Eagle

Travel turns into adventure

In my last post I had just arrived in the Yukon. Yukon has an area 12 times the size of the Netherlands (or Switzerland) but there are only 34000 people. The best part of the Alaskan Highway is in this Territory. The roads go over hills, along lakes and mountains. Lakes can be up to 120km long (lake Teslin), mountains up to almost 6km tall (Mt. Logan). The Alaskan highway in Yukon is 900 km, but there are less than 10 connecting roads on this bit (2 of which are a dead end after a few hundred kilometer). Most “towns” on the map are not more that a gas station and a motel. Many of the “towns” were still closed because it was pre-season.

Driving from the cheap campsite in Rancheria to Yukon’s capital Whitehorse was a beautiful drive along Lake Teslin. I found a spot with a bunch of old rusty cars, which was great for some nice pictures. Whitehorse is the biggest town for more than 1000 km in either direction so I stocked up on “cheap” food and gas. Whitehorse also has an international airport with direct flights to Europe (you wouldn’t expect a Boeing to be able to land here), so I’m all stuffed up with free supplies from Dutch and German people heading home.

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Rusty car at the side of the road

Whitehorse was also the place for an easy day/day off (I hope I learned my lesson by doing this regularly). I went to town for a walk, but noticed that my camera was broken (something was loose and making awful noises). A screw had come loose in my lens. I’ve had this before with this lens so I knew how to open it up and fix it (it was a different screw than last time so it’s not that I did a shitty job fixing it). So in the parking lot in the middle of town I started taking the lens apart (a few people did look confused). Sadly enough I was too late this time and the loose screw had killed the autofocus motor… Luckily I was in the biggest town around so the next day I went shopping for a new lens. There were three stores with camera stuff and the all had had the lens I had (that’s a lot of had). But they had all sold out. I physically can’t continue without a camera so I bought a cheap fixed 50mm lens to at least be able to do something. When I’ll get to Anchorage I can buy a good lens.

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Totem pole in Whitehorse, last picture before my lens broke

Turns out a fixed 50mm lens is annoying: it’s to close for landscapes and too far for wildlife. Of course now is when I spot my first grizzly at the side of the road. So I have pictures, but from too far away so you can’t see anything. Every time I stopped for a nice picture of the view I noticed it didn’t fit. When I wanted to take a picture of the van, I had to take a few steps back to make it fit. So new plan is to use the 50mm lens when I’m in the car to shoot quick pictures and use my phone and the broken lens in manual focus mode for stops and hikes (a lot of lens changes). The way out of Whitehorse leads to Kluane National Park. Together with adjacent parks in Alaska and British Columbia this park is three times the size of the Netherlands (or Switzerland) and you can only visit small portions of it. It has the highest mountain in Canada and many many glaciers, bears and other cool stuff. I stopped in Haines Junction to get info for a full day hike for the next day. The lady also recommended a nice 2 km loop from town into the park for the same afternoon. I started the walk with beautiful views of the mountains. Three quarters in the walk I noticed that my bear bell was scaring away all the wildlife (I saw birds, hares and squirrels run away). Obviously there wouldn’t be any bears since I was really close to town and the busy roads. So I just wanted to hide my bell when I heard a lot of noise in the bush some 10m away from me. A grizzly cub came running out of the forest followed by its mom. It scared the shit out of me (not literally, but close) and I was trying to remember what to do: it’s a mom with cub so she is probably defensive, so I should stay out of their way, make myself big, keep looking at them and not run away. At some 6m away from me the cub and the mom stopped. The mom stood up straight and was about 3m tall…. Now this was really scary… Luckily the cub ran away and mom just followed. I finished the rest of the loop real quick while looking over my shoulder continuously. Funnily enough there were Park Canada people doing a bear attack training at the entrance of the trail and I made an official bear sighting report with them. I continued my drive along Kluane lake to a beautiful campsite at the lake with free fire wood for only 8 euros per night, but with no flushing toilets or showers. My friendly neighbour was a Canadian guy on a 3 month trip driving a imported Japanese van with the wheel on the wrong side. Fun thing with the long days is that you don’t notice what time it is, but you still have to wait until the campfire is out. So we sat at the fire until 00:30 and it was still light out.

