On The Cassiar Highway: Destination Hyder, Alaska

The best halibut fish and chips you can imagine…..

Finding the northward-bound Alaska traffic to be annoying (we now feel entitled to have Alaska and all her campgrounds to our selves), we decided to get off the Alaska Highway at Watson Lake and head south on the lesser-traveled Cassiar Highway.

Briefly leaving the Cassiar Highway, we drove through the beautiful coast mountains and along the Portland Canal to the twin towns of Stewart, B.C. and Hyder, Alaska, passing the Bear Glacier.

The Hyder – Stewart Border Crossing connects the communities of Hyder, Alaska and Stewart, British Columbia on the Canada–US border. It can be reached by British Columbia Highway 37A from Stewart and International Street from Hyder. There is no US border inspection station at this crossing, making it the only land border crossing where a person may legally enter the United States without reporting for inspection. The US closed its border station, which was located in the same building as the Boundary Gift Shop, in the late 1970s. As a result, all flights leaving the Hyder Seaplane Base to other cities in Alaska are treated as international arrivals, and all passengers, including Hyder residents, must be inspected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.  Hyder is the easternmost community in Alaska.

On April 1, 2015, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) decided to close its border station at Stewart between midnight and 8:00AM Pacific as a cost-cutting measure. The road was closed with a steel gate when the station is closed, cutting off the only road entry point into Hyder. The decision was met with protests from Hyder residents, as they rely on Stewart for health care and mainland road access, although the Canadian authorities reassured that the residents would continue to have access to emergency services. The move also inconvenienced people wishing to cross the border early, such as mine workers working in mines accessible only via Hyder, as well as tourists entering Hyder for bear viewing.  Following discussions between US and Canadian officials, starting in June 2015 the road is reopened for 24-hour access. Anyone crossing into Canada after border station hours is required to report to CBSA by video telephone.

Wikipedia

Upon enquiring of a local Stewart resident as to the location of a good seafood restaurant, she said we had to try “The Old school Bus” in Hyder

Diana and Jim run a small business in Hyder. Jim fishes for halibut each morning and Diana cooks them up fresh each afternoon and evening. We all agreed that this was the best deep fried halibut in all of Alaska! The whole town of Stewart, including the Canadian Border Guards are regulars at the “Old School Bus”!

If you have a bit of extra time, read the photos of the hand lettered signs below, to get a feel for the ambiance of Stewart & Hyder

Bears were out roaming all over town. We were told a story that afternoon of a bear climbing into a man’s pickup truck and sitting in the drivers seat eating his lunch scraps. Sally was followed back from the campground toilet by a black bear. Just part of life here, apparently! Read Diana’s sign below.

Raised walkway in Stewart
Sally’s “bear encounter”walking back to our beautiful rainforest campsite from the ladies!

Sally asked me to drop her off in Seattle to see Julie and family, so our route would now take us directly south. Ray and Shirley decided to head for home in a more easterly direction, so we decided to part ways in Kitwanga. The trip was certainly not the same without them!

Ray and Shirley head east toward Banff and Colorado

Next Post: Prince Rupert to Seattle (Bothell)

The Klondike Highway: Dawson City To Skagway

We are beginning to have slightly shorter days as we begin the homeward arc.

In Eagle, Alaska and Dawson City, Yukon, there was only 2 hours between sunset and sunrise and the “night” was was just a bit dusky with no stars visible. In fact we have not seen stars for a month!

“The Klondike Highway links the Alaskan coastal town of Skagway to Yukon’s Dawson City. Its route somewhat parallels the route used by prospectors in the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush.

Sally and I crossing the Stewart River which flows into the Yukon a bit further south
Ray supervises as I grill pork chops at our camp at Pelly Crossing, Yukon
Sally enjoying the long dusk on the Yukon River
Emerald Lake, Yukon. The lovely colors are due to a particular kind of clay deposited in the lake bottom.
Ray photographs one of many black bear we saw on our trip. Sadly (or possibly fortunately) we never saw a grizzly

We stopped at the Tage Cho Hudan Interpretive Centre In Carmacks, YT showcasing the past and present culture of the Northern Tutchone people and viewed a traditional canoe being made.

A master carver is beginning to carve a cedar canoe in the traditional way. For this project, he has taken on a female apprentice who has recently studied canoe building and returned home. To procure a log of the required size, he needed to get a log from Prince Edward Island, all the way from Eastern Canada.

