Monday, June 30, 2008

Alaskan Idyll, Day 12 Skagway to Destruction Bay

This morning we said goodbye to our wonderful waterfront windshield view in Skagway, Alaska, and drove 270 miles to Destruction Bay, YT. The first hundred miles back-tracked north on the Klondike Highway, climbing up over White Pass, back through Carcross, and rejoining the Alcan just east of Whitehorse.

We Say an Early Morning Goodbye to Our Beautiful Campsite In Skagway

Climbing the grade, the road crosses an unusual cable-stayed bridge. Instead of being stayed from a vertical pylon, with the cables distributed symmetrically to both sides of the deck as usual, the pylon on this bridge is slanted, with one end of each cable anchored in the rock, and the other end supporting the deck. As can be seen by the photo of a large truck crossing the bridge, this unusual design seems to work effectively.

An Unusual Cable Stayed Bridge

Between the summit and Carcross, we spotted a bear and a wild animal, which we can’t identify. The bear was in just about the same location where we saw a bear on the southbound trip, and we think it was probably the same animal. We don’t know what breed the cat is; can anybody help us here?

Wildlife Spotted Near Carcross

Carcross, Yukon Territory

Past Carcross there is a bakery where we stopped in a tour bus three years ago. Our guide kept telling us how good the pies were at this bakery. When we arrived, we learned that, without asking us, the guide had called ahead and told the baker that he had a busload who wanted pies. The baker and his wife worked very hard to bake 20 pies before we arrived. At $20 each, very few of us bought the pies. The baker was very angry when we left.

Near this bakery, there is a footbridge suspended over a deep, narrow canyon. As you may have figured out by now, Keith is fascinated with bridges, and wanted a picture. There really is no good place to photograph this bridge from the road, but some enterprising soul has built a small visitors center on the edge of the canyon, where the bridge may be photographed. Kathy was kind enough to climb out of the coach and walk over to take the photograph, but discovered the there was an admission charge, of $17.50. Senior rate. And that’s why there is no picture of that bridge in this blog, folks.

We are wondering if the bakery and the bridge business are operated by the same dude?

One of the interesting aspects of travel in this remote country is the high turnover of service businesses along the road. That’s why we try to travel on the top half of our gas tank, unless our destination is a large town where we feel confident we can fill up. As an example, three years ago there was a thriving filling station, convenience store, and souvenir complex at the junction of the Klondike and Alaska Highways. Today it looks like this:

A Once Thriving Business Enterprise

Another interesting aspect of the Alcan is the multiple generations of roadways which can sometimes be observed long the way. When originally constructed in 1942, under imminent threat of invasion by the Japanese, the “pioneer road” was little more than a unpaved, narrow wagon track, bulldozed in the most expeditious manner straight through and over all hills and obstacles. One section of this pioneer road, south of Ft. Nelson, was so steep that it acquired the name “Suicide Hill”.

The plan was to utilize this original track as an access road for construction of an improved highway with less steep grades, more generous curves, and a wider right-of-way. It turned out that the Japanese did invade, but only in the Aleutian Islands at Dutch Harbor. As the threat of mainland invasion receded in 1943 and 1944, plans for the improved highway were shelved, and only the most dangerous sections, such as Suicide Hill, were re-routed during the war.

In 1946 the Canadian Government reluctantly took possession of the highway from the U.S. Army, and embarked on a slow but steady improvement campaign which continues to this day. Except for the perpetual frost heaves, much of the latest generation Alcan is similar to a US interstate highway, in terms of grade, curves, lane width & shoulders, etc. The big difference is two lanes instead of four, with opposing traffic. Shown below is a typical view of the modern road.

The Modern Alaska Highway

We recently had a note from a nice lady who grew up in Alaska, and traveled the dirt and gravel road 5 times in the 1970’s. Keith has a friend who made this trip in the same time period, pulling a pop-up trailer. By the time he reached Alaska, the trailer was so beat up that he had to abandon it. In that era, travel to Alaska by road was a true adventure. Today it’s really a piece of cake, except for the frost heaves, and the construction zones, both of which are handled by slowing down.

