Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Archive for July, 2009

What Do Moose Eat?

posted: July 30th, 2009 | by:Bert


Moose along Alcan, chowing down

©Bert Gildart: What do moose eat? Well, they eat fire weed, and lots of it.

That’s something we learned today while driving the Alcan Highway, for we have left Fairbanks, and are heading south, but not quite leaving Alaska. In fact, we’re heading back to Chicken, then we’ll be traveling over the Top of the World Highway, where we’ll stop about 100 miles later for a night or two in Dawson City. Dawson recalls the times Robert Service spent having preserved his cabin. Here, he penned such famous poems as the Cremation of Sam McGee. It also preserves the memory of Jack London with a cabin and we hope to see the former homes of both.

After a night or two in Dawson, we’ll be heading back to Whitehorse, but just briefly. About August 8 we should be pulling into Skagway, Alaska, and, there, we’ll make ready to climb the famous Chilkoot Pass. We’ll be joined by Adam and Sue Maffei, another Airstream couple whose company we enjoy immensely.


In the meantime, we have a fairly long way to go, and right now the wildlife along the ALCAN is keeping us mighty occupied. This guy was grazing along the road near Delta Junction, which is about 100 miles south of Fairbanks. He didn’t seem to mind the cars, just so long as no one got out, which no one did. Most people here seem to understand wildlife and what it takes enjoy observing it.

That enabled us to learn a little something about feeding habits here in Alaska, which really isn’t that much different from Alces alces in Montana, i.e., they love fireweed.


Proof that moose love fireweed.

Note: Not sure what our Internet capabilities will be in Chicken or in Dawson City, so there may be a lag or two after this posting before I can blog again.

AS THE EARTH TURNS: Sunrise and sunset in Fairbanks will be 4:40 and 11:16 respectively.


*Glacier National Park’s Moose Valley


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Alaska’s Museum of the North

posted: July 29th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: The Museum of the North, which is affiliated with the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, has turned out to be one of the most rewarding impromptu visits we have made. It is, as their brochure says, “the premier repository for artifacts and specimens collected in Alaska and a leader in northern natural and cultural history research.”

The museum has many benefactors, to include Bill and Melinda Gates.

As we entered we were greeted by an imposing eight-foot nine-inch mount of a brown bear, and not too far away was a series of panels containing the writing and photography of the late Michio Hoshino. Because of the way in which Michio died, I thought the association appropriate, for the Japanese man  had become internationally famous. He was extraordinarily well liked — and much respected. Every one who met him considered him a friend, to include Janie and me.


Visitors to the Museum of the North are greeted by an 8'9" brown bear that weighed 1,253 pounds.

Though Michio was best known for his photography — and much of it was displayed in the museum  — also displayed was some of his superb writing. Perhaps not too coincidentally, some of it was about bears, for it was a huge brown bear that took Michio’s life in Kamchatka, Russia, in August of 1996.


Here’s that brief sampling, and it ends by referring to Nanook, the monster bear of the North:

The wind that carried away
your grandfather’s last breath
Gave it to a newborn wolf
as its first breath of life.

We are ever reborn in new forms of life. Boy, you must pray for each form of life that you take… just as your grandfather prayed. The words of your prayer are words that we can hear.

We are each an expression of the earth. When you pray for my life you become Nanook. And Nanook becomes man.

Someday we shall meet in the world of ice. And when that happens, it does not matter whether it is I who shall die, or you.



Before leaving the subject of Michio I’d like to say that Janie and I counted the man as a friend, though in truth we had spent but a week with him in Old Crow, Yukon Territory. Still, we kept in touch, and when his photographs were used to round out the story and several photographs I provided National Wildlife about the Gwich’in Indians and their attempts to preserve the Porcupine Caribou herd, I was pleased.


The museum also contains exquisite art depicting, in some cases, epic hunts.

The museum also contained exquisite art. As well, it contained the bones and tusks from the giant mammoth; a special room entitled “The Place Where you Listen,” which features sounds that often seemed to replicate earth actions. It contained other attractions to include a special exhibit of photography entitled “2009: The Last Polar Bear – The Truth About Global Warming.”

We spent almost four hours in the museum, which tells you that for an impromptu visit, Alaska’s Museum of the North must be exceedingly interesting. Janie and I are sure that there are many others out there like us.


Sunrise  and sunset in Fairbanks will be 4:38 and 11:14 respectively.



*Lilies in Glacier National Park


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An Ice Palace Preserved by a Hot Springs? Check Out Chena

posted: July 26th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: “Step through the door as quickly as possible,” directed our guide. “Every time we open the door we loose eight degrees of heat.”

We had entered the Aurora Ice Palace located in the Chena Hot Springs Resort, about 55 miles from Fairbanks, Alaska. Temperatures inside the Palace were a cool 20ºF while outside they hovered around 80.


Heroic size ice carvings depicting jousting.

Quickly we donned heavy parkas, then we entered a room full of heroic sized ice carvings. Renowned ice artist Heather Brice was at work adding to her creations, which now include the life-size carving of two gladiators jousting with lances; a polar bear; a series of ice goblets, among others.


“These carvings will last for years,” said our guide. “And they’re all preserved by starting with thermal energy.” Continuing he said that Chena doesn’t have access to outside electricity, and that virtually everything in the complex to include the quest rooms, dinning rooms… a green house in which vegetables are raised, are all derived from geothermal power. “That,” he said, “includes the Ice Palace.”

From an earlier tour of the complex that day with Cherie Johnson, we knew a little about what he was referring to, for she had introduced us to the technology that enabled all this to work. In theory, it’s fairly simply, though the elaborate machinery would lead you to believe differently.


CLICK ON ABOVE IMAGES TO SEE ENLARGMENTS. L to R: Hot spring; Exterior of Aurora Ice Palace; Airstream, Ice Palace and artifacts from minning era.

Bernie Karl, owner of the complex, has taken hot water from the earth and used it to generate power in an ingenious manner. Because the water that feeds the hot springs that first began attracting visitors was only 163 ºF, he used it in another way. He found another substance with a lower boiling point, and used heat from the water to create steam from the other substance used to turn the fins of a generator. The process is certainly more involved but because he has taken his process so far and is now generating energy that may soon be completely independent of fossil fuels, he’s getting lots of attention.


