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Week 37: ending 7/27/2003
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PostPosted: Fri Aug 08, 2003 2:53 am    Post subject: Week 37: ending 7/27/2003 Reply with quote

Week 37: ending 7/27/03


It is a dark and rainy day but Denali National Park beckons to us and we have prepaid for a 12-13 hour bus ride to Kantishn and back. Scott Richardson is our driver, our age, extremely knowledgeable, polite but firm about the Park rules. Scott reminds us that his service is simply that of an expediter about the Park, but he really is more like a tour guide, he is so informative about so many details about the Park.

We are encouraged to shout out when/if we see wildlife or interesting scenery of which we want to take pictures or simply admire at a standstill. Although we are on a timetable, Scott is more than willing to stop in between scheduled reststops and vistas. We are not allowed to get off the bus to photograph wildlife. Our safety and that of the wildlife are of utmost importance.

One way to Kantishna encompasses 89 miles. Private vehicles are restricted from entering the park from Savage River (MP 15) onwards. The roads are not always paved and not always double-width lanes. We are happy that someone else is doing the driving.

About an hour and a half into the ride, the sky clears up and the sun comes out. It turns out to be a magnificent day weatherwise. Mother Nature is equally magnanimous in her blessing of landscape and wildlife beauty.

We will not even attempt to describe the natural wonderment of Denali but allow the photos and videos to portray the splendor. We will list some of the wildlife we were lucky enough to see today. Animals include: Dall sheep, grizzly bears (both adults and cubs), caribou, ground squirrels, hoary marmot, beaver and three Park sled dogs. Our tour spotted a total of nine bears, although we are unsure as to whether they were all grizzlies or some black bears, also. Birds include: a Golden eagle and eaglet, jaeger, ravens, pintail duck, teals, arctic tern, willow ptarmigan, Northern harrier, arctic loon, marbled murrelet and black-billed magpie. We are not birders, but our driver, Scott, is, and he is quick to point out interesting species.

One of the highlights of our trip occurs near the end of the day, an encounter we witness between three Dall sheep on a precipice close to the road. Two of the sheep actually butt heads as we watch. It is amazing! Scott tells he has only seen this happen once before in 11 years of touring and never so close. It is an excellent finale to a terrific day,

Click here to see a few of the sights of Denali National Park!

We had been warned that the road between Fairbanks and Anchorage was a bad one and we soon discover why. Route 3 north to Fairbanks: pilot car-navigated construction coupled with poor road conditions for the last 100+ miles makes for a troublesome ride.

As we are waiting in line for the pilot car to return, Ron notices that the alternator is not working. No problem, he’ll just turn on the generator. The generator starts up and sputters to a stop. There is no oil pressure to the generator! Since we are at a complete stop anyway, Ron runs out to open the front of the RV. He does not have to. There is a large puddle of oil underneath the motorhome and more oil pouring out! And we have no cell phone service

Luckily, we are only two vehicles behind the flagger. Ron starts up the RV and pulls it over to the side of the road. He explains our predicament to the flagger who lends him her cell phone to call for emergency road service. Ron also borrows her shovel to pour sand over the spilled oil to prevent any other accidents.

Ron decides to send Joan and Rita on ahead to Fairbanks. They will followup with the ERS as soon they find a pay phone or regain cell phone service and report back to Ron via the flagger’s cell.

Long story short, Ron ends up waiting 4 ½ hours for the tow truck. He becomes fast friends with the flagger, whose name is Mary, and even cooks a steak lunch for her. The tow truck is definitely worth waiting for.

It takes almost 3 hours for Rita and Joan to drive the 98 miles to Fairbanks. They grab a quick lunch at the Sourdough Café, do a little book shopping and check out the Great Alaskan Bowl Company while awaiting Ron’s arrival. Chena Marina RV Park says they will hold our reservation until they close at 8pm. Ron calls at 5:30 pm. He is in Fairbanks, the motorhome is running but needs work tomorrow. Although there are hookups at the repair shop, the tow driver recommends we stay at a campground if we have reservations. The service area is a dusty parking lot. We happily return to the green oasis of Chena Marina RV Park.

Once hooked up, Rita and Joan go out for dinner at the Pump House while Ron rests.

Ron heads over to the Freightliner dealer and the generator shop (conveniently located near each other) to get the motorhome repaired. Joan and Rita catch the 9:45am tour train for the El Dorado Gold Mine.