Traveling the modern Alcan, there are occasional glimpses of the earlier generation road, sometimes still paved, and sometimes abandoned and overgrown to the point where it is barely distinguishable. Shown below is a photo of two generations of road side by side. The older paved road is on the left, and the new road is on the right. We believe we recall driving the older road southbound in 2005, while the new road was under construction.

The Old (left) and the New (right), Side by Side

Branching off to the south is a gravel road, shown in the next photo. We are not sure whether this is an even earlier generation of the Alcan, or a side road. It clearly is still in use, but the fact that the old growth is cleared well back from the road, together with the well developed second growth nearer the road, suggests that this right of way is fairly old.

An Older Generation Alcan, or a Side Road?

Another example of the old alignment is shown in the following picture. We apologize for the poor quality of this photo, which looks more like a picture of a wet windshield than a landscape. The swath which we think is the old roadway is just behind the antenna. To the left, out of view, the hillside descends steeply to a lake. The hillside has been cut away to allow the new road to clear the lake. We believe the original builders simply bulldozed up this steep hill to get by the lake.
Putative Pioneer Right-of-Way (New Growth, Behind Antenna)

Further north, at the southern end of Kluane Lake, there is a short section of very narrow, winding road, which currently is being upgraded. The following photo shows the old road to the right, with a newer alignment under construction on the left.

A Junction of the Old (right) with the New (left)

Is there a highway archeologist hidden (very deeply) in Keith’s soul?

Past the construction zone is a Yukon Provincial Park named Sheep Mountain. On our last trip, we saw sheep on the mountain. This trip, they had all gone to Hawaii on vacation, or something. While Keith was waiting for Kathy to hunt sheep, he decided to clean up the potato chips from the floor around the pilot’s seat. He tossed them out the window, and soon there was a large black Crow eating them. He hung around until we left, looking for another handout. As Kathy approached the coach, she thought Keith was conversing with the Crow! In the meantime, she photographed some pretty wildflowers in lieu of sheep.

Conversation With a Crow

Pretty Wildflowers at Sheep Mountain

We arrived at Destruction Bay Campground mid-afternoon, tired but happy to find WiFi, which allowed us to post the Juneau Blog. At 5:30 we met in the restaurant for a short lecture about the area, then a very good barbeque beef dinner. We learned that the town is an old Army construction camp, and is named Destruction Bay because of the destruction caused to the camp by a very high wind (clocked at 100mph). The owner said he has experienced wind this strong a couple of times since he has owned the place.

On our way out of the coach to go to supper, our step broke. After supper Keith spent a couple of hours making a temporary repair. During this time, the wind was constant and annoying. Guess the name is appropriate.

Tomorrow we motor north to Tok, Alaska, crossing the border once again, from Canada to the U.S. Don’t miss our next exciting episode!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Alaskan Idyll, Days 10-11 Fjord Express to Juneau

We continue to be parked on the waterfront in Skagway. We spent yesterday (Day 10) lazing about the coach, doing minor chores, surfing the net, and just relaxing in the glow of our wonderful view. Kathy commented that we haven’t even turned on the TV. Keith’s rejoinder was who needs TV with this view! Our TV for this stop is the windshield.

Sunday’s excitement was a 60-mile catamaran ride from Skagway to Juneau, which is the capitol of Alaska. The trip down the Taiya Inlet and the Lynn Canal to Haines is breathtaking. And then it gets better! The Lynn Canal is really a deep glacial fjord, with steep forested cliffs towering thousands of feet above the deep blue -gray water. Along the way we spotted a pair of eagles nesting in the trees.
Departing Skagway
Love Nest

