Alaska

Driving the Alaska Highway in from the Yukon, we arrived in Alaska and spent our first night at a campground in Tok. The next day, after a quick stop in North Pole, we arrived in Fairbanks. We celebrated by staying in a nice B&B for the first two nights.

It’s always Christmas at the North Pole

While in Fairbanks, we made use of the excellent Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center, complete with a comprehensive museum and films about the state. Chris took a day tour to the Arctic Circle while I stayed in town and had a pedicure and watched Ocean’s Eight. We went to the Chena River Hot Springs and had a relaxing soak in the mineral waters.

Chris at the Arctic Circle
Chena River Hot Springs

From Fairbanks, we drove to Denali National Park. On the way down we had pretty clear weather and we could see the mountain and the mountain chain. We went on some hikes-amazing views of the green hills, braided rivers, and snow capped mountains in this wild 6 million acre park with only one road- and explored their visitor center, and visited the sled dog kennel. We attended a Ranger talk about how some of the animals are able to adapt to the harsh winter- fascinating stuff! Animals are so versatile. On our third day we took the bus into the interior of the park; sadly on that day it was raining and we did not have a very good view of the mountain at all. However we did get to see lots of animals: a moose and moose cub hung out in our campground, we saw three grizzlies, lots of snowshoe hares, ptarmigans, falcons, eagles, and arctic squirrels. My friend Danielle works at a shop up in Denali and so we got to hang out with her a couple times so that was really fun.

Sled Dog Unit
Grizzly Bears
Savage Alpine Trail
Mama and baby moose

After leaving Denali we drove south, stopping in Talkeetna for an afternoon. My friend Rick worked there last summer for an air taxi company that ferries climbers onto Denali mountain, and he recommended that we stop in this cute town. Around 1100 climbers attempt to summit each year, and only half make it. Even base camp is at 7000 feet, and the summit is just over 20,000 feet. Climbers don’t use oxygen, and with -40 degree weather and winds over 100 mph, it is considered by some to be the most dangerous mountain in the world.

Here’s Rick, landing at basecamp on Denali
Awesome photo of Denali is courtesy of Danielle E.

We arrived in Anchorage and spent two days exploring the city. While we were there we tried to arrange passage for us on the Marine Highway (the Alaska ferry) but after having difficulty with their website we jokingly wondered if maybe there was a cruise that we could take. We looked online and happily, there was one leaving in two days so without a lot of preplanning we booked it (more on that later).

Anchorage

In the two intervening days we drove down to the Kenai Peninsula. We drove all the way through the Chugach National Forest and out to Homer, where the western-most Alaskan road ends (there are roads further west in Alaska but you have to either fly or sail in order to get to them). We visited a small Russian town named Ninilchik and the Russian Orthodox Church there, and were wowed by the wildflowers everywhere- Alaska is surprisingly colorful in the summer! We camped along the Russian River for two nights and did a hike each evening. On one of our hikes as we were walking along the river we encountered a small black bear and her two baby cubs. They were there looking for salmon and they were able to find their dinner, and we were able to get a photo.

Alaska Wildflowers
Baby Bears
The city of Homer, looking out over Katmei National Park
Russian Orthodox Church of Ninilchik

After the Kenai Peninsula we took a bus to Whittier, where our cruise ship departed from. It was a seven night cruise, heading south to Vancouver. The first two days were at sea, and we sailed by and stopped at the Hubbard Glacier and then Glacier Bay National Park. A park ranger came aboard and we got to learn all about this huge roadless wilderness. I have to say, it was pretty amazing to sit on deck beneath the midnight sun, keeping an eye out for whales, otters, orcas and sea lions.

Chris and Deah, ready to cruise!
Marjorie Glacier, at Glacier Bay National Park

On the third day we stopped at the small town of Skagway. We went on a city hike, and visited the first Gold Rush cemetery and the beautiful Reid Falls. The next day our port was Juneau, where we hiked all around the city and then up through a rain forest to Mount Roberts, and then took the tramway down- what a beautiful view!