Electrical energy in Alaska is expensive, but hundreds of remote Native Villages could benefit from his technology. He offers links that detail his setup, to include the additional technology now used to power all aspects of his entire center, which includes the demanding requirements of the Aurora Ice Palace.
Though the entire complex is impressive, what was most dramatic to me was, in fact, the ice museum.


Interior of Aurora Ice Palace

The carvings are all impressive and to capture images I used a tripod and exposures of five to 10 seconds, depending on the light in that particular area. Our tour lasted about half an hour and, then, because we had walked from such a warm environment to such a cold environment, we followed up our ice tour with a long soak in the hot springs. We sampled them all, to include the outdoor natural springs (see above series of photos) as well as several hot ones located in a protected enclosure.


Interestingly, the most popular time to visit Chena is winter, something Janie and I have done in years past. The complex is ideally located for viewing northern lights. Because the Japanese believe that children conceived while the Aurora blaze overhead will be particularly healthy, they flock here in the winter… They love Chena.


Tonight sunset at Fairbanks will be 11:28, sunrise, 4: 25.


*Fort Union, An Outpost on the Missouri River


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Chena Hot Springs is at “End of the Road”

posted: July 23rd, 2009 | by:Bert


Camped beneath stands of spruce at Tanana Valley Campground in Fairbanks.

©Bert Gildart: And so we departed Tanana Valley Campground in Fairbanks, having spent a week there camped beneath stands of black spruce, warming ourselves late in the evening by a cozy fire after returning from long days covering the events at WEIO.

Now we’re camped at Chena Hot Springs in another delightful spot situated along the small creek and again beneath stands of spruce. To get here, we traveled about 55 miles north of Fairbanks along a road that may provide more views of moose (well almost at any rate) than it does of motorists.


We’re here to soak in the hot spring and to learn more about an area that so fascinated Lester Holt of NBC news that he made a special trip to this remote part of Alaska. The owner of Chena has tapped the thermal resources and used them in a way that is environmentally friendly to provide electrical power to all this resort offers. Some of the techniques he’s used her may also be appropriate for powering a number of Native villages located in remote areas of interior Alaska.

We, too, want to learn how he’s accomplished that–and learn, too, how all that is possible at an area that has no ZIP code, no physical address, and no “piped” in electricity. “It is,” says one of the Chena representatives ,”either the end of the road, or if you’re looking at it from my perspective, the start of the road–and we love it.”

To learn about it we’ll be here for several days, and if we don’t get too roasted in the hot springs or frozen in the Aurora Ice Museum, we’ll be telling you about it in our next posting.


Road to Chena Hot Springs offers frequent moose sightings.

It’s fascinating! We know as once while here on a winter visit we watched as chandeliers moved back and forth as we sat in the dinning room. The ground beneath us was moving and overhead, northern lights blazed…

And now we’re back–and enjoying every minute.



*Global Warming as Viewed From Grinnell Glacier


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Favorite Photos From WEIO

posted: July 22nd, 2009 | by:Bert


Elijah Cabinboy attempting to kick tiny ball was one of my favorite photos.

©Bert Gildart: Photographing the World Eskimo Indian Olympics has been a challenging experience. To some extent it was made easier by the willingness of authorities to work with photojournalist-and with the advice I received from several very good photographers who have worked here before.

Though I was familiar with virtually all the techniques required here for these fast-paced events, some I had not used for awhile, and the discussions I had with other photographers expedited my recollections. Clark Mishler, for instance, explained the camera settings he was using and described his use and placement of auxiliary flash units.

Roy Corral assured me that using high ISO camera settings would produce good publishable results. That’s something I should have remembered, as one of my images made this winter in Death Valley was made using an ISO setting of almost 2000-and it was extraordinarily sharp. Apparently, Nikon excels with pixels used in its high-end digital cameras. Here, at WEIO, many of my action images were shot using ISOs ranging from 400 to 800.

The most difficult image was the one of Elijah Cabinboy. This image is not cropped. The challenge was to figure out where his eyes would be when his feet touched the ball, and I did so by watching him and then noticing that his head was about a foot or so behind the ball. That’s where I focused my camera, not on the ball. When using a wide-open aperture and a small telephoto lens, this selection was critical, otherwise his eyes would have been out of focus, and that essentially makes the image unusable.

What I believe is so striking about this image is Cabinboy’s concentration. Look and you’ll see he is focused–and intently so on the tiny ball, which he must touch with his feet. Little wonder he’s such a superb athlete.


Elijah is, in fact, a superb athlete and this year he broke an Olympic record with his One-foot High Kick. Unfortunately, I was shooting another venue when Cabinboy broke the previous record by balancing himself on one arm and then kicking the ball, which was then suspended at an elevation of 96 inches. Later, he said he practiced kicking the ceiling of his apartment, which, is in fact, 96 inches.


Other photos I like for different reasons. I like the one of Blanche Vest keeping the fire alive during the opening night using a caribou antler to nurse her flame ignited with moss and seal oil. It tells a story.


CLICK TO SEE LARGER IMAGE. L TO R: Delilah DeWilde and Andrew Marks, Lila Moses of Fairbanks, “Keeper of Flame” Blanche Vest, Brandon Johnson

Likewise, I like the image of Delilah DeWilde and Andrew Marks running the torch around the arena. To impart a sense of motion I intentionally shot at slow shutter speeds. There’s a story here, too, one of pathos. This past Christmas Vaughn Kozevnikoff, one of Mark’s best friends, died suddenly. As a result, Marks dedicated his win as a tribute to his friend. Best male and female runner are also provided the honor of lighting the seal oil light, tended by Blanche Vest.

I also like the image of Lila Moses of Fairbanks taken during the Native Baby contest. Janie helped me with this photo by holding a second strobe to improve modeling. It also “flattens” the light, which is more pleasing to young faces.


I am always awed by the power some of the dances project and in this case, it is performed by Brandon Johnson a Tlingit Indian from Yakutat. He said Native dances tend to convey the constant flow of life, the trees, rivers, clouds… I liked his descriptions.


David Thomas completes his high blanket toss with a somersault

Finally, I could not stop photographing those participating in the Eskimo Blanket Toss, and in this case, David Thomas adds a bit of variety which was certainly pleasing to the judges. At the height of his leap, he did a somersault. Last year his performance won him some top awards, and may have this year. I’m not sure and am still checking records.

