Monday, December 27, 2010
Thursday, December 16, 2010
South Through British Columbia
It had been a memorable trip and I was ready to head home. I knew I had some great photographs and was anxious to get to work on producing the panoramas. But the weather was perfect and I was still a long, long way from California.
As it turned out the best was yet to come.
September 17, 2010
I turned off the Alcan onto the Cassiar Highway, heading south for the first time since Valdez. The fires that had prevented me from using this route northbound were still smoldering. When I first drove the Cassiar (BC Highway 37) almost twenty years ago, none of it was paved - now all of it is.
There are a number of lakes along the northern half of the Cassiar Highway that have white clay beaches and shallows, producing startling shades of blues and greens.
On the floating dock at Boya Lake
Early afternoon I stopped at the Rabid Grizzly Rest Stop -- does that sound restful? As I walked along the beach on Dease Lake I realized that I was following some very large cloven hoof prints - moose.
Fall colors around huge Dease Lake
I faced a difficult decision at Dease Lake -- whether or not to make the 70 mile (one way) side trip down the Stikine River to Telegraph Creek. The weather seemed to be changing and eventually I decided that the side trip to Stewart/Hyder was more important photographically.
Telegraph Creek is the epitome of a middle-of-nowhere village, miraculously preserved and partly restored. I first went there in 1996, stayed at the Riversong Inn, and met owner Dan Pakula and some of his family. I returned in 2000 with seven students (including Kat and Landis Bennett, well known in the VR photography community), and saw Dan again. We have kept in intermmitent contact via e-mail ever since.
That evening the campground host at Kinaskan Lake gave me the tragic news that Dan Pakula had died a few weeks earlier in a freak accident. A huge loss to his community, and to his many far-flung friends.
September 18, 2010
A cold wonderfully clear morning for a beautiful drive south through near wilderness on the Cassiar Highway. At Meziadin Lake I turned west on the Glacier Highway, cutting across the Coast Mountains to the twin towns of Stewart, BC and Hyder, Alaska. This is a highly scenic route, with a dozen glaciers spilling off mountain tops high above the road.
The Bear Glacier from the Glacier Highway
At the summit the Bear Glacier comes right down to road level. It used to cross the valley and the original road was built 200 feet higher to get past it. But, like most glaciers, it is shrinking. There is a lake between the glacier and the highway, and the last time I was there it was calving icebergs into the lake. But now it doesn't even quite touch the water.
Stewart is a charming little town, determinedly normal. Hyder goes out of its way to be wild and wooly, frontier style. The international border is right at the first building on Hyder's main street, but there is no US border check. On the way back, there is a Canadian customs station and they make you stop and answer a few questions. The first of which is the standard "where are you coming from?", which is hilarious since the road into Alaska leads right back into BC then dead-ends.
There are two big reasons to go to Stewart-Hyder, other than for the historic towns and their dramatic setting on a fiord between high peaks capped with glaciers. First, there is Fish Creek, a prime area for viewing bears catching spawning salmon. Unfortunately the salmon season was almost over and I saw no bears there. The other is the Salmon Glacier.
Fish Creek bear-watching platform - no bears
I headed up the Granduc Mine Road, which follows the Salmon River then climbs past both old and active mines. It climbs steadily up the canyon wall and soon the glacier comes into sight. I was first here in 1996, and I think the tip of the glacier has moved back as much as half a mile since then, referring to my old pictures.
The terminus of the Salmon Glacier
This is a classic river of ice, flowing miles down the deep U-shaped valley. Eventually the road reaches a summit and you can see that the glacier comes down from an ice-field surrounded by high peaks then splits.
High above the Salmon Glacier south branch
The summit viewpoint above the Salmon Glacier
The northern fork of the glacier runs a short distance then degenerates into a chaos of jumbled chunks of ice. This is where, early each year, water coming from snowfall and the melting glacier pools up to form Summit Lake. For the last few decades the lake has broken through the ice barrier each summer and emptied under the south branch of the glacier down into the Salmon River in an event known by the Icelandic term "junkaloup". This accounts for the flood-ravaged appearance of the riverbed downstream. The road continues a few miles past the summit to the actual Granduc mine and former town site.
The empty bed of Summit Lake
The Salmon Glacier in good weather is overwhelming in its beauty and scenic grandeur. On my first visit many years ago it was raining and I turned back too soon. The next time the road was blocked by snow and we were only able to get as far as the tip of the glacier. On my third try the clouds came down and I could see nothing beyond the road shoulder. So I was ecstatic to see and photograph it, finally, under optimal conditions.
