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July 6, 2011

Missing Blogs

I have been so continuously busy since finishing the Alaska blogs (below) that I have not had time to write up two very important new topics:

• I made a three week trip to the Big Island of Hawaii in March 2011, resulting in a complete new set of 245 panoramas documenting all parts of that fantastic island.

• Then in late May I traveled to Portugal for the International Panoramic Photography Festival. This included staging two exhibits of panoramic prints, one of them, entitled Panorama Borealis, featuring panoramas from my trip to Alaska in 2010.

Hopefully blog chapters for each of these two important events will be forthcoming later this summer.


When California passed a new state budget effective July 1, it required Amazon and other on-line retailers with a "presence" in California to pay sales tax. Amazon is based in Washington state, and they pay taxes on sales they make to customers located there. Now sales made by Amazon affiliates (such as myself) located in California will similarly be subject to California sales tax.

Unfortunately, instead of simply paying the taxes, Amazon has chosen to cut off all affiliates resident in California. So although I can continue to run ads for Amazon, and visitors to my site can purchase the books and maps I recommend here, I will not be paid any commission on those sales. Large on-line retailers will of course shift their operations to other states, so it will only be the ten thousand or so little guys like me who suffer.

On a more positive note, I have made a major change to the way the Virtual Guidebooks site works. Up until now all files were sent from a single main server (DreamHost) in Southern California. But now I have moved all the graphics files (thumbnails and panorama movies) to the Rackspace Cloud. They will now be sent "from the cloud", specifically, from various Akamai servers around the world, the choice of which ones being based on analysis of distance and traffic.

I can see already that pages load much faster, and the speed increase should be more obvious the further from California the viewer is located. Also, increasing traffic will not slow the system down and huge spikes will not crash it. This is real enteprise technology, and it costs me extra, the amount depending on traffic. This summer will be my test period. If the cost gets too high, I may have to go back to the old system.


December 17, 2010
I have finally finished all 525 panoramas from my epic trip through Canada to Alaska in August and September of 2010. Despite their combined length, I am posting all four of the blogs describing the trip here (and also in the Blog Archive).
Part One - North to the Yukon
 
Part Two - Northern Alaska
 
Part Three - Valdez and the McCarthy Road
 
Part Four - South Through British Columbia

North to the Yukon

The main purpose of this trip was to update and extend my panoramic coverage of northern British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska. Many of my panoramas from that area were taken (on film) before 2000 and have been removed from my website.

In June I made two photography trips, one early in the month to Santa Barbara and San Diego, then another two weeks later to the redwoods. I kept telling my friends I would leave on my BIG trip July 5. But all through July I had to deal with frustrating delays, so it was well into August before I finally broke free and headed north.


August 10-11, 2010

A day and a half of driving straight up I-5 got me almost to the Canadian border. I always enjoy watching the landscape steadily scrolling by, seeing the gradual transition from dry California to green Northwest. I drive this thousand-mile stretch every year and I never tire of it.


August 12-13, 2010

When I got to Bellingham the weather was beautiful so I took a side trip east on the Mount Baker Highway into the North Casades. It was an amazing clear evening when I got there, too dark for 360° panos, but I took a couple of snapshots with my "little" camera (Olympus E-P2) and some high-res composites with my Canon 5dMkII.

Picture Lake, a familiar postcard view, but still amazing.

The next day I shot some panos on Ptarmigan Ridge, with Mount Shuksan in one direction, Mount Baker in the other.

Panoramas of the Mount Baker Highway

Panoramas of Heather Meadows on Mount Baker

Panoramas of Artist Point and Ptarmigan Ridge


August 14-15, 2010

From Mount Baker I crossed into Canada and spent a couple of days with my cousins Anne and Clive.

Hundreds of wildfires were burning in the interior (the Cariboo) and the smoke was reaching the lower mainland. We took an evening walk at Blackies Point near their home in Crescent Beach and enjoyed the sunset and long colorful twilight.

Mud Bay from Blackies Point

The next day I shot a few panos around White Rock, plus the fishing port of Steveston at the mouth of the Fraser River, followed by dinner with my niece Sarah and her husband Chris.

Panoramas of Steveston on the Fraser River

Panoramas of Crescent Beach and White Rock


August 16, 2010

By the next day the smoke had produced Los Angeles-style orange skies and thick haze, but I headed north anyway. It wasn't too bad in the Fraser River Canyon, where I revisited the Alexandra Bridges, but by the time I got to Quesnel it was intolerable. In desperation I stayed in a motel, just for the air conditioner's smoke filtering.

