Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Migrating South

After having had a great summer up north it feels like it is time to head south. Even in Fairbanks - which is where I'm writing this - apparently the locals are getting pretty antsy as the first snow is forecast for tonight.

The fall colours were wonderful in Denali National Park last week. I'm hoping to follow the colours south but it seems like they don't go in a straight line though.

A major part of the experience there was watching the Sandhill Cranes start their migration south. Some of them started in Siberia. I'm hoping I can see them on my way south. Alot of them head around the Canadian Rockies before going further south. Apparently they do up to 450 miles per day, and they started 2 days ago. I'm not sure whether I can keep up with them. They do make quite a racket, so I may be able just follow the noise.

As I head SOUTH one of the first towns is called North Pole.

Yes I and thousands of others are further north of North Pole. Yes, yet another Great American idea to generate business. Call a town "North Pole" and your Christmas presents can be made in a "North Pole". It's a bit like when the Japanese used to call a town of theirs Sheffield, so their steel can be labelled "Made in Sheffield". Well apparently North Pole failed to attract the businesses they expected. But you can rely on tourists to drop by and have a look. Last time I shot through and didn't really notice it.

A little further along there's a town called Chicken, 'cos apparently the early settlers couldn't take the winters up here. With a name like that I've gotta take a look. Nights are already dropping below freezing so South it is.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Next home

Whilst my current home is pretty good. I've been thinking of how to upsize on the space and downsize on the carbon emissions. Tough combination. The optimal solution is obviously to stay in one place but I do find that tough.

This is the closest I've been able to find so far. There may be methane issues.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

I'm fine

I realise my posting has stalled a bit. Im fine and still roughing it...

First the roast beef, then a small taste of chocolate (above). Then back to the campsite.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Dream Come True

When Philips first taught me the delights of extended career breaks, I bought a biiiig lens with a view to bagging myself a wolf. The lens was stolen before I managed to leave San Francisco. Even though it was covered by insurance I didn't have the heart to get a replacement.

Last year I finally bought a lens of a similar size again. The main reason was to get better wildlife shots in general, especially in Costa Rica. Once I was back in the US and travelling around I started to think maybe I should give the wolf another go.

In March this year I headed for Yellowstone hoping to see some wolves. And I did, but they were always along way away. March turned out to be a good to get into the dramatic lives that these wonderful creatures lead. This is because the National Park has teams of watchers out monitoring them and they will tell you the stories.

So this was one of my first photo(s)...

The big dots are buffalo and the smaller ones are wolves. So that trip was more about wolf behaviour than any face to face experience. I spent that day watching the wolves tour a valley and test out the bigger prey and eventually kill an elk. That elk became dinner for other wolves, eagles, ravens, coyotes and more. An interesting insight into the impact of an apex predator like the wolf. I should blog about that trip properly.

So heading north to Alaska everyone one who looked like they might know where I'd see a wolf was inundated with questions.

Nobody suggested doing the Dalton Highway for this reason, I did that mainly to see the Arctic Ocean. So when, on the way back, I saw this guy trotting down the road, I made such alot of noise he turned around to see what was going on.

He allowed me to follow him around for about half an hour. At some point I got out of the car to get a better view and he took off immediately.

A wonderful experience, and like I said a dream come true. I'm not sure how to top that now.

Driving The Dalton Highway

So what was driving on the Dalton Highway really like? As my post on preparing for it showed, there is alot of info out there and sorting out the useful parts takes a bit of time.

The first 100 miles actually does give a taste of the worst. In fact there are road works just outside of Fairbanks where the road is rough and very slow as you have to follow a pilot car through. It is not a very good start to a long journey.

There are some paved sections, but these actually turn out to be some of the worst driving. You get up to speed and settle into making some distance when suddenly large potholes appear in the otherwise smooth road. They show the thin veneer that the tarmac is over the gravel, and some of them are deep enough to give a wheel a good wrench if you are unlucky. The paved sections also suffer most from frost heaves, which is where the road becomes a roller coaster forcing you to slow down.

I preferred the unpaved sections which were generally smoother and more consistent than the paved sections. Any change in the surface quality was also much more visible, giving you time to slow down or just brace yourself.