The immense central part of the Salmon Glacier
But just when I was counting my experience complete and the trip an unqualified success, I had an unexpected adventure. I had been jumping out of the van and taking panoramas from the road shoulder periodically all the way up from Hyder. I was just about to stop and get out again when a grizzly bear appeared in the road ahead of me.
I fumbled for my camera as the bear paused and looked at me. He reared up to get a better look over the willow bushes and I got a picture.
Grizzly bear rearing up to look at me
A closer look at my bear
He was over seven feet tall standing up like that. He was certainly bigger than me, but my van was bigger than him, and he decided to move away. He continued to move parallel to the road, and I got a great picture of him with the glacier behind.
My grizzly bear and the Salmon Glacier
Then the bear crossed the road and went uphill out of sight. Two motorcyclists came up behind me - I flagged them down and warned them. They went slowly around the corner, saw the bear, made rapid U-turns in a spray of gravel and roared off. I don't know if a grizzly would run down a motorcycle, but it might (they can catch a moose).
I rolled slowly down the road and saw the grizzly again. He was back on the road and now he came up behind and circled around the van, checking me out again. Probably just curious, or maybe he was wondering how he could open it up and eat me. I got a photo of him in my rear-view mirror.
The bear checks me out more closely
The bear apparently decided I wasn't really of interest and climbed up above the road and disappeared.
The bear moves on
Back up at the summit viewpoint I took three panoramas and chatted with a Moldovian-Canadian traveler for a while before heading back to Hyder. I had dinner in Stewart then camped in their municipal campground at Rainey Creek. It had been a memorable day!
I kept thinking about how perfect my encounter with the great bear had been - not dangerous or harmful to either of us. I got a good look at him and some great photos.
But it could have been different. If I had been on foot instead of in my van I would have been well within the danger zone (less than one hundred feet). I would likely have been charged and maybe mauled. In Hyder a few years ago a man was killed and eaten by a grizzly. I kept thinking of the claws I had seen on a stuffed grizzly in the visitor center in Glenallen a few days before.
September 19, 2010
I took a few geographic documentation photos of Hyder and Stewart, then drove back over the pass to Meziadin Junction and south to the end of the Cassiar Highway.
The weather had deteriorated and it was dark and gloomy by the time I got down to the Skeena River. I took a few panos of the famous totem poles in the villages of Gitanyow (formerly Kitwancool) and Gitwangak (Kitwanga).
Totem pole at Gitanyow
I camped that night on Ferry island in the Skeena River in the town of Terrace. After so many weeks in the boreal forest, taiga, and tundra of the North the lush forest of tall cottonwoods felt almost tropical!
Ferry Island Campground in Terrace
September 20, 2010
Despite discouraging forecasts, the next day was brilliantly clear with a relatively warm wind from the interior. I followed the mighty Skeena River all the way down to tidewater.
After a quick look at the fishing fleet at Port Edward I went up to the Northern Cannery, a National Historic Site of Canada. It consists not only of the cannery but the entire supporting town, all built on pilings over the water. I was upset to find that it was closed for the season.
North Pacific Cannery - closed
But I went through the gate anyway and took a series of panos of the outside. The caretaker, named "Spider", showed up and offered to give me a tour. So I had my third one-on-one tour of the trip (Gold Dredge Number 4 and the Kennecott mill) and got panos in the net loft, cannery building, and on the rotting main dock.
I finished the day with a few panos in Prince Rupert, sunny and warm, looking really good. On two previous visits in bad weather I had thought it a very drab town. I bought a ticket for the Inside Passage ferry southbound on Wednesday and camped that night on the edge of Prince Rupert.
Prince Rupert Harbor
September 21, 2010
On a long trip I need a down day once in a while, and I hadn't had one since Fairbanks. Despite the excellent weather I just couldn't motivate myself to go out and make strenuous photographic efforts. I checked into a motel, cleaned up, and started to catch up on my panos and blog.
September 22, 2010
This was a very long day. I lined up for the ferry at 5:30 am and we pulled out of Prince Rupert just as the sun came up. Then we steamed steadily south for fifteen hours.
Ferries at Prince Rupert
I made this trip once before, northbound, on the ill-fated Queen of the North. The Queen ran into Gil Island just after midnight on March 22 of 2006, and sank in 1400 feet of very cold water. The new ferry, the Northern Expedition, is very modern, comfortable, and extremely safe. They made a point of that.
I booked a cabin, which was very nice, and ate three meals, each in a different restaurant. I kept running up on deck every hour or so to take photographs.
