Posts Tagged With: road trip

A busy little guardian angel!

I ranted last week about Alaskan drivers and may have given the impression that I’m perfect. (HA)  To set the record straight, I’ll share some highlights of my driving career…my “auto” biography if you’ll pardon the pun.  (sorry about that…)

I took a notion one year to drive my teeny little Chevy Luv to Valdez to get some winter pictures.  In January.  In a blizzard.  With 4 hours of daylight and snow blowing sideways for two of the three days I was on the road, there wasn’t actually a lot of photography.  The drive to Valdez at night in a blizzard isn’t all that scenic as it turns out. 

It was about 10pm when I came down out of Thompson Pass and headed into Keystone Canyon.  Exiting the canyon, I went from relatively calm snow and some visibility to a crazy white swirling world and no road in front of me.  I slowed my truck, and then slowed it some more until I was barely crawling along.  Just as I was thanking my lucky stars that I had the road to myself I saw headlights coming.  I couldn’t see the road, never mind lane lines so I cautiously sidled over to give the oncoming 18-wheeler plenty of room to pass me.  And then I sidled my way right into the ditch.  I only knew that because my forward motion stopped and I was listing to port all of a sudden. 

Huh.  Now what? 

By the time I had collected my wits and stepped out of my truck to assess the situation, the trucker had gotten himself stopped and was walking a tow strap back to me.  I was out of that ditch before I could think about it.  How many folks can say they’ve been pulled out of a ditch by an 18-wheeler?

Turnagain Pass in winter

Turnagain Pass in winter

Years later a friend and I were coming back to Anchorage from Kenai after Thanksgiving with my parents.  I had a little Mazda 323 at the time and had had just enough money to purchase two new studded winter tires.  Not knowing any better, I instructed the tire guys to install them on the front since it was a front-wheel drive car.  If you’re not from winter country you might not realize what a big NO-NO that is.  Here’s why…

The snow started coming down as we left Kenai and by the time we got to the Sterling flats it was really thick, the kind of snow that Hollywood thinks of when they try to create snow for film.  Big, wet flakes were swirling around and were rapidly accumulating on the road surface.  I slowed a little, but I wasn’t too worried until I realized that the back end of the car was going faster than the front end around a long slow curve in the road.  With more weight on the gripping winter tires in front, the summer tires in the back had nothing to hold them to the road, so slowing down on a slick curve was actually the worst thing I could have done.  Only the front tires could respond. 

We did a nice, slow-motion 360 and came to rest nose down in a shallow ditch.  My guardian angel was on duty once again.  A tow truck came along just as we were climbing up out of the ditch and wondering who to call.  He hooked up, yanked us out and wished us a safe journey before we could even get all our winter gear on.

Kenai River in midwinter.  Some of our swans stay year round.

Kenai River in midwinter. Some of our swans stay year round.

Incidents like these have made me a cautious driver.  Road trip gear, especially in the winter, includes blankets or a down sleeping bag, flares, a small air compressor, heavy cold weather gear in case I have to walk for help, a jug of water, food and first aid supplies.  The gas tank is always topped off before setting out.  Even if the accident that stops highway traffic isn’t yours, you could find yourself on the road hours longer than you had planned.  My dad got caught between avalanches one year and couldn’t go back home or come the rest of the way into Anchorage.  He was lucky and only spent a few hours at the gas station in Girdwood before road crews cleared the avalanches. 

Our family has the best guardian angels anywhere!

Categories: Living in Alaska | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

A Day At The Top Of The World

Saturday in Deadhorse:

We had reservations on a tour through the camp so were up fairly early in order to take advantage of the showers at the Arctic Caribou Inn (our hotel/RV camp) before catching our bus.  Security is pretty strict there.  In order to get to the Arctic Ocean you have to go through the oil production areas, and that is by tour bus only.  In order to board the tour bus you have to sign in, present ID, watch the informational safety video and sit through a little lecture.  Heads are counted any time the group moves anywhere. 