We leave the Olympics the best way possible-which means we are yearning for more. Others agreed, and it is little wonder the contest has become one of Alaska’s favorite attractions.



*Mackinac National Park


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WEIO Provides Ideal Setting to Learn About Native Arts & Crafts

posted: July 21st, 2009 | by:Bert


Cora "Umara Nupowhotuk" creates work of art that reflect her traditional ancestory.

©Bert Gildart: Cora “Umara Nupowhotuk” is originally from St. Lawrence Island and, today, she makes Caribou Masks that tell of the traditional past.

John Koweluk and Molly Hunt from Katlik make exquisitely beaded moccasins while Kenneth Frank of Arctic Village is an artist with the drums.

Because Alaska is such a huge state, many of these native arts and crafts remain unique to the culture and obscured from a more public viewing. But at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics (WEIO) held each year for four days in Fairbanks, Alaska, in July, artists arrive prepared to display and explain production. And, of course, WEIO provides a good setting in which you can make purchases, some that will last a life.

Cora “Umara Nupowhotuk” (see last photo from  July 20 post) is one of the more distant representatives of Native  art, having been reared on St. Lawrence Island, located some 40 miles off the Siberian coast. She says her mother and grandmother instructed her in the art of skin sewing. She says her work has been worn on the summit of Denali, the Antarctic and has been displayed in the Smithsonian.

Umara’s work represents the faces of traditional Siberian Yupik people. Her son harvests the caribou, she then molds the faces over one of the cedar faces she has carved. Later, she adds tattoos, representing an adornment that was once a custom among woman of her culture. She says that there are several elderly women from her village and that they have facial tattoos “similar, she says, “to those shown on my masks.


Umara’s masks depict both men and women, though the ones of woman seemed more appealing to Janie and me. All were adorned with customary tattoos and beads, and some of the patterns she’s created represent waves, life lines, northern lights, fern leaves among others.

Men wore no facial tattoos, but they did have marks above their eye brows. “If a woman was barren her husband was allowed to take a second wife,” said Umara. “If he did, the eye brow marks tell that story.”




Mary and Francis Kakoona of Shishmaref live equally as far away. Their village is about 80 miles north of Nome, which is in the Berring Sea, and has the tragic distinction of being located on a small island that is rapidly diminishing because of global warming. “We’ll have to relocate,” says Francis, “and we’re very sad because of our history there.”


Francis hunts for seals and walruses just off the island and it is from these animals that he extracts materials for his work. “I shape the ivory,” he says, “so that it takes on a life.”

All in all about 30 artists displayed their work at WEIO, and all was of excellent quality. We would have photographed more but we had to coordinate the times we asked questions and made photographs between lulls in the Olympic competitions and, of course, during times when artists were free from sales.


Kimberly Dullen (Miss WEIO 2008) crowns Alanna Gibson, the new Miss WEIO

Sometimes, of course, I simply photographed individuals engaged in activities that I thought projected talent. These include Susan Hope with her father’s ship made of baleen, Kenneth Frank joining a group that simply wish to be known as Soaring Eagle, drummers from Anaktuvuk Pass, and, finally, and certainly not to be excluded, the lovely Kimberly Dullen crowning the equally as lovely Alanna Gibson of Minto, the new Miss WEIO.

These young ladies are artists themselves, and do more than stand and project beauty. As well, several are talented craftpersons themselves, one of the abilities on which judges decide just who will be a Miss WEIO.

Though the contest ended this past Saturday night, I may post a few other photographs.



*Theodore Roosevelt National Park


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World Eskimo Indian Olympics is all about Superlatives

posted: July 20th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: After seeing the World Eskimo Indian Olympics in Fairbanks, Alaska, henceforth everything else in life may be anticlimactic. From the Two-foot High Kick, the crowning of the new Miss WEIO, the incredible dance performances, the Seal Skinning contest… to the Eskimo Ear Pull, life these past few days has almost been surreal.


A stoic Andrew Walker does well in Eskimo Ear Pull but doesn't win.

While we’ve been here, records have been broken, and these aren’t easy contests in which to compete. Try skinning a seal in less than four minutes. Try jumping forward on one leg, then jumping high on the same leg to kick a ball that has been placed about five feet in the air.

Once the kick served as a message to hunting or whaling crews.  In days of old if a runner saw a whale, he would leap high into the air on one foot, sending a message to other hunters that a whale or caribou had been seen.

The contest also tests a person’s agility, and if you think it is easy, try jumping in place on one foot three times in a row. That may not be tremendously hard, but now try something similar. Try leaping high into the air on, say, the right foot. Then, while in the air try kicking a suspended ball with the right foot; and, finally, before doing anything with your left foot, try landing ON THE SAME FOOT!


The Olympics began with Andrew Marks and Delilah DeWilde running their Olympic torch into the Carlson Center. After trotting around the arena, they proceeded to a table where Blanche Vest of Kotzbue, the “Keeper of the Flame,” sat waiting. Lighting the wick, which consisted of seal oil and tundra moss, the games officially began. Later, Blanche told me that several hundred years ago Eskimos and Indians would be fighting.

“Now look at us!” she exclaimed. “Sure we’re competing hard, but we’re friendly and all that.”


Janie Synder uses Ulu to skin seal.

Dancing followed, and groups representing each of the six major Alaskan tribes did so with grace and often power. Brandon Johnson, a Tlingit Indian from Yakutat, said the dances told stories of the trees, the animals… the ravens. He said everything was in motion and that dances reflected “… the constant flow of life.”


Events were many and some of the first events were descriptively entitled: the One-hand Reach, the Kneel Jump and the Toe Kick, a particularly difficult event which requires participants to leap forward, kick a stick backward–which has been precisely positioned on the floor–but doing so while still in motion.

Finally, the athlete must propel himself yet further forward. It’s an event requiring great coordination and strength.

In various ways, one of the most challenging events was one form of the several types of  high kicks, difficult for contestants and difficult for me as a first-time photo journalist to WEIO.

Trying to capture contestants in mid air as they stretch out torsos, legs and toes–focusing as they must do on a tiny ball, which they must set into motion–is difficult to capture, and certainly to perform.

