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Destination Alaska Part II: A 66-Day Trek to the Last Frontier

Oh, Canada! Heading Northwest

Tunnel Mountains, Banff Tunnel Mountains, Banff

By: Sheryl Gallup

This is Part II of an eleven-part series

Click here for Part I

Monday, June 10, 2013

When Woodzjoe and I woke up today, there was still a chill in the air from the cold, blustery night we had. It was difficult to crawl out of a warm bed into a cold trailer, so we sacrificed some battery time to run the furnace just long enough to take away the chill.

I checked e-mail, did some office work, and got back on the road by 10:00a.m. Our plan for today was to drive around Banff National Park and do some sightseeing. Yes, the Rockies are beautiful and the landscape is breathtaking, but the wildlife intrigued us the most.

All of the animals were scurrying about. The first thing we saw was a huge bull elk with an impressive rack in velvet. He munched on his breakfast of grass by the roadside and ignored all of the tourists who stopped to take pictures.

Stone Sheep at Banff

Stone Sheep at Banff

As we drove through the park, more elk greeted us from the roadsides, as did some mule deer. Later in the day we climbed up a switchback mountainside and saw what appeared to be a wall across the road. As we got closer, we realized the “wall” was a very large herd of stone sheep. The sheep spanned all across the mountain pass and nothing was going to make them move. We inched closer to them, but they held their ground. One of the larger sheep even stared us down as if he was daring us to move one more inch. In situations like this, it is best to know when to hold your own and when to back off. The sheep won. We put the truck in park, turned off the engine and got out the cameras.

Banff Mountains
Banff Mountains

The rest of the day we focused on our domestic responsibilities of getting gas, doing laundry, having lunch, and finding an electrical cord and a water hose for the trailer.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Today we have electricity, all thanks to a little RV shop in Calgary. We drove more than two hours just to locate a power cord for our trailer. Fortunately, we found a place that carried one and then we got back on the road to our campsite in Banff.

We took advantage of the quiet day to relax at camp and catch up on correspondence.Even though it had only been about a week, Woodzjoe and I both felt road weary. We both hoped to find a routine our bodies could adjust to,but we hadn’t found one yet.The fact that the sun is up for almost 24 hours, makes it difficult for us to sleep at night when we feel like we should still play.

Banff Campground at Tunnel Village

Banff Campground at Tunnel Village

As we sailed our way to Calgary, the main thing we saw was the scenery from the bug-splattered truck windows. We did, however, get a chance to see the bobsled run and ski jump used in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Woodzjoe and I left Banff this morning eager to hit yet another one of Canada’s magnificent National Parks. We drove north, along the Icefields Parkway and headed for Jasper National Park. As a Minnesota resident, honestly, the last thing I really wanted to see was more snow. But, admittedly, the snow-capped mountains are exceptionally beautiful. The glaciers were particularly impressive. As we winded our way through the mountain passes, we gasped at the magnitude of these mountains and wondered just how much wildlife was hidden among the pines.

The Icefields are truly beautiful. Our favorite stop along the way was the Icefield Centre, about halfway between Banff and Jasper. From that vantage point, you could see a number of glaciers, including Columbia and Athabasca. We watched as tour buses took the pass up the mountain to give eager tourists an up-close view of the glaciers. Through our binoculars, we could see groups of people walking on the Icefield; it looked like ants walking across a sea of white. Since I am not an adventurous soul, as you already know, we opted to pass on the Icefields tour and instead stay on dry land.

Columbia GlacierIcefields Explorer
Columbia Glacier and Icefields Explorer

Only eleven days into our trip and I have already had many moments of sheer panic as we drove through the mountain passes. Most of the time, I am proud of myself for keeping it all together, but on numerous occasions I have had moments where I have resisted the temptation to yell out, “OMG, we are all going to fall off this mountain and die!”

The vistas almost always seem to be on a curve, with a little bitty guardrail to keep us from plunging to our death. When nausea sets in, I know that it’s best if I close my eyes, grasp firmly with both hands onto my seat belt, and wait for my cue from Woodzjoe, “It’s safe to open your eyes now.”I’m gratefulhe always keeps his eyes open when driving.

