Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Great Alaskan Road Trip

Part I

This morning, we loaded up the car, waved good-bye to mom and dad, had breakfast at Maggie's (one last stew for the road), and then headed west.

This last week or so has been a strange one for me, since I've been working, packing up my entire life, and preparing to leave Michigan for the first time in 22 years. Now, of course I have left Michigan before, but this is the first time that I've actually left, with no intention of coming back to live anytime soon. I'm moving on to another part of my life, wherein I will experience new things (extreme cold being one of them), meet new people, and make new friends, since none of my old friends were courageous enough to move to Alaska with me.

My more astute readers will note that you can replace "courageous" with "insane," and the true meaning of the previous sentence will be clear.

Today we drove through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, ending in Minneapolis. Tomorrow we head through North Dakota into Montana, stopping when we feel that we've gone far enough. From there, we head North into Canada, stopping in Alberta before leaving (almost) all signs of civilization until we reach Fairbanks. Some might even argue the characterization of Fairbanks as "civilization," but we'll just roll with it for now. I'm tired, full, and feeling the need to sleep before we rise tomorrow morning. More updates will come when they do.

Part II - We May Be Insane

So today we woke up in Minneapolis, had a nice, big breakfast, chatted with Margie and Chris, getting on the road around 9:30 Central Time. Our plan at the time was to be getting as far into Montana as we could, then stopping. Tomorrow, we were to be heading North into Canada.

Well, a moment of inspiration struck, and Alex called his friend Angel from Yale, who is from Missoula, Montana. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with your Montana geography, Missoula is in the far west of the state - pretty damn close to Idaho. And it's not like Montana is a small state - it's the fourth largest in terms of land area. So driving across Montana would be, well, insane. Especially when you're starting from not one, but two states away. And again, we're not talking New England-sized postage stamps, but fully grown, manly states. According to the maps, Missoula is 1,182 miles from Minneapolis. So it's a bit of a trek.

Well, we decided to go for it. Our brains full of something awful, we set out across Minnesota, crossing into North Dakota at Fargo. Eastern North Dakota is very flat and very boring - sort of like Ohio, but with more wheat. It's not until after Bismarck that things get really interesting - like, for example, the North Dakotan badlands. Did you know that North Dakota has them too? Well, they do. And trust me, they're way cooler than the more well-known South Dakotan badlands. Anywho, we stopped for a bit at one of the Teddy Roosevelt National Park visitor centers, snapped some photos, avoided the buffalo chips, and continued along our way. Then we got into Montana. And as beautiful as North Dakota (western) was, (eastern) Montana was equally pretty. And the east of Montana is the ugly part.

Now, at some point along the way, it hit us just how crazy what we were attempting was. Since, you know, we were just getting into Montana around 7 p.m., and it would be another 6 hours or so before we reached Missoula. So we decided, perhaps wisely, to stop in Bozeman for the night, which is where we are now. Tomorrow morning, we'll get up, take our sweet time, and drive to Missoula, stay for a day, and Wednesday we'll make the turn North, to Canadia. Where they have hockey. And the beer flows in the rivers, and you can pick up the bottles by hand.

...and no, I've never been to Canada. And it's pronounced Canada.

Part III - A Hippie! Let's follow him!

So today, unlike yesterday, involved very little driving. We went about 200 miles, from Bozeman to Missoula, and more or less took the day off.

On a side note, as Kovacs already knows, Texans are everywhere. I don't really get it, but apparently they can't stay within the friendly confines of their own state - they feel the need to go everywhere else. Apparently it's some sort of invasion plot?

Anyway, as expected, the Western part of Montana is the pretty part (unfortunately, it's also where the people are). The drive has been absolutely gorgeous, however, and we even gained quite a bit of elevation today - all the way up to the continental divide and down. Woo! Anyway, we got into Missoula about 1 PM and met Alex's friend Angel and her mom, Feather, at their house (actually in Clinton, but oh well). We then drove up the Blackfoot River, rented some inner tubes, and floated down. Before we set off, however, we jumped off of the rocks shown below into the river.

We floated down the river, encountering several rapids along the way. We were joined by several of Angel's friends from Missoula, one of whose cars led to the title of this note.
We had a fantastic time, a nice long break, and even found more hippies downtown this evening - 6-7 of them made large signs out of cardboard, and were panhandling for money by singing the hokey-pokey. Quite effective. Apparently, hippies are everywhere in Montana.

Tomorrow morning, we drive through Glacier National Park, stopping perhaps to fish along our way, before arriving in Calgary sometime tomorrow evening. After that, we wave good-bye to civilization, finishing out the last 1500 miles or so to Alaska.

Parts 4, 5, and 6 - Canada is big.

Sorry that this part has taken so long, but Canada is a really big place, and the current media situation is sorta like Beijing pre-Olympics: no foreigners are allowed to print anything bad about Canada, lest they be killed.