The driver was friendly and the day was gorgeous.  The camp was not exciting to me, just a bunch of apparently random metal structures whose various purposes I’ve long since forgotten, but when we got to the Arctic Ocean, our driver let us get out and run down to dip our toes. 

The beach in Deadhorse. You can see more oil field production buildings in the distance

The family from Kentucky that we met in Coldfoot stripped to bathing suits and dunked all the way in!  They had totaled their car just outside of Deadhorse and a BP safety officer had had to rescue them the night before, but they were all in good spirits obviously!  Although the ambient temperature was in the high 60’s, the wind off the sea was chilly, so most of us opted for dipping rather than plunging.  (You can get a certificate for a Polar Bear Plunge or a Dip!) 

After our tour and our dip (another head count as we reboarded the bus), we returned to camp to pack up and start back down the road.  We hated to leave after such a short stay, but hey, it took us over two days to get here, so …

One of the girls decided to clear Winnie’s back window before we headed out. As dirty as it looks here, the mud of Atigun Pass later created a layer nearly an inch thick that hardened like cement. There were rocks embedded in it when we went to the car wash!

A brief stop at the Deadhorse general store (and souvenir shop!) and we were headed south…the only direction available!  The weather continued to hold until we approached the Brooks Range.  Fantastic clouds built up on the horizon and a drizzle made the approach to Atigun Pass muddy and slick. 

Weather on the horizon as we waited for the rest of the convoy to catch up

Winnie picked up a new rattle which we discovered was a dangling muffler.  At the top of the pass we decided we shouldn’t let it bounce all the way back to Anchorage, so I crawled under and wired it up with a piece of wire coat hanger, earning the fix-it queen title for the trip!  What made it exciting was not being able to turn Winnie off while I worked next to that hot muffler!  One of the ladies held it up in place with a big serving spoon while I fastened the wire.  Hey, whatever works…

(Our practice throughout the trip was to only shut Winnie off at night…she had to keep running even during our lunch stops for fear of not being able to get her going again!)

North side of Atigun Pass (I think)…again plenty of leisure time to shoot out the window as Winnie huffed and puffed her way to the top

The downhill run out of Atigun Pass was slick and spooky in the rain.  Winnie’s hips sashayed a bit, but she held the road.  The pop-up trailer was a little more sketchy, threatening at every turn to pull S.’s van off the road.  She was geared as low as she could go and crept down with as little braking as she could get away with and made it just fine.  At the bottom of the steepest part of the grade the road began drying out and we were in sunshine and blue skies again within a few miles.  (I can’t imagine driving that pass in an 18-wheeler…let alone on ice!!)

Fireweed as far as you can see. We had to stop again on the way south to get pictures of this incredible pink valley

We made it to Marian Creek Campground north of Coldfoot without further incident, pulling in at about midnight.  There we were finally able to celebrate in style.  Wine, champagne (for a Fourth of July toast) and beer flowed, along with a concoction known only as “coffee creamer.”  We got so silly that the only other group camped there came and politely asked us to party elsewhere!  Oops… We apologized and packed it in for the night.  In our defense, it was still broad daylight and we hadn’t really processed how late it was…not a good excuse I know. 

The TransAlaska Pipeline. It’s full of zigzags that I think are to help slow the flow oil and handle pipe expansion…don’t quote me on that!

Sunday we stopped at the Hot Spot Café between Coldfoot and the Yukon River camp.  There we ran into our neighbor and his girlfriend!  Alaska is the definition of “small world.”  After great hamburgers eaten outdoors in the sun, we continued on to Fairbanks, arriving at a decent hour for a change!  This time there were no adventures involved in finding the RV park.  We were a bit subdued after a rowdy night and a long trip. 

I had to stop on the way home and get a shot of Winnie with the Arctic Circle sign. My passenger never woke up…we were a tired bunch of ladies!

Monday morning was quiet.  Part of the group took off to visit Santa Land in North Pole while the rest of us bathed, chipped at the worst of the mud and dust in and on our rigs, and relaxed in the sun.  Our tourists returned and we pulled out of Fairbanks mid-day and made it back to Anchorage by about 10pm.  