Panoramas of the Grand Canyon of the Fraser River (only the last two are new)

Panoramas of the Gold Rush Trail


August 17, 2010

Barkerville Historic Town features 120 authentically restored buildings from the 1863 Cariboo Gold Rush. It includes costumed interpreters and small businesses in the historic buildings. I shot panos there many years ago, on film, but never scanned and produced them, so I made the side-trip from Quesnel again. It is an interesting and photogenic place.

On the way back I stopped at Cottonwood House, a restored roadhouse from the gold rush era on the Cariboo Wagon Road. I was shown around by the lovely young women there, looking demure in their long dresses and aprons.

Thanks to Kayla and Alexa for posing for me at Cottonwood.

A sepia-toned picture of Barkerville

Panoramas of Cottonwood House

Panoramas of Barkerville, the Main Street

Panoramas of Barkerville, the Back Streets

At Prince George I was thwarted in my original plan to go west along the Skeena River then north to Stewart-Hyder and Telegraph Creek because the Cassiar Highway was closed due to the fires. So I headed northeast to the Alaska Highway.
August 18, 2010

North of Prince George and Pine Pass I left the main route and went southeast to the (once and future) coal-mining town of Tumbler Ridge and Monkman Provincial Park, featuring awesome Kinuseo Falls.

It was smoky when I got there and rained a bit that night, but I had just enough sun in the morning for a great shot of the waterfall. This was my first lengthy stretch of unpaved road - much more was to come later in the trip.

Kinuseo Falls in Monkman Provincial Park

Panoramas of Pine Pass

Panoramas of Tumbler Ridge

Panoramas of Monkman Provincial Park


August 19, 2010

From Tumbler Ridge I went over a few mountains and out onto the prairies, to Dawson Creek and Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway.

From Dawson Creek the famous road runs 613 miles across northern BC, then 577 miles across the southern Yukon, then 200 miles in Alaska to its official end at Delta Junction. Another 96 miles takes it to Fairbanks, for a total of 1488 miles. In the course of this trip I would drive all of it.

Panoramas of Dawson Creek


August 20, 2010

It poured rain all the next day, but luckily this stretch of the Alcan (Alaska Highway) is the least interesting of the entire route.

The Alaska Highway in the rain, near Prophet River

I very much enjoyed the funky little museum in Fort Nelson, an amazing hodge podge of donated old stuff, including a moose-hide bikini.

Panoramas of Fort Nelson


August 21, 2010

At Fort Nelson the Alcan turns west and enters the mountains. I saw a moose and a bear almost right away. The Alaska Highway crosses the Northern Rocky Mountains at Summit Lake, a dramatic stretch of road near timberline. I saw just a single young caribou here -- often there is a whole herd of sheep licking salt off the road shoulder along here.

Barren ground caribou at Summit Lake

Panoramas of Summit Lake

Panoramas of Racing River and Toad River

That night I camped at Muncho Lake, famous for its silty green colors. It was a beautiful evening followed by a night of torrential rain.

Muncho Lake right next to my campsite


Storm approaching from the east

Panoramas of Muncho Lake


August 22, 2010

More wildlife the next day. Most of the Alaska Highway has been widened and straightened, with a very generous grassy strip on either side. This has been a boon to the Nordquist herd of wood bison that live along this stretch of the Liard River. I saw this small group just before the Liard River bridge.

Wood bison alongside the Alaska Highway


A baby bison grazing along the highway

Liard River Hot Springs is an oasis of warm water in the boreal forest, an amazing place with vegetation typical of hundreds of miles further south. The bathing pools were first developed during construction of the Alcan. This is now one of the most popular of the BC provincial parks, a favorite stop along the highway.

The Alpha Pool at Liard River Hot Springs

Panoramas of the Liard River

Panoramas of Liard River Hot Springs

West from here the highway crosses back and forth between BC and the Yukon. During construction of the Alaska Highway an American serviceman working at Watson Lake put up a signpost to his home town of Danville, Illinois. Other signs were added, and now it is known as the Signpost Forest, currently with 65,000 signs.

Panoramas of Watson Lake

Late in the day the clouds built up again, but I camped comfortably at Continental Divide. This undramatic watershed line separates waters flowing to the Yukon River and the Bering Sea (Pacific Ocean) from those flowing to the Mackenzie River and the Beaufort Sea (Arctic Ocean).

Stormy weather along the Alaska Highway near Continental Divide.