The scenery of the Inside Passage does't change very fast, and seems to go on forever. The Grenville Channel is dramatically narrow, long and straight, and takes four hours to steam through.
There are a few lighthouses, the old cannery village of Butedale, now and then a fishing boat, a fleeting view of the town of Bella Bella on Campbell Island.
Glassy calm in the Grenville Channel
Dryad Pass Lighthouse near Bella Bella
I had dinner in their very nice (and expensive) restaurant just at sunset. We finally docked at Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island at 10:30 pm. I drove half a mile to the first campground, parked, and went to bed. It rained all night.
September 23, 2010
I had a list of places on Vancouver Island that I wanted to visit, or revisit, and even considered a whale-watching excursion from Telegraph Cove. But the continuing rain discouraged me and I just kept driving, all the way down the island to Nanaimo, with only one stop.
Rain all the way from Port Hardy to Nanaimo
Race Point log sorting facility near Campbell River
At Nanaimo I caught another brand-new ferry back to the mainland, where I rolled in just in time to have dinner with my cousins and meet the newest member of the family, Georgia. I gave her a plush killer whale and tried to teach her to say "orca".
September 24-25, 2010
It was still gray and rainy so I headed south and ended up driving all day, to Kelso Washington.
Still raining at the Peace Arch border crossing
The next day was beautiful, clear right to the top of Mount Rainier, but it had been a long trip and I really wanted to get home, so I kept going.
Finally, at 10 pm, I was home in El Cerrito and the trip was over - 46 days, 9125 miles (12,000 km), 525 panoramas.
Valdez and the McCarthy Road
At the end of Part Two I had almost completed the 950-mile round trip from Fairbanks up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic coast of Alaska. Then my van broke down and I had to be towed the final 56 miles back to civilization.
It could have been much worse - there is a stretch of 239 miles between Coldfoot and Deadhorse with no services whatsoever, no phones, nothing. Even where I ended up, south of Livengood on the Elliott Highway, there is no cell-phone coverage, and precious few places even to safely pull off the road. It was a minor miracle that I managed to roll into a side road with Alaska Pipeline Pump Station Number 7 less than a mile away.
September 5-6-7, 2010
I was towed to the comfortable and convenient Super 8 Motel on Airport Way in Fairbanks.
The Northernmost Dennys
The day I broke down was a Sunday, followed by the Labor Day holiday, so it wasn't until Tuesday that I could get my van looked at. I had it towed from the motel to the big well-equipped Cadillac-Chevrolet dealership. I was a little embarrassed to see my mud-encrusted vehicle in their immaculate repair area, but they are used to that up there.
Chevrolet Cadillac of Fairbanks
I was confident that they would be able to fix it and get me back on the road - but at what cost? My wife and I even discussed the worst-case scenario of buying a new vehicle in Fairbanks.
Turns out it was very simple and easy to fix - a broken rotor arm, which had nothing to do with my demanding drive. It could just as easily have happened running errands at home.
September 8-9, 2010
When I picked up my van I was given directions to the nearest pressure wash. Normally I never wash my van, but this was pretty extreme. As I drove out of the Chevy dealer's lot I noticed that I had left a rectangular ridge of mud behind.
I was back on the road and in fine shape, but I had a big decision to make on where to go next. I could head straight south to Denali, or go east then south to Valdez. The weather had been cloudy and rainy all through my stay in Fairbanks and more of the same was forecast. Denali was only a half day away, so the weather was guaranteed to still be bad when I got there. My van is fine for sleeping in, but not much fun for long periods in the cold and rain.
So I headed east through North Pole to Delta Junction, then south on the Richardson Highway.
North Pole, Alaska - did you know that Santa Clause runs an RV park in his off-season?
A reindeer at North Pole, Alaska
It rained steadily that day, all night, and the next morning. By the time I got to the Tok Cutoff at Glenallen I was ready to give up on Alaska and head for home. But luckily I didn't, because the bad weather was about to break, and some of the best days of the trip lay ahead.
Camping in the rain
The Richardson Highway passes through the Alaska Range, of which I saw nothing because of the weather, then just west of the Wrangell Mountains (also invisible), and finally through the Chugach Range and out to the coast on Prince William Sound. Despite the weather it was a beautiful drive, with fall colors reaching their peak and a lot of wildlife - a lynx crossed the road in front of me early in the morning.
Richardson Highway in the rain
The visitor center for Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park near Copper Center had a very encouraging weather report - clearing then sunny for the next week. Sure enough, the clouds had lifted high enough to give me some dramatic views as I passed over the Chugach Range.