As Winnie pulled into our cul-de-sac she started making a horrible clunking sound in the rear.  We stopped at the curb, jumping out in alarm…and then laughed.  After nearly 1600 miles, in the road construction in our own neighborhood she had picked up a huge rock between her dualies!  No matter…we were home.

Yet another shot of the pipeline…north of the Brooks Range I think

 Epilogue:  Like us, Winnie had a good time, but she was tired and dirty.  She refused to start a couple of days later when we got in her to go the carwash!  A neighbor helped us get her going and $30 worth of quarters later we had the last of the mud blasted off and drove her out to Palmer to get that new starter installed and the muffler more professionally fixed. 

For our first road trip, she did AWESOME! 

My dad repeatedly shakes his head in wonder at the trips we’ve made with this little rig that he had given up on!

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Days 2 & 3 – Deadhorse or Bust!

Surprisingly, we all woke up fairly early Thursday after our late night.  Of course, that did NOT mean we got on the road early!  Seven women, seven bladders and the availability of hot showers are not a good combination for maintaining any strict schedule.  (Not a complaint…just an observation.  I love the lack of a schedule on a vacation!) 

Eventually we did pull out, but just to cross the street to Fred Meyers to pick up a few things.  Another stop at an auto parts store to purchase a starter for Winnie and we were finally on the road a little after 1pm.  (Predictably there was no way to get Winnie’s starter fixed on a holiday weekend, so we just decided to have the parts on hand and keep our fingers crossed!) 

We passed the road to Livengood and the turn-off to Manley Hot Springs and began to feel like we were really on the Dalton Highway by mid afternoon.

The pipe itself is covered under that slanted metal sheet that is probably designed to shed snow

Crossing the Yukon River was a treat, the pipeline crossing alongside us just out of sight below the highway.  We pulled into the camp on the far side of river to gas up and make sandwiches for dinner.  There is a nice overlook and information center that was worth the walk.  At 80F the weather was almost miserably hot for driving so we welcomed every stop where we could get out of our rolling tin cans and away from the dust of the road!

Driving into the low angled midnight sun created a real visibility problem with the dust as we pushed on from the Yukon.  The billowing dust was like a thick fog, completely obscuring sight of the road…and the oncoming trucks!  We crept at a snails pace for many miles before the road turned enough to give us some relief.

The sight of this pink valley made us all gasp. The pictures don’t do it justice

One welcome break from the dust was a valley that we descended into that was solid magenta from fireweed.  A recent forest fire had blackened the spruce trees that you see poking up like spikes.  The fireweed blanketed all the nearby hills, identifying the spread of the fire that had preceded it.

It was close to midnight when we decided to call it quits for the day.  We had originally hoped to make it to Coldfoot, but the tense drive through the dust had left us all exhausted so we camped at the Arctic Circle pullout instead.  Once the pop-up was set up we pulled out camp chairs and enjoyed a beer in the glow of the midnight sun before going off to our respective beds.


No more sunsets until we come back through!

Friday morning was leisurely.  The pullout at the Arctic Circle attracted many visitors who shared stories of the road with us including a group of high-spirited young BLM volunteers.  We were to see them again several times along the road.  A middle aged couple on big touring motorcycles were on their way back from Deadhorse and reported that they had had heavy rain all the way up.  A family from Kentucky was woefully underprepared in their little rental sedan, but determined to go on to the end of the road.

We drove on into Coldfoot Camp where we lunched at a local café and toured the beautiful visitor’s center before heading on.  The road was well maintained and the views were incredible as we approached Atigun Pass. 

The long, low grade approach to Atigun Pass…see the pipeline in the distance? That Pipe is 8 feet in diameter by the way

Winnie’s climb to the top of that pass was epic.  The other two vehicles pulled aside so we could blow past as fast as we dared on the approach…we needed all the momentum we could get!  Less than halfway up she began bogging down and she crept up the last mile at 20 mph, but she made it! 

I wasn’t driving and at 20mph had plenty of leisure to snap pictures out the window as we climbed Atigun! Whew!