But seriously, Canada is a big place, and we're almost all the way through it - we're currently in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, which is at latitude 61, about 150 km North of Skagway. In the last few days, we drove through Glacier National Park, into Alberta to Calgary, then from Calgary to Fort St. John, British Columbia, and from Fort St. John to Whitehorse. What a ridiculously long trip it's been - from Missoula to Whitehorse is 1,784 miles, and we still have another 600 miles to get to Fairbanks.

But enough about that. We saw Tigers fans in Glacier, did some fly fishing (some hits, but nothing good), drove into Canada, were interviewed at the border, and then met up with Christine at her home in Calgary. Some fantastic banter with her dad (a huge Flames fan) later, we were allowed to stay in the house, though some mildly veiled threats did come through. Thursday morning we drove down into Calgary to see the downtown (centre?), then North on Hwy 2 to Edmonton, before turning west.

I have to say, for the longest time I have been concerned that the American Bison is already extinct. We drove all the way through Montana, even going past the National Bison Range, and didn't see a single one of the huge beasts. We had no luck further on in Alberta, and nothing in British Columbia, either - until today. It is safe to say that Bison are alive and well in Northeastern BC. We saw two lone animals on a farm, and feared that was all - until we spotted a few of them alongside the road. And then a few more. And then two whole herds of them. Yes, the "CAUTION - Buffalo on Road" signs that we saw all day today were not lying to us. In addition to the Buffaloes, we saw several Mule Deer, three big-horned sheep, two black bears, a hare, a moose, a squirrel-looking thing, two Russian spies, and half a billion ravens. It was a pretty good day for the wildlife viewing.

I have also determined that the real town center of any respectable Canadian city is its Subway - every city of any size that we have passed through has at least one Subway, and it's not a real settlement without one. None of the small service stops along the Alaskan Highway have them, but they have gas, and that's far more important.

One stop that we made today was Watson Lake, YT, which has a sign post forest. Over 66,000 signs grace a small forest of posts along the highway, put there by passers-by from all over the world. Apparently there are kleptos everywhere. It only seemed fitting that we add to the forest, and so my "Seasonal Road - Not Snowplowed by Antrim County Road Commission" has been nailed to one of the posts. We did find several signs from Kalamazoo, but no official signs - mostly just things that people painted on and nailed up. Lazy.

Tomorrow we finish out the Alaskan Highway in Fairbanks, where the Great Alaskan Road Trip ends. Amazingly, it only took 8 months for the US Army Corps of Engineers to build the 1500 mile highway from Dawson Creek, BC to Fairbanks (no, not Dawson's). It will have taken us 2 days to drive the highway, since the Alaska Highway doesn't include the approach to Dawson Creek from the South. I'll try to have pictures up soon, but it's late and I'm needing to get to bed. Eventually, I'll have all of the pictures online on webshots, and you can get your fill there.

Part 7 - The End of the Road.

At last, at long last, we have reached the end of the road. I am writing this most recent update in the College Coffeehouse in College, Alaska (small suburb-type thing of Fairbanks), feeling full of pizza and resting my weary self after a grand total of 4,314 miles of driving. Ordinarily, we would've taken a lot fewer miles, but we ended up going thorough Montana, made a few other stops along the way, and so... that's our total.

I'll have more precise figures later, but we used a lot of gas, although towards the end we were averaging around 26 miles per gallon. Considering the amount of crap that I piled into the car, that's pretty damn good.

Crossing back into the US was actually easier than leaving. The border guard in Alaska asked us a few questions, looked at the registration for the car, and took a peak in our trunk. No big long interview, no getting out of the car, nothing. We were free to go within about 5 minutes of pulling up.

The drive through the Yukon Territory (yes, I know this is going in reverse chronological order...) was pretty spectacular. Tall, snow-capped peaks, miles of scrub forest, lakes galore... amazing. We were stopped a couple of times by construction, most notably near Kluane Lake. During our stop, we got out, stretched our legs, and created a couple of cairns for future travelers. If you're ever driving North along the Alaska Highway through the Yukon, look for "Kzoo" spelled out in rocks to your right (between you and the lake). Right next to it is a big "Yale", so it shouldn't be too hard to miss.

The drive through Alaska was spectacular, as expected. In addition to the mountains, forests, and another black bear, we saw a bull moose being ogled by the passers-by. We didn't stop to ogle (it was getting on in the day), but we did admire it as we zoomed by at about 65 mph. We (well, I) saw two more moose on Eielson Air Force Base, which was hilarious considering the large signs along the road saying "No Stopping, No Parking, No Photography" for the next couple of miles along the base. But moose are apparently welcome.

My new favorite rumor about the Chinese Olympic Athletes, overheard here in Fairbanks, is that the Chinese athletes' families are being held captive by soldiers, ready to shoot them should they fail in their quest for the gold. Ah, people...

In all, this has been a spectacular trip. I have now seen more of this continent than ever before, met new and interesting people, driven more than I will in probably the next two years in all of six days, and spent more money on gas than I care to think about. That said, more oil drilling is not the answer, as there is a world market for oil... ask Alex to explain that one for you (I've heard this schpeel a lot recently).

Pictures will be up shortly at:

This also includes the pictures from last summer, so be sure to check those out, too. Good-bye from the "World Famous" Alaska Highway.