A bit further along is the town of Haines, Alaska, nestled at the base of the Chilkat pass. It is Keith’s opinion that Haines is the most picturesque town in Alaska. We stopped briefly in Haines to pick up passengers. There Keith experienced a bit of nostalga when he spotted a Uniflite 28 ft. Mega, just like the one he used to own.
Uniflite Mega 28 foot Flybridge Sedan
Departing Haines

After leaving in Haines, we proceeded south on the Inside Passage toward Juno. Along the way we spotted another eagle, whales, porpoise, and a colony of sea lions. The porpoise were difficult to photograph underwater.
Dual Use Navigation Marker
A Friendly Whale Waves to the WIT Group
Sea Lions Observe WIT Tourists
Puppy Love

South of Haines the water broadened as we left the Lynn Canal and entered the inside passage. To the east are the towering Coastal Range mountains. To the west are the Chilkat Mountains, which form the eastern side of Glacier Bay where we cruised last spring with Holland American. Further south, the Icy Strait branches westward to Glacier Bay and the Gulf of Alaska. We proceeded south, and docked north of Juneau, where we were met by a tour bus.
Chilcat Mountains
Hanging Glacier Seen in the Chilcats

Our first stop in Juneau was lunch at Doc Whathisname’s. Good burger and fish, but a bit pricey. Guess pricey goes with the tourist territory. After lunch was a short walk to the bakery for bread and bagels, then McDonald’s for hot fudge sundaes. Normally $1.00 in the lower 48, on special for $1.50 in Juneau. After a quick stop at the drug store for Aleve (Keith has a backache), we walked back to Marine Square to sit and admire the Amsterdam. A year ago in the spring we visited Juneau on this vessel. We are looking forward to our North Atlantic Cruise next summer on her sister ship, the Maasdam.
A Few of Our WIT Friends Gather In the Lee of the Amsterdam

At 3pm we re-boarded the bus for a photo-op at Mendenhall Glacier.
Mendenhall Glacier
At 5pm we re-boarded our catamaran for the return to Skagway. On the return journey we observed numerous boats fishing for salmon. The season opened at noon today, and the activity was frantic. The boats drag nets perpendicular to the current. Salmon become entangled and are retrieved for sale to process boats.
Fishing Boats Dot the Horizon
Retrieving the Catch

Along the way, our owner-operator pointed out a 4000+ ft. peak in the Chilcats that was rounded by glaciers, which covered its summit during the last ice age. We also cruised close aboard the scenic Eldritch Lighthouse. This island is for sale, with the stipulation that the buyer must promise to maintain the lighthouse. We also passed close by a Carnival Cruise Boat sailing south out of Skagway. Our captain commented that Skagway is a very popular port for the Cruise boats because of the high commissions from the very popular train ride.
Four Thousand Foot Peak Rounded by the Glaciers
Eldritch Lighthouse
Carnival Cruises South out of Skagway

On arrival in Juneau at 8:30 we crashed, hoping to get enough sleep to be prepared for a 300-mile drive to Destruction Bay on Monday. Don't touch that dial!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Alaskan Idyll, Day 9 – Skagway Train Ride

Today’s touring activity was a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad (WP&YR), round trip from Skagway to the White Pass summit.

White Pass & Yukon Railroad Locomotives

Made famous by the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, Skagway is today a tourist and cruise boat Mecca, where opportunities for retail therapy abound. Gateway to the Yukon gold rush territory near Dawson City, Skagway grew from one cabin to a population of 20,000 in the winter of 1897-1898. During this winter, thousands of hopeful prospectors hauled a minimum of 1000 pounds of supplies each over the 3000 foot Chilkoot Pass, ascending a 35% grade near the summit using steps carved in the ice. By February, 1899, 35,000 laborers had carved a narrow gauge railway from bare rock over the White Pass. This railroad was extended to Whitehorse by Summer 1900. From Whitehorse north to Dawson City, the primary transportation mode was by steamboat on the Yukon River. The WP&YR hauled ore and concentrates to boats in Skagway for most of the twentieth century. During WWII, the WP&YR was the chief supplier for the US Army’s construction of the Alaska Highway. The WP&YR suspended freight operations in 1982 when world metal prices plummeted, then resumed operations as a narrow gauge excursion railroad in 1988. The WP&YR was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1994. Fueled by the cruise boat trade, the WP&YR excursion has grown to a first class attraction.