Look how smooth this is ...

Pounded into this shape by all the trucks. The trucks themselves were not too much of a problem as most of them slowed down alot and pulled to the right (as you do too) as you pass. I was pleased not to have rocks hitting my windshield.

On these unpaved parts there were rocks spread around which sometimes needed avoiding. Most 4x4s would have sufficient clearance, but personally I wouldn't take a car.

This guy knocked his transmission out and the highway guys wanted $2500 to tow him to Fairbanks...

I was surprised to find he'd done a nice conversion inside his car...

But despite that he was on the verge of just abandoning it there, especially as he didn't know if it was fixable.

I don't think anyone was coming back for this one...

I did manage to get a puncture myself on the return trip. It wasn't on the highway itself. I was headed down a side 'road' looking for a 'wild' campsite when I drove over a log (because I could). The next morning one of my 3 week old tires was flat. The branch was so secure in its hole that I was able to reinflate the tire and drive the 80 miles back to Fairbanks, where I had to buy a new tire. So the 'free' campsite wasn't quite so free, the hole wasn't pluggable being too close to the sidewall.

The Pipeline

The Dalton Highway exists because of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Originally mere tourists like myself could not use the road. Whatever you think of the environmental consequences it is an impressive peice of engineering.

It basically conveys crude oil for 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, right across Alaska. That white line down the blue inksplodge is the route.

In a number of places you see it zigzag so it can shrink and grow with the extreme temperatures...

They send pigs down it to clear up blockages and keep it flowing smoothly. No they don't use the pink squealy types down and chop em up for crispy bacon at the far end.

They're more like this...

The pipeline has to endure other hazards, especially with this being America the locals have a habit of shooting at it. Drunken hunters are prone to this. Quite how drunk they are and what they think it is I have no idea.

The crude oil is warm as it flows down the pipe. Consequently they have to be careful that it does not melt the permafrost. when the permafrost melts the ground turns to mud and would no longer support the weight of the pipeline.

It will be interesting to see the effect of global warming on the whole area as it is also the permafrost that keeps the ground wet. If it melted too much the surface water would drain away leaving the ground looking more like the desert it really is.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Arctic Ocean

I received quite the surprise when I finally reached the Arctic Ocean. It was much more frozen than I expected.

Here I am standing on it...

And here I am standing in it...

In the Antarctic they let you swim in the Ocean. This is as far as I could go here. You don't get a natural hot pool either, so probably best not.

The ice was generally pretty mucky too...

Especially with large bits of rust in it.

The record low for Arctic sea ice was last September 13th (2012), when it was 600 miles from here! It will be interesting to see what happens this September.

On September 14th 1984 - only 28 years ago, the Arctic Ice was still at this coastline!

Hmmm! Maybe I shouldn't be driving so much? Although up here I'm easily the smallest thing on the road.

Preparing for the Dalton Highway

One of the big goals for my trip is the Dalton Highway. It would get me past the Arctic Circle, into the Brook Range of Mountains and up to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. 1000 miles from Fairbanks, roundtrip.

One of the tricky parts of travelling to the more remote parts is judging the information you get on how severe the conditions are. Half the time it is difficult to judge the background of the person you talk to. But then of course they don't know the experience of the person they are talking to.

Rental car agencies generally won't let you take their cars up there. There are a few dedicated to providing vehicle for the trip, but they are generally much more expensive and often supply 4x4s.

Advice and info includes things like, take a good spare (no space savers), take a spare spare tire, no services for 240 miles in places, no grocery stores, expensive gas, take an extra gas canister, take a CB radio, don't bother with a CB radio. Oh yes - don't forget your camera.

In the end I decided on a new set of tires for the truck, lots of food and 4 cameras. The truck needed new tires anyway, the roads up to here are not the smoothest. It also needed quite a bit of realignment, more than I've needed on any other car. It took a while to find a tire place whose alignment machine was actually working in Anchorage.

A set of 4 All Terrain tires with a bit of extra knobblyness made me feel alot more confident and much poorer. It wasn't until later that I bothered to check the spare!