The Mt Roberts Tramway, 1800 feet up

Our last port of call was Ketchikan. This “first city of Alaska” has very temperate weather, seaplanes taking off and landing every few minutes, gold shops, and ice cold beer. We visited a hatchery and watched the salmon on their upstream run back to their spawning grounds.

A Seaplane Lands at Ketchikan

After a final day at sea, our cruise docked at Vancouver, and we took the light rail to the airport and caught our flight back to Anchorage. The next day we headed north and east, and then south toward Canada, through Glacier View and Wrangell St Elias National Park. We kept stopping along the highway, trying to get in that last breath-taking photo, as if Alaska was trying to stay with us a little longer.

Elias

We drove about 1400 miles in Alaska, and cruised 1600 more. Now it’s time to explore the Pacific Northwest! Stay tuned for an update after we drive south through British Columbia, camp with friends on Vancouver Island, and visit with friends in Washington and Oregon.

Road Trip Week 3: Canada Northbound

Deah and Chris at the Alaska Yukon border

Why drive the 1500 mile Alaska Highway, which officially goes from Dawson Creek, Alberta, to Delta Junction, Alaska? Mainly because you won’t see a single Panera Bread, Best Buy, Bed Bath and Beyond, or Burger King at any exit. Each stretch of the road is unique, with lots of sights, activities, scenery, and wildlife.

Here’s some of our highlights, heading north from Montana into Alberta, then from Calgary up to eastern BC and into Yukon, then into Alaska and ending at Fairbanks.

Craft beer at Medicine Hat Brewing Company: it was a little out of our way, but when else do you get a chance to visit Medicine Hat?

Banff and Jasper National Parks: driving through these two national parks is just sublime. Beautiful forests, glacial lakes, and the Canadian Rockies are a hard-to-beat combination.

Wildlife spotting: on this leg of the journey we caught mule deer, bald eagle, elk, moose, bison, porcupine, fox, coyote, wild swans and about six black bears on camera. We spotted but didn’t get a picture of a wolf and wolf pup, a marten, and a few predator birds, as well as a ptarmigan.

Picnics in parks, riversides, and lakesides: we favor easy to make foods like tortilla wraps, nachos, or bacon and eggs, with supplements from produce stands. With such lovely views to look at, it always tastes delicious.

Visiting local attractions: stopping in at Liard River Hot Springs felt amazing after a long day of driving, and the Kluane Museum in Yukon features over 70 taxidermied arctic animals. The Sign Post Forest was fun to hunt for local signs, and the Klondike paddleboat in Whitehorse was a slice of history.

Going 100 miles out of the way to tag a new province: we left the AlCan Highway and traveled up to Fort Liard in Northwest Territories (population 534) just so that Chris could tag his second-to-last Canadian province (I refused to drive to Nunavut).

We drove along wildlife refuges, the largest non-polar ice field in the world, and along the Alaska pipeline. We saw the world’s largest Santa Claus, sent some mail from the North Pole, and finally made it to Fairbanks, where after more than 5000 total driving miles from home, we’re sitting still for a couple of days and enjoying a lovely B&B on the edge of the University of Fairbanks campus, before we tackle Denali and then the Marine Highway.

We’ll be in Alaska for the next few weeks, so it will be a while before we post again, as we head south towards the Lower 48. Be sure to give us any recommendations for things to do and see while we’re here!

Road Trip Week Two: South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana

Roadtrippers map

South Dakota is a surprisingly fun state with lots of interesting- and free- attractions. First up on our list was the Corn Palace in Mitchell- this civic auditorium creates huge murals made of corn products each year (this year’s theme is weather). They also serve some delicious popcorn s’mores balls, which I highly recommend.

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Next on our list was the Akta Lakota Museum– a free (donations welcome) museum that tells the story of the death of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee, as well as general information about the Sioux (the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota tribes) way of life. The museum has some beautiful art work as well some props from the Dances With Wolves movie. At the same exit, but across the highway, a 50 foot tall statue entitled “Dignity of Earth and Sky” has been installed as of 2016, and is really beautiful. She’s visible from the highway but I’d definitely recommend stopping for a look.

The following day, we started off with a tour of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. It is crazy and scary to think of how close we came to nuclear war- not once but on several occasions.