Paradoxically, two events that attracted some of the most interest were the most brutal. One, the Seal Skinning contest, tested a person’s speed in removing the hide, and Charles Brown was the winner of that event.


CLICK EACH IMAGE TO SEE LARGE PHOTO–AND OLYMPIC FORM. L to R: Manny Curtis; Sharlane King; Elijah Cabinboy, who set a new world record in another event–the Alaskan High Kick.

He removed the entire skin from a seal with an Ulu in 2 minutes and 24 seconds! Try gutting and skinning a pike in that time and you’ll get a sense of these contestants’ abilities.


The other event that brought gasps from the crowd was the Ear Pull (top photo), an event in which two people sit down in front of one another and then loop a bit of string-like seal gut (similar to waxed dental floss–so you, too, can try it!) around one anothers ears. A tug of war begins and if the pain is too intense you concede by flicking your head releasing the gut from around your ear. The contest measure your ability to withstand the harsh realities of the frozen north.


Dora Umara Buchea and her caribou masks represent a Native art form at its very best. Our next posting will describe a few other art forms.

Though the ceremonies concluded last night, I’ll be posting another blog or two about WEIO. It has left us awed and a bit humbled, and I’d like to try to explain further why we have been so enthralled.



*Preparing to Climb Mount Rainier



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Images From the World Eskimo Indian Olympics

posted: July 18th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: For the past two days, Janie and I have been attending and covering WEIO–the World Eskimo Indian Olympics. During this time I have taken close to 700 digital images, deleting more than half. Most of those have been of the sporting events, which is the hardest of all the aspects to cover. Though images of people as they’re discussing the arts representing their various cultures are not easy either, nevertheless individuals are static, so I can obtain quality images with fewer exposures.


About 40 men pull on a seal skin blanket propelling Andrew Walker toward overhead dome lights.

So far some of the sporting events have included the one-arm long reach, the Eskimo high kick and the every popular Eskimo blanket toss, and it is these events which require the greatest number of exposures needed to obtain a single good image. For instance, to capture the jumper in the blanket toss, it was necessary to hold the camera high overhead and then guess at placement. As well, the glaring lights tend to darken the subjects so I’ve had to use manual exposures. I also programmed the camera to take continuous pictures as I held down the shutter. During each contestants’ jump, I recorded him or her about half a dozen times. Again, I deleted many, sometimes all but just one or two.


Photographs of individuals, such as the image of Carrie Nelson and Kyle, her 14 month old baby all dressed in the seal skin, was comparatively easy, though I did elicit Janie’s help. We used two strobes for this picture, and to obtain nice modeling, Janie held the one light high and to the baby’s left. My on camera served as a fill light.

We’ll provide more about the events over the next few days.  In the meantime, because we’re literally going around the clock I’ll leave further descriptions for later, posting instead several images that I believe will symbolize some of what WEIO has to offer.



In addition to the ones mentioned above, these also include Clyde Brown of Hydaburg in the grand ceremony dance; Chris Warrior of Wasilla performing the difficult feat of balancing on one-hand reach; and Andrew Walker leaping high into the air with the assistance of about 40 individuals pulling on the seal-skin blanket.

More images and additional details will follow in a day or so.



*What’s Causing Global Warming? Pikas in Great Basin Provide Clues


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Athabascan Fiddle Music as Only Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village Can Provide

posted: July 16th, 2009 | by:Bert


Trimble Gilbert and two sons, Bobby and Gregory create beautiful sounds at the Morris Thompson Culture/Visitor Center

©Bert Gildart: Trimble Gilbert, one of Alaska’s most prominent fiddle players, is currently appearing several nights a week at the Morris Thompson Culture and Visitor Center in downtown Fairbanks. Trimble, a former chief of Arctic Village and currently Second Traditional Chief of the entire Athabascan community, remembers that he first picked up a fiddle in 1952, and since that time, has been in demand throughout the entire Gwich’in community.

Joy Huntington in her upcoming news letter for the Culture/Visitor Center writes that Trimble has taught us how music and dancing can heal our communities by injecting everyone with positive energy.

“If people in the community are not getting along,” writes Joy, quoting Trimble, “they forget their problems during the community dances.”

Janie and I first met Trimble in 1991, and one of our favorite memories was listening to him in his church (he is also the Episcopal minister in Arctic) and once allowed us to record him and his congregation singing Amazing Grace in their Gwich’in language.


Several days ago we attended one of Trimble’s performances during which time he played Red River Jig, Handkerchief Dance, Duck Dance and finally, the Two Step Dance.  Trimble’s sons Gregory and Bobby joined him and together they put on quite a performance.

When I first met Trimble he advised me to learn to jig and in subsequent Christmas cards reminded me that I should work on my dancing. “I think you’re getting there,” he’d always joke. “Not easy; keep working.”

The group’s last song for the evening was the Two Step and as a part of the audience, I was asked to dance. Trimble watched and later said I’d come a long way. “You should get the award for most improved.”

At first I was complemented, then realized my skills may, in fact, have needed the most improvement. Those thoughts were reinforced as I watched Gregory move his feet in response to the lively music.


Gregory Gilbert and partner Ashley Charlie demonstrate various Athabascan dances

Regardless, it was wonderful to hear Trimble and watch his family perform. All are excellent musicians and if you’re in the country, your time would be well spent if you check out one of his performances, and others, too, now being offered at the Morris Thompson Culture Center.




*Glacier’s Highline Trail


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Native Friends, A Rehabilitated Bald Eagle–Good Sign!

posted: July 14th, 2009 | by:Bert


"Volt," the rehabilitated bald eagle must now face other challenges

©Bert Gildart: Though the last day of the Powwow in Fairbanks, Alaska, was highlighted by the drama of releasing a rehabilitated bald eagle back into the wild, for us it was equally as exciting to see people whom we once knew well from so many different Native villages. Before the day was over, we saw friends with whom we’d enjoyed many exotic adventures. With them we’d watched the spectacle of northern lights streaming overhead; enjoyed the warmth of a stove fire as outside temperatures had dipped to -50ºF… been awed when a herd of caribou had run rampant along a dusty village road.