My suspicion was that the most dangerous part of the driving would be the big rigs for whom the road was built. Public traffic was not even allowed initially. Advice on this part took many forms, but basically meant - Get out of the way quickly. This was partly why a CB radio was advised.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Prudhoe Bay

One of the ironic things about the Dalton Highway is that you spend alot of money on fuel, (note the English variant agnostic vocab), fuel that gets more expensive the closer you get to the oil rigs.

Then you can't actually get to the coast. You have to stop 10 miles short. But those generous souls in the oil industry then charge only $50 to drive you the last 10 miles in a bus through the industrial complex to the Bay itself. Before I set off from Fairbanks I had provoked the comment from another traveller, "Are you really going to pay big oil for that last bit of road".

To be fair, I did find trip interesting. Driving through the complex we were given lots of insights into its workings and the life of the gas worker. It seems most are on a 2 week on 2 week off schedule, and noone hangs around for the 'off' bit. They're flown straight to Fairbanks.

I guess I wouldn't stick around in these cabins either...

Even though we could only see part of the complex it was impressive in size.

This is one of the drilling rigs they used to use...

The driver/guide pointed it out more as an example of the biggest tire you will ever see. Massive.

Once they've drilled the well a head is put on it...

Not so big. The landscape seems like it dotted with lots of loos. Admittedly large ones.

The oil or gas goes from the well heads into these large plants, which don't seem to do much processing but direct the stuff towards the pipeline. All the three major companies up there pump their output to the same pipeline. They didn't say how they tell which is which when it comes out 800 miles away weeks later in Valdez. (Yes of Exxon Valdez fame.)

They are clearly concerned about safety...

And don't like spills...

They're even keen on promoting the environment...

All very interesting.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Atigun Pass

The Dalton Highway goes right through the Brooks Range of Mountains. It goes over the Atigun Pass, one of the trickier parts of the road.

It turns out its one of those places to have a CB radio...

The local highway crews monitor Ch19 and can tell you when a wide load or convoy is on its way.

Another way to approach it is look up and see what is coming down...

Sometimes it is an extra-wide load. Fortunately they have lead cars well ahead of them with very friendly drivers, who just tell you to get out of the way, in plenty of time. They don't seem to mind that any old charley with a 4x4 uses the road too.

Then when they've gone you get up there as fast as possible.

As you can see the snow and ice is only just receding.

Finally Crossing the Arctic Circle

A couple of times I have been very close to the Polar Circles, but never actually managed to cross them. In Iceland in 1991 I think we got to within about 100 miles of the Arctic Circle. You had to take a boat for the last bit. In 2002 we got a little closer, around 80 miles, from the Antarctic Circle. This time we were blocked of by too much ice in the sea.

Of course in the good ole US of A the Arctic Circle is just another drive through. Admittedly it is nearly 200 miles north of Fairbanks and you've already hit dirt of the Dalton Highway.

Despite all that hardship I did make it...

Notice the smile has just been wiped off my face by a Mosquito. The new hoody is for keeping off the mozzies. I'm sweating buckets under there.

The next stop is Gobblers Knob. A good place for viewing the midnight sun, and sharing the innuendo of course. One of those occasions when it would be more fun to have company.

The truck is starting to get a nice 2 tone look to it. I quite like it.

... and the bike is starting to look like it should be covered up.

[Hey Mike - if you're reading this, take a look at my back window. We were nearly right. That wierd plastic lump/wing on our 4Runners is for blasting wind off the roof and down the back. It helps to keep the rear window clean, almost]

Staying ahead of the crowds

In my usual style I am travelling whilst trying to stay away from the crowds. This is tricky especially with places like Denali National Park. It's one of the reasons I left the Bay Area and headed north a little earlier.

In Denali especially it is particularly difficult to avoid the crowds as there is only one road into the park. Most people have to take the park buses to enter so there tend to be groups of people around. This of course makes it much trickier to see the wildlife. Being by myself I'm not so keen on hiking a long way away from the road.

I figured out that the cyclists can go anywhere along the road. So the first day I got there, I drove as far in as I could then jumped on the bike. Almost as soon as I got away from the car I started seeing much more wildlife. Dall sheep, mountain goats and then a grizzly. Fortunately he was a long way away. Too far for a photo.