We picked up our National Parks Access Pass ($80, good for one year) at the entrance to Badlands National Park, and spent a few hours driving through there. We got lucky at one of our first pull-offs and encountered a bighorn sheep crossing the road right in front of us. I always thought the Badlands would be fairly monochrome but in fact they were colorful and variable in really lovely ways.

We took the off-highway road through the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands on our way down to Mt Rushmore. We were worried at first because it began to rain, a lot, and the temperatures dropped and it was pretty miserable. But the weather app promised it would clear up, so we parked at Mt Rushmore, dodged the rain, and went and toured the museum and watched the video, and when we came out, the rain had stopped and the fog lifted and we got a nice view of the mountain with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt carved on it.

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The next morning, we visited the Crazy Horse Memorial– my parents had gifted us with a special tour to the top of the arm, where you can really see the work being done on this colossal carving project- the largest in the world, in fact (the four profiles in Mt Rushmore easily fit on the side of Crazy Horse’s head, and when finished, it will be taller than the Washington Monument). Learning about the history of both Crazy Horse and the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, was really awe-inspiring. Imagine being so committed to a project that you knew would be finished in your lifetime!

From there, we drove through the Black Hills and did a quick drive by of both Deadwood and Sturgis. Even a month before the Sturgis motorcycle rally, there were plenty of bikers all over the Black Hills roads. It’s a fun drive. We also stopped in at Belle Fourche, which claims to be the geographic center of the United States.

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We made it to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, in the afternoon, and went for a walk around the monolithic magma butte- what a cool landform. So unique. We also got to sit for a while and laugh at the prairie dogs, which are really hilarious to watch.

That night we camped in the Bighorn National Forest- we drove in to the park, turned on one of the side roads, and wound up following the road until we were 7800 feet above sea level and we had arrived at a horseman’s camp. But they had empty spots so we pitched our tent there and enjoyed the lovely, if chilly views. The national forest campgrounds provide a picnic table, fire ring, toilets, and water, and are a bargain at only $10.

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With that, we left Wyoming and headed north to Montana. We stopped and spent half a day at the Bighorn National Battlefield Monument, a monument to all the men who died there. The battle is often called “Custer’s Last Stand”, but really, it was the last stand of the Indians who surely knew it was their last chance to avoid being contained on a reservation. The ranger giving the talk was so knowledgeable and obviously really enjoyed his work- this was his 30th summer at that national park.

“Warriors, we have everything to fight for and if we are defeated we shall have nothing left to live for; therefore, let us fight like brave men”. — Sitting Bull

That night we drove into the Lewis and Clark National Forest and camped- we weren’t so high up this time but it was still cold- down in the 40’s- and it rained a bit that night. But our tent stayed dry and we were able to catch the most amazing sunset (still light out at almost ten pm).

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We decided, with this being Fourth of July week, that we will wait to see Yellowstone National Park on our way back after Burning Man in September. Anxious to get on up to Alaska, we passed through the border at Sweet Grass Montana and into Canada this afternoon. Stay tuned for the next blog post in a week or so, which will be about Alberta and Yukon Territory. Got suggestions for these Canadian territories? Let me know.

Road Trip Week One: Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota

House on the Rock Wisconsin Spring Green

We gave the house keys to the realtor and Chris carried me over the threshold from our first home to our new life on the road. The first weekend we camped fairly close to home, making sure we had all the equipment we needed and didn’t need to stop by the storage unit and grab anything, and we also took the opportunity for a digital detox. For four days our phones were locked in the glovebox and we were able to connect with nature and each other with no distractions.

Farewell to Southgate Square!
Getting to know our camp set up

Then, confident we had everything we needed for whatever adventures lay ahead of us (and with a lot of extra stuff in the car that we immediately started ditching), we hopped on the Pennsylvania turnpike and headed west. We made it to Ohio and stayed the night in Toledo- a new state for me! Eager to see more, we headed to Michigan the next morning.

