Sep. 1-2. It appeared that our car might finally be repaired by noon on Thursday, but it still needed to be checked by the shop manager. We also learned that despite replacing both the low pressure (in the gas tank) and high pressure fuel pumps, the electronic control module, which is the unit subject to recall by Ford, was not replaced. So we would be driving home (through even less populated parts of BC) using a part that could fail at any moment.
We ended up deciding to buy a new car, a Lincoln MKT as pictured in the feature photo. The dealer had made up a sales proposal on Wednesday and we had time that evening to do some research. We learned that is essentially Lincoln’s version of the Flex—just “sleeky” vs. “boxy.” This is a 2015 model, but brand new (unused). So it was subject to substantial rebates by Ford and the dealer. Basically we have the same car, but 36,000 miles newer and with four more years of warranty coverage. As a new car, it needs to be driven “gently” for the first 1000 miles, so as we left Fairbanks we have kept it at 50 mph or below, which it probably somewhat irritating to the drivers behind us on this 65 mph road.
Alaska Highway heading to Tok
We managed to get about 150 miles south from Fairbanks, stopping at a rest area near the Tanana river somewhere between Delta and Tok. Cynthia made pasta and we considered what we can to with the rest of our itinerary. It appears we can delay returning to Olympia to September 12 (vs the original target of Sept. 2). Here are the main points:
Sep. 3-4-Arrive Haines
Sep. 5-6 Ferry to Skagway, ride the White Pass and Yukon Railway
Sep. 7-12 Enroute through British Columbia on the Cassier Highway to Olympia (2100 miles from where we are right now.
Aug. 28-31. When I started to do this blog I didn’t anticipate weaving a tale of woe about car problems, but that is where our life is at this point. Clearly this trip is not going to meet the expectation we had for it in advance, but we are not going to declare it a disaster…yet. So our hopes for getting underway have been dashed a couple more time. The needed part (high pressure fuel pump) did arrive on Monday (8/29) and was installed on Tuesday, and it worked. The bad news was then the low pressure fuel pump, located in the gas tank, did not work, even though it seemed OK during diagnosis last week. The good news is that that part was in Anchorage and arrived this morning (Wednesday). The bad news is that the technician working on this had arranged to take this day off a month earlier for his daughter’s birthday. Apparently no other techs can work on this unless they are certified, or Ford won’t pay for the warranty repair. In desperation, we spent several hour this afternoon considering the purchase of new car, which we may do if we encounter another problem on Thursday. At this point, we have had to cancel our plan to go to Haines and take the ferry to Skagway and may have to take other trip shortening measures just to get home a week late.
On the brighter side, we are secure in our “Habitat” (home away from home) parked near the Chena river with power, water, and so-so internet access. The Chena river is a quiet tributary of the Tanana, which is big enough for barge/boat navigation and drains into the much larger Yukon River to the north. We have been enjoying sunny days and the tranquility of the nearly glass smooth Chena, which is active with ducks, kayakers, and power boats. Geese and Sand Hill cranes fly overhead, making their distinctive noises, as do zillions of planes, both large and small, coming and going from the Fairbanks airport, which is far busier than you would expect for a town of 33,000. We went back a couple of times to the Creamer Field Wildlife refuge to watch the cranes and also attended a lecture by a crane expert from California. The other big event was that we traveled last night about 25 miles north of Fairbanks to an elevation of 2000 feet away from city lights to watch the northern lights (Aurora Borealis). At this latitude, they are not so much north, as almost overhead. They were “level 5” (out of 9 possible) and we enjoyed watching them for about an hour last night. They make an arc around the magnetic pole and it was easy to see that curve as we watched, as well as the classic “waving curtains” that are often depicted.
LATE BREAKING NEWS-– As we were locking up the “Habitat” tonight, we noticed a terrific aurora display, better even than the one went out of town for last night! It is hard to capture with our primitive photos, but the featured photo of this post makes an attempt. Better in full motion!
Aug. 23-27. Bummer! We are stuck 200 miles from the Arctic Circle waiting for our car to get repaired. We were warned that the Ford Dealer, where our car was dropped on Sunday, was jammed with other jobs ahead of us, but they did manage to diagnose the car by Tuesday and determined that the fuel pump needed to be replaced. Although we were told earlier that they had them in stock that was not the case for this model and further more it was on “national back order.” Then our hopes went up on Wednesday when we heard it was shipped and as late as Friday we thought it would arrive and we would be on the road by Saturday (today). However, late on Friday we learned it won’t arrive until Monday afternoon, so now the best we can hope for is to get underway on Tuesday, August 30. To add insult to injury we learned that on Tuesday our car was one of 91,000 in a recall for this fuel pump problem.
Despite the delay, we don’t feel like “rushing home,” but would rather continue to see the points of interest we had identified earlier, so we are not likely to be back in Olympia before September 8 or 9.
