Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Day 43 - Hatcher Pass, Alaska

Hatcher Pass is a mountainous pass that rises 3,886 ft or 1,148 m. It is accessed from Palmer and Wasilla to the south or by the Parks Highway to the west near Willow. That is where our adventure begins. Let me warn you this unbelievably scenic drive is not for the weak at heart. Let me show and tell you why. 

To start Willows elevation is approximately 250 ft or 76 m. The day wasn’t the greatest but if you wait for a sunny day your holiday will be over before you get started. As we turn on to Fishhook Road a sign starring us in the face indicates the pass is open…just opened on July 4.

For the first 6 miles or so the road is paved, no potholes, nice and smooth. Hey this is not so bad. We drive beside Willow Creek for some time. There is evidence that the area is still actively mined on a small scale. Some build bridges to get across the river others seek other means.
The road has now changed to hard packed gravel and dirt. There are a few potholes but not many. And of course it starts raining, just a little off and on. Not bad so far. The scenery is breathtaking. We still haven't really started to climb, we are more in the valley.

So now we start to climb towards Hatcher Pass. The road gets more dirt than gravel and the scenery becomes more mountainous. It is not recommended to bring any RV or large vehicle on this road because of it's steep grades, rough roads, and tight hair-pin corners.
This is the point where things started getting very surreal. You can't really tell but on my right it is a shear drop of 1,000 ft and on my left is a wall of rock where an avalanche can happen at any time. Because the road just opened they are grading it for the first time. How are we going to get around this guy. He is going 2 mph. On this wet dirt I have fishtailed many time. Kathy and Bob are following in their truck and have been watching the back end slip and slide. Now the roads are getting a little hairy.
We finally get past the grader as he pulled over to let us by. I'm thinking that maybe I should have stayed behind him, maybe he can make the road smoother for us. I'm also thinking I'm sure glad Susan is not in the truck. She would be ripping my face off right now and screaming some unpleasantries.
Even though the road was rough and washboardy(if that's a word) I had to stop and make time to play in the snow. Remember, I'm a true Canadian girl at heart and I love the cold.
We finally reached Hatcher Pass. Now I know why the road didn't open until July 4.
Summit Lake State Recreation Site is located close by to Hatcher Pass. Summit Lake is a tarn reaching a depth of 20 feet. A tarn is a mountainous lake or pool formed from glacier activity. If you think they look cold, they were cold. And you guys call yourself Canadians.
We now start the long descent down toward Independence Mine. Most of the time I would rather go uphill then downhill. I was sliding all over the place. Was I scared, not really.
They say the main attraction of Hatcher Pass is Independence Mine. I think just the opposite, it's the shear beauty of the mountains, water, and the absence of crowds and noise. As we got closer to the mine there were more and more people, cars, and noise.

Independence Mine is a 272 acre state historical park. During the day they discovered hard rock (lode) gold scattered in veins throughout these mountains. Erosion caused gold bearing gravel and sand to be washed downstream where the flakes settled in the river beds. Placer mining with pans and sluice boxes preceded lode mining. In 1941 Alaska-Pacific Mining Company employed over 204 men, blasted nearly a dozen miles of tunnels, and produced 34,416 ounces of gold worth 1,2 million dollars. The claim covered 1,350 acres and included 27 structures. Several of these structures have fallen into disrepair.
Skyscraper Mountain the site of Hatcher's discovery
Our last stop before we hit civilization was at Little Susitna River. This river is the result of melt waters from Mint Glacier plus the joining of side streams and snow melt. This raging glacial river is known to run in excess of 1,000 cubic feet of water per second.
We always have to make time to stop and smell the flowers. Here in Alaska they have some beautiful summer roadside flowers.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Day 42 - Talkeetna, AK

Talkeetna is a railroad town that was once very isolated from the road system. Now the town is accessible via a 14 mile long paved road known as the Talkeetna Spur Road. This road is accessed at Mile 99 of the Parks Highway.
Just over 100 years old, this little town has definitely peaked my curiosity. I'm not sure if it's the town or the people that make it that way. It's cozy, unique, eclectic, and interesting all bundled into one. The many simply built log cabins show how Talkeetna's miners and trappers lived in the early days.
Talkeetna is a mixture of old and new. I guess that's what makes it so unique.
There are seven continents. Each one has a highest mountain peak. Like I've said in my previous blogs Denali is North America's. Talkeetna is Denali's mountain town. The best professional climbers from every country come to Talkeetna to use it as their jumping off point. The Walter Harper Telkeenta Ranger Station is the must go to place it you want to climb Denali. This ranger station was named in honor of the first native Athabaskan mountaineer to set foot on the true summit of Denali in June 1913. 
Each year between late April and early July over 1,000 climbers attempt to reach the top of Denali. The average expedition length is 17 to 21 days. Typically, only one-half the climbers make the summit. There are many reasons to turn around including extreme winds, cold temperature, equipment failure, fatigue, injury, and altitude sickness. In the past 100 years approximately 42,000 climber have attempted Denali. As of 2015, 123 climbers have lost their lives attempting it. A memorial has been established in  the Talkeetna Cemetery for those individuals. Just like Talkeetna very simple nothing elaborate.

