Alaska - Travel Journal
“Traveling — it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” — Ibn Battuta
At various points throughout my life, I hear a voice which Jack London termed the “call of the wild”. Such was the case in July 2017 when I spontaneously decided to go to Alaska. Unlike Jack London and his characters, I was driving a comfortable RV on the vast expanse of the Alaskan roads. My intentions were to connect, inspire and recharge. The following is my diary and impressions, organized by segments of Alaska’s vast roads.
My book recommendations
Alaska A Novel, By: James A. Michener
Into the Wild, By: Jon Krakauer
Coming into the Country, By: John McPhee
The Call of the Wild, By: Jack London
To Build a Fire, By: Jack London
The Man with the Gash, By: Jack London
The White Silence, By: Jack London
I squint into the sun that would almost set at around midnight. It hangs low in the pale sky. The Alaskan summer days seem to stretch forever. It is disorienting and dazzling, and it is my first impression of this road trip.
Anchorage — Denali Park — Fairbanks
· Sled Dog Demonstration — The demonstration is the best live show in Denali Park. I learned that the Alaskan Huskies have relatively long legs and heavily furred tails. They will often curl up with their tails over their faces and noses to provide additional warmth. The Dog Positioning for a team of up to 12 dogs is: 2-lead dogs that listen to all the commands. 2-swing dogs that help the leaders set the pace and aid in turning the team. Most of the dogs are considered the Team Dogs, their job is to follow the dog in front of them and steadily pull. They provide the horsepower. Finally, 2-wheel dogs, their job is to be the largest of the dogs because they are the first to take on the weight of the load being pulled, they are normally the strongest dogs on the team.
· A few miles north of the Denali Park on the way to Fairbanks there is a trail named Stampede which gained fame when traveler Christopher McCandless died in the wilderness in an abandoned school bus in 1992. This tragedy was recreated in the book and film, “Into the Wild.” It’s a tale that make me think about: life, death, responsibility and purpose. I am yet to reach any conclusions, just wonder.
· Mount Denali is hidden behind the clouds. Apparently, clouds obstruct the mountain view on average two out of every three days.
Fairbanks — Delta Junction — Chitina
· Fairbanks is about a 200-mile drive from the Arctic Circle. I was excited to get that far up north, I thought it’s going to be like some little old mining town in the middle of nowhere but it’s not. Yes, Fairbank started as a gold-mining town in 1901 and still is, but the construction of the Alcan Road during WWII and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1973–77 made it hub city for rural Alaskans.
· It is surprisingly warm here, 70F. The sunset today was at 12:47 am, and promptly came up again two hours later. Those two hours of “darkness” aren’t dark at all, but a twilight.
· Fairbanks is known as a great spot from which to observe and experience the Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights). Apparently, there are web sites that provide predictions on when the phenomena can be seen. I am sure it’s a euphoric, spiritual experience to watch mother nature’s artistic display, but that happens only in the winter.
· The highway section between Fairbanks and Delta Junction is part of the Alcan Road, built in 1942 by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers. More than 10,000 troops took part in its construction, which was completed in record time of less than a year. The primary military justification for the construction was the defense and re-supply of the skyway to Alaska and Siberia. Russian pilots picked up over 7000 aircraft in Fairbanks and flew them across Siberia to the Russian front. The airplanes helped the soviets withstand the full force of the German Army until the Allies could open a Second Front with D-Day Invasion at Normandy in 1944.
· The morning was cloudy and drizzly, later the sun showed up for a few hours till it got misty again. The green color is dominant with all its shades and tones. Cars are few and far in between. The number of human outposts can be counted on less than one hand. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline shows up sporadically. The road is in great condition. The scenery is spectacular. The silence is all around. I love it!
Chitina — McCarthy — Kennecott Glacier — Kennecott Copper Mill
· The RV rental company prohibited me from driving to McCarthy because of the road conditions but “where there is a will there is a way.” I found that a small outfitter offers 30 minute flights to McCarthy which is at the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. It has been a long time since I flew on this kind of airplane, so my excitement was very high. The greatest discovery on this experience was Aerial Photography, the photos are like a magical abstract painting. I am hooked!
