I’ve Seen Glaciers, and I’ve Seen Rain

August 29 – Sept 4, 2021

If you’ve been reading along from the beginning (way back in 2015), you may have noticed that I occasionally title my blog posts with a twisted hint of a song lyric. Like this one, thanks to the 1970 James Taylor hit. This is usually caused by having way too much time on my hands while riding along, thinking about my next blog post. I kind of like it though, so I think I’ll try to work in more song references.

It’s been more than ten days since we’ve had enough wifi to post anything, so once again, it’s time to catch up.

We left Denali and headed to Anchorage, basing there for two nights. This allowed us to do a couple of things: the first morning we headed further south to Seward, and boarded another ship for a tour of the Kenai Fjords and glaciers. We couldn’t have asked for nicer weather, after spending so much time in the rain. In Seward it was in the low 60s and clear blue skies. The seas were calm, allowing our captain to take us to places he said he could only go a couple of times a year.

Peeking through an arch in Chiswell Island towards Kenai Fjords National Park. This is one of those places the tour rarely gets to go because the weather and seas were perfect today.

There are more than 35 named glaciers in Kenai Fjords, and their source, the Harding Ice Fields, covers more than 700 square miles. This is Holgate Glacier. To get an idea of the size of it, compare this photo with the close-up below, then look back at the lower right corner of the glacier in this photo. That’s where the boat is.

Closeup of the lower right corner area of the previous photo, showing the large tour boat. For perspective.

Harbor seal hanging out on an iceberg just off the Holgate Glacier.

We returned to Anchorage that evening, and the next morning we took another set of PCR tests to allow us back into Canada. We weren’t sure if we could find a lab closer to the border, since there isn’t much along that route (Tok, the closest town to the border crossing, is 90 miles away and has a population of about 1300). We had to time our tests so that we would arrive at the border within the required 72-hour window, yet we were headed to Valdez for a couple of days first, and Valdez is still 350 miies from the border.

After receiving our negative COVID results, we left Anchorage and headed for Valdez. There is no direct route. “As the crow flies”, it’s only 75 miles between the two towns, but by road it’s 300 miles. We got lucky and had decent weather almost the entire way, only catching the rain as we approached Valdez. Then it rained nearly the entire time we were there.

Matanuska Glacier, between Anchorage and Glennallen.

Worthington Glacier, near Thompson Pass on the Richardson Highway.

Horsetail Falls, in Keystone Canyon, just outside of Valdez.

Bridal Veil Falls, Keystone Canyon. Whoever names waterfalls needs to be more creative. These are about the fifth “Horsetail” and “Bridal Veil” falls we’ve visited.

The ride through Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon into Valdez is very scenic, but there isn’t much in the town itself. There are boat tours out to the glaciers from here as well, and we saw a number of tour buses in town. One bus load of Korean tourists were staying at our hotel. I was curious how it was that a busload of Korean tourists could get into Alaska, since supposedly the US was still closed to foreign tourists. So I asked. It turns out they may be Korean (originally), and speaking Korean, but they live in Los Angeles.

I spent one afternoon removing the skid plate from the bike and scraping more Dalton Highway mud out (probably ten pounds worth). Between that and removing the mud on the rear wheel, I was able to reduce the vibration that I was feeling. While cleaning the bike, a couple of BMWs rode up. Jens and Kelly are from Lake Tahoe, and rode their BMWs up to tour Alaska; their last Alaska tour was on bicycles! We talked for a while before they returned to their campsite on the eastern edge of town.

The next morning we left Valdez in the rain, heading back the way we came and on towards the border. We had discussed spending the night in Tok, as our 72 hour PCR test window would allow us until around 11am the next morning to cross. But it was still fairly early in the afternoon when we reached Tok, and we decided to go ahead and cross the border, and stay in Beaver Creek, an even smaller town on the Yukon, Canada side. As we were getting gas in Tok, Jens and Kelly rode up. They had reached the same conclusion, so we decided to cross and meet up in Beaver Creek.

When we got to the border, there was actually a line of cars waiting to cross (mostly RVs and a couple of 18 wheelers) We were about twelve vehicles back, and it ended up taking about an hour to get through. As we sat in line talking with Jens and Kelly, a couple from Pennsylvania in an RV got out and walked back and started talking with Jens about his BMW GS. Jens said, “you look familiar. Do I know you? Did you ride an older BMW R80GS in Baja a few years ago, and broke down?”