The weather continued to be beautiful and hot, so the shade and patches of snow at the top of the pass were a fun snowball fight break for us! 

The terrain on the north side of the Brooks Range is completely different from the south side.  We weren’t just above treeline in terms of altitude, we were above treeline latitudinally!  South of Atigun is thick with brush and the occasional tree.  North it’s all tundra.  As far as the eye can see and farther.

That’s Winnie up there at the head of the convoy today…the pipeline is marching along beside us

We counted down the Pump Stations as we approached Deadhorse.  At #2 we knew we had less than 100 miles to go and pushed on in spite of the late hour.  Winnie’s fuel light came on within sight of the camp, but she made it to the fuel station.  (We had five gallons of gas on the luggage rack, but the can was caked with dust and we hoped to not have to unstrap it!) 

Because of our concerns over gas, we didn’t stop with the other two vehicles who had spotted a herd of musk oxen far in the distance.  We did see a big bull caribou wandering through the camp as we were gassing up though!

This big guy came by our campsite for a visit! No, that’s not the Transalaska Pipeline behind him…just a utility pipe for the camp.

Our “RV park” was really the parking lot of the camp’s hotel.  The “hotel” was really a converted modular building that had been used as barracks in the early days of the pipeline building project. 

Yep, that’s our RV parking spot. The blue building in the background is the hotel. See why we didn’t want to have to access that gas can on the luggage rack? Ewww!

Whatever, we didn’t care.  We pulled into a slot under the electric lines and plugged in.  The camp is strictly dry – as in you face possible prosecution for bringing any alcohol in – so we had to celebrate our achievement very quietly. 

Welcome to Deadhorse, Alaska!

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Day 1 of a crazy trip

What a group of women we were on that trip to Prudhoe Bay.  The youngest of us was 39, the oldest 60-something.  We were comprised of two wives, four divorcee’s, one old maid (me!), four mothers, one grandmother, four nurses, two OR techs, and a health administrator.  We dubbed ourselves the Seven Sassy Sisters.

 As always, getting out of town was the biggest challenge.  We were taking advantage of the long July 4th weekend, adding that extra day to a couple of vacation days to allow for a total of 5-6 days on the road.  Two of the ladies had to work Wednesday, so they were packed and ready to go straight from work.  We agreed to meet up at a grocery store parking lot in Eagle River.  After everyone trooped in and out of the store for last minute items we finally hit the road.  A dinner stop at a Taco Bell in Wasilla ate up another hour! 

We stopped again at the Talkeetna cut off to use the truck-stop bathroom.  (Seven bladders…!)  There we had our first real hiccup.  Winnie wouldn’t start.  We knew tapping on the starter with a wrench sometimes worked (per Dad’s advice) so we dug out the tool bag, but then stood around wondering where the starter was and how to get to it!  Finally a pair of truckers came to our rescue and we were once again on the road, having had a lesson on where to tap!  By this time it was nearly 10pm, but the sun was still well above the horizon and we really wanted to make Fairbanks before stopping for the night so we pushed on. 

The TransAlaska Pipeline just north of Fairbanks.

Somehow Winnie ended up ahead of the pack without us knowing it.  (Did I mention seven bladders?)  We called S. to tell her that we were approaching Fairbanks and asked her to guide us in to the RV park.  S. thought she was in the lead – didn’t realize we had blown past her on one of her potty stops – so told us the exit was coming up soon when we had actually already passed it!   We were soon out of walkie talkie range and had to resort to cell phones.  We agreed to meet at the Fred Meyer grocery store.  D. accosted a young man for directions and talked him into leading us there.  (He looked a bit like a drug dealer but we weren’t picky by that time…it was nearly 2am!)  No one was there.  Luckily our new friend was willing to lead us across town to the OTHER Fred Meyer store (who knew there were two?) where we finally re-connected with our group and headed across the highway to River’s Edge RV Park. 