Still, it was the Powwow and all of its excitement that had brought us together and there is no question, ceremonies began with a real attention getter. “Volt,” a young bald eagle, had flown into a high-powered line and had been laid wide open, but careful medical attention had restored the bird to good health. Because of Native spirituality, it was thought the local Fairbanks Indian group would be the appropriate organization to release Volt–and we all watched eagerly to see if the eagle would react as hoped.


Volt had been kept in a cage, and when the door opened, the bird took a faltering leap, but then, on strong wings it powered its way to the top of a nearby tree. Upon landing, the local drummers beat out their approval–and the crowd cheered. Ravens and gulls, however, sensing a dangerous intrusion began dive bombing the young bald eagle. Again, we wondered what might happen.

For a few moments, it appeared as though its antagonists might rule the day, driving the bird off its tenuous perch. The eagle hunkered down, but then it reared up, as though trying to seize one of its antagonists in its deadly talons. Before long, the ravens and gulls departed, leaving the young eagle to other concerns.


I had been watching the release with Kenneth Frank of Arctic Village. Janie and I knew his family would also be there, but didn’t know so many of our other acquaintances would attend.


(L to R: Me on the far right; dance ceremonies throughout day; eagle head dress; Kenneth and daughter Crystal, a most accomplished family. For larger image, click each photo)

That afternoon we saw friends from Old Crow, Venetie, Steven’s Village, and even Rampart-villages located along interior river systems of Canada and Alaska. In part because of our interest in wildlife, in hunting and fishing, we had cherished our years with them in the ‘90s as teachers–and later as journalists. But as the years went by, we developed strong friendships because of shared empathies and mutual respect. Now we were together attending a ceremony that was loaded with lots of exciting activities.

After the release of the eagle, dance ceremonies began, and the MC encouraged all to participate. “Come on now, you don’t have to be an FBI (full-blooded Indian Kenneth told us) to participate. Look at that pretty lady (pointing to Janie); we want to her dance.”


Before the day was over, both Janie and I attempted various dances, then later, Kenneth twisted my arm hard enough so I joined him and about 25 others in a game of musical chairs. Donations were requested for all the groups (children, women, and finally men) and though the crowd was generous with the other groups, it was a bit stingy on the men. We topped out at $145, which was nothing to sneeze at, though it was a mute point for me, as I was one of the first to be put out.


Drummers help dramatize the eagle's successful return to the wild.

All too soon the day ended. Our friends said they’d be attending the World Eskimo Indian Olympics held every year in Fairbanks in mid July, and we said we would be too. As we departed Volt lifted from its perch on the top of a tall spruce and flew to a more distant branch.

“Good sign,” said one of our friends. “I think we’ll see you real soon!”

“Yes,” we agreed. “Very good sign!”



*Global Warming in Glacier National Park


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Panning For Gold at The El Dorado

posted: July 13th, 2009 | by:Bert


Dexter Clark, genuine gold miner now turned author and narrator

©Bert Gildart: “My one wish,” said Dexter Clark holding in his hand a number of heavy gold nuggets, “is to one day uncover a vein lined with chunks of gold even larger than these. Isn’t that everyone’s wish? “

Lots of other people are glad that Dexter Clark and his wife Yukon Yanda are still looking for in the meantime they’re providing a highly entertaining and insightful view into the romance and hardships of what lured so many to the Alaska. What made their presentation so engaging is the two had both worked for many years as genuine prospectors.

Dexter and Yukon now work for the El Dorado, a full fledged mining operation once rich with gold that is also run by the Binkley family (see last post). There’s still gold in them hills–not enough to now continue as a full fledged mining operation–but enough so that if you join the tour, you’ll learn about the intricacies of hard-pan mining a maybe even find a little gold yourself.


The tour begins with a short train ride from the “terminal” aboard an open air car pulled by an old-time looking engine. Narration is provided by conductor and commentator Earl Hughes. Because we’d arrived early, Hughes provided us with a front-row seat for ideal photography and to answer questions.

Hughes had a nice voice and a winning personality, and those qualities insured he’d be Governor Sarah Palin’s selection to serve as the state’s Ambassador of Country and Western music.

The genre is one I particularly enjoy, and we shared knowledge, talking first about Robert Service and the wonderful rendition famed singer Hank Snow once did of the renowned poet.


Soon the train stopped at an old cabin and another interpreter talked about living conditions when the mine had been active. Somewhere along the line, the train entered a short permafrost tunnel which has been designed to demonstrate the kinds of minerals and rock formations which, as the Gold Mine Gazette proclaims, “…tend to prove most productive in placer gold recovery.”


(For larger versions of these photos and for captions, click on each image.)

The train then pulls into Gold Camp where we finally met the real stars of the show, Dexter and Lynette, the latter much better known as Yukon Yonda.

Realizing I was having trouble with her last name, she said, “Make it easy on yourself. It’s like saying ‘over yonder,’ but I shorten it to over yonda.


Our group of several hundred spent well over an hour with the couple, learning about prospecting, panning and place or sluice mining. Then we moved into a small enclosure where Yukon and Dexter provided us with a sack of dirt, from which we were told we should be able to extract gold using a pan.

Essentially, panning takes advantage of density. By swirling the dirt in the pan gold chips settled to the bottom because it is so much more dense (heavier) than what encases it. This portion of the tour may have been the most popular for it provides a tangible return. Yonda told Janie that she may have “mined” over $30 worth of the mineral. Later, Yonda, Dexter and other members of the staff showed us ways in which all the glittering chips could be could be fashioned into memorable keepsakes.


Panning for gold, perhaps the day's most popular activity.

The trip lasted about 2 ½ hours and at the end we found a book Yonda and Dexter had co-authored entitled, On Golden Ground. We bought it and then asked them to autograph it, which they both did. Yonda wrote: To Bert and Janie-Keep on playing in the mud. Dexter wrote: Gold Luck.

Janie and I both laughed, and then waved, shouting, “See you yonda-on the Yukon. With all the people we’ve been meeting-and then re-meeting along the way, it all seems quite possible.



*More From Knife River


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Trip Down Chena River Aboard Discovery III — One of Alaska’s Top Excursions

posted: July 9th, 2009 | by:Bert


Tour on the riverboat Discovery may be one of a visitor's best trips in Alaska.