Typical GPS map along the Alaska Highway

This is typical of the minimal and cryptic gps maps displayed on these remote roads - a single line for the highway, nothing else for miles. I use my gps to determine latitude/longitude for each of my panos as I shoot them.


August 23, 2010

Near Squanga Lake the next morning I met Penny and Bill, from Nottinghamshire (in England), whose travels make mine look provincial. They had just been up to the Arctic and were heading south to California.

A camper van that has been everywhere

Next I took the first of my planned side trips, to Atlin in the remote almost cut-off corner of BC. The clouds lowered and it set in to rain steadily, so I took a few panos of the historic town then turned back.

There are hints of the American military who built the Alaska Highway in placenames like Snafu Lake (Situation Normal - All Fouled Up). I camped at Tarfu Lake (Things Are Really Fouled Up) in a gentle rain and enjoyed my first campfire of the trip.

Panoramas of the Atlin Road in the Yukon

Panoramas of Atlin


August 24-25, 2010

Finally the Yukon River! Soon I rolled into Whitehorse, nexus of the Stampede of 1898 to the Klondike gold fields. An interesting town, with lots of history, three excellent museums, and a much needed resupply point. I bought a terabyte drive at Walmart to back up my imagery - 170 panos so far, and I was not even to Alaska yet.

This DC-3 outside the Yukon Transportation Museum is mounted on a bearing so it turns into the wind.

The world's largest weathervane.


I met a giant beaver in the woods near the Yukon-Beringia Museum.

Panoramas of Whitehorse

Panoramas of the Whitehorse Rapids of the Yukon River

Panoramas of the MacBride Museum

Panoramas of the Yukon Transportation Museum

Panoramas of the Yukon-Beringia Interpretive Center


August 26, 2010

Refreshed from my civilized stop in Whitehorse, I headed across the mountains to Skagway, Alaska. This was the perilous route taken by the Stampeders of 1898, who backpacked their supplies through the snows of White Pass and Chilkoot Pass. The next spring they built rafts and scows and floated down a series of lakes and the Yukon River all the way to the Klondike.

Princess and Holland America cruise lines offer bus tours over the pass to Whitehorse, and on as far as Dawson and Eagle. I even saw them in Deadhorse a week later!

Princess Cruise Line buses on the White Pass route.


Uncharacteristically calm weather at Windy Arm of Tagish Lake

Skagway is an interesting place with lots of history - much of the town is preserved as Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.

But Skagway is totally dominated by mass tourism. There were four cruise ships there that day (sometimes there may be up to eight), each putting as many as a thousand people ashore. Most of the businesses along the historic main street are selling jewelry and trinkets to people from the cruise ships. In fact, they are the same businesses and salespeople that one will meet in the Caribbean in the opposite season. Weird.

My special thanks to "Madame Ophelia Johnson" at the Red Onion Saloon in Skagway. She was very particular that I get her stage name right - I was half a block away before I realized the double entendre.

Red Onion Saloon on Broadway in Skagway

Panoramas of Skagway

Panoramas of the Port of Skagway

After Skagway I had a quick look at Dyea (on the Chilkoot Trail), a once busy town of which almost nothing remains.

Panoramas of Dyea and Chilkoot Pass

I ended the day with an amazing evening drive back across the White Pass. The light was incredible, not good for panoramas (no time to get off the road) but I got some wonderful single shots.

Stormy weather just north of White Pass


Fireweed and amazing light on Tutshi Lake


Sunset at Bove Island on Tagish Lake

Panoramas North of White Pass in BC

Panoramas of the Klondike Highway South of Whitehorse

Carcross is an interesting historic town on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. One of the sights there used to be the lake steamer SS Tutshi, which burned in 1990. Construction was under way to preserve and interpret the few small remnants of the historic boat.

Camping that night near Carcross it dropped below freezing for the first time on the trip, and I really appreciated my campfire.


August 27, 2010

Back through Whitehorse again but I didn't continue west on the Alaska Highway - I turned north on the Klondike Highway, following the trail of '98 towards Dawson City. It passes near Lake Laberge, famous as the setting for Robert Service's poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee".

Panoramas of the Klondike Highway South of Pelly Crossing

The highlight of this stretch of road is Five Finger Rapids on the Yukon River, a major hazard to navigation in the early years. The sun faded the instant I arrived, and by the time I got down to the cliff edge (223 steps, then a trail) it was starting to rain.

Viewpoint above Five Finger Rapids on the Yukon River.