I’m sure we were a hit with the rest of the RV’ers as we cruised up and down the aisles looking for three slots together at nearly 3am.  Then there was the setting up of the pop-up and making sleeping arrangements for all.  As we unhitched the trailer, someone spotted a leather bag on the bumper…it was the tool bag we had used in Talkeetna!  It has now been officially named the Magnetic Tool Bag in honor of its journey from Talkeetna to Fairbanks balanced on the rear bumper of the pop-up trailer!

It was with some trepidation that we shut Winnie’s engine off.  We made a plan to try and get the starter fixed the next day and went to bed as the sun came up.  Tomorrow would go smoother with less highway traffic and no more cities to navigate!

 (sorry no pictures of this first day…I was a nervous wreck about Winnie not starting and my camera sat neglected through all the best scenery!)


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Prelude to a road trip…

I’ve been promising some road trip stories for awhile now and the onset of winter seems a good time to sit around the fire and tell tall tales, so pull up your chair, wrap your chilled fingers around that mug of coffee (is that Irish crème I smell in your mug?) and enjoy…

In the early 80’s my parents invested in a little Winnebago motorhome.  Let me further define “little.”  This is not a Minnie Winnie such as you see on the road or in RV lots all the time.  It’s much smaller.  In fact it’s actually a Micro 319RK according to my insurance guy.  Driving it is not far different from driving a small pickup…like Chevy Luv small…like sitting directly on the pavement with a small house bouncing along behind you…small.

Isn’t she cute? She fits in most regular parking spots at the grocery store!

 My folks drove it down the Alcan twice on extended shopping trips as they looked for a winter home.  By the end of the second trip the starter began acting up and after a few more years of travels around the state, Dad gave up and parked it.   

I soon started hinting that I wanted first option when he was ready to sell it.  Finally, after it sat for nearly 4 years, he said, “come get it if you still want it, otherwise I’m towing it to the dump.” 

So for my 45th birthday I got a motorhome! 

Winnie can go places some of the big rigs can’t easily go – This cleft in the rock is the only road to get to McCarthy

My roommate, D., and I drove to Nikiski to collect it.  Mom and Dad helped with some new tires and a new cabin battery as part of my birthday present and we drove it back to Anchorage with no problems.  After an oil change, D’s brother looked it over and did some small, mostly cosmetic, repairs but otherwise pronounced it sound.  As an “RV warming” gift he and his wife bought us a hitch rack for additional luggage space.

We were ready for our first motorhome road trip!

Winnie at the Arctic Circle

 Take a look at a good map of Alaska.  See that wiggly line that goes from the northernmost coastline all the way to the bottom of the state?  That is the TransAlaska Pipeline that carries oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.  Following that pipe for most of its 800+ miles is a road known as the Haul Road or the Dalton Highway.  It has been featured on Ice Road Truckers in the last couple of years.  That was the road we decided to try on our first real outing!

(warning:  boys and girls…don’t try this at home!)

Map borrowed from Wikipedia…our route picked up the pipeline at Fairbanks and followed it all the way to Prudhoe Bay

(PS stands for Pump Station, Fairbanks close to PS8)

There were seven women altogether in three vehicles.  S. (my cabin neighbor) with two other ladies in her van and towing her popup camper, three of us in Winnie, and C. in her elderly Grand Cherokee.  We spent 5 days on the road together and there are WAY too many stories to tell in one post, never mind the thousands of photos I could share! 

Stay tuned…800 miles of mostly dirt road to come!

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First of many September trips

September has been unusually busy for me this year.  Labor Day we went to Homer, the following weekend was “Fish Camp” on the Kenai River at my roommate’s cabin, and the weekend after that was a quilting/crafting retreat in Palmer…whew.  I’m still on track to dash up to my Cabin this coming weekend, making a total of four weekends away from home so far this month!


The wind was howling and these daredevils were angling at the surf to jump the breakers, sometimes lifting 20 feet off the water

The Homer trip was a great success.  After an overnight in Soldotna at the Kenai River cabin, we headed down early Saturday morning to Homer.  We had intentions of going across Kachemak Bay to Seldovia, but had some confusion over the many ways there are to get there, so missed them all!  No worries, we still enjoyed bopping around Homer, poking around the little tourist trap shops and grumbling about the tourist traffic…of which we were a part!  Not only was it the last weekend for most of the shops but a cruise ship was in town, the last of the season, so the foot traffic made driving on the Spit all but impossible. 

