Saturday, May 24, 2008

Salt Lake City, Utah to Fairbanks, Alaska - Road Trip

My favorite activity is to get out of town and explore some place new. It's almost a given that my adventures will take me south to the canyons and red rock deserts of Southern Utah. I love the sunshine and the heat - the feeling of baking under the relentless sun - and the simple, barren landscape that makes up most of our state. It may sound strange to love such a harsh place, but when I'm in the desert I feel right at home.

On May 9, Tim picked me up in his truck and we headed North instead. 3600 miles and 10 days later I found myself sitting at the Fairbanks Airport waiting for my flight to Anchorage and then to Salt Lake. Tim stayed behind to start his new adventure at the University of Alaska. I was left with a week's worth of incredible memories and a new love of places that aren't dry, hot, or barren.

You can make it to Alaska in about 4 days if all you do is drive. We took the less travelled but more scenic Cassiar Highway route and met up with the WAD-pod clogged Alaska Highway late in the trip. We made some detours and took our time. Every day was absolutely incredible. Just one day of sights and adventures would have made the entire drive worth it. We camped at the end of each day and despite a seemingly new challenge every night (freezing cold, rain, bears!!, wind, all of the above...) I woke up each morning fully aware that I was having the best time of my life.

I have no pictures.

We lost the camera on the last day of our trip at the Farmers' Market in Fairbanks. I could write for days about everything we saw and did, but I'll share just a few of my favorite memories and keep hoping the pictures will make their way back to us.

MELROSE, MT ... We drove a lot farther than we had planned the first day. It was late and we couldn't find a good place to set up camp. When trouble strikes, head to the bar. It makes everything OK. A bar seriously in the middle of nowhere! Super divey with a friendly bartender. She knew all about the crazy dirt road we had just driven on .. "the Bench Road!" They also knew of a great camping spot a minute away. Everything solved. It was fun to watch Tim run around in sandals the next morning through the frosty grass. Coldest night of the trip.

MISSOULA, MT ... A great town! We passed through on our way to the Canadian border and stopped for some vegan scramble and a fantastic farmers' market by the river. Tim bought nearly a sheep's worth of wool to make felt (gag) and we made a new friend - Lavender Laurie. She sold us a bunch of fresh lavender that kept the truck smelling pretty even when we didn't.

LUSSIER HOT SPRINGS, BC ... We had many, many beers at a bar in Cranbrook, British Columbia because the bartender was "so good at her job" and then headed to Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park. The hot springs located there were perfect. Beer + Hot Springs = Heaven. We soaked in them until a bunch of squawky girls arrived. Jumping into the adjacent icy river and then getting back into the hot springs felt great. We camped nearby that night to the sound of rain flooding our tent. Eventually we gave in and put the rain fly on.

KOOTENAY / BANFF / JASPER NATIONAL PARKS, BC and ALBERTA ... The most incredible mountains I have ever seen. The Canadian Rockies make the Wasatch Mountains look small! Jagged ridges, glaciers, lakes, and rivers in every direction.

ALMOST TO PRINCE GEORGE, BC ... We had planned on camping at a Provincial Park just outside of Prince George, BC but it was closed when we arrived (too early in the season). Tim decided to drive down a dirt road that invloved lifting fallen trees to get the truck under them. Eventually we just stopped and unloaded the truck. We decided to sleep in the bed of the truck because we had seen one too many bears that day. Nice and cozy. "Welcome to MPK's bear-proof pod!"

HYDER, ALASKA ... Call it an Alaskan sneak-preview. This VERY tiny town is a little outpost of the United States. It is located in the south-eastern portion of the panhandle of Alaska, right across the "border" from Canada. It is located at the end of a beautiful road that passes by Bear Glacier and several spectacular waterfalls. Hyder is completely isolated from the rest of Alaska and you need to pass through Canada to leave town. We arrived at night and many gin and tonics later we decided to camp in Tongass National Forest - right near a bear observation facility. Good thing for MPK's bear-proof pod! Tim took the coldest shower of his life in an icy waterfall. The next day we met a friendly store owner that enjoyed fart jokes and was just starting chemo for breast cancer. She was full of life and so happy to chat with us. The nice man that ran the general store let us fill our water container and showed us bumper stickers with the image of the bear that ate his friend. I was sad to leave.