Lake Louise National Park

Lake Louise National Park

Also, during the day we stopped at Lake Louise to take in the beauty of the lake. Yes, there is a great big famous hotel there, but it paled in comparison to the turquoise water of Lake Louise;it was breathtaking. Several days ago, when viewing turquoise waters at Banff National Park, I found myself wondering what made the water that gorgeous color. I learned that the meltwaters from six glaciers feed into Lake Louise.

As the glaciers grind away on rock, which contain ores and minerals, it turns them into a fine powder called “rock flour.”Meltwater then brings this powder into the lake. The silty water absorbs all colors of incoming light, except the striking turquoise and vivid blue that reflects back to our eyes. I knew that science had to have some handiwork here.

We ended our day in Jasper and stayed at a very nice campground called “Whistler’s,” which is a national park campground. We hooked up our trailer to the utilities and set up camp, we saw two elk grazing very near us – splendid creatures.

Wildlife Bridge

Wildlife Bridge

Animal observation:Dismal start with just one Canadian Nutcracker, a couple more Magpies, and a striped gopher. Then, praise be, we saw a small herd of mountain goats on the Icefields Parkway, and ended the day with the two elk.

I wanted to add this picture since I have been so impressed by these walkways. These bridges are built so that wildlife can safely cross the highway, which makes it safer for them and for motorists. I find it quite heart-warming that Canadians have such a strong commitment to their wildlife.

Happy Trails,
Woodchick

Thursday, June 13, 2013

We spent our second day in Jasper because we got to camp too late the day before to see much of the town. I was actually impressed with Jasper. It has that same quaint and charming feeling that we found in Banff, but Jasper is far less congested and far fewer tourists. Banff had a beautiful backdrop, but it was overrun with tourists walking, biking and generally clogging up roadways with every turn. Jasper too had a beautiful backdrop, some great little shops, and some interesting history – with far fewer tourists.

Woodzjoe and I made our first stop this morning the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum in downtown Jasper. It provided some interesting tales of how the land was first settled by aboriginal people, then fur trappers, then the railroads. We enjoyed the museum and the pleasant walk to get there. We had lunch at a charming little restaurant on the main strip of downtown Jasper and it was nice to just sit and take a breather.

Maligne Canyon

Maligne Canyon

From Jasper, we decided to motor along the Maligne Valley and stopped at Maligne Canyon which is the deepest canyon in the Canadian Rockies. It was an interesting place and had six bridges in which to view the Maligne River as it roared through the canyon. The interpretive signs provided a nice education on the theory behind how the canyon was carved out. Apparently, it is believed that Maligne Canyon is actually a cave without a roof. Early glaciers sheared off the top of the cave and filled with glacier water.

The Maligne River flows to Maligne Lake and then onto Medicine Lake. The interesting thing about that lake is that it doesn’t have a visible outlet. Meaning, there’s a hole in the bottom and the water flows through that to Maligne Canyon. That’s why later in the year there is no water in the lake, because the melt water only flows down into it in the spring and summer.

Medicine Lake
Medicine Lake

On our way out of the Maligne Valley we saw a bunch of cars pulled over on both sides of the narrow road and we knew some wildlife action was happening.Sure enough, two big black bears were grazing just off the road. There were about eight cars and a tour bus completely blocking the road. One car was parked in the middle of the road so no one could get through. At least a dozen people were out of their cars snapping pictures. Several were less than 12 feet from the bears. I bet the bears were thinking, “Yum, tourist meat!”

Friday, June 14, 2013

What a rude awakening this morning! Something, not sure if it was big or small, was rattling at the door of our camper. It was 5:30 a.m. and oh, how I wanted to sleep even just an hour later. Woodzjoe was snoring away, so I shook him until he woke up and I pointed to the door. The look of terror on my face was a shot of adrenaline for him too, and we both bolted to the window to see what was out there.

Of course, with all the scurrying around and shaking of the trailer, we scared whatever four-legged creature was out there away. That sort of angered me, because I wanted to at least see what beast had disturbed my slumber. Woodzjoe and I have totally different viewpoints on what the beast actually was. Even though he heard the rattling at the door too, he thinks it was small. Now me, drama queen extraordinaire, I think it was big.I think it was either a bear or an elk.