Then it turns out that the buses will take bikes. So I popped my bike on the front of one and went as far as it would take me. (The road wasn't open all the way to the end then.) Then I jumped on the bike and went further along the road.

I was treated to the wonderful but scary sight of these guys...

They look very cute, but that is probably the most dangerous combination in Alaska. Another agressive mother and her cubs. When I first saw them they were on the other side of a small gulley, but they headed off downhill out of sight and I had to figure out whether they were coming back up my side. A little tricky when out of sight. Then of course I had to figure out whether to continue along the road or beat a hasty retreat back to the car park. A park ranger assured me I'd be okay continuing as long as I kept my eyes open. I don't think they could have got any wider.

I hung around a little longer and got the photo above and many other good ones, until they headed off in the direction of blocking off my route home. Then I headed off further along the road to have lunch near a beaver pond. When I came back again later they'd completely disappeared.

In total, that day, I saw 5 grizzlies, 2 moose, 30 Dall sheep (including loads of lambs), 1 red fox, and a few caribou.

I must've burnt up alot of nervous energy that day as that evening I ordered a huge rack of ribs. I finished them before the waiter returned - he said "Wow, Proud of you Man!".

Alaskan Junkyards

Driving in and out of all these Alaskan towns a pattern emerges. After hours of driving through the middle of nowhere you start to see presentations of different styles of rusty metal. Usually there is a hint of vehicle shape about the metal. Sometimes not so much.

Each house on the edge of town appears to take pride in having the largest selection of rust available. Fortunately things start to get better as you progress further into the town itself.

For a photographer these are vast stores of weird shapes and textures. So it is very tempting to stop at each one. Alot are close to what must be peoples homes, so it's a bit awkward to stop and take pictures.

Some places have tidied things up a bit, so I stopped at one place where it had this...

It can't have moved in years. But was a relatively healthy specimen.

I was there only a few minutes when someone came over quickly from one of the buildings. So I thought Oh, Oh I'm in trouble now. But no it was just the petrol pump and store attendant feeling rather lonely and hoping for a chat.

So I asked him why there were so many of these 'displays' of iron around. He claimed that alot, like this one was indeed set out for display and to generate interest in the place. But most are a collection of spare parts that they hope to be able to use again.

I had my doubts about the spare part bit as I'd seen this around the corner...

I'd love to see someone get that engine going again.

And I'll bet there's not a single usable part in this one.

When I mentioned this location to the guy, he said "Oh that's my uncles yard" and admitted there wasn't much usable there. Just the feeling that one day...

Monday, June 10, 2013

Going soft in California

They say that if you live too long in California you go soft because the living is so easy. Well one of the things I've finally gotten used to is the endless switchbacking of the trails in the heavily managed parks. Almost any trail is doable if you have the time.

Well not in Alaska, they go straight up...

That green slope on the left is what I'm hiking up. One of those situations where it's actually easier going up than coming back down. Especially when the trail is loose gravel.

But then the view is starting to look like this...

At this point I have reached the top that I could see from the campground.

But above me is this...

And these guys are above me too...

(His mates are the other side of the hill.)

So I kept going until I was level with him...

Then I kept going until I was above him...

Then I figured I may as well keep going until I reached the top...

I was only sure it was the top when I saw the Tibetan Prayer Flags (this ones for you Fee ;-))

That was one nine hour hike. Good job it never actually gets dark up here in the summer.

Captain Cook woz 'ea

It seems like everywhere I go I am preceded by the miners of the world. Wandering around Colorado late last year I often found myself following an old miners road. Even alot of the hikes in Snowdonia, North Wales are old miners tracks. I guess that especially while I'm driving someone will have been there before me.

Preceding the miners and other extraction professions is usually the explorer. Growing up, Captain Cook was one of those English explorers that always seemed to get to those interesting places. He was one of those boyhood heroes who made me wish I didn't get seasick so easily. Well it turns out he beat me to Alaska too. He was searching for the Northwest Passage to help get the riches of the Pacific back to Europe. Someone should have told him to wait for global warming.

This is the view from Captain Cook State Park...

Absolutely pristine view of Cook Inlet. 

