The Panhandle

That morning,  leaving Fairbanks, in the dark, I had to concentrate enormously on the snowy, icy road. Two weeks prior I had an apiphany: I had to leave and go to Haines to make a life for myself and Angela. My job here, caring for and training 30 dogs was a mixed bag for me. I loved the dogs and I loved the forest and Sven’s beautiful cabin, and the quite and the solitude. But it was a seven days a week gig with little pay, and it was not Haines, which is where I wanted to be. Leaving, unfortunately, has damaged my friendship with Sven, a man whom I respect a great deal. So on the road I am, once again. Excitment now fills my heart as I pull away from Fairbanks, headed south, bound for Alaska’s northern panhandle.

It is 22 degrees,  snowing lightly and the traffic thin. It is November 1st, 2013. I drive south, through Delta Junction, the scene of an earlier disaster back in June, whene I had lost an envelope containing my life savings; a sum of nearly 4000 dollars. I had a crazy idea or two that I might actually find the missing envelope in one of perhaps three places I could think of: A road side pullout, with views of the omnipotent Alaska Range, where a picture was taken on that day, a creek where a bath had been taken, a campspot in the woods near Tok, where I had spent two nights regrouping. Searching these places for my goods felt both empowering and futile at the same time. I was looking for a needle in the gigantic haystack of Alaska. I pull into Tok and proceed to walk to my usual camp there, located adjecent to the school in the woods near the edge of town. It is a nice spot and it feels somewhat like home to me. However, the envelope was not recovered, and on I went.

On the way from Delta to Tok, one becomes the Alaska Range. Mountains and streams appear, high counrty unfolds. It feels good to be in the highlands once again, and out of the beautiful but routine forest of the Fairbanks area. Being in the area of Tok, I am reminded how much I love this part of Alaska; it truly is one of my favorite places. The white spruce forests here are remarkable, the creeks and streams clear, the rivers deep, and the Alaska Range towering. It is a deeply beautiful and spiritual place to me. Earlier in the summer, I had stopped the bicycle to gaze upon a lone moose fiording the mighty Tanana River, keeping her head high and swimming madly. Southward I continue. Stopping for a walk along the icy banks of the Chisana River, I am gifted the sight of wolf tracks; mother and cub, traveling the river corridor, hunting and living the life they were born to live. The morning is crisp and cold and the Chisana is forming a skin of ice that looks as though could be walked upon but cannot. A breeze picks up a bit and it is getting colder still. I bushwack back to the truck and point it southeast, towards the Yukon border. After crossing, I see the sights of the mightiest Black Spruce Taiga forests I have ever seen. I remeber these from riding this part of the Alaska Highway back in 2011. Tha taiga goes on everlasting and my heart soars at it’s perseverance.

Eventually, I pull of the highway and drive up a small dirt road to a high point with a view. It is exactly what I had hoped for. From this vatage point, I can see all of the major peaks of the Icefield region of the Northern St Elias Range: Mt Luciana 17,147′, Mt Steele 16,644′ Mt Wood 17,000+, and several other unamed 15,000-16,000 footers. This section of mountains, the St Elias, and physically connected to the Wrangel Mountains in Southeast Alaska, is the largest chain of mountains in North America. The Alaska Range, though sporting the Queen Denali, and nearly 600 miles long, is still smaller than the Wrangel/St Elias. These Mountains are the real deal: Big, bad, remote and heavilly glaciated. In fact, the St Elias, the area surrounding Mt Logan in particular, contains the western hemispheres largest non polar glaciers.

I arrive, a bit later, at the hamlet of Haines Junction. With friendly folks, views of the tremendoulsy striking Kluane Range, and one of the best loved bakeries in North America, Haines Junction is a place I always look forward to visiting. However, upon entering town, I see first off that the great little grocey store there, the only one in town, has burned to the ground. Even worse, there is a “Closed” and “For Sale” sign on the bakery. Dissapointed, I buy 10 dollars worth of gas and head for glaciers of the Coast Range and the Chilkoot Valley, home of Haines, Alaska.

I cross the border, back into the USSR, and roll down valley, along the Chilkoot River, with forests of magnificent Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Cedar and Cottonwood. I camp in a pullout, excited to see Haines in the daylight. Morning time, I pass through the Bald Eagle Preserve there, and see more Eagles within my field of view than I had ever seen in all the years of my life previously. 60? 70? 120? Who knows… There are many. It is the  last bit of the Chum Salmon run as well, and the Eagles are feeding well upon them. One brute of a fish, pink and black and bruised to hell, swims towards the shore and is nearly 4 feet long. I see no bears however; they have all crawled off to their winter nap and won’t be seen again till spring.

Haines is a great little town of about 2500 people, located along the inlets of the Chilkoot and the Chilkat, at the head of the Lynn Canal, North America’s longest Fiord. There are glaciers visible from town and is surrounded by the incredibly jagged peaks of the Chilkat Range to the east, and the Coast Range of the Glacier Bay region to the west. There are a ton of Brown (Grizzly) Bears here as well. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

The first week of being in Haines was rough on me, however. Cold nights, crammed into the back of my truck, looking for a job and a place to live, and not knowing anyone  in town, was challenging to say the least. Self doubt began to creep into my heart. Had I made the right choice to leave Fairbanks and come to Haines? Should I just go back to Utah, which I had left more than 30 months ago? Should I just stick it out?  A conversation with Angela on the telephone cheered me up and convinced me that I had made the correct decision. After a week or so, I had scored a free slide in camper for the truck, and a full time building job with some folks whom I enjoy being around. Each night I camp in a different, beautiful spot along the coastal waters of the inlets of the Lynn Canal, surrounded by the most beatuful mountains one can imagine, and dream of a long life here.

