Lola, North Pole, Chena Hot Springs and Good-bye Alaska!
Thought I'd start this one off with Lola, 'cause who doesn't love a picture of Lola, right? She's doing really well and having a lot of fun and adventures with us. Plus she is smelling and exploring exciting new places all of the time. Of course, her preference will always be for one of her 6 beds at the BAR, but she has been completely comfortable and happy on this trip. She has transitioned from sleeping most of the day to sleeping through the night, which means I now get stereo snoring: Lola on my right and Conrad on my left!
The night before we left Denali, Conrad noticed the inside tread of the rear tires on Two Sheds were going bald at a rate that didn’t make sense. Throughout the trip, he’s been super careful with checking everything safety related, so he was surprised to see this wear. Con made a few calls to trailer places in Fairbanks, learning the most likely cause was a bent axle. This was a Saturday, so we figured we’d be lucky if we could get someone to have a look at it on Monday. We headed off towards Fairbanks, spending one night in a mosquito infested pull-off about 20 miles outside of town. The next day, Conrad and one of the guys from the Costco Tire shop had a look at the axle, sure enough, it was bent, buy we had to wait another day before any trailer shops would be open. So we decided to head closer to our chosen destination of North Pole and camp at Chena Lake Recreation Area, where we had the worst mosquito experience to date. It was a shame too, because it was a nice campground with an awesome lake for Lola swims and we probably would have stayed there longer if the mosquitos hadn’t been so horrible.
But another silver lining appeared because the camp host told Conrad about a local trailer guy in North Pole and when we called him the next day, he had the axle we needed in stock. However, he wouldn’t be able to install it as he was booked out 6 weeks! He mentioned his father (who taught him everything he knows) has his own shop and might be able to do this for us a lot sooner. So we picked up the axle, called the Dad and got an appointment for 8:30 the following morning to get it installed. Honestly, we couldn’t have gotten this resolved any faster no matter where we were.
Once we had the axle fix arranged, we went over to Santa’s House in North Pole, where it’s Christmas every day. A very Santa like gentleman and his wife started the business back in the 50’s, one of their earlier marketing campaigns promised a reply to every letter sent to Santa Claus in North Pole, Alaska. Although they don’t do that anymore, it was a brilliant marketing move and their business took off. You can still arrange to have a hand-written note sent from Santa using a wide variety of templates with some customization, which we arranged for Mateo and Leo. As you would expect, it was just a wonderful experience, Santa and Mrs. Claus had the day off as they are on summer hours right now, but there were a lot of helpful and friendly elves around and we got to see the Reindeer Team too. After Santa’s House, we stayed at an RV Park by the Chena river, another lovely fast-flowing river with not anywhere near as many mosquitos as our previous night.
The following day was almost entirely a fix and maintain day. The guy who installed the new axle was super friendly, we chatted quite a while and before we left, I offered him some of my halibut as a thank you for helping us so quickly. He returned the favor by giving us some moose trail sticks (a bit like jerky, only moister), some moose sausage and what he thought was ground moose meat but turned out to be a roast. It always feels so nice when you meet kind and generous people. While we were waiting for him to install the axle, we had the oil changed and tires rotated, then did a shopping stock up. After the axle install, we had two new rear tires put on Two Sheds, then finally hit the road, heading to Chena Hot Springs.
As its name suggests, Chena Hot Springs is built around a natural hot spring, it has a big lodge and about 20 campsites along with a few other interesting bits and pieces. There is an outside hot spring pool surrounded by big boulders and an inside, more traditional style pool for the kids to enjoy. The place was hopping when we got there, as it’s a very popular with both tourists and locals. We waited until the next morning to use the hot springs, as it was much quieter and therefore very peaceful and relaxing. Afterwards, we hooked up Lola’s carriage and headed out to take advantage of their bike trails. Unfortunately, they trails were not suited to Lola’s carriage, as it had lots of bumps and large rocks,. Conrad tried to play dodge-em with all the obstacles, but it was a very uncomfortable ride for Miss Lola, so we didn’t go out very far.
We did wind up doing a short loop all around the property, checking out the variety of interesting objects. We saw a couple of goats, old trucks that had been turned into flower gardens and a cargo plane that had crashed landed on their airstrip many years back and had been abandoned, so they stuck it up on a couple of pillars as a tourist attraction. Another ‘object’ of interest was the Rolligon, the original go anywhere vehicle, which uses low-pressure tires made from a combination of rubber and fabric. These tires literally absorb bumps or things rather than the tire going over them, which enables them to roll over anything you put in front of it. Invented by William Albee based on very large seal-skin balloons he saw being used by Native Americans in Alaska to roll a boat up a steep muddy bank.