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Kluane Lake

The next day I wanted to do a long hike in the ridiculously big Kluane National Park. But it was raining. But the hike was the same way back as up so I could always turn around. After my bear encounter the previous day I opted for singing all day. I’m quite sure that I scared away all wildlife for at least a kilometer. Hiking steep uphill while singing is tiring. So every now and then I would switch to clapping or humming. I also spend a fair amount of time telling stories to the supposed bears (assuming they understand either English or Dutch). The hike was long (25km) and steep (1300m height difference), it rained, it hailed and it snowed. I considered turning around many many times but always decided to go a little bit further (“It looks like it clears up around the corner”). In the end it always rained/hailed/snowed when I went uphill and it was sunny when I went downhill (the top was at three quarters). So I had two completely different views of the same trail. On the way down the clouds opened up and I had a beautiful view of the glacier across the valley. After 6.5 hours of walking I was tired but happy. I returned to the campsite and went to bed early (22:00). I wanted to read for a bit but it was still so light out that even with the curtains closed I did not need a light.

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Glacier view on the way down from the hike

It was time to head for the US border. The drive there was more prettiness with more mountains, lakes, rivers, forests. It also had some nasty construction work which had a 45km “extremely dusty conditions” part. This means less then 5 meters vision and hoping that no rock would crack your windshield. Also the roads here are not bumpy, they are wavy (my suspension is actually really good). I opted for a RV park (parking lot) in the Canadian border town called Beaver Creek. After all the nights in the provincial parks without running water I thought a shower and a shave would improve my chances at the US border. It was also time for a van cleaning (always good before crossing a border) and laundry session.

I was a bit nervous for this border crossing. I am getting close to the date where I have to leave the US and the last crossing the guy was being very picky about my plans. After you drive by the Canadian border post there is a 30km stretch before you get to the US border. The lady was extremely friendly. I was through the border in 10 minutes (of which 8 was spend talking about how cool VW vans are). Party time: I MADE IT TO ALASKA!!! The landscape in Alaska near the border is much flatter than in Canada. I had to reset my brain to process miles and MPH and I headed to Tok. Surprisingly there was nothing interesting in Tok. So I kept driving. It was only 2 in the afternoon when I drove over a hill and saw one of the most awesome (original meaning of the word) mountains I have ever seen. It was hard to say where the snow and ice ended and where the clouds started but it was huge. I thought that it would be great to have a campsite with this view. A few minutes later I actually drove by a campsite at a lake with that view. But it was too early to stop so I kept driving. Then I stopped and turned around. The view was too good to skip. I got a great lakeside spot with this great view. I sat in the sun for a bit and wanted to get a drink from my van when I saw a moose calf 2 meters from my van. After my last mother/young animal encounter I was a bit scared (moose are huge and very aggressive) and quickly tried to find the mother. Luckily (for me) the mother was not around. A bit later the calf came by swimming right in front of my camp spot. Stopped, looked at me and swam ahead. He/she climbed on the jetty, yelled a bit and swam back. Funny little guy. During the course of the evening the clouds around the mountain started disappearing, sadly enough they were replaced by clouds of mosquitoes (what’s that humming noise? Ow wait, let me get the spray!).

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Great camping spot with a great view (moose calf not pictured)

I was hoping for more great morning views, but once again it was raining. Time to drive south, I wanted to get to the ocean. I heard loads of good stories about Valdez. It’s located at the Prince William Sound: beautiful fjords surrounded by mountains and glaciers. There is only one road in and out of town. You can take a ferry to the next town that has a road connection but that is ridiculously expensive. I stopped at a small glacier (as far as you can call any glacier small), where you could walk up to the front. Just when I got there the rain stopped and it became sunny. Beautiful! After a bit more uphill I passed the pass and started descending to the ocean. The road went from 800m to 200m in some 10km distance. I’m a bit scared for the way back up. It was a long steep drive… (plus you’re driving in the clouds which makes it a bit extra scary). Before you get to town you drive through a deep canyon of black rock with enormous waterfalls on either side. It was pretty rainy so I decided to make stops on the way back. Valdez is indeed beautifully located, it reminded me of the Milford Sound in New Zealand. Except that instead of a tunnel you get a canyon and instead of pure nature, the Americans decided to route there biggest oil pipe here and put a humongous oil terminal at the bottom of the prettiest mountain. But hey, I made it to the Pacific Ocean! I actually drove North America coast to coast! My first continental crossing! I checked out the town (nothing to see) and drove into the campsite (another parking lot). Just when I parked my van they started feeding the bald eagles (apparently not for tourism reasons but some nature reason… or at least that is what they say…) There were at least twenty of them catching pieces of fish from the air or the floor. They were so close that I could take perfect pictures with my non-zoom lens.

