To the lover of pure wildness Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. No excursion that I know of may be made into any other American wilderness where so marvelous and abundance of noble, newborn scenery is so charmingly brought to view...
John Muir, Travels in Alaska
Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams
On August 8, The Gadfly and spouse returned from a month-long, ten-thousand mile (16,000 km) tour of western Canada and Alaska. We promise to spare you the usual schoolboy essay, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." Indeed, a detailed account of our experiences and impressions would add up to a small book, and none of us wish to expend the time either to write or read such an account. However, we feel that a few impressions are worth sharing with our readers.
The following are first impressions from brief encounters with this vast landscape, during the most agreeable season of the year – a time of mild temperatures and, at the most northern regions, of eighteen hours of sunlight followed by six hours of dusk (thus, sadly, depriving us of the experience of another northern wonder, the aurora borealis). No doubt, we would feel quite differently about the region, if we lived there during the long winters of prolonged sub-zero temperatures and six-hours of daylight.
This was a trip that we wanted to take ever since our undergraduate days: a drive through western Canada to Alaska and back. Year after year, for a myriad of reasons, we couldn’t quite bring it off. Prominent among these reasons were summer jobs, the inability to afford a vehicle capable of the journey, and more recently competing opportunities and invitations to travel to Europe and Russia.
The reputation of the journey was also a deterrent. A drive to Alaska conjured up visions of primitive roads, with widely-spaced service facilities. And in fact, such was the case, years ago when we first contemplated the trip. Contemporary guidebooks are scarcely more encouraging, as they advise heavy-duty 4-wheel vehicles, buffered protection for headlights and windshields, along with extra spare tires and auxiliary gas tanks.
As it turned out, this precautionary advice was overstated. While this is no task for a worn-out jalopy, a sturdy pick-up truck or even a well-maintained passenger car is quite up to the job. We did not pack an extra spare tire, and luckily had not need to use the one we had. We brought along an auxiliary gas can, but never saw the need to fill it. We were warned that a damaged windshield was a near certainty, but returned with windshield intact.
In fact, except for frequent stretches of road repair, we could have remained entirely on paved roads. The three-hundred miles of gravel road (the Cassiar Highway in British Columbia, and the Taylor Road in Alaska) were chosen voluntarily, and both were well-worth the bumps and grinds. The road repair work, though mildly annoying, was entirely understandable, given the severe winter conditions on the roads and the brief season available for road work.
Our vehicle was a new Toyota Tundra pickup truck, which we purchased in March to replace a worthy but well-worn (186,000 miles) 1984 Toyota Tercel. We bought it for just such extended expeditions as this, as well as shorter sojourns to the rivers, mountains and deserts of California and the American Southwest. Also, as mountain residents subject to winter snowstorms, we have found a "four-wheeler" to be essential.
We expected to find a predominance of pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles on the Alaska Highway, conveying "tent campers" like ourselves. Instead, the preferred vehicles were "RV-s" – campers, trailers and motor-homes,
which a late friend liked to refer to as "snails" after the creatures who carry their homes on their backs. With much astonishment (and occasionally, perhaps, a bit of envy), we pulled into provincial or state campsites only to encounter rows of "snails," with their ready-made shelters, beds, and kitchen facilities, and the denizens thereof calmly sitting outside, occasionally watching us at work, raising our tent and lighting the Coleman stove.
Amidst recent environmentalist complaints about the "gas guzzling SUVs," we have felt some guilt about acquiring a pickup truck. That guilt is eased somewhat by the fact that more than eighty percent of our local driving will be done with our thirty-plus mpg compact car. But as we drove those thousands of miles to Alaska and back, passing caravans of heavy, thirty-foot-plus road schooners, we felt positively virtuous.
After much deliberation, we decided not to take along our canoe, kayaks and backpacks – and fortunately so. Had we brought them along, we would now, as I write this, be somewhere far north of here, dipping our paddles in one of the endlessly intriguing wild Canadian rivers. Given our time constraints, we might never have made it all the way to Alaska. This had to be an extensive trip. An intensive exploration of this amazing land will have to await a later date.