©Bert Gildart: One of the most popular trips in Alaska is a cruise on the riverboat DISCOVERY III. The family owning the business has a long history in Alaska, and all that is weaved into the 3 ½ hour trip down the Chena River. Highlights include stops at Susan Butcher’s dog training kennels, and at the replica of a native village, where descendents of the various Indian and Eskimo cultures provide demonstrations of their various subsistence life style, ones that are still practiced.

Janie and I began our tour by meeting Jonathan Bradish, the ship’s First Mate, and Wade Binkley, the boats relatively young captain.

Like all other family members, Wade said he had started at the bottom and worked his way up, something all Binkleys have been doing since his grandfather began the business just following the Gold Rush of the 1890s. His grandfather, one of the “Stampeders” hiked over the Chilkoot Pass.

Subsequent to those times, Binkleys have built boats for the Chena, Tanana and Yukon rivers. At first boats served to supply goods for miners, but then, in the 1950s, recognizing a change, the family began offering excursions along the Chena and Tanana rivers with Discovery I. Today’s boat is similar to the earlier version, but still has evolved and improved with time through Discovery II, and now Discovery III.


We began our tour with pier-side waves from a group of envious onlookers, and then moments later, stopped to watch a float plane take off and land. Along the Chena, it seemed many residents had boats and planes moored to docks with steps leading to substantial homes. Some residents here were well known and one home belonged to Senator Murkowski.


Boat stops at Susan Butcher kennels and you can almost feel the boat list to starboard. Wonderful presentation by Susan's husband.

Several miles further downriver, the boat anchored at the Susan Butcher Kennels, and many may remember her as the energetic young woman who won four Iditarod races. Using a dog team, Susan also led a climbing party to the top of Mt. McKinley.

Susan’s best dog of all, named Granite, became the subject of a book that Susan and David wrote. Sadly, leukemia claimed Susan’s life in August of 2006, but her husband David Monson and children continue to run the kennels and train dogs. As well, they provide DISCOVERY passengers with such exciting demonstrations that the surge of passengers to starboard seemed capable of tilting the boat.


After vigorous training run, dogs and trainer cool down in 45 degree waters of Chena River.

Using a radio mike, David explained how he trained and cared for dogs. He then hooked his team to an unpowered four-wheeler, which the dogs pulled over a course designed to keep them fit. Upon their return, the dogs were released and there upon charged into the 45º water of the Chena. One of the young ladies hired to help David throughout the summer eagerly joined.

As the dogs and trainer splashed in the Chena you could hear the steady clicks from camera-totting visitors. “Good thing we’re no longer shooting film,” laughed one passenger.


DISCOVERY III continued its excursion to the mouth of the Chena and Brad, who had invited Janie and me to the captain’s house, told us that the river had created an impassable sandbar so the boat could no longer pass into the Tanana. He said the Tanana is the largest glacial supplied river system in the world. “When it swells from glacial silt,” said Brad, “it can actually slow the flow of water from the Chena River.”


The boat’s last stop was at Chena Village, a replica of native villages from interior Alaska–and here, demonstrations were provided by college students (all of whom were Native) from various villages. Demonstrations were intended to show techniques for preparing salmon to be dried on smoke racks, use of the fish wheel, trapping techniques, gorgeous hide apparel and all the other associated aspects of a person’s life in the village. Janie and I knew they were authentic as we had lived for a period in a number of villages that still rely for survival on subsistence.


(Above photos of Captain Wade Binkly and of the former resident of a subsistence village. The young lady is now a college student and works summers providing demonstration of life as it once was, and in some cases, still is! FOR ENLARGEMENTS, CLICK ON PHOTO)

Over the years, Janie and I have both enjoyed many excursions throughout Alaska, and concur that for people interested in a quick overview of the way in which life was once conducted, and still is in many cases, a trip down the Chena aboard the stern-wheel riverboat Discovery III is tops.



*Glacier’s Logan Pass


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Regrouping At Delta Junction, A Terminus of the Alaska Highway

posted: July 7th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: It doesn’t take 2 ½ weeks to drive from Bigfork, Montana, to the official end of the Alaskan Highway (we once made it in 3 ½ days) at Delta Junction, but that’s the amount of time we took. Part of every trip is a photo outing. As well, we’ve been trying to gather material for various stories, so we dallied.


We know each of the 28 species of mosquitoes in Alaska is huge, and this cast at Delta Junction is an exact replica. Honest!

Though most people drive on to Fairbanks, Delta Junction is where the U.S. Army officially ceased its construction. The first time we passed through this small town was in 1991, right after we married, and we both recall having met a young man at the Delta Visitor Center who had cycled all the way from South America. That memory has stuck with us.


A few minutes ago, we started to call relatives living on the East Coast. Here at 8 p.m. it is completely light and so for a second or two, we forgot that although it may seem early, their time it is, in fact, midnight. Though we are not quite to the Arctic Circle (that’s just a little beyond Fairbanks), still, we have 24 hours of daylight, and almost 24 hours of COMPLETE SUNLIGHT. But not quite.


Fireweed is associated with disturbed areas, such as fire, and fireweed in Alaska grows in so many places, in this case on route to Chicken, AK.

Here, the sun dips below the horizon for several hours leaving us with what is known as Civil Twilight. That’s enough light (my definition) to read a book outside without straining your eyes.

Officially, the sun will set at 12: 21 and will rise at 3:28. Today, in New York, sunrise is 5:32; sunset 8:29.

To refresh, the Arctic Circle is that imaginary line that circles the earth and represents that point at which the sun completely dips below the horizon; and one day when the sun never rises above the horizon. Those events occur on the first day of summer and the first day of winter.

As one travels above that imaginary line, the extremes become greater and greater. At Arctic Village (several hundred miles above the Arctic Circle), where we spent a number of summers, teaching — and later gathering material for stories and a children’s book — the sun circled high in the sky for weeks on end, never touching the horizon.


Tomorrow, unless something diverts us, we’ll travel the last 100 miles to Fairbanks. Knock on wood we’ve sustained no damage to our Airstream, though we did talk to one Airstream owner who had trouble with rocks hitting the petcock draining water from his reserve water-holding tank.

I had the same problem with an earlier Airstream and called the factory and recommended they add a tiny shield to future Airstreams. Apparently they haven’t done so, though I had one installed on both our first Airstream and on our current one.

We’ve had no problems since.