He explained that he had been an alcoholic, but after pursuing a vision quest he was told to quit alcohol and to begin building healing canoes. Chips people write name healing burnt healing ceremony Help addiction

Master and student
Old canoe carving adzes
The master carver stated that most work is completed by hand, other than initial rough shaping.
Ray and Shirley on their way into Skagway

Skagway

Skagway, in southeast Alaska, set along the popular cruise route the Inside Passage. It’s home to gold-rush-era buildings, now preserved as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad runs vintage locomotives past the famously steep Chilkoot trail and offers sweeping mountain views during its climb toward Canada.

In 1896, before the Klondike gold rush had begun, a group of investors saw an opportunity for a railroad over that route. It was not until May 1898 that the White Pass and Yukon Route began laying narrow gauge railroad tracks in Skagway. 

The population of the general area increased enormously and reached 30,000, composed largely of American prospectors. Some realized how difficult the trek ahead would be en route to the gold fields, and chose to stay behind to supply goods and services to miners. Within weeks, stores, saloons, and offices lined the muddy streets of Skagway. The population was estimated at 8,000 residents during the spring of 1898 with approximately 1,000 prospective miners passing through town each week. By June 1898, with a population between 8,000 and 10,000, Skagway was the largest city in Alaska.

The prospectors’ journey began for many when they climbed the mountains over the White Pass above Skagway and onward across the Canada–US border to Bennett Lake, or one of its neighboring lakes, where they built barges and floated down the Yukon River to the gold fields around Dawson City. 

By 1899, the stream of gold-seekers had diminished and Skagway’s economy began to collapse. By 1900, when the railroad was completed, the gold rush was nearly over.

Wikipedia

These days, Skagway is home to numbers of cruise ships and other tourists. The drive in is gorgeous, but the city itself is largely one giant gift shop. However, but the ladies were quite interested on a ride on the White Pass and Yukon Route Scenic Railway, which was a quite lovely and fun way to explore the Klondiker’s route to the pass.

Skagway City: Ray and I found lovely benches

The White Pass and Yukon Route Scenic Railway: gorgeous views

Beautiful reflections near our campsites at Teslin Lake Provincial Park

Next Post: The Cassiar Highway and the best deep fried halibut in Alaska!

Dawson City, Yukon, Canada

The locals described winter in Dawson City as nearly perpetual darkness relieved by a couple hours of twilight. After a few winters, they feel they have no more to prove and many head to tropical climes for a month or so to bask in the sun. In summer, people get up early and work late to take advantage of the long daylight.

When asked way they stay, given the solar extremes, they mention the sense of community, safety and close friendships formed in the small town. Everyone participates in volunteer activities to benefit the community, and friends check up on each other if they haven’t seen each other for a while to ensure they are safe.

My text below is taken primarily from GQ Magazine and a few other online sources:

“Strange things done in the midnight sun, reads the first line of William Service’s famous Yukon poem; it’s an apt slogan for Dawson City, Canada. A far-flung place unlike any other, the endless summer daylight shines upon wide, dusty streets, sunken buildings, and the constant churn of the Yukon River.

Our campers, coated in mud after the Top of the World Highway
The view out our camper window
A fellow traveler with an even thicker mud jacket
A ferry takes automobile traffic across the Yukon River to Dawson City

Dawson City sits alone on the river’s banks, a mere 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, in the Yukon Territory: an expansive, wild, non-state of otherworldly terrain. Getting there is not a simple task. Some arrive by raft, canoe, or kayak, others in the growling throng of a motorcycle club or the purr of a winnebago; slightly less intrepid travelers may take a five hour bus ride or small plane from Whitehorse. It’s a trek, certainly, and to a gold rush town of less than 1,500.

“Kissing buildings” built incorrectly on the permafrost causing them to lean

So why on earth would anyone go to this place that is, in the most direct sense of the phrase, located in the middle of nowhere? Well, perhaps you are someone who feels nostalgia for some place you’ve never been.

Maybe you really need to get the hell away, and you don’t want any sort of packaged, highly Instagrammable vacation to help you do it. If so, consider the derelict beauty of Dawson City. It’s strange, the summers bring endless daylight, and there are women who can-can. Taverns that never close. Taverns that never open.

A tavern restored by Parks Canada and ranger interpreter in period dress

Ultimately, the unlikeliness of the Dawson City, its subtle and grand strangeness, comes from wandering around and letting Dawson City happen to you. Forget about the time. If you go during the warm months (you should), you can just sort of let the constant daylight work its confounding magic. Take a walk on the boardwalk that follows the Yukon. Wander the backstreets of the town, through the little cabins. Follow a wooded trail up to the overlook. Have a drink or two, dip in and out of the dark saloons into dizzying sunlight and get a little midday buzz. Or maybe it’s midnight. You might not be able to tell, and that’s the whole point.