· I learned something about glaciers, each winter, more snow is dropped in the mountains than can be melted in the short summer. When the next winter’s storms arrive, some of the last winter’s snow still remains, and more snow accumulates each year. The older buried snow is gradually compressed until it becomes solid ice. And, the whole mass of ice and snow begins to move downhill under its own weight. Therefore, a glacier is a river of ice.
· A glacier flows down the valley following the contours of the land but also carves them, carrying immense quantities of mixed rocks known as till. At the edge of the glacier where warm temperatures of lower elevations melt the ice, the till is deposited in huge piles called moraines.
· Kennecott Copper Mill is a massive 14-story mill building where copper ores were processed. Some of the images inside the mill reminded me of a few art installations I saw in some of the best museums about decay and state of decrepitude. The story of Kennecott Copper Mill is a great example of the American system in action and some of its values: discovery, ingenuity and capitalism.
Chitina — Valdez — Columbia Glacier
· I remember the news and images in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez crashed and spilled gallons of oil into Prince William Sound thus I was looking forward to visiting the area. Today, the Exxon Valdez spill is but an historical event, wildlife is back to what it was before.
· There were couple of articles in the local newspaper about the 40th year anniversary of The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which happened this month. The TASP is 800 miles long and considered engineering marvel. The talk is mostly around the question of: Where did all of Alaska oil money go? Over the years Alaska collected $141 billion in petroleum taxes. And the short answer is: Look out your window. If it wasn’t for the oil money about half of what can be seen — building, roads, bridges, homes, even people — wouldn’t be here.
· Aboard Lu-Lu Belle with 25 passengers, Captain Fred and his crew of two helpers. The glacier is a mile wide and 300 feet high from the water surface. Talking about global warming, the captain said that when he started the tour in 1979 the edge of the glacier was 12.5 miles further into the ocean. When the engine was off the only sounds were of crashed chunks of ice falling into the water. I love the colors, I can’t get enough of it. I think that though it’s the same scenery each snapshot is a world on its own.
· I learned something new: Why does glacier ice look blue? It is often a deep blue color because as sunlight passes through the ice, it’s broken up into its many inherent colors and energy wavelengths. Red and yellow have very little energy and the thick ice soaks them up readily. The blue light has enough extra energy to escape from the ice crystals without being absorbed.
Valdez — Anchorage — Seward
· Signs of civilization are relatively plentiful and not so far in between. The road is in excellent condition and with many passing lanes. My urge to stop, look and document is somewhat subsided. I guess the next chapter is on my mind. Going back home in couple of days to my loved ones, my house, the swimming pool, yoga and dance. And maybe most of all, tackling the last stage of a new mix media panels I have been working on since last August. As my wise sponsor says: “It’s all about the coming and going.”
· I woke up early for the last full day in Alaska to find that the engine doesn’t start, the battery is dead. I am taking a deep breath, bringing up all the acceptance I can muster and finding a solution without getting ripped off. Feeling grateful that I am only 20 miles away from Anchorage and not in the middle of nowhere.
Five hours later help arrived, a new battery is in place and I am back on the road. While waiting for help I documented SAP surfers. In this bay waves comes only twice a day, once they do they flow slow and steady for over a mile. I also learned something about the relationship between the Moon and the Tides.
· Driving RV is like driving a bus, I was very anxious about it since it’s my first time. It went very well, I drove slowly and was lucky not to have to back-up often. I think that for a road trip, RV is the way. It’s very convenient. My RV is 2005 model and had mechanical problems with the generator, refrigerator and battery. If I had to recommend one thing I’ll say, look for a newer model.
· I enjoyed listening to James Michener’s book Alaska, it’s an historical fiction and made me understand Alaska’s history and some colorful personalities. I highly recommend it.