We only planned to spend one day in Fairbanks, but now have had a chance to explore the area more deeply. Some of our activities have included:
Aug. 21-22. After our 7-hour tour into Denali on August 20, we returned to a hotel complex about six miles south of the Park where, the tour originated. That’s because its main customers are from the big cruise lines, like Holland America and Princess Cruises and they operate hotels just outside the park for their tour customers. But as we attempted to start our car at about 4:00 PM, it just wouldn’t go. It would “catch” and run for a 10 seconds, then die. Then it wouldn’t start at all after trying 20 times. Our Ford Flex is only three years old with not that many miles on it, so this is a big surprise. The bigger problem is that we were nowhere near any competent auto repair services. Without dragging you through all the phone calls and difficult choice making, we were able to arrange a tow for both our car and trailer from Ford’s roadside assistance for the following morning (Sunday). We then got back to our trailer by using one of the bus shuttles and had a dinner and a much needed drink.
The closest towing company was in Nenana, about 75 miles away, so it didn’t arrive until 10:30 AM on Sunday. He first had to go where the car was to put it on the “tilt-bed” style tow truck he had. And because that truck was rather bit to get our trailer out of the camp site we were in, I borrowed the pickup truck of the “camp host” and pulled the trailer out to a larger parking lot where it would be easier to connect to his truck. The arrangement was to be towed to the nearest Ford dealer, which is in Fairbanks. That involved a 2 ½ hour drive, but there was room for both Cynthia and me in the truck and at least we would have our trailer at the RV site we had reserved and not have to rent a hotel, or return later to the Park to get the trailer.
The 68-year old truck driver was a real entertainer. He seemed like the stereotypical Alaskan “sourdough,” although he was raised in Indiana, so is only “first generation.” But he had run barges on the Tenana river, worked for the University of Alaska getting biological specimens, been to many villages to perform mechanical services on the school bus fleets and brought musk ox to the University to support their research programs. He regaled us with stories of the political history of Alaska, of the pipeline and the Permanent Fund (if you don’t know that one, it is too hard to explain), and of the political and financial structure of government. He didn’t have more than a high-school education, but he had 13 different English translations of the Iliad, which he had read out loud to his fellow Marines in Vietnam in the 1960s. To him, the Iliad was a “warrior” book, but the “Odyssey” was a “chick-flick.” He was proud of his daughter, who now has a Masters from Johns Hopkins in medical illustration. Rather than playing country western music while he drives, he listens to “Great Lectures” and shared with us a portion of philosophy lectures from “Hobbes to Habermas.”
Caribou in River Bottom
Aug. 18-20. No, we never did see North American’s highest mountain, at least not the top of it. Continued low clouds and intermittent rain have made this part of our trip reminiscent of a spring camping trip in Western Washington. However, we did see: Grizzly Bears (8)-including a mom and three cubs, moose (1-well the top of one above some shrubs-), Dall Sheep (about 20), and Caribou (more than 20). Despite the gray, cloudy weather, the vast landscapes on the north slope if the Alaska Range are very dramatic.
We arrived on August 18 and camped at Riley Creek, a National Park Service Campground near the main entrance to the park. On August 19, we drove in 14 miles to Savage River. There we took a short hike along the Savage River and then on a nearby interpretive trail on the site of an early tourist camp that is long gone.
Grizzly Feeding on Blueberries
Savage river is as far as most private cars are allowed to go on the 92-mile dead end road that goes into the middle of the Park. Beyond that, you need to take the parks shuttle bus or one of the tour buses that are operated by private companies. So on August 20, we signed up for the 7-hour round-trip bus tour that went in 62 miles. This bus had better seats and was narrated by a local (vs. the park shuttles which have school bus seats). It was on this trip that we saw most of the animals.
Aug. 16-17. Well, the “split up” only lasted a day. I decided that I wanted to visit Barrow, the northernmost community (and point of land) in the U.S. It would be my first time to go north of the Arctic circle. Fortunately, Alaska Airlines flies several times a day in a Boeing 737, so I could go up in the morning and return in the evening. It was cold, meaning 34° F. (1° C.), and there were snow flurries and wind. The ice floes were blown toward the shore, which is unusual in the summer. So I got to check this off my “bucket list,” sticking my finger in the Arctic Ocean and observing briefly the culture and customs of the Inupiat people, who have been hunting whales here for several thousand years.
Meanwhile Cynthia, who did NOT have visiting the northernmost US community on her “bucket list,” spent some time in the Matanuska Valley, which is famous for growing huge pumpkins, cabbage and other such things because they get 22 hours of sunshine during the short growing season. She visited a musk ox farm, as well.
Back together on August 17, we drove farther up the beautiful Matanuska Valley and actually went out on the Matanuska glacier, which is up to 1000 feet thick farther up the valley.
Aug. 14-15. We left the Kenai Peninsula by retracing our steps towards Whittier, where we got off the Ferry, then proceeding for another two hours to Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. We spent a few hours there, taking the one hour Trolley tour and visiting Earthquake Park, a memorial to the 9.6 earthquake that hit Anchorage on Good Friday, 1964. The park shows where a 30 foot drop in the earth took place, sending some houses out into Cook Inlet and resulting in the death of a number of residents.