Parks Canada also restored the old music hall
After a period/ historical performance by Parks Canada Interpreters. Shirley, Sally and I were judges in the “Best Klondiker” contest.

In prehistoric times the area was used for agriculture by the Hän-speaking people of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and their forebears. The heart of their homeland was Tr’ochëk, a fishing camp at the confluence of the Klondike River and Yukon River, now a National Historic Site of Canada, just across the Klondike River from modern Dawson City. This site was also an important summer gathering spot and a base for moose-hunting on the Klondike Valley.

The current settlement was founded by Joseph Ladue and named in January 1897 after noted Canadian geologist George M. Dawson, who had explored and mapped the region in 1887. It served as Yukon’s capital from the territory’s founding in 1898 until 1952, when the seat was moved to Whitehorse.

Dawson City was the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush. It began in 1896 and changed the First Nations camp into a thriving city of 40,000 by 1898. By 1899, the gold rush had ended and the town’s population plummeted as all but 8,000 people left. When Dawson was incorporated as a city in 1902, the population was under 5,000.

The City of Dawson and the nearby ghost town of Forty Mile are featured prominently in the novels and short stories of American author Jack London, including The Call of the Wild. London lived in the Dawson area from October 1897 to June 1898. Other writers who lived in and wrote of Dawson City include Pierre Berton and the poet Robert Service.”

Prime rib night at Dawson’s best restaurant accompanied by delicious seafood chowder topped with halibut

Next Post: The Klondike Highway and Skagway

Chicken and Eagle Alaska

“Chicken is a community founded on gold mining and is one of the few surviving gold rush towns in Alaska. The population was 7 at the time of the 2010 Census, down from 17 in 2000. However, usually year round, there are 17 inhabitants. Due to mining, Chicken’s population peaks during the summer. It has frequently been noted on lists of unusual place names.

Chicken was settled by gold miners in the late 19th-century and in 1902 the local post office was established requiring a community name. Due to the prevalence of ptarmigan in the area that name was suggested as the official name for the new community. However, the spelling could not be agreed on and Chicken was used to avoid embarrassment. “

The Chicken Annual Music Festival was happening in Chicken, otherwise not much to see other than Chicken jokes and costumes

“Between Chicken and Eagle, the Taylor Highway is narrow, winding, gravel road with many steep hills and some hairpin curves. The road from Jack Wade Junction to Eagle is not recommended for RVers. “

We reached Chicken via the Taylor Highway, shortly thereafter, turned onto the Top Of The World Highway, then turned north to check out Eagle,

“From Chicken, it’s just another 90 miles of driving to one of Alaska’s oldest towns, Eagle; but the drive usually takes at least three hours, thanks to the rough road”. (It took us 3.75 hours).

Top of the World Highway
We can see for miles and miles….
Sally on top of the world

“Eagle is a city on the south bank of the Yukon River near the Canada–US border in the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area, Alaska, United States. It includes the Eagle Historic District, a U.S. National Historic Landmark. The population was 86 at the 2010 census. Every February, Eagle hosts a checkpoint for the long-distance Yukon Quest sled dog race.”

“The first permanent American-built structure in present-day Eagle was a log trading post called “Belle Isle”, built around 1874. In the late 1800s, Eagle became a supply and trading center for miners working the upper Yukon River and its tributaries. By 1898, its population had exceeded 1,700, as people were coming into the area because of the Klondike Gold Rush.

In 1901 Eagle became the first incorporated city in the Alaska Interior. It was named for the many eagles that nested on nearby Eagle Bluff. A United States Army camp, Fort Egbert, was built at Eagle in 1900. A telegraph line between Eagle and Valdez was completed in 1903. In 1905, Roald Amundsen arrived in Eagle and telegraphed the news of the Northwest Passage to the rest of the world. The gold rushes in Nome and Fairbanks lured people away from Eagle.“

Before exploring Eagle, we found campsites in a BLM campground. Immediately after opening the car door, the mosquitoes descended upon us. Only a couple other places in Alaska were as mosquito infested as Eagle.

Critical gear sold at the Eagle Mercantile
The mighty Yukon River
A road through town doubles as part of the landing strip
Only 86 people, but we have a pool hall!
Power and telephone company- actually, no phone or internet in town
City Hall

After 90 miles back down the rough and windy road, we rejoined the Top of the World Highway for Dawson City, Yukon, Canada

Next Post: Dawson City

The Nabesna Road

Almost no internet or phone service since my last post, and what there was has been very poor!