Ready for some car camping

Our first “real” stop was Kalamazoo, Michigan. Mainly just because it has a funny name, we had always wanted to visit. Because we both like beer, we went to the Kalamazoo Beer Exchange- a very cool building (used to be a coffin factory) with a fun theme- based on the stock market, the prices of the beer fluctuate all evening and randomly, there will be a  “market crash” and you can buy low! We visited the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, a free 3-story museum with lots of fun to see and explore. We wound up spending a couple of hours there, and really enjoyed it. Then we walked along the downtown pedestrian mall- the first in America!- and picked up some “Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo!” postcards.

This is Kalamazoo

Rain was coming so we drove a couple more hours to Cadillac Lake in the Huron-Manistee National Forest and stayed in a lakeside motel there, enjoying a walk through a state park and a visit to a produce stand and a pasties shop, which made a delicious dinner. We spent the night and then we were back on the road and headed for the UP! We stopped to stretch our legs at the Mackinac Bridge and Light House before venturing over the bridge- the longest single-anchorage bridge in America- that connects lower Michigan to the Upper Peninsula.

Mackinac Lighthouse
“Big Mac”

Once in the Upper Peninsula we went to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, at the very tip of the juncture where Lake Superior meets Lake Huron (so far north, AT&T thinks we were in Canada and charged me overages). With over 500 shipwrecks and 3,000 lives lost, there was a lot to explore at this museum including a video about and the bell from the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (cue the Gordon Lightfoot here). Chris climbed the lighthouse to watch ships passing through the straits.

We drove through the Hiawatha National Forest, and spent the night at a riverside campground off of Lake Michigan. Not bad for $15, although the mosquitos seemed as big as eagles and made making dinner a chore. However, the night was clear and we were able to sleep without the fly on the tent up and it was a beautiful night.

A clear night for camping
Escanaba River, Michigan

We headed south to Wisconsin and the big attraction there- for us- was Spring Green, home to both Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and The House on the Rock, which we had both read about in the Neil Gaiman book “American Gods” (currently filming season 2, which actually takes place at the House on the Rock). Thankfully we arrived around 1 pm, and had a full four hours to explore this indescribable attraction. Part architecturally amazing house built on an actual rock (with parts of the rock both inside and outside the house), it is also filled with collections of such oddities I could not even begin to list them. That’s just the first part.

It gets a little weirder with the cantilevered “Infinity Room”, jutting out 218 unsupported feet.

Parts 2 and 3 consist not only “Streets of Yesterday” and “Heritage of the Sea” buildings, there were also huge rooms full of collectibles, models, artwork, toys, games, and – the most amazing bits – full size mechanized orchestras of dolls, skeletons, mannequins- and– most famously- not one but two giant carousels (one of which is the largest in America, and boasts 182 chandeliers). Words defy me here- you just have to see it on your own. Imagine Alice in Wonderland after eating the entire bottle of pills. I’ll leave it at that.

This sea creature is larger than the Statue of Liberty.
Over 200 unique animals on the carousel- not a single horse
Not even sure what this is- steampunk maybe?

With a quick spin to the Frank Lloyd Wright visitor center– they were about to close- and a drive-by of Taliesin, we continued west to La Crosse, a cute college town on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. We enjoyed a beer and a taco pizza at Sloopy’s Alma Mater, which of course came with fried cheese curds- delicious. It was everything you would expect of a local bar in Wisconsin, complete with a stranger buying us a beer.

We didn’t have any plans for Minnesota except to drive through it to get to South Dakota, so we just made it a straight drive with a stop for lunch. We were hoping for some real Minnesota dishes (I had read “Kitchens of the Great Mid-West” with my book club”) and we were not disappointed with Grandma’s Kitchen, which featured a chicken salad made with chicken, mayo, cool whip, and grapes, with a rootbeer float.

Minnesota

And so we continue. Our next update will feature South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana, so stay tuned for another post before we head into Canada and then Alaska.

Any suggestions for Wyoming or Montana? Drop them here!

Could you Downsize from a Townhome to a 40 Liter backpack?

suitcases stacked

Four years ago Chris and I rented out our house, stored all our belongings, and backpacked southeast Asia for a year. At that point we had only lived in our home for two years, so we hadn’t acquired too much stuff, and we could Continue reading “Could you Downsize from a Townhome to a 40 Liter backpack?”