The campground in Jasper National Park has a resident elk herd and we saw them walking around campsites the two days we were there. My theory is arguably a good one. I believe that it was a big beast licking bacon grease off the door handle, since we had made bacon outside on the grill earlier in the day, and no doubt our greasy hands left some smell on the door handle. Now, you tell me, which theory is best?Bacon grease attracting a bear, or Woodzjoe and his theory that it was probably the wind or a squirrel? I strongly believe I won this one. We departed Jasper early and headed north.We drove to Hinton, Alberta, because I had an opportunity to interview a gun shop owner there for an article that I will be writing for a friend of mine who owns a website with a large audience of gun enthusiasts.It was a great interview and it gave us a chance to look at some outdoor gear and some fantastic taxidermy mounts.

From Hinton, we headed along highway 40, Alaska Scenic Highway. It was beautiful country, and far different than the mountains we had been driving in for a week. The area was very hilly, and was a patchwork quilt of vibrant shades of green. The area is active with mining and forestry, and we came across more logging trucks than we would have liked. But, the drive, even in the pouring rain was beautiful.

We stopped to stretch our legs and grab some lunch in Grand Cache. The town is built on the side of a mountain and overlooks three river valleys and 20 other mountains. We stopped at the Tourism & Interpretative Centre and they had some interesting artifacts, fossils, and taxidermy. They really appeared to have some interesting natural wonders too, but we wimped out due to the rain and decided to keep heading north.

Muskeg Ranger Station

Muskeg Ranger Station

We did snap a picture of one of the historical buildings they had there. This photo is of the Muskeg Ranger Station built in 1942 by Ranger Charlie Chapman in Muskeg which is about 30 kilometers south of Grand Cache. I took the picture mostly because it was quaint.

We drove through the rain eager to get to Grand Prairie where we are camped tonight. I have only myself to blame for this horrific campground. I was so eager to stop travel for the day and I was intrigued by the Milepost write-up of this campsite because it has Wi-Fi,so I alone selected it.I do not recommend this campground to anyone unless you want to park next to a roaring highway, in the mud and level a trailer on a hill. To make matters worse, our site is the first one in, right next to the residence of the owner.By the way, the Wi-Fi only works when it darn well feels like it.

What this town does have are two RV stores and some hardware stores. Good thing too, because in the morning we are going to stop and pick up a few parts that seem to have either broken or were road-rattled off on our adventure. The folding steps on the trailer broke and are now missing a bolt. Ironically, these are the same steps that the beast must have stood on to lick the door handle. Coincidence? I think not!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

We were very glad to leave the RV Park in Grande Prairie this morning. Our neighbors in the campsite less than eight feet from ours, rudely decided to start chopping wood at 11:00 p.m. then decided to throw a party until 1:00 a.m. We decided to leave early and started hitching and packing up by 7:00 a.m.

On our way out of town, we stopped for my third interview for the article that I am writing for the firearm-focused website. Barton’s Big Country Outdoors in Grande Prairie is an amazing outdoor shop and had an impressive gun counter. We talked to two guys behind the gun counter and enjoyed hearing about how gun laws are so much different in Canada than in the U.S. They also carried a lot of hunting accessory brands that I am familiar with and it was surprising to see how stocked the store was with ammo. No shortage there!

We left Grande Prairie and headed northwest. We landed in Dawson Creek early in the afternoon and were delighted to see what a cute town it was – not too small, not too big –and the people are friendly and some interesting little shops curbed our curiosity. We walked around town a little and ran some errands.

Woodzjoe at Milepost “0” official start of the Alaska Highway

Woodzjoe at Milepost “0” official start of the Alaska Highway

Dawson Creek is known for being Milepost “0” and is the official start of the Alaskan Highway.We found it interesting that the mile marker isn’t at a roadside rest in a pullout and it isn’t at city hall, instead they built the monument right smack-dab in the middle of an intersection so that everyone must drive around it.

We left Dawson Creek, and based on the advice of the women at the salon while getting my nails done, we decided to try out the campground they recommended. It was less than 30 minutes from Dawson Creek and is called Kiskatinaw Provincial Park. It is primitive, with no running water or electricity, but it was such a relief to get out of the concrete RV parks and just enjoy something peaceful and scenic.