The Amsterdam leaving port swinging around the end of Homer Spit on its way out of Kachemak Bay

We escaped the crowds by barging in on friends who have a condo on the beach.  Yummy gourmet pizzas from Finn’s were washed down with some terrific wines!  A perfect evening was capped by taking the dogs for a walk on the beach before heading up East End Road to our rented guest house.

Exercising the horses at low tide on Homer Spit

Sunday morning we headed back out to the Spit, but the weather was moving in, so after grabbing some pastries from the fantastic Boardwalk Bakery, we hit the road back to Soldotna for the night.   The drive back to Anchorage on Monday was drizzly but pleasant. 

Dwarf dogwood (I think! All of my plant identification books are up at the Cabin!)

The wet reds of the fall colors at Tern Lake caught my eye.  The dwarf dogwood darkens to a deep glossy brick red, the currant and cranberry bushes vary from a mottled red and yellow to a rich cranberry color, while the trees were still (mostly) green that weekend. 

Not everything has changed color yet. The contrast between the greens and reds is especially pleasing to the eye this time of year

The alder leaves won’t give us much of a display; willows will mostly turn yellow with a few bright orange or even red exceptions, and the aspen, birch and cottonwoods (aka balsam poplars) will be yellow or sometimes brown if they’ve been hit by bugs.  Spruce and hemlock will stay green of course, but their color will appear to darken until they look almost black against the winter snows. 

Alder leaves sharing space with black spruce branches. The alder leaves will turn brown and shrivelly and many will linger dead on the branches until spring

As always, I can’t wait to get up to the Cabin to enjoy a little of the fall display!


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It’s Spring…errr…break-up

Oh my goodness, April is almost here!  (Thank you for sticking with me!) 

It’s officially windshield wiper fluid season here in Alaska.  We all have a spare gallon or two of the stuff in our garages, ready for the road spray from the melting snow.  This is a good time of year to be a car-wash operator too!  Although the clean look rarely lasts all the way home, we keep washing them to keep the damage from the chemicals on the roads to a minimum.  Mornings we wake up to below freezing temperatures and icy roads and go home in the afternoons in 30-40 degree weather with water coming at our cars from all sides and the danger of hydroplaning. 

Even cleared, the drains don't keep up very well

Anchorage residents are worrying this year about where all this snow is going to go.  At work we have stocked up on sand bags to stave off the annual flood in our basement due to backed up storm drains on our street.  City workers armed with huge plumbing snakes and ice choppers are already attacking the slush and ice that clogs the grates.     

That tiny dark spot is the hole they drilled through the 7 foot high snow berm to access the storm drain!

Folks who live in snow country will appreciate that our “spring” is also known as “break up.”  We even have an annual wager placed statewide on when the ice on the Nenana River will officially “break up” and begin sending its ice floes downriver.  It’s known as the Nenana Ice Classic and tickets cost $2 each.  You fill out your best guess as to when the tripod will fall and start watching the weather reports.  Don’t get too excited just yet…we have another month at least before it’s likely to go. 

At the Cabin, break-up means a few weeks of not being able to cross the lake.  The ice will be too rotten to be safe, but not quite rotten enough to allow for a boat.  Trudging in and out by way of the trail system is easy in summer, but will likely be a messy and dangerous workout in slushy, rotten, and very deep snow, so I and my wimpy knees will stay away for the time being. 

No, really...don't park here!

Meantime, my adventurous little gang of girlfriends is gearing up for the first road trip of the season this weekend.  We’re going to Homer just for the joy of being able to drive in daylight and on relatively ice-free highways.  We are very likely to see Dall sheep, moose, snowshoe hares, and eagles,as well as the remote possibility of coyotes, wolves, or lynx.  I will be sure to post some shots from that trip next week – current shots for a change!

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