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Report 13: Seward AK to Prince George BC

Route

From Seward AK we drove north on AK-9, retracing our path; then we turned south-westward on AK-1 to its terminus at Homer AK. From Homer we drove north, retraced our path along AK-1, this time taking a side trip on the Kenai Spur to Kenai AK and back, before continuing on to Palmer AK, just north of Anchorage. Near Palmer we turned onto AK-3 which runs to Fairbanks AK, through Denali. From Fairbanks we headed to Skagway AK via Whitehorse and Haines Junction using AK-2, YK-1 and YK/BC-2. From Skagway we retraced our path north, then turned south-east on the Alaska Highway to Watson Lake YK. At Watson Lake we turned south onto the Stewart-Cassiar Highway to Stewart BC. From Stewart we drove back north, turning west onto the Yellowhead highway, BC-16, which we followed into Prince George. This was the end of our Yukon & Alaska caravan.

Highlights

The drive to Homer was very scenic, as it follows the water both going north and south. The mountains were gorgeous in the sunny weather that we experienced most of the way. There was one heart-attack moment, though; we nearly hit a big moose. She came out of the ditch about 200 feet in front of us; we hit our brakes and she hit hers. Then, she ran across the highway behind us, narrowly missing a semi. The semi driver must still be washing out his shorts.

Homer AK (www.akms.com) has been described as a drinking village with a fishing problem; that would be about right. There is both a huge tourist industry, with numerous bars, and there's a fishery, both commercial and charter. The most notable feature is the Homer Spit (akms.com/spit.html), a 4.5 mile long piece of land jutting out into Kachemak Bay. Home to numerous drinking spots, gift shops, RV parks and fishing charter companies. Highway AK-1 ends at the end of the spit.

Kenai AK was a delight, as our timing was perfect to see the peak of the red salmon (sockeye) run and the Alaskan residents catching them with 'dip nets' (URLhere). These are large nets, sort of like landing nets, on the end of very long T-handled poles. Fishermen stand in the waves in chest waders and rain gear with the net pushed out in front of them as far as it will go, held vertically in the water. When a salmon swims into the net they pull the net ashore with the pole. The limit is 25 per family head plus 10 each per family member, and some were catching their limit in only a few hours. Because the best fishing is in rip currents, sometimes the current is so strong that they have to walk through the water keeping up with the drift of the net. If this sounds a bit pedestrian, think of it with hundreds of people closely-spaced along the shore all doing the same thing. Whole families are involved...dad and son catch the fish, sister clubs them, mum cleans them, while watching the kids cavort on the beach with the dogs. Farther up the beach there are scores of tents, where they spend the night. It's quite a sight, and all present seemed to be having a good time...well most did. One squeamish, young lady clubbed the fish awkwardly said 'sorry', then repeated the act a few times. Fortunately for the poor fish, one of her brothers came along and put it out of its misery.

At Palmer AK the caravan organizers decided to make 'stone soup'. For the uninitiated, this is a pot-luck creation where everyone brings a soup ingredient, which is added to the communal pot (URLofstory). Unfortunately, the organizer erred somewhat in her description of stone soup, leading everyone to believe that it was made from only beans. Every person brought a can of beans, to which was added a few onions and some bits of ham. While it was a tasty creation, the resulting flatulence was rather extreme. It reminded us of that Blazing Saddles scene with the cowboys sitting around the camp-fire after having consumed copious amounts of beans. Somebody should have added a box of Beano to the soup!

Denali (URLhere) was a good stop. The highlight was a bus trip deep into the park (private vehicles are not allowed beyond the farthest campground) where we were lucky to see Denali (Mt. McKinley) several times; at one stop we saw it from base to summit. Only about 20% of visitors ever see any part of the massif, as it is so big that it generates its own weather and is usually shrouded in clouds. On that trip we also scored a grand slam of critters, seeing grizzly bears, moose, caribou, a pack of wolves, a merlin falcon, golden eagles, a marmot, snow shoe hares and Arctic ground squirrels. We also toured Jeff King's (4-time Iditarod winner) 'husky homestead' (URLhere), where he trains his sled dogs. We held pups and saw demonstrations of the care and training regime. Winning the Iditarod (URLhere) is not for the feint of heart, or the poor; we were told that just to enter you need to spend about $20k and the winners often spend up to twice that. One evening we went to The Cabin Nite Dinner Theatre (URLhere), where good food was served family style in the manner of an old roadhouse. The production. which was a humorous account of the early history of the area, was well done. It seems nearly every major centre in Alaska has such an establishment.

