First Drive into Alaska!

After repairing our tire, (see last week) we were ready to attempt the Top of the World Highway. The adventure starts by boarding a ferry that is roughly twice the length of our motorhome. If we’d left the car hooked on, there would have been room for a Smart Car behind us. Cherryl was going to drive the car on separately, and she planned on waiting in the motorhome till we were first in line and then drive the car on. This was because we were something like 7th in line for the ferry (We’d heard of folks waiting 8 hours for their turn – so we’d gotten there at 7am and had breakfast in line). The positioning guy put a truck with 5th wheel on the center of the deck, and we figured we’d be in the next trip. But then he motioned me to come on… Surprised us! Cherryl jumped out to go get the car, I drove onto the ferry VERY CAREFULLY! Probably all of 3 inches on either side of our rig.

Top of the World Highway

Once safely on the other side of the Yukon River, we hooked the car up and headed for the Top of the World! Everyone has told us how scary this road is… no guard rails, very high, lousy road, etc. My buddy Bill has always laughed at fear of having no guard rails – how often do you use them? We’re not in the habit of using them to steer… The road surface was fine; packed dirt or gravel lots of places, but no big deal. The only drawback to this experience was the smoke… there are over 300 fires in Alaska now, and the smoke alternates between a bother and really gross. Here it took away a lot of the vistas we were hoping for. But it was still beautiful!

If you drive enough on dirt roads, your vehicles tend to show it. The Suburban developed an interesting jungle pattern on the hood. Fun. Ironically, under the hood is just as dirty as the back window.

As we neared the end of the Top of the World Highway, we noticed this little sign. No marijuana at the border crossing. It’s fine on the road and everywhere else, but not at the crossing. ;

Finally we could see the border buildings in the distance…

Welcome to Alaska!

We made it! Three weeks moving slowly through Canada, enjoying it all, and now we are in Alaska!

A very inquisitive White Capped Sparrow watched us as we looked at the sprawling mountains.

We met a local couple who said they’ve seen these hills just alive with hundreds of thousands of Caribou crossing en masse. They were here today to see if the Caribou would perform again for them… but not today.


A little ways into Alaska, the first little place you see is called Chicken. Chicken, Alaska. The story is that miners, the original occupants of the area, wanted to call it Ptarmigan, for the birds they were sharing space with. But they couldn’t all get the hang of spelling Ptarmigan, so they settled on Chicken (Which they also called the birds.)

So now Chicken is a crazy little place with chicken everything scattered around. This big chicken was built by school kids out of their old lockers. I’m not sure what school, because Chicken is not a big town… year ’round inhabitants are rumored to be 17.

Plenty of silly chicken stuff around…

Old mining equipment, a few stores, a couple of campsites, a saloon and a post office just about make up all of Chicken.

We set out on a small hike to survey the area and look for birds… ended up enjoying the views but mostly just feeding the mosquitoes!

Taylor to Tok

The Taylor Highway heads from Chicken down to Tok. Rhymes with Joke. Like calling these roads Highways… They are not difficult roads, if you can keep your speed down. Some places we can do 40mph, some 20. Just part of the adventure.

So while stopped at a turnout for lunch, we met a fun couple full-timing in this amazing vehicle! They seemed as interested in our rig as I was in theirs. Being as shy as I am, I said “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!” So Patricio and his lovely wife gave us the tour of this awesome go-anywhere machine. It is based on a German MAN truck that used to be military; they had to remove gun mounts and more to make it importable. Then the camping unit was placed on the back… made in Holland, it is totally self contained. All electric, plenty of solar power and battery capacity, and everything you’d need to go anywhere in the world. And that’s what they plan on doing! South America, ship to Africa, up to Europe… and people think WE’RE adventuresome!

A badly preserved sign had this interesting map… kinda fun to look at the world from a different perspective.

Tok, Alaska

Anyone driving into or out of Alaska must go through Tok. We stayed a couple of days to rest up and get cleaned up! There are many vehicle wash stations around town, because anyone coming into Alaska has just been on many miles of dirt roads. Such fun to see our vehicles clean again! The campsite is pretty and fairly secluded.

Sourdough campground has a nightly competition for Pancake Tossing. Really! Two tries to get the pancake in the bucket… The first doesn’t count; only if you get the second one in the bucket do you win a free breakfast the next morning. We had a few winners, and lots of flops! I managed to be one of the three that draped mine over the edge, winning absolutely nothing.

A century ago the primitive roads here were served by Road Houses strategically placed along the way. Some are now museums, like this one in Delta Junction.