Panoramas of Carmacks and Five Finger Rapids


August 28, 2010

At Stewart Crossing I made an impulsive decision to take another side trip, to the Keno Mining area. Known as the Silver Trail, it is mostly gravel and leads through some seriously remote country. First the riverboat town of Mayo, then the recently abandoned mining town of Elsa, and finally Keno.

I enjoyed the excellent Keno Mining Museum, then took the road to the top of Keno Hill (it's really a mountain) with interesting geology and beautiful tundra.

Don on the Butterfly Trail, tundra at the top of Keno Hill


Arctic barberry adds a vivid red to the tundra in fall.

Panoramas of Mayo and Elsa

Panoramas of Keno City

Panoramas of Keno Hill

Panoramas on the Klondike Highway North of Pelly Crossing


August 29, 2010

Dawson City and the Klondike gold fields at last! It seems quite a journey even today (about 3000 miles by my route), unimaginable the challenge and hardship it must have been in 1898.

Dawson is an amazing historical town, largely restored using income from the casino. All new buildings must generally resemble the old ones. I stayed in a log cabin at Klondike Kate's - excellent food!

Panoramas of Dawson City -the Waterfront

Panoramas of Dawson City - Center of Town

Panoramas of Dawson City - Edge of Town

The highlight of my time in Dawson was a tour of Gold Dredge Number Four, a National Historic Site of Canada. Since I was the only one to show up at 1 pm, I got a custom look around - many thanks to Sue Taylor for the excellent tour. The dredge is on Bonanza Creek, site of the original discovery and still being mined today.

Gold Dredge Number 4 and the Parks Canada Interpreters

Panoramas of Gold Dredge Number Four National Historic Site of Canada

Panoramas of Bonanza Creek


Northern Alaska


August 30, 2010

I had been hearing since 'way back in BC that the road going west from Dawson was washed out. Then I heard that it was open again, but only for escorted convoys. Rather than go back to Whitehorse I decided to try it.

The weather on the aptly named Top of the World Highway was dicey, rain and fog, but still magnificent. I crossed the border into the US at Boundary, Alaska, an incredibly remote location. I imagine this is where an INS agent might get posted if he really annoyed his boss.

Fog on the Top of the World Highway


The lonely border station on the Top of the World Highway

Panoramas of the Top of the World Highway

I managed to miss the noon convoy and had to sit there in the middle of nowhere and wait four hours for the next one. It was caribou hunting season in this area and I saw lots of ATV's bristling with guns and caribou antlers.

Waiting for the convoy at Boundary, Alaska


Caribou hunter in the Subsistence Hunting Area near Boundary

Then it was two hours at 15-20 mph in a train of vehicles. Just like a wagon train they had two escorts ahead of us (scout and lead) and perhaps two more behind (trail and sweep). Rain, mud, and fog the entire way.

Following the pilot car for 27 miles of muddy road


Looking in my rear-view mirror at the convoy

I camped in Chicken, Alaska, truly a bit of the old frontier, and the beginning of paved road again.

The log cabin post office in Chicken

Panoramas of Chicken, Alaska


August 31, 2010

I had a truly strange experience a few miles west of Chicken. I stopped at a viewpoint and a man came hustling up to me with an anxious look on his face, taking money out of his wallet.

He was quite obviously drunk (at 9 am), and explained that he was celebrating his brother's birthday and I would be "saving his life" if I would sell him a beer. He said he could not drive on to the next pub (pub sounds wrong for Alaska) because he might get stopped and loose his license, which would ruin his life. He assured me he was not going to drive, so I gave him my last beer, a Sierra Nevada that had been rattling around in the van ever since California.

We talked for a while. He was from Germany, very pleasant and intelligent. We took pictures, and he thanked me again for saving his life!

Saved his life with a beer

Soon after that I reached the Alaska Highway near Tok, wide and smooth and fast through Delta Junction, then on to Fairbanks, the main city of the interior.

Alaskan highway numbering is simple -- there are only eleven of them


After all those miles of back roads in prime moose habitat, I got my first good photo of one just outside Delta, walking alongside the highway

Panoramas of Delta Junction


September 1, 2010

Fairbanks seems like a city of a million people, but in reality its population is only 30,000. But it has all the necessary services, which was to come in handy for me later in the trip! I spent a day cleaning up and shot a few panos around town. I also phoned ahead for my tour of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, which requires 24 hours notice for security check.