The park is located next to a very cool old timber bridge. The bridge over the Kiskatinaw River is the only remaining all timber bridge along the Alaska Highway that is still in use today. Two things about the bridge though. First, it is on the old Alaska Highway, and second, the 531-foot bridge is curved, not straight. Like I said, it is very cool.

Kiskatinaw Curved Bridge, British ColumbiaKiskatinaw Curved Bridge, British Columbia
Kiskatinaw Curved Bridge, British Columbia

First thing we did after we set up camp, is walk down and look at the river. It is a very muddy river, and we were intrigued by all the bear tracks we saw in the mud along the shore. Later that evening, the park ranger stopped by and informed us that what we thought were bear tracks were actually cougar tracks. Not sure why, but I found it far less unsettling when I thought they were bear tracks.

Tomorrow we will hit the road again and head further northwest.We can almost “smell” Alaska we are getting so close.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

We enjoyed our stay at Kiskatinaw Provincial Park and even considered staying an extra day, but we were eager to move onto the next destination so we packed up and headed out. Our first stop this morning was the much dreaded laundry chore. No one likes sitting in a smelly old Laundromat, not to mention it took a few hours out of our day and put us behind schedule.

We had planned to spend the night at a campground at Pink Mountain, Milepost 143. But, when we got there, the campsites were all taken, so we drudged on. The road we traveled on had some extremely steep hills and there were signs advising trucks to do a brake check. I have learned from the early part of our journey that places like that generally have what is referred to as a runaway lane, just in case your brakes go out while going downhill. Today, no such runaway lanes existed. The inclines were so steep and curved, that Woodzjoe started calling these “no look zones.”He is, of course, referring to me, and not himself. If he didn’t look it would obviously have deadly circumstances. I am so thankful he understands that I can’t participate in some of the vistas out of sheer terror. So I close my eyes, grip onto my seat belt, take slow, deep breaths and wait for him to pronounce “all clear”. What a guy!

Campsite at Sikinni Campground

Campsite at Sikinni Campground

Shortly after the treacherous trip down the mountainside, we found a campground at a place called Sikinni Chief.The campground was small, but it was right on the Sikinni River and we were lucky enough to get one of the sites on the shore of the river. After we set up camp, we were actually grateful that Pink Mountain was full, because we like this spot so much better.

My biggest challenge since we entered Canada is cell phone service.I purchased a very expensive data and voice plan through my cell phone provider, and was naïve in believing that this, combined with my hotspot would keep me connected most of the time. In actuality, I am more often unconnected from my life. This would probably be a good thing, if only I wasn’t trying to run a business from the road. We have been so far out into the wild for days that I wouldn’t be surprised if you can see “crop circles” from the air.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Today was a travel day, not a long one, but definitely a remote one. For well over an hour or two, we didn’t see a house, barn, or gas station. What we did see were thousands of acres of trees and grass. I felt so calm and relaxed that I fell asleep in the truck with the sun streaming in keeping me toasty warm. At one point I woke up just in time to see a steep grade sign up ahead, and what the Canadian’s refer to as a “Slide Area.” Comforting, eh?

At Milepost 275 we did get an opportunity to see a cow moose, and with her she had two young calves. It seemed uncommon to us that a cow moose would have twins, so I did some research and apparently, it is more common when the human populations are less dense. Wild things in wild places!

We saw a few buildings in our three-hour drive today, but really not much until we reached our day’s end destination of Ft. Nelson.

We found a campsite right away in Ft. Nelson, B.C., and promptly set up camp so that I could open the “office” for business. After not having access for a couple days to either cell phone or internet, I really needed to connect.

Our campsite is called the Triple G and it is right alongside the Alaska Highway. Not the greatest of campgrounds, but it is full service and has Wi-Fi, which works … occasionally.

At the end of the day, we decided to run our domestic chores – get groceries and find a drug store. We had a little dinner and pretty much called it a day.

Tomorrow we plan to tour the Ft. Nelson Heritage Museum. It looks rather intriguing, at least from the outside.

Editor’s Note: Part Three will be published on Friday, June 20.

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