At this point, the window opens to that long narrative of adventures and impressions that I promised to spare you. True to that promise, I will simply state that the trip was all we expected (less the over-stated road hazards), and much more. The land is huge, wild, intriguing and unspeakably beautiful. We highly recommend it to you.
From this album of memories and impressions, we offer three sketches.
Dawson City, Yukon Territory (pop. 2,000) is, in effect, a theme park. It has original, and not-so-original, 1890s wood-frame buildings, including the Robert Service and Jack London cabins. Amazingly, the streets are unpaved – for "atmosphere" no doubt. The price of this "authenticity" brought about by fall and spring mud and muck must be unspeakable. There is an abundance of tourist attractions in the museums, theaters, saloons, all of which we avoided as we fled the place at first opportunity. Our avenue of escape was a ferry across the Yukon River to the eastern terminus of the amazing "top of the world" highway – a gravel road along a high ridge, with extraordinary views in all directions, and blessed solitude.
We don’t wish, in this brief account, to
give short-shrift to the Canadian northwest. The Canadian Rockies (Banff,
Lake Louise, etc), were spectacular beyond words, as were the tundra, rivers
(Yukon and Liard), and lakes (Muncho, Teslin and Kluane).
Anchorage, Alaska (pop 259,000), is a typical mid-size American city, with the usual "auto row," box-like motels, and fast-food restaurants. (If you awoke in downtown Anchorage with a case of short-term amnesia, you might think you were in Pocatello, Idaho, or Missoula, Montana). The local joke is that "Anchorage is just a half-hour’s drive from Alaska." But take that half-hour drive south to the Turnagain Arm, look up at Chugash Range and across at the Kenai Peninsula, and you’ll encounter a whole ‘nother place. (A photo of Turnagain Arm heads this piece).
Prince William Sound. We spent the better part of a day visiting the glaciers, fjords and wildlife of Prince William Sound, as passengers on the excursion boat "The Klondike Express." At $120 each, well-worth the price. While on board, the Captain offered a most amazing account of the infamous 1989 "Exxon-Valdez disaster." By his reckoning, the Exxon Corporation was the hero of that incident, and "the gummint bureaucrats" were the villains. It seems, he claimed, that the Coast Guard radar fellows were playing pool in the back-room when they should have been watching the screens. Had they done so, they would have noticed that the drunken captain of the tanker was three miles off course. A strange theory of culpability, this. He continued with a report that the Exxon Corporations efforts at the cleanup were far more effective than those of the government, since Exxon had no qualms at using "bio-remediation" – i.e., setting loose bio–engineered bacteria that gulped down petroleum residue with the enthusiasm of school kids at a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream party. The government, by contrast, was immobilized by its typical regulatory constraints.
Surprise Glacier, Prince William Sound
Our ever-ready Encarta Encyclopedia, gives a different account: "The cleanup was slow due to a lack of preparedness on the parts of Exxon and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, those responsible for containing and cleaning up the spill."
The Captain displayed a typical Alaskan enthusiasm for corporate "development" coupled with an antipathy toward "Big (Federal) Government." This attitude is mirrored in Alaskan politics, whereby the two Senators and single Congressman are all pro-development, conservative Republicans.
Were I an Alaskan, I would no doubt be strongly inclined to share this view. After all, two-thirds of Alaska land is under the administrative control of the Federal Government – i.e., "owned by the Feds," or "owned by the American People," according to one’s political persuasion. On the other hand, oil extraction in Alaska sends dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund into the pockets of every Alaskan. And when Prudhoe Bay dries up, then what? The question is on the minds of most Alaskans as they look covetously to the east at the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
In contrast, visitors from the lower 48 may occasionally ask themselves, just what might be the present and future condition of this, "our" natural landscape, if it were all to be "unlocked" and sold to private "developers."
Matanushka Glacier, from the Glenn Highway, Alaska
Standing on the ridge of the Top of the World Highway, west of Dawson City, or driving through the pristine forests of the Yukon Territory (pop. 32,000), or along the Glenn Highway from Anchorage to the interior town of Tok, one gains the impression that it is all too huge and boundless to be vulnerable.