Panoramas of the Chena River Parks in Fairbanks

Panoramas of Downtown Fairbanks


September 2, 2010

I hadn't really planned on driving the Dalton Highway, but once I got to Fairbanks I just couldn't resist -- it is the northernmost public road in the world, going well past the Arctic Circle. I have driven the Dempster Highway to the Arctic in Canada, twice in fact, so the Dalton seemed the logical next challenge.

The Dalton, also known as the Haul Road, was built in a single summer to support construction of the Alaska Pipeline. It was designed for heavy truck traffic and is laid out like a race course - no sharp corners or windy stretches. I was surprised to find that nearly half of this road has now been paved, including a brand-new section (still hot) north of Coldfoot. But it remains a challenging drive, narrow with no shoulders and a lot of big trucks going very fast. The pipeline parallels the highway, seldom out of sight, much of it elevated but other segments buried.

A typical stretch of the Dalton Highway with the Alaska Pipeline alongside, in an area of burned spruce forest.


Birch trees in full glory

The weather was changeable as I started, but improved and it turned out to be a beautiful drive. Fall colors increased as I went north, with the deciduous trees in shades of yellow and gold, the tundra purple and red. The first landmark was the Yukon Crossing bridge.

Panoramas of the Elliott Highway

Panoramas of the Dalton Highway South of Yukon Crossing

Panoramas of Yukon Crossing on the Dalton Highway

Just north of Yukon Crossing was one of my favorite stretches, Finger Mountain and the Kanuti River headwaters, with wonderful fall colors. I crossed the Arctic Circle at midday, weak sunshine and 62°.

Fall colors at the headwaters of the Kanuti River


The Arctic Circle sign on the Dalton Highway

Panoramas of Finger Mountain

Panoramas Near the Arctic Circle on the Dalton Highway

I filled up my gas tank in Coldfoot at milepost 175 (248 miles from Fairbanks). It is the only supply point between the Yukon River and Deadhorse, and not much to look at. A few miles north is the picturesque hamlet of Wiseman, where a few old sourdoughs still mine for gold and tough it out through the long winter.

Log cabins at Wiseman

I camped at Marion Creek nearby. A bit cold, but very pretty. It seemed the perfect opportunity to see the Aurora Borealis, but no show.

Panoramas of Wiseman and Coldfoot


September 3, 2010

The adventure continued - I was already well past the Arctic Circle but still had 225 miles to go. The scenery got wilder and the colors more intense as I drove deeper into the Brooks Range, along the Koyukuk and Dietrich Rivers, past the northernmost tree, and over Atigun Pass at 4739 feet.

Chandalar Shelf at the south base of Atigun Pass

Panoramas of the Koyukuk River

Panoramas of Atigun Pass

From there it was a long downhill through the Atigun Valley and onto the rolling tundra of the North Slope, beautiful and serene.

North slope tundra near Slope Mountain

But I was certainly not alone. In addition to the truck traffic (a hundred trucks a day) there were hundreds of hunters, many with bow and arrow, stalking the caribou (with considerable success).

The weather continued clear and warm and it was one of the best driving days I have ever had. Perhaps the high point was when I saw two musk oxen butting heads in the middle of the road half a mile ahead. When they saw me they ran away, but stopped soon enough that I could get a good view of them, and also include them in a pano of the tundra.

One of the pair of musk ox I spotted in the tundra

Panoramas of the North Slope of the Brooks Range

Panoramas of the Arctic Coastal Plain

About this time I noticed a gray ridgeline ahead, like a mountain range where I knew there was not one. It was the semi-permanent fog bank along the coast of the Arctic Ocean. When I eventually drove into it the temperature dropped from the high 50's into the mid-40's. By this time the terrain was dead flat and dotted with lakes, great for waterfowl and other wildlife.

Then there came Deadhorse - what a weird town. It is built on gravel pads in the tundra, nothing directly on the ground to avoid melting into the permafrost. It is more of an industrial park than a town, and is full of huge pieces of oil field equipment and specialized vehicles. There are no trees, no flower boxes or potted plants, no business district, and no real houses -- everyone lives in hotels or dormitories at their employer's expense.

I had dinner at the Arctic Caribou Inn, hearty fare cafeteria style, then camped in my van in their parking lot. There was good cell phone reception and excellent high speed internet, so I phoned and e-mailed my friends to say "guess where I am?"