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Beautiful weather at the top of the pass

Time for another good hike. This one would be 30km long, but would only have some 300m height difference. It would walk along the cliffs of the Prince William Sound, turn around a corner with a great view over the Shoup glacier. The lady at the info center had told me the previous day that the path might be a bit overgrown but the hike should be doable.

  • Part 1 of the hike (2km): the path is very clear and easy to walk through high bush and open wetlands (missed one bit of a walking board and my leg disappeared 40cm deep in heavy mud). The path looked like it was cleared by a herd of elephants followed by an army of those Roman chariots with sword blades mounted to the wheels.
  • Part 2 of the hike (4km): the path is a bit overgrown… Looks like one person walks here every month or so. The path follows the steep cliffs with great views. It’s sometimes hard to see what you walk on (rock, slippery tree trunks, dense bushes, air) so when you see a large open area you should be careful because someone slipped (I made a few of those too). Part 2 ended at a spot where you could pitch a tent at the beach. Great lunch spot.
  • Part 3 of the hike (9km total, managed 1…): first you need to cross a bridge, part of it was swept away by a flood last year and replaced by tree trunks and some rope. Here the adventure started. The path looked like maybe a large mouse or small rat once walked through it a few years ago. The path was marked with ribbons tied to the trees but you had to push yourself through shoulder high bushes (my shoulders, so full person height for smaller people). Also the plants changed from friendly ones to evil thorny and itchy ones. So time for long sleeves in the heat. I spend an hour trying to get through this bush (already decided to settle for just the view of the glacier). But I kept losing the track following dry river beds. One time I fell over in the thick bushes with my legs all tangled up in the branches. It actually took me a few minutes to get out of that one.
  • Part 4 of the hike (the fun bit): After an hour of evil bush I saw I got nowhere but I was close to the beach. I climbed down into the sun. I spend an hour skipping stones on the water and read a book. Because of the evil plants I had been walking around with long sleeves which was way too warm. I checked the water of the sea and it wasn’t that cold. It was early season outdoor waterpolo cold. I did bring a towel (for river crossings) but no swim shorts… But there was nobody around, so who cares… The water was actually really cold but it felt great. The hike plan had failed but this was what my big travel plan should feel like. Improvisation awesome days. I was now in the full adventure mood. No way I was going back through the thick bush. The camp spot was real close by and there should only be one river to cross (the one with the broken bridge). So I walked along the beach, took off my shoes and started crossing the river delta at the beach. I made it past the first 5 or so. But the last one turned out to be more than knee deep and pretty fast flowing. Also this is glacier water… way colder than sea water… So I had to call the river crossing off. I could see on my GPS that I was really close to the path and the bridge. Only problem: a 4m high steep cliff. I didn’t want to walk back, so I found a dead tree that had fallen down from the cliff. The roots were on top of the cliff and the other end was some 2m from the floor where I was. I climbed up the tree, balanced my way across the trunk and climbed around the roots (backpacks always get stuck). From there the way back was easy. Side note: on the way back I met some people clearing the path (trying to change everything to part 1). They said that the bit past the bridge had not been cleared for at least 5 years… That explains a lot. They would probably be done all the way to the end in about a month (2 people, 5 hours per day). So maybe I’ll have to come back.

Returning at the campsite I showed up right in time for more eagle feeding. This time with sun and blue skies so I shot pictures until my camera was full (I think I have more than 600 eagle pictures now). Well now it’s time to sleep and worry about that evil pass I have to cross tomorrow to get out of town. Let’s hope the van is up for it.

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