Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Alaska (Part 1)

Alaska. Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to come here but somehow never managed to do so. Now, 49 years later, I'm standing at the border of the 49th State, wondering how it could ever live up to my expectations. Here I was, looking at the land of the midnight sun, the land of extremes, the land which is named after the Aleutian word 'Alyeska', meaning 'The Great Land'. I could hardly believe it. The land I only knew from photos, beautiful photos, was stretched out before me. I only had to start my motorcycle and ride into it. These are the moments when you realise just how beautiful it is to be on a motorcycle and be able to do this, how lucky I am and how much this trip means to me. I'm in Alaska!

Not even the rude US borderguard had managed to even slightly dampen my enthusiasm for this land. Despite all his efforts and attitude he wasn't even a speck on the landscape. A totally insignificant man, doing an insignificant job. I had to pinch myself when we rode away from the border and into this vast land. Even the weather realised this was too special to spoil and the rain we had before the border made way for sunshine. Glorious sunshine.
Make no mistake. This is not a place that's cuddly friendly and soft. Life is hard here, very hard. We entered in June and still saw frozen lakes and rivers. The first night we were in Alaska we camped on permafrost. The top layer of soil looked normal enough, but only 8 cm below was one solid lump of ice, as we noticed when we tried to pitch the tent and couldn't get a peg in the ground. Later that night a ranger told us about life in Alaska in winter. She explained the effects of temperatures of minus 62°C, how mirrors simply fell of you car. Batteries froze up and you could literally freeze against a wall, on the inside of your house… She showed the clothes they wear in winter, the double insulated shoes with an air pocket between the layers. She also showed the way animals had adapted to the extreme conditions and how hard their life was in general. Fascinating stories that gave us an insight into what life would be like here during the winter months. When I asked her what her favourite season was, she replied instantly: winter. She talked enthusiastically about what Alaskan winters were like for them. How they enjoyed the winter sports, dressed up in 10 layers of clothing and still getting frost bites.

The second day was a beautiful day of riding through awe inspiring landscapes. Maybe not up there with Norway yet, but the remoteness, the ruggedness and the feeling of absolute isolation was beautiful. We camped at a ranch, operated by a 72 year old lady. My brain had problems in translating what my eyes saw; a 72 year old, complete with the typical 'old lady hair bun', was running this ranch by herself. She had done so since her husband died in 1978… She had spend 35 winters that can last up to 9 months, where temperatures drop to minus 62°C, by herself…! I'm already having problems in trying to comprehend what that means; 9 months winter… minus 62°C and a woman by herself. Unbelievable. The DeHart Ranch is miles away from anywhere. But it gets even better; mains power has only recently been introduced here. In 1978 she installed two new 25kW generators, by herself of course. They supplied the power for the ranch, the guesthouse, the campground, the local school and the postoffice. She's proud that they didn't leak a drop of oil and to emphasise the point, she installed them on a shiny white floor.

As if that wasn't enough, she also maintained and overhauled the generators herself, for which she has all the equipment and know-how. She was so well known at Blackstone in England, that she was on first name basis with their engineers. She has no intention to slow down just yet. To emphasise the point, if there was any need to do so, she started up the dozer to tidy up the camping ground. A prehistoric dozer of course but meticulously maintained. Quite a lady, because despite all this she is still very much a lady. So much so that if you'd see her in town, complete with the typical woollen vest, you'd almost offer to help her cross the street… don't bother, she is quite capable herself!

Just as my little grey cells start to make some sense of it all, I'm entering the shower building and was gobsmacked again. I wasn't expecting much, as unfortunately is so often the case with RV parks. Only a week or so ago we found ourselves having a shower on a rusty steel plate, on flip-flops to avoid cutting our feet. Here I find myself in a 5 star luxury bathroom, literally in the middle of nowhere! Shampoo and soap are in a dispenser on the wall, towels are in the cupboard, the shower is great too and even has a seat in it! There is calming music, atmosphere lighting and everything is spotlessly clean. Could it be better? I wouldn't know how. Of course she designed and built everything herself. To top it all off she has also installed a free WiFi system for internet via a satellite dish in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness…

All this happened just the second day in Alaska and after an already beautiful day riding through impressive landscapes, the best we had seen in Alaska yet. The Yukon was already a great experience, but this is altogether on another scale. Much more rugged and even more beautiful, while the winters here are even longer and colder than in Canada. Thinking my day couldn't possibly get any better, an email drops in. Free internet after all. It's Travis we met in British Columbia, who has taken the same route as we have and writes that the road from here to Valdez is even better…!