The WP&YR excursion begins at the downtown railroad station and gift shop. The train passes through the back side of town, then commences the arduous climb up the mountain. Along the way are views of several bridges and trestles, two tunnels, a brief glimpse of the 1898 “Trail of Tears”, and numerous breathtaking mountain views. There is a large horseshoe bend where with excellent views of the track on the opposite side of the canyon. At the summit, the train pauses while the three locomotives are switched from one end of the train to the other for the descent. The AAA tour book rates this ride a “Gem”, and for good reason.

The WP&YR Train Crosses the East Branch of the Skagway River

East Branch of the Skagway River, near Skagway

Another Train Climbs the Horseshoe Curve

World’s Tallest Cantilever Bridge, When Abandoned in 1969

A Beautiful Mountain Stream

Skagway From the Train

A Bird’s Eye View of the Klondike Highway

1898 Trail of Tears

Lakeside at the White Pass Summit

Glacial Scoured Rock at the Summit

Conductor Checks the Brakes for our Descent

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Alaskan Idyll, Day 8 – Klondike Highway

Today’s drive was short, but filled with scenic beauty. We departed Whitehorse at 9am, an hour later than the usual Caravan callout, which was a blessing after the late evening return from the Frantic Follies. We back-tracked about 6 miles south on the Alcan, then turned south on the Klondike Highway, headed for Skagway, AK. This road winds upward to the White Pass, then descends steeply down to Skagway, at the tip of the Lynn Canal.
Rolling South on the Klondike Highway

Along the way the road passes Emerald Lake, named for it’s turquoise blue waters.
Emrald Lake

Past Emerald Lake is the micro-town of Carcross, YT, site of a pleasant vsitors center and gift shop, where muffins and ice cream are available. Carcross was a stop on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, which was cut through White Pass during the 1898 gold rush. Also on display in Carcross is an antique steam engine from the gold rush days.
Carcross Visitors Center
Carcross Antique

Driving south toward the pass the road travels along Tutshi Lake for several miles. Abandoned mine buildings are seen along this stretch of highway.
Lake Tutshi
Abandonded Mine Facilties on Lake Tutshi

Also seen along this stretch, much to the pleasure of Kathy, was a black bear. Gallant Keith unwisely exited the vehicle to photograph this bear for Kathy. He got away with it, but he would not have done it for a Grisly, which is a much more temperamental species than the Black.
Bruin Meets Keith, Up Close and Personal

Terrain at the Summit of White Pass is very sere and forbidding, with little vegetation and much evidence of glacial scarring. Substantial snow remains on the adjoining peaks, even in late June. When crossed in mid May, 1998, this area was solid white.
Glacial Scarred Rock in the White Pass

The international Border is at the Pass, after which the highway descends steeply, loosing 3292 feet elevation in 15 miles. For reasons which we do not understand, US customs and immigration is located about halfway down the grade, instead of at the border. We are not sure what happens if they refuse to let you in; there is not much room to turn around at the customs station. If there is a problem, maybe you park your rig and get a free ride in a police car the rest of the way.
International Border
Descending Toward Skagway

Near the bottom of the grade is a view of Skagway, complete with it’s quota of Cruise ships. There were 4 boats in port the afternoon we arrived; two Princess boats, one Norwegian, and one Holland American. Our campground in Skagway is on the harbor, just a short walk from downtown. We can see the harbor and the boats from our windshield. It don't get no better than this!
Skagway Harbor Viewed from the Klondike Highway
Princess Dominates the Skagway Harbor

Tomorrow we ride back up to the White Pass on the White Pass & Yukon RR, which operates a tourist train on the old right of way. Don’t miss it!