Then you get the binoculars out to search for wildlife. It turns out there are about 15 oil/gas rigs out there, although I only noticed one initially. Then there is also this low level thrumming noise presumably coming from these things.

Alot of the story of Alaska is of the extraction of the natural wealth, it seems that the appeal of wildlife and nature tourism is only just beginning to take hold.

[woz 'ea means "was here" in Brummie]

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Even The Wildlife is More Civilised Than Me!

Well I guess that it's no surprise to some (most?) of you that I'm starting to realise wildlife is somewhat more civilised than me.

I've now got as far as Homer on the end of the Kenai peninsula. It's famous as a spot for seeing large quantities of Bald Eagles. The last time I was here I very nearly got an amazing shot of a bald eagle rising out of the sea with a fish in it's talons. It flew straight at me and I took a sequence of photos as it got bigger. Then the film ran out, and it was all over. Now I have a digital camera with a better lens, faster focus tracking and most importantly almost endless memory capacity.

Apparently though the 'Bird Lady' who used to feed them has since died and alot of the birds have moved on. I had to be content with a reasonable shot of a juvenile digesting its dinner.

On the way 'home' one night I passed a mother moose and calf living in town...

Like most mothers, moose females can be very agressive, but this one tolerated me hanging around taking shots of the two of them until I got bored. Then it was me that had to head out of town to eat and sleep.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


While the road North is still iced up, I'm staying around the South West of Alaska especially the Kenai Peninsula.

I've only ever seen Orcas in the distance before, so I hopped on the boat into Kenai Fjords National Park from Seward and hoped for the best. Apparently the best times to see them in this area are between 5th May and 5th June! Being highly intelligent, presumably they all share a Google calendar to get the timing consistent.

It is a fair way out into the park, the whole trip is a 6 hour day. Fortunately it was a smooth day, otherwise I would have struggled to enjoy it at all.

As it was we were surrounded by whales right from the beginning. The only real disappointment was that the boat was very full of tourists. It was difficult to get good shots of the wildlife without hitting  a tourist with my big lens. Having the biggest lens on the boat had its advantages. Some were very helpful and got out of the way when they saw me coming. One guy even wanted a photo of himself posing with it.

This large bull Orca came straight over to check us out. He very quickly got too close for my big lens.

I've still yet to see either an Orca or a whale breach.

We also saw all the other stuff you generally see in this area: humpbacks, mountains goats, bears, porpoises, otters and glaciers.

Monday, May 20, 2013

I've Made it to Alaska!!!


As usual my posts are a little bit behind where I am.
It has gotten a little worse as I've just covered 1600 miles since the last post...

All the way from Jasper, Alberta to Tok (pronounced Towke) in Alaska, via The Yukon. All done without Internet access. So it is still possible!

The official Alaska Highway starts in a place called Dawson Creek at Mile 0, but then everything else is in Kilometres!

As you can see it starts off nice and sunny. Alot further north it looked more like this...

Bike Rack to the Rescue

So that new bike rack I have been proudly featuring in some of my pics has solved a few problems.

On my previous trips, earlier this year and last year I really missed my mountain bike. It's a great bit of exercise, especially after a long day in the drivers seat.

I tried all sorts of combinations of bike inside the truck or on the back door with my ancient rack. But this new one leaves you with good access to the boot, and it all locks to the car. Truly amazing.

The other big problem I was left with when I decided not to buy a camper, was how to cook in the rain. Turns out the bike rack is good for that too...

Unless the rain is really heavy this configuration works great, and I have a tarp which (should) wrap around the lot for really bad weather. It's even possible to get from there to bed, without going 'outside' although I could get stuck.

Note the Trangia cooker I bought in 1991! How's that for re-use?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Canadian Motels are Expensive

The Motel up the road wanted $100 for a room with a view of the car park.

Just down the road I found this spot for nothing...

In the US I've developed the taste for Free camping in National Forests. It's one of the reasons I'm so keen on being able to kip in the truck. It means it doesn't matter what the terrain is like.

Fortunately the Canadians also have these vast public areas where you can camp as long as you bring your own facilities. This spot is right outside of Banff National Park. I can't tell you exactly where as the guy 100 trees over bought my silence with a beer.