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Curveball

So I left Dawson City behind.. a town rich in it’s past and present history. I’ll be back. Hopefully to engage the elusive Dempster again at some point. Leaving town around 4:00 pm and crossing the Yukon River on the constantly running free ferry, I was thrown into a world of steep hill climbing that would not let up for another 110 miles. Right off the ferry, the road turns skyward, straight up at angle of about 10-12%. For 8 miles straight without mercy. Near it’s “top”, there is a rest area of sorts and I call it home for the evening. Over the course of the next days’ 68 miles of pedaling, I must have gained and lost 5000′ of elevation, without really gaining or losing any. This highway, a dirt path through the forest for 110 miles, connecting Dawson City, Yukon, and Chicken, Alaska, is known as “The Top of The World Highway”. And for good reason too. The path leads across the bald, tundra coated, ridges and summits of the western Yukon and eastern Alaska “hill country”. The views are stupendous; I now am looking across to the continental divide, 150 miles to the north east. In fact, from this vantage, I can see the Tombstone Mountains that I was forced to retreat from just days earlier. Only this time my view of them is from the directly opposite side and over 200 miles past. It is a  truly remarkable place. After landing in Chicken, in a rainstorm of rainstorms, mud, landslides and all, I secure a Salmon Burger from the tiny grill located there; It is a real surprise to find the food quite fantastic. I chat with the locals a bit and down a couple of beers. I must go back into the forces of the rain, hill climbs, mud, and misery. Back on the bike, the storm eases up a bit, and I begin to find a rhythm that breeds peace. A big bull moose crosses the road in front of me and magic is afoot once again.

The next day, after crossing the flanks of Mt. Fairplay, I turn the corner and am greeted with an unexpected surprise. The almighty Alaska Range is standing before me, clearly demonstrating my subordinance. Once again, I am in awe.

Finally reaching Tetlin Junction at the merging of the Taylor Highway and the Alaska Highway, it occurs to me that the hill climbing is over for the next several days, as, if memory serves me correctly, the stretch between Tok and Fairbanks is flat pedaling, but a spectacle of the foothills of the Alaska Range. This combo makes for some blissful times indeed.

I spend a couple of nights in Tok, at my old camp in the woods to the southwest of the school. I always have, and do now, find Tok and this part of Alaska in particular, very satisfying. It’s close proximity to the Alaska Range, great country side, and a relaxed atmosphere is unique, even for Alaska. It’s winter’s are another matter, however. Locals confirm it’s reputation as a scene of brutal cold; Winter time temps of -60F are not just occurrences, they are outright common. Land is cheap here, there is no sales tax, no property tax, no building codes, and no jobs. Sounds like a good place to retire to for part of the year.

Moving on, I head north along the northern and eastern flats below the impending Alaska Range. The creeks are plentiful and crystal clear, and I drink copious amounts of water from them; gorging myself on their nectar. Another night of thunderstorms and another morning of packing it up in the rain today. It is getting to be routine. I am finding myself able to pack it in with my eyes closed. Later in the day when the sun is out, I pull out the fly and it dries while I snack. No big deal.

I am now in Delta Junction, camped on the gravel beaches of the wildly braided Tanana River, looking to the south at the appearances of my favorite mountains on Earth.The central Alaska Range’s  Mt’s Deborah, Hayes, and Kimball, all are reaching upward in an attempt to put on a show for me, but the storm just won’t have it. I have never seen this side, the north side of these peaks, and I decide to camp here tonight in hopes of catching a time-lapse of these marvelous peaks in the morning, with the sunlight splattered across their eastern escarpment and embellishing their glacially clad, icy armor.

What’s up next, You ask? Perhaps an adventure up the Steese Highway for a trailride on the Pinnel Mountain Trail and the Circle-Fairbanks Trail. Or perhaps it is time again to settle the score with the Arctic once and for all, and head up the Haul Road, into the Brooks Range. I don’t know yet.

You’ll know, when I know…

Well, now I know, well, sort of… Life just threw me a curveball.  I awoke this morning and while packing up and getting ready for a northward stint, I noticed that the envelope containing 90% of my cash is gone. I knew instantly that this was not a case of misplacing it within my kit, but one of absolute disappearance. I spend the entire morning on the phone to all places past I had visited and with no avail. I suspect it is a case of carelessness on my part; possibly left at the counter of a shop somewhere in Tok, or who knows where. Maybe it fell out of my bag when I pulled over to take a photograph. I just do not know, and suspect I never will. Either way, it is gone, and so is this journey, at least in it’s current fashion. Again, Ill let You know when I know. If by chance there is a person out there who knows something of an envelope labeled only “Trip”, that contains nearly 4000 dollars in cash, gimme a call.. Please! (435) 260-1990.

That’s all I have to say at the moment.

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