Glaciers from the highway at Thompson Pass
Valdez is a major fishing port (and smells like it), but is famous mostly as the terminus for the Alaska Pipeline. I toured that facility in 2000, but it has been closed to the public since "911".
The town was surprisingly busy and I had trouble getting a room so had to take a slightly more expensive cabin. It was well equipped and comfortable, and I had a great dinner at the Valdez Bistro. I decided to take the boat tour on Prince William Sound the next day no matter what the weather,
September 10, 2010
This day I took the Stan Stephens Glacier Cruise around Prince William Sound. It started out densely foggy, but cleared just in time to give us a look at the Anderson Glacier waterfall. After that it was clear all day.
Prince William Sound waterfall
Tankers taking North Slope oil to California
Around another point or two we turned into the bay that heads in the Columbia Glacier, one of the larger and more active tidewater glaciers in Alaska. The terminus was miles away but we circled around in the floating ice for an hour. Some of the icebergs were an amazing shade of blue.
Floating ice from the Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound.
An exceptionally blue iceberg.
From the Columbia Glacier we steamed around to the south side of Glacier Island and followed a pod of orcas (killer whales). Though not really set up for wildlife photography I got some passable shots and some short movies.
An orca in Prince William Sound
Steller sea lions hauled out on a rocky shelf.
In addition to the glaciers, floating ice, and wildlife, the scenery in Prince William Sound is stunning. My main disappointment was that it was impossible to take 360-degree panoramas from the crowded bow of the boat. But that opened up the possibility of an entire day of simple single-shot photography - so much less demanding and more fun than panography.
Islet in Prince William Sound.
Fishing boat near Valdez.
Panoramas of Prince William Sound (only the first two are from this trip)
September 11, 2010
In the morning I explored around Valdez a bit, then headed north.
Panoramas of Valdez (first four from this trip)Pink and chum salmon spawning in Crooked Creek.
There isn't much left of Old Valdez. It was damaged in the earthquake and tidal wave of 1962, then the town was relocated to its present site. There is a good view across the bay to the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal. It was interesting to watch the tide coming in and rise an inch during the time it took me to shoot just one pano -- I started on dry gravel and ended in the water.
Remains of the waterfront boardwalk street in Old Valdez
A little further out of town a road leads to the small lake at the terminus of the Valdez Glacier. Of all the desperately dangerous routes to the Klondike gold fields this had to be the worst - right up the glacier to the divide, then many miles more to the Copper River. In the winter it was rigorous, but in summer it was deadly as the snow melted and crevasses opened up. An alternate route through Keystone Pass and over Thompson Pass was soon pioneered, and eventually followed by the Richardson Highway, Alaska's first permanent road from the coast to the interior.
The drive northwards through Thompson Pass was spectacular, perfect weather. Local people were out picking berries and just lying around in the sun. I stopped (again) at the Worthington Glacier. It used to extend past the viewing area and there was a trail along its lateral moraine, but it has retreated so far that now the ice terminus is beyond a small lake.
Berry pickers near Thompson Pass
All through the trip I had been frustrated by the difficulty of finding viewpoints that were not blocked by trees and taking panoramas are not mostly highway. On the north side of the Chugach Mountains I found a unique solution -- I waded across a beaver-created marsh, and stood on their dam to take my pano.
At the end of the day I headed east to the tiny historic town of Chitina and camped next to the mighty Copper River.
Welcome to Chitina
September 12, 2010
Chitina is where the gravel McCarthy Road starts and runs 60 miles east through Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. It was a beautiful morning's drive, though the thick forest blocked distant views much of the time.
Early morning fog over the Chitina River
The McCarthy Road, another 120 miles of gravel
I have a problem with heights and exposed places such as swinging bridges and cliff-tops. I am able to overcome it - I have climbed some serious mountains and stood on the brink of Half Dome. But I knew there was a famously scary bridge over the Kuskulana River on the McCarthy Road, and I had been dreading it for precisely 6094 miles.
The Kuskulana Bridge was built in 1910 for the Copper River Railway and abandoned when the mine shut down, but local people continued to use it. It was narrow, barely wide enough for a pickup truck, and had no guardrails. It is 525 feet long and 238 feet above the river. A few years ago The Milepost noted that half the deck boards were rotted away and missing.
I know I could not have crossed it back then, I would have been frozen at the wheel. The current edition of The Milepost notes that it has been rebuilt and guardrails added, but that many people still find it scary.