Sure enough, they had ridden together in Mexico. Even in a place as big as Alaska, it’s still a small world.

After crossing into Canada (much easier and friendlier this time), we stopped for fuel and lodging at the 1202 Inn (named, as most things here are, for the milepost on the Alaska highway where it is located). Jens and Kelly chose to pitch their tent (for around US$10 for a campsite with a picnic table and electricity). We decided to splurge and get the “budget room” at US$40. All I can say is the bed was comfortable and the sheets seemed to be freshly laundered. The rest of the room hadn’t been cleaned, repaired, or updated since it was built some 50 or more years ago. It was a little creepy, but it slept just fine. Although the tent probably would have been just as good for thirty dollars less.

We had a great conversation with Jens and Kelly about their travels through Vietnam on two small Honda XR150s, and we introduced them to house sitting (which, by the way, we have three more sits confirmed over the next month, which will thankfully help lower the overall lodging expenses).

The next morning we said our goodbyes. Jens and Kelly headed for Whitehorse, as they planned to continue home via the Alaskan Highway. We turned off at Haines Junction, and once again re-entered the United Staes just north of Haines, Alaska. We thought we were done with the mud for a while, but it turned out there was eight miles of highway missing just before Haines.

The only polar bear we saw, and I’m okay with that. Outside our budget room at the 1202 Inn in Beaver Creek, Yukon. I told Kelly and Jens that our room reminded me of my grandmother’s house…about a decade after it was abandoned and just before they tore it down. Just kidding. They never tore her house down. This one is higher up on the “must raze” list.

With Jens and Kelly. We’re hoping to meet up with them again somewhere down the road.

Twenty five miles north of Haines, Alaska, just after crossing back into Alaska from Canada. These phone booths were just randomly sitting on the side of the road. I walked up and looked inside, and it’s complete with a notepad and a coffee cup full of pens. People have been signing in. I’m surprised it wasn’t covered with traveler stickers, but then again, I forgot to leave one of ours.

Near the Last Call phone booth was this tree with mileage signs on it, and a couple more phones.

We spent the night at the Salmon Run Campground outside of Haines. We were the only guests aside from some family members of the owners. Sadly, they explained that in the past year, they had taken in $1100 total due to the pandemic. Haines is one of those places that is hard to get to when you can’t drive through Canada.

Haines, Alaska.

Just north of the Salmon Run Campground is Chilkoot Lake. The last half mile or so of the road up to the lake is beautiful, and is a popular place to watch the bears.

We had the entire next day to relax, as we were boarding the 7:45pm ferry in Haines. This gave us some time to catch up on some things, and interview for yet another house sit in the Austin area for when we return (which we just found out we got!). I can highly recommend the Rusty Compass Coffee Shop in Haines. Great coffee, and free wi-fi.

Although we were in Alaska only a total of about three weeks, we hit a number of the high spots. There is certainly a lot more to see, and I already regret not making it to Kennicott-McCarthy. That’s at the top of my list for the next Alaska trip, along with the Bald Eagle preserve on the way into Haines.

It’s a long ride to Alaska, but there’s a lot to see on the way there, so we might as well do it again some time in the future. Or we could just be tourists, and fly there I guess.

Nah….

Four Days on a Ferry Boat

September 4-8, 2021

The 1982 Split Enz song was “Six Months In A Leaky Boat”, and that’s the song I can’t get out of my head as we ride off the ferry in Bellingham, Washington. It’s only been three and a half days, and as far as I know, it wasn’t leaking. It was a long four days though. I guess I’m just not cut out to be a cruise ship tourist. I know this wasn’t a cruise, and I’m sure a large part of the attraction for many cruise participants is the buffet. No buffet here. Meals are served on a regular schedule, and a limited menu, and they cost extra. In fact, even a room costs extra; you don’t have to have a room to ride the ferry for four days from Alaska to Washington. You can’t stay in your car, or your RV, but you don’t have to have a room. Patience is a good thing to have, and it’s probably best if you’re not someone like me, that wants to be constantly in motion. I never took up golf for the same reason: too slow. Motorcycle racing? Yes, please. Skydiving? Sure. Ferry = low/no adrenaline ride, at least until the open ocean gets things rocking.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Alaska Marine Highway between points in Alaska and south, here’s a very short version of how it works:

Pedestrians (backpackers, bicyclists, etc) board first. Most, if not all, of these people do not have rooms on the ship. They make their way as fast as they possibly can to the upper rear deck of the ship. Here there is a large covered area with chaise lounges and heat lamps on the ceiling. They throw their backpacks on a chair, and that is their claimed living area for the next four days. Those that arrive too late for a chair pitch their tents on the open deck.