No doubt, many Alaskans feel this way, as did young George Washington as he surveyed the hardwood forests of what is now the industrial belt of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, or Daniel Boone as he stood on the ridges of the Appalachians, looking westward across forests so vast that it was said that a squirrel could travel from the Blue Ridge to the Mississippi without touching the ground. "There is so much of it! Surely, it will be there forever." History teaches us that this attitude was mistaken. Nature is limited, while apparently human ambition and greed are not.
Will modern Alaskans, along with the rest of us in "the lower 48" who "own" this amazing land, put aside such easy impressions and short-sighted self-interest, and instead learn from history?
Not without deliberate collective reflection and an investment in enlightened public education.
Muncho Lake, British Columbia
The Far North Revisited
We returned from our Summer 2000 visit to western Canada and Alaska with an appreciation that even five weeks on the road was scarcely enough time to do justice to this vast and magnificent landscape. And so we resolved to return, with three objectives uppermost on our agenda: First, we were determined to drive all the way "to the top" – across the Brooks Range and alongside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to Prudhoe Bay. Second, this time we brought our canoe so that we might become more intimately acquainted with the northern rivers. And finally, we were willing to wait patiently for Denali (Mt. McKinley) to show its face which, to our great frustration, was hidden from us two years ago.
Fortunately, we achieved all three objectives. And because all three experiences are beyond the grasp of our mere words, we will share a few of the images that we brought back with us.
Arctic Natioinal Wildlife Rebuge
Prudhoe Bay is about 500 miles north of Fairbanks, two-thirds of which is unpaved. Outside of Fairbanks, we were surrounded by a thick boreal forest which gradually thinned out as we proceeded north and which had almost disappeared by the time we crossed the Arctic Circle. Thereafter we were surrounded by the vast and empty tundra and, surprisingly, snow only at the higher slopes of the mountains. This region, we were told, is a “desert” with scant annual precipitation. Of course, past the Arctic circle we also left nighttime behind.
Gulkana River, Mt. Drum in the Background
We dipped our paddles in three rivers: the Kenai and the Gulkana in Alaska, and the Dease in British Columbia. The Kenai is a swift but “untechnical” (class II) river with a rich aquamarine color that we have never encountered before. To our astonishment, we traveled the seventeen miles downstream from Kenai Lake in about two hours. The thirty-five miles of the Gulkana river took a full eight hours. Throughout, we were accompanied by dozens of bald eagles. Many, many more enticing rivers were passed up, perhaps to be revisited some other time. If so, we will have to come prepared for the frigid water. Without the appropriate river “suits,” a dunking, which is nothing more than an embarrassment in the lower 48, is life-threatening in the northern rivers, where one has no more than five minutes to get out of the water before hypothermia, paralysis and unconsciousness sets in.
Mt. McKinley, Denali National Park
Mt. McKinley is reportedly shrouded by its own micro-climate more than seventy percent of the summer season – and 100% of our previous visit to Denali National Park.. This time, after three days, it finally showed itself. It was well-worth the wait. We hopped aboard a flight around and above the mountain – an extravagance that we simply could not pass by. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, rises to 20,000 feet from a base of a few hundred feet above sea level – a base to summit elevation greater than that of Mt. Everest. Magnificent!
And there was so much more! A cruise along the inland passage from Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert, BC. Another cruise to the glaciers of the Kenai Fjords National Park. A return visit to the Canadian Rockies. But we resolved to keep this account brief.
All we can say is go see for yourself. The roads are fine, the Canadians and Alaskans are hospitable, and the land is unspoiled – for awhile, at least. And for how long? That depends on whether the public is determined to keep it as it is. The prospects are uncertain, to say the least.
Postscript: Don’t even think of taking this trip without a copy of the indispensable "Milepost" (Morris Communications, 735 Broad St., Augusta, GA 30901).
Copyright 2000, 2002 by Ernest Partridge