caribou. Or reindeer. Or something. I'm not an expert.

Antlers are big.

Again, I'm not a wildlife expert...but I think this is some kind of bird. (UPDATE: This is a Willow Ptarmigan, the state bird of Alaska.)

Amber thinks that squirrel sex is "the cutest thing ever". But while these two Arctic ground squirrels never made love (at least not in front of us), they're still pretty darn cute.

This is the "no private vehicles past this point" point, the Savage River. We got off the bus here, walked around a bit, and then took the next outbound shuttle back to the main parking lot. More pictures from the Savage River hike:

A while back, I posted two sets of National Park rankings: parks I've visited, and parks I haven't visited but want to. The park I hadn't been to but wanted to visit the most? Denali. Did Denali National Park live up to expectations? Yes. It comes in 11th on my "favorite National Parks" list, between Grand Canyon (10th) and Sequoia (12th). That may not sound like a very high ranking at first, but given how competitive this list is (and how much I love southern Utah), that's pretty good. By the way, I'm placing Kenai Fjords between Badlands and Redwood, which makes it my 23rd favorite National Park out of the 30 I've visited. Did I mention this list was competitive?

One more thing, for those of you who are wondering how I've managed to visit 30 National Parks in my lifetime. My parents also went on vacation this summer, and in just two weeks they went to seven National Parks: Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains (maybe?), Carlsbad Caverns, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Rocky Mountain. That means they've now visited 37 of the 58 National Parks, at least (the same 30 as me, plus those 7, plus Grand Teton, minus Kenai Fjords). Looks like I've got some catching up to do! In the meantime, I'll just live vicariously through their vacation photos.

Well, anyway, here's the bottom line. Your Alaska vacation is not complete without a visit to Denali National Park.