This is what the aft upper deck looks like after the backpackers board. I can’t blame them. The price of a cabin is about as bad as the price of a room at Deadhorse.

Motorcycles board next. You must tie your motorcycle down, and you must provide your own tie-downs. Oops, I forgot about that. I carried straps on my 250 lst time for just this purpose. This time I have to improvise, and I end up using the bungee straps from our camping bag. They’re not really tie-downs, but they seem to do the trick.

Cars, RVs, large commercial vehicles, etc load next. Those carrying pets are not allowed to take them above the vehicle deck. The animals must ride in the cars the entire four days. Owners are permitted to go down to their vehicles once every six hours or so to let their dogs out of the car to do their business on the vehicle deck. Every dog I ever had would have chewed the seats completely out of the car by the second day out of sheer boredom or nervousness.

The ferry makes several stops along the way. We stopped in Juneau from midnight to 3am, in Sitka, and in Ketchikan for a couple of hours each. You are allowed to go ashore during this time, but we chose to stay on board, as between the odd hours and the short time limit, it didn’t seem worth it.

The first time I took this ferry (from Skagway to Bellingham in 2004), I didn’t get a cabin. And being on a motorcycle, we were too late to claim lounge chairs under the heat lamps. We set up the tent, but ended up lashing it to the railing because the wind was so strong (and there’s no place to drive stakes into the deck, obviously). After one day I put the tent away and ended up sleeping on any available chair or couch inside the lounge areas when possible. Seventeen years later, we spent the outrageous extra amount for a cabin, and spent most of our time there, sleeping. The cabin is about five feet by twelve feet, but that includes the two bunks and the bathroom. So there isn’t really any place to sit other than the bunk. Other than the fact that there is a door on the bathroom, it doesn’t look much different than the typical prison cell.

The views are worth taking the ferry. It’s the same views as a cruise ship, without the buffet. Some of the passages are so narrow you’d swear there’s no way a ship this size could fit through there. More than once I thought we were headed for the beach but we turned at the last instant.

As a devout hermit, I fell in love with this place. Their own private island, just large enough for the house and enough trees to block the view from land. But not from the ferries and cruise ships. Yeah, that would be a deal breaker for me, I guess. But you can’t beat their view looking out when there aren’t any ships in the way.

Hard to see here, but this is a photo of the live track from the ship’s bridge, showing part of our route, through the Peril Strait (apt name). See the green ship in the circle? That’s us. Wedged between land and about to make a couple of very sharp S-turns.

I believe everyone who travels long term needs one or two personal extravagances. Ours are the AeroPress coffee press and a deck of Phase 10 cards. This has turned into an almost nightly ritual at the campsite, and two games a day on the ferry.

Leaving the Matanuska ferry in Bellingham, Washington after three and a half days. We departed Haines, Alaska on Saturday at 7:45pm and landed in Washington at 8am Wednesday.

For the price of the ferry ride (without meals), we could air freight the motorcycle to Europe, and buy two coach class air tickets, and be riding in Europe within a couple of days. I had regrets several times during that four days, wishing we had saved the expense and just ridden back through Canada with Kelly and Jens. But today as we sit in Idaho, we’ve heard that Kelly and Jens are stuck in northern BC due to weather (which was my main concern and reason for taking the ferry). So I guess it was a trade-off of sorts.

At least we didn’t spend six months on a leaky boat. It just seemed like six months.

Fun Trivia Fact: Split Enz’ song was banned in 1982 by the BBC because Britain was in the middle of the Falklands War, and the BBC thought a song about leaky boats during their naval war was inappropriate. Never mind that the song has nothing to do with the Navy, the war, etc.