We camped at a State Park campground at Eagle River, 12 miles north of Anchorage and spent most of Monday, August 15 on a 7 mile hike up the Eagle River valley in the Chugach State Park, which is shown in the featured picture of this post. Some of the trails near the river were closed, because of bears pursuing the salmon now coming up the river to spawn. On a quiet tributary, we were able to watch the salmon ourselves, but taking a picture of them in the water was futile.
Aug. 11-13. The weather has not been great, but it hasn’t been awful. There are intermittent rain showers, but so far not enough prevent us from getting out and exploring. The main problem is that the low clouds prevent the sort of dramatic mountain views that Alaska is famous for. We got off the ferry at Whittier, on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula (which juts south from Anchorage) and went through a 2 ½ mile combination train and road tunnel. It only allows westbound traffic for the first 15 minutes of each hour and we were lucky enough to make it by 7:10 and avoid an hour wait. We stocked our refrigerator in Soldotna and got to our reserved site at a small and forested commercial RV park in Kasilof by 3:00 PM.
Kachemak Bay from Homer, AK
The next day we drove down the side of Cook Inlet to Homer. This is the stretch where in good weather you can see a string of active volcanoes on the western side of Cook Inlet, but no luck for us. At Homer the clouds had at least lifted enough to look across Kachemak Bay, but we decided the weather wasn’t good enough to take water taxi across the bay for a hike to one of the glaciers. We visited the nature center and had a short walk along Beluga marsh. We also visited the Pratt Museum that focused on local history and art. We did have the obligatory fish and chips lunch and on the return visited an historic Russian Orthodox church at Ninilchik.
On Saturday we retraced our route to the north towards Anchorage, stopping for a hike in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Soldotna, but the only wildlife we saw was a red squirrel. With plenty of time available, we decided to head down the east side of Kenai to Seward. We found a nice Forest Service Campground on the way, then went for a visit to the Exit Glacier (part of Kenai Fjords National Park), which is about 10 miles from Seward. (See the feature picture at the beginning of this post). For me this was the highlight of time on Kenai. We joined a ranger-led hike, observed signs showing how much the glacier has retreated in the past 100 years, and got close to the edge, although not on the glacier. After a stop in Seward itself for pizza dinner, we returned to our USFS campsite, where it has been raining all night. We are hoping there might be a bit of relief as we make our way to Anchorage today, but if not, we can spend time in the various museums there.
Aug. 9-10. We left Juneau at Noon on August 9 and with the clouds and mist having lifted a bit, were treated with nice views of the islands. We went through some narrow passages and even did some of them twice, as this is a training program for the ferry helmsman/captains to improve their experience ratings.
By the morning we arrived at Yakutat, a small fishing village. They don’t have an adjustable ramp at the dock to allow cars to get on and off the ferry, but this boat has a clever elevator on board. Lowered to the car deck, it can be rotated to allow cars and trucks to drive on (maybe 2-3 depending on the size), then it is rotated and lifted to the height of the dock to allow them to roll off.
Cynthia and I took a stroll to visit a newly installed totem pole and the an old narrow guage railway that was used to move salmon from a river port to the ocean for shipment to the lower 48.
In my last post, I said that the next part of our voyage would not have any scenery, but as it turned out, the day turned sunny and our journey out of Yakutat into the Gulf of Alaska allowed us to view the spectacular coastal Wrangell Mountain range. The photo shows Mt. Logan, at 19,559 feet, the highest mountain in Canada and second (by 800 feet) only to Mt. Denali.
With only 182 passengers aboard, we have enjoyed watching and talking to the other passengers aboard. That includes tourists from Germany, Australia, Canada and Norway, military families being transferred to Alaska, backpackers and other with RVs aboard intending to follow a tourist route similar to ours.
Aug. 8-9. We made our first stop on this ferry ride in Ketchikan, which has had various booms including the gold rush, salmon fishing and logging. The latest is from the tourist trade and we had to compete with four large cruise ships in town. Ketchikan has made a major effort to preserve its history, although the main attractions near the cruise port seem to be jewelry and souvenir shops.
An interesting part of our walking tour was along Ketchikan Creek, where salmon were attempting to get up stream for spawning. This also the site of Creek Street, which was the center of prostitution through all the booms, boasting as many as 27 houses of ill-repute until the 1920s.
The continued journey from Ketchikan to Juneau could be described as misty or mystical. It rained some of the time and at other times simply had a low cloud cover, so that if there are snow-capped mountains to the east of us, we can’t tell. But is has its own allure, and was particularly fascinating as we went through the “Wrangell Narrows,” which is 40 miles long but only a few hundred feet wide in places. This route is impossible for the big cruise ships and a challenge for this ocean-going ferry. But it saves a lot of time getting to Juneau, if it is feasible.
In Juneau, Alaska’s capital, we had a bit more time to explore, although we arrived at 7:00 AM and had to wait until things opened up a 9:00 AM. The highlight was a new state museum which has a nice collection covering from native relics from 5000 years, through Russian exploration, to the American acquisition subsequent roles in the World War II and the north slope oil boom.
We are now heading to Yakutat, where we will arrive early on Aug. 10, then cross the Gulf of Alaska (no scenery) to arrive at Whittier early August 11.