Each summer Talkeetna artists paint and decorate wooden moose sculptures with local themes. Then they are placed in the Moose on Parade event where they are auctioned off. All proceeds go to the local historical society to help maintain the century old buildings. 
If time allowed we could have rode on the Hurricane Turn Train which is Alaska Railroad's flag-stop train between the Talkeetna depot and Hurricane. This train is used by people who live in the bush, as well as hunters, hikers, and fishermen. The trip is 115 miles round trip and parallels the Susitna River and traverses Indian River Canyon. The train stops for anyone wanting to be picked up (just have to flag it down) or dropped off in the wilderness. So it may run a little late depending on the number of stops.
Talkeetna has its own historic airstrip which is covered in grass and gravel extending southward right beside the ball field. Yes that's right...the ball field. The airstrip was created in 1940 and placed on the National Registry of Historic Places 2002.
On the way home I made a couple stops that peaked my interest. Firstly, I just happened to spot some Yaks lying down looking like they were enjoying the cooler weather. Yaks are native to the high Himalayan Plateau of Tibet. They were first introduced into Canada and the USA in the late 1970's and early 1980's. The average yak cow can weigh between 600-800 lbs whereas a yak bull can weigh between 1200-1500 lbs. The meat, which I have not tried is suppose to be better than beef.
As we continued down the road another stop I made was at Kahiltna Birchworks. Now, I'm from Ontario which most of you know. We are so use to having maple syrup on our pancakes . Here in Alaska it's birch syrup. So I had to try it and it definitely has it's own unique taste. Birch syrup in Alaska is concentrated from the sap of birch trees. It takes 110 gallons of birch sap to make 1 gallon of birch syrup. Comparatively, maple syrup is 40 to 1 ratio.
The sap contains .9 - 1.5% sugar right from the tapped tree. It looks and tastes much like water. The first step in concentrating the sugar is a process called reverse-osmosis. That is what this machine does.
The final step in the concentration process is the energy efficient syrup evaporator which gives the syrup its fine colour and flavour.
In the spring of 2018 they tapped 13,000 trees and harvested 125,000 gallons of sap which in turn produced 1,100 gallons of pure birch syrup. The harvest begins in mid April and lasted for 22 days. Each tree produced on average 11 ounces of pure birch syrup. And of course I could not leave empty handed. I bought some birch almond brittle and birch cream caramel candy. They are both awesome.
Another great day of exploring. I look like Dora the Explorer here.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Day 41 - Willow, AK

Our next stop on this amazing adventure is Willow, Alaska. Willow is located at Mile 70 on the Glenn Park Highway which is south of Denali. Why Willow you ask! Their claim to fame is the view of Denali on a clear day, plus the fishing. Hopefully Bob might have the opportunity to catch supper. After arriving at Willow Creek Resort, I know seeing Denali is out of the question since it's been raining on and off all day.
Willow was established as a tent town after gold was discovered in Willow Creek in 1897. The Talkeetna Trail was build, the forerunner to the Parks Highway, creating a major thoroughfare for mail carriers and their dog sleds.

When gold mining ceased in the Talkeetna Mountains in the 1940's, Willow became a ghost town. But the town bounced back with the completion of the highway. The town is well known for their dog mushers. The Iditarod Sled Dog Race officially starts in Anchorage but the restart is in Willow. In the summer months dog kennels offer tours and sled rides. How can you tell sledding is popular.
Our campsite was backed onto Willow Creek which gave us an amazing view of the river. We walked to the bridge and saw the bright red King(Sockeye) Salmon spawning in the river. They just closed the fishing season for King's so the campground was pretty empty. This area is renowned for their fishing. 
As I was walking along the river I spotted a common merganser which allowed me to snap a couple of picture before she flew away.
The campground on a whole was convenient. The owners are really nice people who not only own and run the campground they also offer fishing charters and hunting trips. The one thing I did notice were the amount of domestic rabbits hopping around everywhere. I counted 19 at one point, so I asked the question...why. They said it all started with one and now they have many. I guess the owls, bears, foxes, etc get them which in turn keeps the population in check.
Tomorrow, hopefully it will a nicer day to walk around Talkeetna.