Fairbanks, our longest stop was replete with tourist activities. The Salmon Bake at the Pioneer Park (URLhere) was good. The wood smoked salmon was good and the prime rib was excellent; the rest was cafeteria grade. We spent most of the day at the park, wandering around the village eating, shopping, looking at artefacts and taking in a show. Another day was spent aboard the stern wheeler Discovery III, which took us down the river, stopping at a native village. The staff on board and those at the village were expertly rehearsed, and included natives from all over Alaska. Another great day was spent visiting the El Dorado gold mine (URLhere), where we were taught how to pan for gold. Here too, the information was expertly presented and very entertaining. On the down-side, the Fairbanks campground had a drainage problem, which revealed itself only after we had fully set up. Hail and a heavy rain turned our lot into a pond, forcing us to wade out to catch our tour bus, carrying a change of shoes and socks. Of course, Murphy's luck, the deepest water was right at our doorway. The situation was not without levity...a mother duck and her chicks were swimming around our RV!

The first half of the drive from Fairbanks to Skagway, up to Destruction Bay, was a killer. The road is covered with huge frost heaves, some running across the road and some along it. It was a tiring piece of driving, as we'd no sooner get up to speed only to have to brake. We had to take some of them at less than 25 mph, but we misjudged a few. One big heave tossed us both up and sideways hurtling one of our laptops off the desk and onto the floor; luckily it still works. Another bucked the front then the rear with such force that all of our clothing jumped off the rod in the closet, jamming the sliding doors shut. To make matters worse, it rained frequently; so, by the time we got to Skagway the toad was covered in thick mud. The second half, from Destruction Bay was much better, and more scenic, with emerald lakes at the base of mountains. The drive into Skagway was interesting for two reasons. First, the land on our side of the Skagway river is lush and green, while on the other side, it almost looks like a moonscape, with huge broken boulders and only stunted vegetation. Second, as we approached the summit into Skagway, we ran into thick fog, which stayed with us nearly into town. This is a hilly and twisty road, a bit dangerous at the best of times. The effect as we rounded corners was surreal, sometimes catching a glimpse of a huge drop-off or an equally huge rock face looming before us.

Skagway is alternately a tourist trap, a tourist town and a ghost town. When the cruise ships are in port you can't move for people, especially if there are two of them in port; the rest of the time it is a near ghost town. For those into old buildings, they have some nicely restored ones down town, but the contents are ghastly. It is one T-shirt shop after another, interspersed with dozens of jewellers, gift shops, bars and a few restaurants. However, Skagway is the southern terminus for the White Pass train (www.wpyr.com). This narrow gauge rail trip runs through the historic White Pass to Fraser BC. The narrative is expertly done and the vintage rolling stock is beautifully restored, albeit with modern updates to the heaters and toilets. Along the way we caught glimpses of the trail of '98, along which the Klondike miners hauled themselves and a ton of supplies. Skagway also has a nice little small boat harbour and some good hiking trails.

From Skagway we took the Fjord Express (URLhere) catamaran to Juneau AK and back. The skipper of the boat provides a continuous and informative narrative, and he stops to view critters, such as bald eagles, seals, whales and sea lions. Juneau is Skagway on steroids, with the same sorts of shops and bars, this time with some government offices, as Juneau is the state capital. What makes it unique, or nearly so, is that unlike most other towns in the area, it has never been razed by fire. So, most buildings sit right where they were built, and they are generally well preserved or restored.

The Stewart-Cassiar Highway (URLhere) is very scenic, with beautiful lakes and rivers set against a background of mountains. The road is another story, especially the northern half. Whoever decided to classify it as a highway was an optimist. Most of the northern half is so narrow that it has no shoulders or even a painted centre line. The southern half is better, and looks like it has been rebuilt over the past few years, with proper asphalt and painted lines.

Stewart is a sad little, used-up town that once had hopes of being a major port. While there is a port, the essential cruise ships are nowhere in evidence. There are some attractions though, as it is near the Salmon River, where bears can be seen feasting at spawning season. It is also close to the Salmon Glacier, one of the most accessible and largest glaciers in North America. The town has tried, as there are little museums and eateries, which, alas, were mostly closed when we visited. Across the border, Hyder AK, which is only accessible by road from Stewart, is even more dilapidated, with no paved streets and ramshackle buildings. One of them houses a nice restaurant, which some of our group reports is much better than the exterior suggests. The only other going concerns are the bars.

We did not spend much time in Smithers, as it was only an overnight stop. But we did have a fine meal in the Hudson Bay Lodge hotel. We had the baked salmon and others had steak, chicken and pork, all cooked to perfection and artistically presented.

Molly

One day Molly discovered clams. She quickly learned how to break the shells and extract the meat, albeit along with some shell. She ate her fill. Somewhat later, she discovered that clams don't agree with her delicate digestive system.

For sure, Molly knows what bears are, and she does not like them. Early one morning a bear came into the RV park to raid the garbage cans. Molly, who rarely barks, let loose her most ferocious growl, then barked and did not let up for a while. Later that morning she did not want to go outside for her morning ritual. We did not know what was going on until we saw the garbage strewn all over the place. Good dog!