Land of the Midnight Sun – Since we’ve been in Alaska, the sun only sets for a couple of hours each night, so it never gets anywhere near dark, even when it’s cloudy. Besides the never-ending sunlight, we didn’t realize the path the sun takes is different in this higher latitude. Instead of rising in the east, being directly above you at noon, then setting in the west, the sun rises in the northeast, traverses across the sky but never gets directly overhead, then it sets in the northwest. It almost travels a complete circle around the sky and always feels like it’s shining right in my eyes, so I pretty much wear a hat or sun visor all the time. The other thing we didn’t know was how intense the northern sunlight is. Although the temperature is nowhere near as hot as the equator, the strength of the sun is just as strong. It makes a 65-degree day feel like 85 and it feels like it will burn you in 2 seconds if you are not wearing sunscreen. The only times I’ve felt this level of ‘heat’ from the sun was in the Seychelles and in Singapore, both of which are very close to the equator. Going to bed at a reasonable hour with all this sunlight can be a bit of a trick too. We still have nights where one minute it’s 8:30 and the next it’s 10:30, but you just don’t realize it because it is still so bright outside.
Construction - we also heard from Alaskans that there are two seasons, winter and road construction, so expect a lot of delays. But it’s no different from what you would come across on any mountain roadways within the lower 48, there are only so many days of the year those roads can be worked on. We’ve experienced much longer delays and a lot more of them on route 88 near our house than what we’ve experienced driving around Alaska.
Driving - One of the nice things about the roads is that with few exceptions (Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai Peninsula on a weekend), there is barely anyone on them. I guess this explains why a lot of drivers don’t seem to follow the rules about when it’s safe to pass. At home, we’ve occasionally seen a couple of idiots use the center turn lane as a passing lane, but here it seems that it’s used more like a designated passing lane. We’ve also seen cars coming the opposite way having to move into the hard shoulder to avoid the jerks who are passing when they shouldn’t. Double yellow line, curves or below the brow of a hill? No problem, just pass real fast and hope you don’t kill anyone in the process. If you have ever driven in Italy, you can relate. At least here with the relatively low level of traffic, it means this doesn’t happen often, but it would be interesting to know the percentage of car crashes per capita caused by this type of behavior.
Bike/ATV Paths - depending upon the size of the town, you will see either paved paths or dirt tracks running along the highway and side roads. These paths will usually run within a mile or two but sometimes 10+ miles on either side of the town. The smaller and more rural the town, the more likely the path will be dirt or gravel. Maybe rural is a funny word to use, as most of the state is what we’d call rural in the lower 48. Isolated isn’t a much better word. As mentioned in a previous post, even in the middle of nowhere you will see driveway and mailboxes spaced out all along the road.
No Starbucks here! Drive-up coffee huts are everywhere in this state, even the smallest of towns will have a gas station/convenience store and a drive-up coffee hut or possibly two! Bigger towns seem to have them every couple of blocks. They enable everyone to get their coffee fix during the long, cold winters without having to get out of the car.
Wildlife – It’s a myth that you will see tons of wildlife everywhere. Except for Bald Eagles, which are very common in certain places (Homer, Deep Creek and the Kenai Peninsula in general). Yes, we’ve seen the occasional Moose, Caribou, Grizzley, Black Bear or Porcupine and a couple of coyotes, but not anywhere near as many as we were led to believe we would see. Even on the Denali Park Road we only saw one Moose and two Grizzlies when we were on our bikes. Earlier in our trip, we attributed this to the late winter, but since then it’s been a bit of a letdown. You can see as much wildlife spending 3 days in Yellowstone as we have seen in our 2+ months on the road. A couple of fellow travelers have said they saw a lot of wildlife on the section of the Alaska highway that is closer to the Canadian Rockies, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
Mosquitos – everything you’ve ever heard about how bad they are is true. Some of them are huge and slow, some are small and fast. Then there are the no-see-ums, you don’t even feel these little beasties when they bite, you just wake up the next morning with 7 itchy spots on your arm. There were a lot of them when we camped in Denali, but my custom mosquito netting meant we could still be outside. Since then, we’ve had two single-nighters in the woods where they were ferocious. Even with bug spray to keep them from biting you, the swarming was just too much. The net is a bit of a chore to put up for a single night, so we were trapped inside Two Sheds and had to develop special dancing and running around techniques for entering/exiting to minimize them coming inside. One morning at Chena Lake campground, we had some rain and then they started coming inside Two Sheds, we think they were entering via the stove vent. We’ve been to some pretty bad mosquito places in the lower 48 but have never had them finding a way inside.
Damn Socialists! – did you know that it is written into the Alaska constitution that all of the gold, silver, copper, ores, oil, and anything else that comes out of the land belongs to the people of Alaska? So while companies can mine or extract these resources and make their money from it, a portion of the revenues go into what is called the Permanent Fund. Each year, every Alaska citizen gets a check for their portion of the Permanent Fund. Sounds like a pretty socialist notion for such a red state.