Despite being half June, the nights are still bitterly cold. The water pipes haven't defrosted yet, and despite our good Thermarest mats and good sleeping bags my nose is now in a state of Permafrost as well. Having a big nose is not an advantage here, it's painfully cold! We are the only campers, I wonder why :-) 

The next morning, the lady in the Slana Visitor Centre tells me with a wry smile that they don't sell National Parks passes. Looking outside I see a sign which tells me they're not real keen on National Parks here. 'We have lived here for 200 years', it says, 'and all year round, not just in summer for the tourists. We don't have to be told what we can and cannot do or how to work with nature… and we don't need National Parks!'… While I'm reading the sign I can visualise grandma from the DeHart ranch with a shotgun and a just shot Moose in the back of her pickup truck.

Just before Valdez is the Worthington Glacier, aptly named as it's very much worth a visit. The road to the glacier is indeed unbelievably beautiful. This is the Alaska we've come half way around the world for to see. Waterfalls, wild rivers and rugged mountains. The clouds slowly but surely drift in and soon we find ourselves in cold wet miserable conditions. Only a few hours ago it was baking hot, now we're high in the mountains and things have changed drastically.

Despite all this Jeanette wants to camp at Blueberry Lake, even higher up than we are now and close to the glacier. By now it's truly unbelievably cold and miserable, with a strong wind and threatening to snow. The warden at the campground has just cleared the sites from the last dump of snow… and thinks we are mad to camp here in a tent. But Jeanette has made up her mind; she wants to camp here! This is the real Alaska experience, she claims… The warden suggests we pitch our tents under the covered BBQ shelter, tying the tents to the shelter as tent pegs are as useless here as swimming shorts. A bit later we are offered warm pancakes by a Dutch couple in a hired campervan with a heater(!), who feel sorry for us. 

The next morning is even colder than the DeHart Ranch. I'm sleeping with all my clothes and my motorcycle jacket and gloves on, in my sleeping bag. The nose is suffering again and I'm really reluctant in getting up. Why would I trade the warmth of my cocoon for the cold of the snow and ice covered 'outside'? No sun to warm me up, plenty of wind and rain to do the opposite. The impressive snow covered mountains we saw yesterday are no longer visible due to the low hanging clouds. After a simple breakfast, we backtrack to the glacier. Who knows things might improve. Ten minutes later we know better, it's even colder than yesterday…

On the parking lot near the glacier we meet a BMW rider. He's full of hard-core Adventure talk, but his luggage shows he's taking hotels and his bike is spotlessly clean. Two weeks playing the hardcore adventurer, then back to the office I guess. Only ten minutes later we meet the opposite on a Moto Guzzi Californian. Good looking bike, but it's luggage system is a bit unorthodox to say the least. Plastic panniers from the 50s with rubber bands as 'locks'. On each side he has fitted wooden planks, like sideboards, which hold his enormous floppy bags, 'fastened' with bungy straps. On the back he's bolted an old metal bread box where he keeps his tin food, and he has fitted a screen from 'something' else.
The screen didn't fit all that well and was mounted on a somewhat strange angle. Motorcycle clothing is unknown to him; a normal jacket, jeans, ordinary shoes, no gloves and no helmet… But unlike the BMW rider he is camping, not on campsites but in the wild and in bear country! He's a very nice guy looking for a bit of land for sale in Alaska. If you can ride at near freezing point temperatures without a helmet on while your head is a bald as a billiard ball then you'll probably survive here!

A wee bit further we find another local without a helmet; a grizzly bear. Right next to the road. Seeing Mike makes him run away… he then realises we should be running, not him, turns around but then sees Jeanette, doubts again and then sees me and disappears into the woods.

Valdez is literally the end of the road. A nice place with an unbelievably beautiful natural harbour in a fjord. A friendly atmosphere and beautiful views. The local supermarket has a large choice in fresh fruit, which was very welcome after a couple of weeks with only minimal choice. For just 5 dollars we have a warm lunch for three. There is a state campground next to another glacier, with hot showers for just 15 dollars (try that in New Zealand), which is run by the military so it'll be quiet tonight!

We spend a couple of days in Valdez, where the ice was just breaking up in the glacier lake, tingling like a xylophone. Bald Eagles roamed the sky and otters played in the harbour while fishing for crab. Huge crabs! We just sat by the harbour, having lunch and enjoying it all. We would have loved to do the ferry crossing through the fjords from Valdez to Whittier, but the price put an end to that. They wanted to charge us 3x a car fare, while we are taking up less space than one car. The skies were clear and we decided to ride back up to the Worthington Glacier, enjoy that in glorious sunlight and ride to Anchorage instead. If it was the better choice we will never, know but we sure enjoyed the beautiful glacier against a clear blue sky! No nasty gates to stop you in Alaska; you can walk right up to the glacier if you want; and we did!