Then suddenly, there it was. I held my breath and drove across without hesitation, 5 mph, eyes glued to the far end. Once done it was no longer intimidating and I walked back to the middle and took a pano. On the way back the next day I even shot a handheld movie as I drove.
Kuskulana River Canyon and Bridge
The greatly improved Kuskulana Bridge
Another high timber trestle, over the Gilahina Rover
Fall color on the McCarthy Road
Mount Blackburn from the McCarthy Road
The McCarthy Road ends at the Kennecott River, just short of McCarthy, so you have to walk across (just a few years ago you had to use a self-propelled cable tram).
The new footbridge over the Kennecott River
McCarthy is a picturesque little town, a mere shadow of its prime when miners came down from Kennecott to raise hell on Saturday nights. Now it provides services for the huge national park, and is the setting for several of Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak murder mysteries.
Ma Johnson's Hotel in McCarthy
I rode the shuttle bus up alongside the moraine-covered glacier to the company town, mill, and mines at Kennicott.
The Kennecott Cooper Mine MIll rises up the mountainside above town
It was the last day for tours, and I was the only one to sign up, so I got a one-on-one tour (again!). My guide, Nealy, was able to accommodate my special needs so I got a few intriguing panoramas inside the huge mill building.
There is a great view from the top of the mill building
Don and Nealy in "the brewery" at the Kennecott Mill
Looking back at at the Kennecott Mill from the north end of town
Back at the end of the road I drove into a private campground and found that the owner and his buddies were closing it for the season by eating and drinking everything that was left in the store. They had just finished the beer, after six hours of steady effort.
So I was the last camper of the year. It was immediately cold when the sun went behind the mountain, a clear night with brilliant stars, and I heard wolves howling.
Don in camp at McCarthy
September 13, 2010
The next day, returning along the McCarthy Road the fall colors were even more spectacular. The air was still and the lakes reflected like giant mirrors.
Long Lake on the McCarthy Road
I stopped to look at the fish wheels on the Copper River. Powered by the current they scoop unsuspecting salmon right out of the silty river. Not very sporting, it is only for natives with traditional rights. The smell of rotting fish was truly amazing.
Fish wheels on the Copper River at Chitina
The fine weather allowed me to re-shoot some views of the Wrangell Range from viewpoints south and north of the historic settlement of Copper Center. These are volcanoes, eroded, dormant, and active, up to 16,000 feet high. I spent the rest of the day circling around their west and north sides.
Quaking aspen near Copper Center
September 14, 2010
This was a very long day of driving, along the Tok Cutoff and then back on the Alaska Highway, enlivened by spectacular foliage colors and clear views of the glacier-covered Wrangell Mountains to the south.
Mount Sanford from near Slana on the Tok Cutoff
Trumpeter swans in the Tetlin Refuge
I crossed back into the Yukon at Port Alcan, and camped a few miles later near Snag Lake.
September 15, 2010
Another long drive that began with many miles of severe frost heaves. The colors of the cottonwoods, aspen, and birch were outstanding and there was a series of beautiful lakes - Moose Lake, Pickhandle Lake, and huge Kluane Lake.
Reflection in Pickhandle Lake
The official viewpoints of the spectacular Icefield Ranges in Kluane National Park failed to provide me with a good unobstructed view - they had let trees grow up thirty feet tall right in the way.
On a hunch, I pulled into an unpaved side road, many of which lead to gravel pits. It was narrow and a bit muddy, so I walked it instead of driving, and in a quarter mile it did indeed end at a small gravel quarry on a glacial moraine running along the side of a broad valley, with a staggering range of peaks on the far side.
Score! The weather was perfect - on the 36th day of the trip, I had to rate it as the best view yet.
The Icefields Ranges from the north
Willow-covered flats north of the Icefields Ranges
I had planned to spend the night in a motel in Whitehorse, but there was some sort of First Nations conclave going on and the town was full. So I camped a few miles further on, cold but peaceful.
September 16, 2010
Another full day on the Alaska Highway. I stopped at the impressive Teslin Tlingit Heritage Center on long Teslin Lake and bought a few distinctive Indian handicrafts as presents.
Clan totems at the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Center
Tanker truck in Teslin equipped with a "moose-catcher"
That night I stayed in a motel in Watson Lake. Strange to tell, there was a very noisy honky-tonk bar next door, most of the patrons of which appeared to be First Nations/Native Americans/Indians. Also, although the town did not have cell-phone service, the high-speed internet was excellent.
The story concludes with Don's Trip to the Far North - Part Four