Impressions of Alaska
After meeting Omar in Whitehorse we headed to Alaska; it was great to be riding with him again. Fairbanks was the next major destination on our respective journey’s trip north. To get there we headed out on the Alaskan Highway. Since Fairbanks was too far for one day’s ride, we targeted a campground just outside of Tok, Alaska as our stopping point for the day. Google Maps said it was approximately 400 miles from Whitehorse.
The first 100 miles to Haines Junction were familiar to me, but after that it was all new territory. The scenery in this part of the Yukon was like what I had experienced in other parts of the territory, but in an important way it was even more spectacular. The mountain ranges in southwest Yukon are taller and more expansive than other parts of the Yukon. Both Omar and I stopped often to photograph the magnificent views and to take in the grandeur all around us.
After a rainy night in Tok, we stuffed our wet camping gear onto our bikes and headed to Fairbanks. There we planned to spend two nights in a dorm room at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks campus. When we arrived, I discovered that the city was not what I had expected. Somehow, I had gotten the idea that the city was located on flat barren tundra. Instead, the city was in dense forest and rolling hills. After negotiating a few turns and riding up steep roads, we were on the university campus high on a bluff overlooking the city. We soon arrived at our dormitory, registered, and settled into campus life.
Although the room was small, the accommodations were excellent. The layout of our room made great use of the limited space, which allowed us to spread out our wet tents and camping gear to dry. Included with the room was free WIFI, hot showers, and free laundry facilities. We were in travelers' heaven!
My primary goal while in Fairbanks was to get the oil changed on my BMW. It had been approximately 7,000 miles since I left Phoenix, which was past the recommended 6,000 mile oil change interval. While at the dealership, Omar also had a new set of knobby tires put on his bike for the ride up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean.
After two nights on campus we relocated to Kate’s home that we had arranged through Couchsurfing. Kate is an architect in Fairbanks and could not have been more gracious. In addition to sharing her home, she also told us about the things to see and do around Fairbanks.
The next morning Omar left early to get a head start on the Dalton Highway, while I spent an additional day in Fairbanks at Kate’s condo. During my extra day, I explored the Museum of the North on the university campus. It has numerous exhibits covering the history of Alaska but a significant portion of it was dedicated to the native peoples in and around the state. That evening I enjoyed a long hike with Kate on a trail through a beautiful forested area near the university. Joining us was a dog (sorry I forgot the dog’s name) that Kate was dog-sitting for a friend.
Prior to leaving Fairbanks I got online to reserve four nights camping in Denali National Park. It had been a dream of mine for several years to visit Denali, and I wanted to make sure I spent enough time in the park to really experience it. In hind sight, I am really glad I booked four nights. Most of the park, which is over six million acres, cannot be accessed by private vehicle. You need to arrange transport on a park bus to the distant locations for wilderness hiking or sightseeing. Once I arrived at the park I checked with the backcountry office and found they offer ranger-led hikes in the wilderness. Each hike is limited to no more than 11 people and varied from moderate to strenuous. They only had two slots available, I booked them both. One was on Tuesday and the other was on Wednesday.
These hikes were different in a couple of significant ways. The ranger-led program is intended to encourage hikers to experience real wilderness. Thus, the hikes are not on any established trails. It is also up to the ranger to determine where the hike will start and the general route that will be followed. And during a season, only two hikes can be led in the same area to limit the potential human impact on the wilderness. The starting points for my hikes were at mile markers 63 and 55 respectively from the entrance of the park. Once we got off the bus and crossed the dirt road, we were alone in a vast wilderness with only the ranger’s radio available to use in an emergency.
Adding to the intensity of the experience, we saw several grizzly bears on our ride to the drop off points. Although we didn’t encounter any bears on our hikes, we did find numerous grizzly scat piles indicating they frequented the areas.
Another thing that impressed me during these hikes was the obvious reverence the rangers had for the park. Over lunch, while setting on the alpine tundra high on a mountainside, ranger Pete led a discussion on the importance of wilderness. Later he asked us to be absolutely quiet for 10 minutes and just let the wilderness talk to us.
On my last day in the park I attended a sled dog demonstration that was conducted by the park rangers that manage and care for the dogs. These Alaskan Huskies are real working dogs they use in the winter months to haul freight to remote locations in the park. Being around the dogs and their trainers I immediately felt their bond.. As soon as they hooked the dogs to a summer sled, you could see that they just wanted to please the rangers and run.
The only thing that was missing from my park experience was getting to see the mountain, Denali (The Tall One). Three days of rain clouds and fog had obscured my view. However, on my ride to Anchorage I stopped at a pullover and there she was in all her snow-white glory. A few more miles down the road she once again disappeared into the clouds.