*Holy S—, When no Other Worlds Suffice


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Chicken Alaska Has Cachet

posted: July 6th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Chicken, Alaska, is 66 miles from Tok, but seeing it is must-do side trip for anyone driving the Alcan. In fact, visiting it may give you bragging rights that places you on an even keel with some of those obnoxious travel bullies.

Chicken was immortalized in the book Tish, a story concerning a young woman who taught for a period of time in this remote village, established because of a gold discovery. As you can probably imagine, the tiny settlement has an earthy atmosphere, the product of having been founded by gold miners.

Chicken, according to a local handout was called “Chicken” because the original settlers couldn’t spell ptarmigan. Ptarmigan were also called chicken, so that’s how “the town” got its name.


Chicken Creek Saloon, the hub of Chicken, Alaska

If you make the trip, you will probably learn during your visit that the “town” of about 30 has no flush toilets. Hub of the community is the Chicken Saloon, and when you walk inside the thousands of baseball caps tacked on the wall and ceiling capture your attention. They represent almost every state in the country and most foreign countries as well – so you’re already in good company.


The bar tender was friendly and told us everything pretty well shuts down come winter, and that occasionally, temperatures can dip to 80 or 85 below Fahrenheit. The road also shuts down and those that remain rely on plane services for emergency. He said that in winter that’s the only real way in and out.

Wildlife adds to the excitement and our friendly bartender said that in the course of a year he’s tallied black and grizzly bears, caribou, moose (we saw one on the way in), weasels, rabbits, lynx, and wolves. Occasionally, he said, bears stroll through town.


We made the drive yesterday (traveling from Tok) and we made it in part because many told us that the hillsides are alive with fireweed, and that certainly proved to be the case. The species is one that requires heat in order for its seeds to germinate, and that source was provided about five years ago when fire ravaged hundreds of acres between Tok and Chicken. If the flames had been fanned a little harder, the town might not exist today.


Hills were alive with the color from fireweed

And so we had spectacular color on the way to Chicken, and when we arrived, we discovered that the residents had taken the concept of the chicken and run with it. The visitor outhouse was called the Chicken Poop Outhouse, and tee shirts were emblazoned with a chicken popping out of a shell, saying “I got laid in Chicken.” Judging from the number of shirts available, the item is an immensely popular item – appearing I’m sure, through out the world as a garment of sophistication and much distinction.  (Don’t ask if we bought one!)

This was not my first time to Chicken, and in fact, I made the trip in 2001 with Burns Ellison, a good friend of mine. We were on our way to Dawson City and eventually to the Arctic Ocean along the McKenzie River with my johnboat. (We made it!) We stopped in Chicken and then continued on what was then a gravel road – over the Top of the World Highway – to the Canadian border, where we were stopped and asked the usual questions about drugs, alcohol and firearms. The lady then asked us if we’d ever smoked dope. We shook our heads vigorously, and she laughed, asking, “Well would you tell me if you had?”


Chicken capitalizes on everything, in this case its outhouse known as the "Chicken Poop".

This is a relatively isolated area of Alaska, and when I told Janie about the crossing Burns and I had experienced, she hypothesized that this border crossing just 40 miles away must be the most remote in America. Certainly it was laid back, but I doubt it is that way now – eight years after 9-11.


Janie and I spent the afternoon rambling around Chicken, watching a couple of men pan for gold, then looking for the small school in which Tish once taught. Unlike my experience of several years ago, there’s now an RV park, and the road here was no worse than the Alaskan Highway. When Burns and I drove the road, it was all gravel.

Certainly, if you have a chance while in the area, it’d be worth your stop; it would give you bragging rights. Consider! When all those travel bullies start bragging about having been to the Grand Cayman, Mazatlan, or Cancun, you can puff out your chest and say, well we’ve just returned from Chicken?

This is beautiful country, and in my book, that goes a long way. Chicken has cachet.



*Wildflowers and Nikon Strobes



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Tok, Alaska’s Fourth of July Parade

posted: July 4th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Parades tell you much about an area, and because we are now in Tok, Alaska, we decided to take in the 4th of July celebration. Though small, this tiny community of 1400 put on quite a show, and was proceeded with several fire trucks followed by the Grand Marshall.


Grand Marshall, Tok, Alaska

After that, others followed and in no particular order included representatives from stores, veterans, the police department, and, of course, the local chamber. I photographed all representative, but included here only the ones which turned out well. Things were happening fast, and sometimes, exhibits escaped me.

Tok is a trading center for the surrounding Athabascan communities to include Northway, Tetlin, Tanacross, Mentasta, Eagle and Dot Lake. Later, we discovered that Native arts and crafts were found in the many gift shops found in Tok. Appropriately, one float included Athabascan representatives.


Tok serves many Athabascan Indian communities

Fires, and control of fires are obviously a huge concern. Tok, in fact, is engulfed on all sides with endless expanses of spruce, and several villages to the south of us were almost wiped out by fire. Appropriately, Smokey the Bear was present.


A much needed reminder that Tok is surrounded by vast forests.

Campgrounds were represented, as visitors swell during the months of July and August. In fact, the campground in which we are staying has been virtually full most every night. But we missed shots of them, but not of the Cranberry Lady. Her sign tells us when the festival occurs.


Cranberry Lady

One festival we photographed several days ago was Canada Days, and I’ve included a photo here from that celebration which we watched near the small Canadian town of Watson Lake.


Canada Days, and in the Boreal forest moose are common


Janie and I both like Tok. Folks here are friendly but when Janie and I heard that temperatures this past winter dipped to -80ºF and remained there for several weeks, she decided this was not a settlement in which she’d like to winter. We know what -50ºF is like as we experienced that in Venetie where we worked one winter as interim teachers. Tok, incidentally, means water in the Athabascan language.



*Big Pig Dig


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In Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, the Beringia Center Allows us to Relive Personal Adventures From an Ancient Landscape

posted: July 3rd, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: In Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, there’s an interpretative center that has so influenced us that we have made summer-long boat trips into the area it represents. Once this ancient area connected Russia and Alaska and the center interprets that great connection and the mega fauna that surrounded it. My stories concerning the people of the area have appeared in over a dozen publications to include Time/Life, National Wildlife and the Christian Science Monitor.