My van at the Arctic Caribou Inn in Deadhorse on Prudhoe Bay\


The gps says it all - 70 degrees 12 minutes North latitude

September 4, 2010

First thing in the morning I took the oilfields tour, interesting enough, but not possible to take panoramas (or even regular photos) from the moving bus. The high point for most people was when they were allowed to get out and wade into the Arctic Ocean (35°F). I stayed dry and took pictures.

Wading in the Beaufort Sea at Prudhoe Bay

I drove around Deadhorse and took a few panos. Then I started the long drive home. This was truly the turning point of the trip - I had nowhere to go but back south the way I had come.

Panoramas of Deadhorse on Prudhoe Bay

Typical north slope scene, the endless road and the pipeline crossing the treeless tundra.

The weather improved slightly as the land rose up from the coastal plain, but I could see big clouds over the Brooks Range ahead and sure enough it was raining when I got to Atigun Pass - and snowing just a thousand feet higher.

The fall colors were wonderful south of the pass, but stopping for panos became increasingly difficult as the rain increased and driving took all my attention. I camped in a brilliant yellow aspen grove right on the Arctic Circle.

Rain in the Brooks Range, north base of Atigun Pass


The Dalton Highway in the rain


Fall colors in the rain at Grayling Lake


Camping on the Arctic Circle

September 5, 2010

The rain continued through the night and the next day, so I just drove steadily, relieved in a way to be almost done with this adventure. Little did I know what lay ahead for me.

Fall colors south of Yukon Crossing


Passing a 32-wheel truck in mist and rain

I got to the end of the Dalton Highway, mile 0, and paused to consider which way to go on the Elliott Highway - turn right for 76 miles of unpaved road to Manley Hot Springs, or turn left for Fairbanks. It was the rain that decided me on the latter.

The Elliott Highway from that point south to Fairbanks is wide, fast, and paved, but still very remote from civilization. So it worried me when the van started making strange noises, losing power, and the CHECK ENGINE SOON light came on, then started blinking urgently.

I hoped to make it at least to the edge of cell phone range, but no, it was not possible. It was several miles before I found a safe place to pull off the highway, into a gravel road leading up to Pump Station Number 7 on the Alaska Pipeline. Just in time, too - once stopped I couldn't make the van move at all.

I flagged down a contractor's pickup and they advised me to walk up the road to the pump station and use their phone. The security guard there allowed me to do this, and I called AAA for a tow. The tow truck arrived in just over an hour, and carried me and my muddy van back the final 56 miles to Fairbanks.

Rescued by Ron's Towing

Valdez and the McCarthy Road


So there I was - 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.

Before washing


After washing

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

Panoramas east of Fairbanks

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

Panoramas of the Gulkana River

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.

Panoramas East of Valdez

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

Panoramas of 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.

Panoramas of the Chugach Range on the Richardson Highway

At the end of the day I headed east to the tiny historic town of Chitina and camped next to the mighty Copper River. Readers of Dana Stabenow's Alaska-based mysteries will recognize this area from her books.

Welcome to Chitina

Panoramas of 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 - the canyon and the bridge. 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

Panoramas of 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

Panoramas of 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

Panoramas of Kennicott

Panoramas of the Kennecott Mine Mill

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

Panoramas of 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

Panoramas of the Tok Cutoff

Panoramas of Tetlin National Wildlife 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

Panoramas of the Alaska Highway in the Western Yukon

Panoramas of Kluane

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, the scene magnificent - 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"

Panoramas of Teslin

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.


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


I saw a family of thin-horn sheep crossing the road to a clay-lick at Mud Lake.


Amazing colors in Good Hope Lake


The Cassiar Mountains rise high above the central part of the Cassiar Highway.

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.

Panoramas on the Cassiar Highway North of Dease Lake

Panoramas on the Cassiar Highway South of Dease Lake


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.

Panoramas of the Glacier Highway

Welcome to Hyder

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.

Panoramas of Stewart

Panoramas of Hyder

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

Panoramas of the Granduc Mine Road

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

Panoramas 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.

Grizzly claws

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

Panoramas of Kitwanga Junction

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.

Panoramas of the Lower Skeena River

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.

Panoramas of Port Edward

Panoramas of the North Pacific Cannery

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

Panoramas of Prince Rupert


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


The old cannery village of Butedale


Boat Bluff light station


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.

Panoramas of the Inside Passage - North Half

Panoramas of the Inside Passage - South Half


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".

Panoramas of Campbell River


September 24-25, 2010

It was still gray and rainy so I headed south and ended up driving all day, to Kelso Washington.

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.


Contact Don Bain: dbain@virtualguidebooks.com