KINASKAN LAKE, BC ... We decided to set up camp early to take advantage of the dry weather. Everything we owned was wet to some degree so we set things out in the sun and wind to dry. Standing at the edge of the lake was one of the most peaceful moments I have ever had. Complete silence and a long, frozen lake stretching out before me. Snow capped mountains surrounded the lake in all directions. The sun was trying to set, but it had a hard time making any progress towards the horizon. A van drove by and someone yelled "Tim!" Of course Tim runs into someone he knows in the middle of nowhere. Ty joined us for an evening of food and whiskey by the camp fire. Good friends and whiskey are even better than hot springs and beer.

LIARD RIVER HOT SPRINGS, BC ... More hot springs! Tim knows how to sell a trip to me. This adventure involved heading east once we connected onto the Alaska Highway. The backtrack was well worth it. Two nice pools of ultra hot water mixed with colder river water to create the perfect temperature .. as long as the water remained well mixed. We camped nearby and I slept well that night after a relaxing evening of soaking in the springs.

KLUANE NATIONAL PARK, YUKON ... our final night in a tent was on the shore of Kluane Lake. This place felt exactly like what I imagined the Yukon would be. Barren frozen mountains, dense pine forests, and a deep blue partially frozen lake. The wind was wild that night and it seemed like the sun never set. It's an odd thing that have sunlight so late into the night. It was dead calm when I awoke the next morning and unzipped the tent. When I looked outside the sun was just rising over the lake. Did this really have to end?

MUSEUM OF THE NORTH, FAIRBANKS, AK ... A beautiful building at the University of Alaska with a great collection of art and Alaskan history. I really enjoyed "The Place Where You Go to Listen" .. a white room with a color screen and intense surround sound. The sound is created by computers in real time to reflect the positions of the sun and moon, siesmic activity, auroral activity, and other geophysical measurements. The color and sound changes slowly and in very subtle ways.

ADAM ... Our new friend in Fairbanks who welcomed us like old friends.

FAIRBANKS TO ANCHORAGE ... I parted ways with Tim and Adam at the Fairbanks Airport. As I waited for my flight, a Northwest Airlines flight arrived. I noticed that when people got off the plane they ran for the windows instead of the baggage claim. An older couple embraced and declared "We're here! We finally made it to Alaska!" There's something magical about Alaska that my brief flight to Anchorage made very clear. We flew over Denali National Park and right by Mount McKinley - a mountain too massive for words. The sun was still shining through thunderstorm clouds at 11pm and the nearly full moon had risen over the snowy mountains. Everything about Alaska is extreme - there is nothing subtle about the place. It is a landscape of exclamation marks. I envied Tim and those people getting off the plane who were just beginning their Alaskan adventures. I felt so fortunate to have had mine ... and I will never be able to thank Tim enough.

For some reason, the most vivid memory I have from the trip is me standing on the edge Kinaskan Lake somewhere in British Colombia. We left Hyder, Alaska that morning and only drove for a few hours before Tim decided to call it a day. It was just a random Provincial Park along the Cassiar Road - nothing particularly special. Mostly a place to sleep for the night and dry out our gear. It was the first rain free day since we left Salt Lake and the sun and wind were perfect to dry our tent and clothes. It was also a step up in accommodations from the previous two nights - inside a bear observation facility (oops!!) and in the middle of a dirt road littered with fallen trees. Kinaskan Lake was a real campground with a pit toilet. Luxury!

There was no one in the campground but us. Still early in the season, there was a decent amount of snow in most camping spots. We found a clear spot in the sun next to the lake and set up the tent, laid out our gear, and hung our clothes on the trees and truck to dry. This was our "vacation" day from the journey. Tim got a break from driving and we realized this would be our first dinner in the daylight! We made some food that required more work that just throwing hot water in a bag and enjoyed a "real" meal in the wonderful sunshine.

The long, narrow lake stretched out to the North and our campsite was located at the southern tip. It was mid-May and the lake was entirely frozen. I stood at the edge of the lake and watched.. nothing in partcular .. for an hour? hours? Time is meaningless with no clocks and no obligations. Occasionally I could hear Tim chopping some wood for his bonfire but there was no other noise where I stood. Even the wind had died down. The lake was surrounded by snow capped mountains in every direction. The sun was near the western horizon but didn't seem to be getting any closer to setting. I put a stick in the snow to measure the length of it's shadow - it wasn't changing. Time had stopped? It seemed that way. Everything had stopped - complete peace.

Usually when I try to have peaceful moments my mind doesn't want to be still. There is always some thought .. even if it's just thinking about not thinking. But several days out from Salt Lake and my last phone call home there was nothing left to think about. No news and no updates about anything .. all connections gone. It doesn't take long before everything you've ever known begins to feel like a past life. No time, no thought, no noise. It took more than just a peaceful place to enjoy this experience.