The actual mine is owned by the state of Alaska, while the operation of the mine and the tourist attraction are run by the and the Brinkley family, respectively. It is a neat tour, conducted on a narrow-gauge railway, through a recreated permafrost tunnel and bringing guests to a mockup of a sluicing operation with full-size equipment. Everyone gets to pan for gold and is guaranteed to find gold. It is hard work, but Rita finds 12 grams of gold ($8 worth) and Joan finds 8 grams ($4 worth). The train deposits everyone at a nice gift shop where fresh baked cookies, hot cocoa, coffee and ice water await our consumption. Guests get their gold flakes (and, yes, a few lucky souls found actual nuggets), weighed and can have them transformed into jewelry. Rita and Joan opt to keep their gold “au naturel” and check out other gold finds from El Dorado, including a 19 ounce gold nugget! Guests are allowed to pose with the hunk of gold for their own cameras. It is a hefty rock!

After many missed calls (thank you, Verizon Wireless!), everyone finally regroups back at the campground. The alternator and generator were both repaired in about 3 hours and Ron managed to wash all the construction grime off the motorhome, too. We relax for a bit outside watching the occasional bush plane attempt to land or takeoff. Ron decides to unwind by working on the computer. Rita and Joan decide to visit the University of Alaska @ Fairbanks Museum. We will gather again in a couple of hours for a belated birthday dinner for Joan at the Fairbanks Wilderness Princess Lodge.

The UAF Museum is definitely a worthwhile visit. The exhibits are divided according to era, starting from Ice Age to the present, and region. We view an Ice Age bison mummy, beautiful dioramas of all sorts of fauna & flora, informative exhibits about WWII events, including the disturbing internments of Aleuts and Alaskan-Japanese-Americans; an exquisite variety of old and new Native crafts; and enlightening stories about Native and immigrant women of Alaska through the ages. And these are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. A very neat place.

The morning starts with overcast sky and a temp of 59. We leave Fairbanks via the
Richardson Highway and stop just 11 miles away in the town of North Pole. Santa is busy until 11 am but we have fun anyway exploring the large gift store and taking pictures.

The Richardson has some rough road and gravel patches, but the beauty of its landscape more than makes up for it. The sun decides to brighten the sky and we stop numerous times for photos of both Mother Nature’s splendor and that of the Alaska Pipeline. It is an extremely windy day, which adds to the wildness of the land but makes for very tiring driving for Ron.

We pull into a paved rest stop for the evening just south of the Sourdough Creek. We hike 7/10 of a mile north to the Sourdough Café for a good home-cooked meal (which Joan does not have to cook). The owners are very accommodating: if anyone leaves here hungry, it’s their own fault. Definitely worth stopping by, but be forewarned: they have no pay phone and only have outhouses for restrooms. (Soap and water are provided at an outside sink.)

Rise and shine to a drizzly morning. We turn east onto the Glenn Highway, Route One
South. The Eureka Roadhouse beckons to us for breakfast. It is a cheery-looking place with plenty of memorabilia upon the walls to admire and $0.25 coffee. Food is good, service needs work, but we leave full and ready to take on the day.

Good thing, because construction soon greets us, good old MP 109-100. This gives Rita another taste of Alaska’s infamous roads, this time with some very narrow, windy precipices. Yihah!

Once we reach Anchorage RV Park, it becomes a day for errands. Joan and Rita take the Tahoe for a sorely needed wash and then proceed to do laundry. Ron sets up camp and uploads the plethora of photos from the past few days and sets up several more photo pages for the website. A good day to unwind a bit before heading for the Kenai Peninsula.

On the road again, down Route One South to Cooper Landing and the Kenai Princess RV Park. It is an overcast day but the road is in great shape and the trip goes smoothly. We arrive late morning and who do we meet but our New England friends, Ron & Nan, from Fairbanks and Anchorage! We make plans for dinner later that evening and head out to explore the area in the Tahoe.

We come upon the Kenai National Wilderness Refuge on the Sterling Highway. There are some neat trails to a couple of supposedly wonderful waterfalls (Russian River Falls and Juneau Falls). However, they each require some strenuous hiking which no one is up for. We decide to follow another suggestion of the helpful park ranger and drive down Skilak Lake Loop Road, a 19.1 mile way of very rough pavement or somewhat smooth gravel. Either interpretation, it is a scenic byway which we enjoy. To add to the excitement, we meet two hikers whom had encountered two bear cubs just a couple of hours earlier. Although we were very, very careful, we did not meet up with any wildlife during our journey. Another day perhaps.