End of the Alaska Highway

Delta Junction is the end point of the Alaska Highway. A road north to Fairbanks was already in existence when the Alaska Highway was built, so they stopped the new highway here. The official end of the road is here, with a marker, a little visitor center and shop, and sculptures of Alaskan Mosquitos. Only Slightly enlarged!

The last thing I expected to see in Delta Junction was a pig! This pig is designed to fit into the oil pipeline and get carried along with the flow, scraping the sides clean of any sludge. There are special ports built into the pipeline to allow the pigs to enter or exit. Who knew?

Fairbanks, Alaska

Scenery on the road up to Fairbanks was very pretty, but the smoke was getting thicker.

We were invited to dine with John and Melissa, and their two daughters, Noel and Lauren. We knew Melissa when she was a teenager living in Denver – her parents, Earl and Nancy, were good friends with Cherryl’s folks. We haven’t seen her for decades, but she and her family were super hospitable and gave us a great meal and fun evening.

The next afternoon we went with them to the Museum of the North at the University of Fairbanks, and then a beautiful neighboring botanical garden.

Riverboat Discovery

Melissa told us that the Riverboat Discovery stern wheeler riverboat cruise was the one thing in Fairbanks you shouldn’t miss. She was absolutely right! It was outstanding!

Stern wheeler paddle boats were used for river transportation since the Gold Rush days of the late 1800’s. The Binkley family ran people and cargo up the rivers starting in the late 1890’s. His son continued the business until trains started carrying most of the cargo in the 1950’s. He wisely decided to do tourist trips, and rebuilt stern wheelers for awesome river trips. Now with at least 5 generations involved, they give you a great tour of the river in style!

There are plenty of gorgeous homes along the river:

Susan Butcher was from Massachusets, and when she came to Alaska in the 80’s to run sled dogs most thought she was crazy. What could a girl from out of state know about dog sledding?? When she won the Iditarod (the over 1,100 mile cross country race) they started taking her more seriously. She proceeded to win four out of five of the next Iditarod races, which only a half dozen people have done in the history of the race. Her technique of caring for her dogs has influenced the whole sport.

She passed away in 2005, but her family maintains the dog training facility, Trail Breaker Kennels, right beside the river. Her daughter conducted a little interview with the sternwheeler (via radio.) They did a demo of how they train, with the dogs pulling an ATV a long distance. It’s amazing what energy the dogs have – they can’t wait to run! When the dogs were released after their run, they dashed to the river and jumped in. If they aren’t running they are playing!

We continued along the river to the confluence where two rivers meet – one heavily laden with silt. The dividing line is interesting.

One of the highlights of the tour was landing at a reproduction of an Indian village…

They have set up a village to showcase all the native culture, with native guides demonstrating clothing, furs, fish and more.

The Fish Wheel below uses the current to literally scoop fish out of the river, then automatically slides them into a container. Very slick!

Fish are filleted and hung up to dry.

We got to meet Tekla, Susan Butcher’s daughter who gave us the nice demo a bit earlier. She has a winning record in dog sledding too.

More beautiful homes, and then the tour was over. Pretty cool to have a float plane docked at your home!

A small tribute to Susan Butcher:

A chance to feel -40 degrees F. Would you do it? In your shirtsleeves? They have a deep freeze set up to let crazy tourists in, so we had to try it. A freezer inside another freezer! Just a couple of minutes, and that’s enough. The outdoors felt really warm when we got out!

We spent the next day with Melissa and the girls again, this time in kayaks in the Tanana Recreation area. Very peaceful water, nice trees, and unfortunately still tons of smoke. It was a great time on the water. We saw a majestic Bald Eagle high up on a tree top, where Melissa said he often hangs out. He flew a bit for us later – awesome bird!

The girls are quite good with their kayaks, but soon found it was more fun to hold on to our kayak and get towed around. So for a while we had a trimaran! We had great fun with our little friends!

One evening we were privileged to meet some of our crazy neighbors! Scott & Lisa, Dan, Dick & Beth, Eli and Serena – awesome military personnel that make you proud of our country’s military services! They had some questions about our “home,” specifically what the cutout on the rear driver’s side was. When I told them it was a slide out for the dog, they roared with laughter. I knew right then I liked them. (It’s really an emergency exit) When we invited them in for a bit of a tour, they acted like kids in a candy shop! So animated, so much fun! Love these silly kids! Best of all, we were honored with two Challenge Coins. I’m not sure I have the terminology correct, but these are coins signifying membership in a certain division or group. They are beautiful and significant. To be awarded one of these coins is a very special honor… and we got two! My sincere thanks, guys!!!

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