Leaving Valdez in the rain, we stopped at the Valdez Earthquake Museum and the Valdez Salmon hatchery. Both very interesting. Then we drove to Glennellen and took the Tok Cutoff Road to the entrance to the Nabesna Road. We had one of our few rainy days. A couple of miles of construction on the Muddy highway during a downpour proved interesting, but we reached our campsite on Rufus Creek at 6pm.

In the morning I caught a nice Dolly Varden trout from the creek. She will be pan fried for dinner.

Dolly Varden Trout

We also stopped at the Nabesna Ranger Station per Ranger Mike’s suggestion (see Alaska Ferry post) to meet Ranger Thelma, his erstwhile boss, a lovely 36 year veteran of the National Parks Service (who knows everything about the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park). She was thrilled to be a celebrity!

Ranger Thelma

“The Nabesna Road is a minor highway in the U.S. state of Alaska that extends 42 miles (68 km) from the Slana River to Nabesna, providing access to interior components of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The entire length of the road is gravel and has few services. Flat tires and washouts are fairly common along the entire length of the road.”

Arriving at our campsite at Kendesnii campground , I immediately went to the lake to fish. Skunked! Skunked again before dinner when the skies opened and it began to pour. Fishing again in the morning proved fruitless as well. Will the wily Arctic Grayling continue to elude my grasp?

Streams flowing over the Nabesna Road will make the it impassable after a rainstorm.
Fly fishing for Arctic Grayling
Finally, success!
A nice grayling baked with lemon proved tasty
Shirley teaches me to make corned beef hash and eggs
Views along the Nabesna Road
Most cabins have an airplane parked nearby
Local decorating style

End of the road

Now, time to retrace the 42 miles back to the highway.

Next post: Chicken and Eagle

Seward and Prince William Sound 🐬

The really big draw in Seward are the glaciers and marine life in Prince William sound as well as the raw physical beauty of the surrounding mountains.

There appear to be few restaurants with “better-than-mediocre” food, and few museums of interest to us. There is the history of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, but that is only of minor interest, other than the improvements made after the spill to prevent a future occurrence.

We booked an all-day boat tour with Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife tours to the Columbia Glacier and found the trip marvelous. The weather cooperated with a sunny high of 73 degrees, though when we got close, winds off the glacier were substantially colder.

“Any cruise on Prince William sound is guaranteed to be beautiful, especially if you set out from Valdez. For whatever reason, even despite the oil spill a few decades ago, there tends to be more wildlife on this side of the sound’s protected waters. Maybe animals come here, just like the people, because there tends to be less traffic. You can count on seeing lots of sea otters and harbor seals, but humpback whale sightings are common too. There are a few pods of resident orcas, and starting in June you might also get to see puffins.“

Cruising Prince William Sound
Colonies of Steller Sea Lions sunning on the beach. Their grunting was quite loud!
Doll Porpoises playing in our bow wave
More Doll Porpoises 🐬
Lots of sea otters
Mom sea otter with a pup on her belly
Cute harbor seals escape Orcas by hiding in the icefield
Tufted Puffin
Glacier ice appears blue
Columbia Glacier. We are 2.5 miles away. Although the glacier looks small, it is four hundred feet high at its foot. The many icebergs prevent getting closer.
The wind blowing off the glacier is quite chilly!
The densely packed small boat harbor

Our tally of marine life for the day included: Doll Porpoises, Steller Sea Lions, Puffins, Sea Otters, Harbor Seals and Humpback Whales.

Next Post: The Nebesna Road

Wrangell-St Elias National Park and the town of McCarthy

Driving east from Anchorage
Wild roses, so fragrant, we smelled them before spotting them.
A dead whale up the Matanuska River. How did it get so far inland?
Views from the Glenn Highway
The Matanuska Glacier

“Whats So Special about Wrangell-St. Elias?”

“Incredible. You must see Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve to believe it. Number and scale loom large here, magnified by splendid isolation. The largest U.S. national park, it equals six Yellowstones, with peaks upon peaks and glaciers after glaciers. Follow any braided river or stream to its source and you will find either a receding, advancing, or tidewater glacier. The park lets you sample representative Alaska wildlife as well as historic mining sites.

The peaks’ sheer numbers quickly quell your urge to learn their names. That roads are few means many travelers will not enter the park itself, but major peaks –Blackburn, Sanford, Drum, and Wrangell –are seen from nearby highways.