We end the day with a delicious dinner at Sackett’s Kenai Grill on the Sterling Highway. The food is delicious, so much so that there are no leftovers, which amazed our waitress. Meals average $25-30/person, well worth it. The kitchen seems understaffed and the dining room is small, which tends to long waits. However, Ron enjoyed his smoked prime rib so much that we returned to Sackett’s again on Sunday night without our friends for a repeat of the same meal! Great views of the Kenai River, too.

Up bright and early to drive through the Whittier/Portage Glacier Tunnel and take the Phillips’ 26 Glacier Cruise of Prince Williams Sound. The Tunnel only opens once an hour on the half-hour going into Whittier, for about 15 minutes, and on the hour heading out of Whittier. The Alaska Railroad accesses the Tunnel the rest of the time. We have been told to be ready at the Tunnel for the 11:30 am opening. Our cruise departs at 1 pm.

It is a drizzly morning with the sun trying to peek out of the sky. The sun wins and we are rewarded with a magnificent full arch rainbow on the Seward Highway. About a half dozen vehicles pull over to the side of the road (it is 8 am on a Sunday morning) to ooh and aah and take photos. Absolutely beautiful! The rainbow fades and we start our journey again. We want to get to Whittier early to shop and walk around town.

Just before the Tunnel Tollbooth, there is an information center and viewing area for the Portage Glacier. The Portage Glacier is a fast-receding entity, about which we have heard mixed reviews. It looks interesting from the road, but the 9:30 am Tunnel opening is near, so we drive on by.

The Whittier Access Tunnel is new, having opened only in 2000. It is purported to be the longest vehicle highway tunnel in the country at 2 ½ miles. It has been dugout from the mountain, single-lane width and perhaps 20 feet in height. Round-trip toll for the Tahoe is $12. We are not sure what the fee would be for the motorhome and dingy together: perhaps $40, perhaps $300. Once inside, vehicles must traverse the railroad tracks which line the entire tunnel. There are 7 safehouses positioned throughout the Tunnel in case of natural disasters. Luckily, we do not have the occasion to utilize them.

Once we have completed the Tunnel, we drive into Whittier. There is a saying about the weather in Whittier. “No matter where you are, the weather is shittier in Whittier.” It certainly seems the case today. It is grey, drizzly and very foggy. We find the cruise office to pick up our tickets. We are assured that the cruise is still sailing and that the weather should clear up once we depart the harbor.

There are five eateries and three shops to explore in all of Whittier. We should have read the Milepost before departing. Three of the eateries are not yet open, so we visit the other two, one for coffee and the other for breakfast. There is a neat gift shop called , run by Brenda Talbot. At least 75% of the merchandise offered is handmade by Brenda, who also raises reindeer.

We are first in line to board and hang out for over an hour before the 12:15 boarding. We scoop out the best table to be the front right corner booth and manage to land it. The cruise is completely booked and a couple from Michigan soon join us, Larry & Doris. We like them immediately since they dress in matching shirts and jackets. Come to find out we had admired their cranberry-colored Harley-Davidson cycle and trailer in the full-day parking lot earlier in the day.

One of the features of the 26-Glacier Cruise that sold us on choosing it was the fact No Sea Sickness was guaranteed. They use a high-speed catamaran to insure this feature. Good thing, because it is a very stormy day. The rain and fog seem to increase rather than dissipate as we leave the harbor. We did cruise the full 4 ½ hours through Prince William Sound. Of the promised 26 glaciers, we see perhaps ten, two of calved, which is neat to witness. Luckily, we have booked a wildlife cruise to the Kenai Fjords for tomorrow, because most of the wildlife on today’s cruise are smart and stay in, out of the rain (or least out of our sight!)

Still, it is an experience not to be missed. We wish Larry & Doris safe travels. Of course, the weather clears up as we head back into the harbor. When we drive back through the Tunnel, the sun is shining. You know what they say about the weather in Whittier!
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PostPosted: Wed Sep 03, 2003 12:35 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

The breakdown... oil from the generator...

It was a loose oil filter. Boy, the guy who last changed the oil is gonna hear it from Joan! Oh wait.....never mind.

Hooked up to "The Chicken". This massive truck can dead-lift 35,000 pounds, and can tow 60,000. The front end of the HappieCamper is only about 10,000 pounds, so during the 3 hour ride to Fairbanks you couldn't even tell that the motorhome was behind the tow truck. I also couldn't hear very well after the ride, and my voice was hoarse from having to yell during my conversation with the driver.

The cost of the tow: $8 per mile (98 miles) + $125 per hour (6 hours) for about $1500 (Paid by CoachNet).
the cost of the repairs:
Broken connector on alternator: $38.40
Replace oil filter and refill generator with oil: $100

Getting to tell this story for years: Priceless.
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