Later in the afternoon, we took a tour of their Ice House, which houses a variety of ice sculptures, a big bar, an igloo and four rooms that you can stay in for the low cost of $600 a night. They provide you with all the warmth you need in the form of furs and such, plus a bucket as there are no facilities in the Ice House. Not exactly my idea of a nice overnight experience and it won’t surprise you that they don’t get that many guests. The other fun thing you can do at the Ice House is to get an Apple-tini served in a martini glass made of ice. An interesting gimmick if you like Apple-tini’s, but neither of us do, so we didn’t partake. After taking full advantage of everything to see at Chena Hot Springs and with the skies filling with smoke from wildfires, we headed out the next day.
I haven’t mentioned too much about the wildfire and smoke, but Alaska’s fire season got an early start this year due to the aforementioned drought. We encountered minor smoke on our way from Homer to Denali but were lucky once we got there. The area to the southwest of and Fairbanks itself was a bit smoky, but it really got bad when we left Chena Hot Springs. For the next couple of weeks, we had to use the windy.com website to look at smoke forecasts so we could determine where we could safely stay. That first night after Chena Hot Springs, we had to go about 30 miles south out of our way, but once again fortune smiled on us and we found yet another awesome boondocking spot. Not long after we had setup, we heard what we are pretty sure was a sonic boom, along with its echo along the mountain range. Something neither of us had heard in a very long time and poor Lola had never experienced before. No surprise to anyone who knows her that she did not like it! It was such a beautiful spot that I briefly contemplated staying another day in hopes the wind pattern would change in our favor. But the forecasts weren’t encouraging, so we moved on to Tok where we spent our last night in Alaska camping right next to the Alaska Highway. Symbolic, as that was how we spent our first night camping in Alaska as well, only 20 miles further west.
The next day, we headed up the Taylor Highway which was a round-a-bout way of getting back to Whitehorse, where we would pick up the Alaska Highway again. We had two reasons for taking this side-trip, one was so that we could take the ‘Top of the World Highway’ to Dawson City, Yukon. The second was so that we didn’t have to travel down a section of the Alaska Highway that we’d already been on, a lot of which was the most beat up road we’d taken on the entire trip. The Taylor Highway runs from just east of Tok to Eagle, Alaska, a remote village on the Yukon River mostly populated by Native Americans. We decided not to go all the way to Eagle as the road gets really gnarly and is not recommended for trailers. We stopped in the town of Chicken for our lunch break and were pleasantly surprised by it. Chicken was established during the Klondike gold-rush and although there is still a fair amount of goldming in the area, it’s not much more than a couple of RV Parks, a lodge and a general store. It had a nice vibe to it though and we got to see an old gold-mining Dredge along with the Chicken Chicken, which was made in Homer from recycled high school lockers. The story goes that when Chicken was incorporated, many of the residents wanted to call it Ptarmigan, the Alaska State bird and a staple in their diets. But no one could agree on how to spell Ptarmigan and since Chicken was a slang term for Ptarmigan, they decided to call it Chicken instead.
After Chicken, the road turns to gravel and remains that way until a few miles before Dawson City. The gravel road was in better shape than the ‘paved’ portion of the Taylor Highway, but boy was it dusty. We already knew Two Sheds wasn’t sealed very tight, but I didn’t expect the layers of dust to get imbedded in as many places as it did inside, another lesson learned. The views became more spectacular when we turned off the Taylor Highway onto the Top of the World Highway. Unlike many mountain highways which run along valleys or rivers, you are driving on the crests of the mountains on the Top of the World Highway. As you drive along, you are looking down into the valleys and rivers and out across the many other peaks surrounding you. It was a very different type of view and although we had a fair amount of smoke, it was still spectacular.
Not quite halfway between Chicken and Dawson City, we crossed into Canada again and had the most interesting experience with the border control. The customs agent was super nice, very friendly and we even managed to joke with him a bit. In all our years of crossing the Canadian border, we have never encountered anyone like him. Normally they are all business, sometimes to the point of being anal and we’ve learned to just answer their questions as briefly and succinctly as possible. Knowing that everything is recorded these days, I hope he didn’t get caught and disciplined for being that nice and friendly to us!
We traveled 30 miles or so after the border and found another one of those amazing boondocking spots. We had stunning views, lots of beautiful wildflowers, there was both grass and a small patch of snow for Lola to roll on and we had it all to ourselves. It was a great ‘welcome back to Canada’ evening after our amazing visit to Alaska.
Goodbye Alaska, we enjoyed your magnificence immensely and thanks for all the fish!