Four major mountain ranges meet in the park, which include nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. The Wrangells huddle in the northern interior. The Chugach guard the southern coast. The Saint Elias Mountains rise abruptly from the Gulf of Alaska to thrust northward past the Chugach on toward the Wrangells. The eastern end of the Alaska Range-mapped as the Nutzotin and Mentasta mountains-forms part of the preserve’s northern boundary.The Wrangells are volcanic in origin, but only Mount Wrangell remains active (last report erupting in 1900) with vents of steam near its summit.

With adjoining Kluane National Park in Canada, all these ranges form North America ’s premier mountain wilderness. Covered year-round with snow, the high-country stands cloaked with icefields and glaciers. Near the coast, North America ’s largest subpolar icefield, Bagley Icefield, spawns giant glaciers, the Tana, Miles, Hubbard,and Guyot.The Malaspina Glacier flows out of the St. Elias Range between Icy and Yakutat bays in a mass larger than the state of Rhode Island. So much glacial silt rides it that plants and trees take hold on the glacier’s extremities and grow to maturity only to topple over the edge when it melts.

Flowing from glaciers are multitudes of meandering rivers and braided streams. Largest is the Copper River, forming the park’s western boundary. The Copper rises in the Wrangells and empties into the Gulf of Alaska in the Chugach National Forest. In the early 1900s the Kennecott Mining Co. transported copper from its mines near McCarthy by railroad along the Chitina and Copper rivers to ships at Cordova. Ore was extracted from these productive mines between 1911 and 1938 and lured many people to the area. Gold was extracted from the Nabesna area, then too. Mining still takes place on private lands in the park, and evidence of earlier mining includes ruins of the Kennecott mines, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In mining’s heyday the Indian villages expanded and several new towns sprang up. Copper Center, Chitina, Gulkana, and Chistochina are among the old Athabascan settlements. The town of Yakutat is a traditional Tlingit fishing village.

While vegetation may appear sparse, especially in the interior, the park is home to a variety of plants and wildlife. Mountain slopes have a diversity of plants, dwarf shrubs, and grasses where dall sheep and mountain goats patrol the craggy peaks. Interior and coastal spruce forests are home to shrubs, such as blueberry and prickly rose. Caribou feed on lichens and sedges on the slopes of the Wrangells. Moose browse in the sloughs and bogs of the forested lowlands, while bears roam throughout the park. Many rivers, streams, and lakes provide spawning grounds for salmon and other fish. The Copper River drainage marks major flyways for migratory birds and provides nesting sites for trumpeter swans. Coastal areas are habitat for marine mammals, including sea lions and harbor seal”

The McCarthy Road

“The 60- mile McCarthy Road winds deep into the heart of Wrangell- St. Elias National Park & Preserve. Once the gateway to tremendous fortunes, it is now your gateway to spectacular scenery and vast wilderness. For those willing to leave the pavement behind and brave the ruts and dust, this road provides access to the many natural and historic wonders of our largest National Park.Today’s McCarthy Road originated in 1909 as a railway constructed to support the Kennecott Copper Mines. Over 200 million dollars worth of ore was hauled from the Kennecott mill 196 miles to the port of Cordova. The railway operated successfully until abandoned in 1938 when large scale mining ended. Most of the rails were salvaged for scrap iron, and no longer maintained, the Copper River Bridge was soon destroyed by flooding.”

The Chitna River. Salmon are running now. Dip netters were catching hundreds just over one weekend.
One lane Kuskalana Bridge 200-some feet above the river. Don’t look down!
Kuskalana Bridge

McCarthy and Kennecott

Partly because alcoholic beverages and prostitution were forbidden in Kennecott, McCarthy grew as an area to provide illicit services not available in the company town. It grew quickly into a major town with a gymnasium, a hospital, a school, a bar and a brothel. The Copper River and Northwestern Railway reached McCarthy in 1911.

In 1938, the copper deposits were mostly gone and the town was mostly abandoned. The railroad discontinued service that year. Over its 30-year operation, U.S. $200 million in ore was extracted from the mine, making it the richest concentration of copper ore in the world.

The old mine buildings, artifacts, and colorful history attract visitors during the summer months. The Kennecott and McCarthy area ranks as one of the United States’ most endangered landmarks by the National Trust for Historic Places. Emergency stabilization of the old buildings has been done and more will be required.

Camping on the Kennicott River
Visitors must park outside town and walk across a footbridge 1/2 mile to town
Downtown McCarthy
Fresh caught Copper River Sockeye
Great view from campground outhouse
Sunset on the Kennicott River
Walking tour of Kennicott
The old copper concentrator on the hill
Abandoned mill equipment

Photos from the drive to Valdez – absolutely breathtaking!

Bridal Veil Falls
Horse Tail Falls

Next Post: Valdez Glacier Cruise