Beringia Center helps bring the distant past alive

The land is known by several names. Some call it the Bering Land Strip, but I prefer the the word Beringia, which is the name of the center, specifically the Beringia Center. Its purpsose is to interpret this area that once exsited about 10,000 years ago, focusing to some extent on the “mega fauna.” We’re familiar with many of their forms, but their size astounds us, for some were two and three times as large as what their counterparts now are today.

The center also interprets the tribes of Native Americans and their ancestors who might have followed these species, and many wound up in the area we now call Old Crow. That’s the area to which we boated, but you don’t have to embark on such a trip, for, today, the Beringia Center will help you appreciate this mega fauna, which includes saber tooth tigers, wooly mammoths, giant beaver and the gigantic short-faced grizzly bear.


One of my proudest moments as a journalist was photographing Sarah Abel at Old Crow. Some said she was 103 at the time.

As well, the Beringia Center provides the words of these elders, though some have now passed away. But while they lived they provided insights into this bygone world, and we feel privileged to have once heard their voices and listened to their thoughts, now posted in the center and heard in the interpretive movies offered at the Beringia Center.


Just how long ago some of these creatures died out is not known for sure, but elders from Old Crow, such as Sarah Abel and Charlie Peter Charlie, all say that their ancestors recall a time when the animals were much larger. “Our fathers,” said Ms. Abel, “all say animals much bigger when they hunted.” Then she starts in on a story about a huge beaver.

Peter Charlie (a man I photographed several years ago) agree that animals were much bigger: “First I’ll tell you,” said Peter Charlie, is that long, long ago, lots of dangerous animals lived here long ago.” What’s implied in all this, of course, is that animals have been decreasing in size for the past few thousands years.


Life-like figures depicting ancient scene at Blue Fish Caves (two Nikon SB-800 Strobes).

Over the years I’ve photographed both of these individuals on various occasions. However, the last time I photographed Ms. Abel was in 1998, and sadly she died the following year. At the time, some say she was 103 or 104 (in those times no one kept records), but what is so remarkable is that her life spanned one century, touched another and, and then, finally, almost–but not quite–ended in another.

Janie and I met both Peter-Charlie and Sarah Able following a several week-long boat trip up the Porcupine River to the small village of Old Crow. (The trip was part of a four-month trip along the Yukon and Porcupine rivers.) At the time, we knew we had entered a remote country, but we did not realize that Old Crow was a part of this ancient land mass known as Beringia. Perhaps we should have known, as several natives showed us huge tusks taken from along the banks of the Porcupine and the nearby Old Crow River.



Interpretations of all this is what you’ll find at the Beringia Center, and is one of the main reasons Janie and I again stopped in Whitehorse. Included are panels showing people from Old Crow; life-size models that look extremely real of an ancient people dressing out a caribou. All of this is back-dropped by Blue Fish Caves, which is also reached from along the Porcupine River. This is an ancient and, essentially, untouched land.


The Center also offers personal involvement, and Brad, one of the naturalists, allowed us to try our skills with the atlatl, an ancient hunting devise that takes a spear, then links it to a lever arm which increases the thrust by several times of the spear. The image I’ve included here shows the setup and was taken from a free site featuring the atlatl.


Trying my hand throwing atlatl, an ancient weapon.

Others spectators tried it, but I’m very happy to say that I optimized the lever arm better than did others, enabling my spear to travel further. My conclusion is that I was born in the wrong age, and am now awaiting the return of this ancient landscape. Of course, it’s all a dream, but I can come close by returning to Old Crow–or by visiting the Beringia Center in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.





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Reflections On The Alcan From Tok, Alaska

posted: July 2nd, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Tok, Alaska, where Susan Butcher trained her dogs to compete–and win–in the famous Iditarod race is not a bad place to spend one’s birthday, as I’m doing today. Many know that it is my birthday and have written–or called–to inform me that if I were a dog, I would be hundreds of years old.

How cruel!

Many have also commented on the fact that we’ve posted so few blogs, noting that the country we’re traveling through deserves more, and that’s true. But there’s a problem, and in part, it’s because the area is so remote. Here, we can not use our Verizon card as it would have been prohibitively expensive to buy into the Canadian plan. That leaves no other alternative but to find Internet Cafés or campgrounds with WiFi, but again, because of the remoteness of the country, such places are few and far between. End result, few posts. And that’s too bad as the country truly is spectacular and is something I would have liked to have reported on at the time.


Traveling the Alaskan Highway, just north of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory

Since leaving Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, the road through this segment is one which has all been built on permafrost. That means the ground beneath the road freezes and thaws each year-shifting and buckling as it does. As a result, sections of the road must be rebuilt each year, and if you are pulling a trailer, you simply can not drive fast.


As well, you must anticipate that you will encounter long sections that are covered with gravel and that are extremely dusty. Pilot cars lead you through these areas, which may be as long as 15 miles. However, because the government is so diligent, we have sustained no dents (knock on wood) at all, just an Airstream that is thoroughly covered with dust.


Historic steamboat used during gold rush now permanently moored at Whitehorse

The towns we’ve passed through, though called “towns,” are really little more than settlements, and here are some examples that caught our attention.

Destruction Bay is located on the shores of the 60-mile long Kluane Lake, and was one of the communities used to supply the army during the construction of the Alaskan Highway. It got its name when a violent storm destroyed buildings containing much of the construction material.

Burwash Landing, also on the shores of Kluane Lake, was almost blackened by a fire. In 1999 fire consumed the area, and the conflagration came within 30 feet of the settlement when suddenly the winds changed directions and the town was spared.

Those are just two examples of villages at which we’ve stopped, but on the way back we’ll be exploring other places as well. That’s another reason we’ve been hurrying along the Alcan as we have commitments in the Fairbanks area and know we’ll be repeating our travels later this summer or early in this fall.


Stunted black spruce, shallow lakes and lofty mountains characterize country south of Tok, Alaska.

One final note: Though there are many RV campsites along the way, we’ve generally opted for campgrounds designated “Government Campgrounds.” All the campgrounds are nice, but the Government ones are generally more like ones found in the national parks of the U.S. and Canada, meaning that you have more elbow room.

And now, I’m going to close this posting and begin work on the next one, which will describe a place along the Alcan that has become very special to us. In other words, I’m trying to catch up…



*A  New Great-blue Heron Rookery


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