Aug 31, 2009

denali highway

Posted by Mary |

My impromptu trip across the Denali Highway was, naturally, off to a late start. I had my weekly massage after work on Friday (health insurance pays for it, so I'm not going to cancel the appointment) and then I took a quick shower to rinse off the oil and started throwing stuff in the car. I had a full tank of gas and a game plan.

I headed out past North Pole and had the minor thrill of veering right in Delta Junction. By golly, I was driving on roads I'd never driven on before! In the largest state in the nation, there's very few actual state routes. Those that exist are known more by name than route number. I believe I was traveling on Alaska Route 4, but I just know it as the Richardson Highway. My goal was the one campground marked in the Gazetteer. It had been raining steadily since I left Fairbanks, and I wanted to set up camp and go to sleep. The campground turned out to be more of an RV sort of affair, at least as far as I could tell from the car, so I continued south toward Paxson.

It was closing in on 11:30, and I wanted to go to sleep. I finally just pulled off the road into a paved turnout and found a dirt trail leading off of it. It looked vaguely camp-able, so I set up the tent in a cold drizzle and hopped in. There were no niceties such as brushing my teeth. Instead I decided to play any old favorite game: How Will I Die? Round One: Bear Attack vs. Serial Killer

The next morning I was still alive, and it was still raining. I coaxed myself out of the tent and simply threw all of the bits and pieces into the trunk. As it turns out, I was only a few miles north of Paxson. Having never been there, I expected a typical Alaska highway town: 1-2 gas stations, a store, a restaurant. Nope, not Paxson. One building, which contained the gas station, store, restaurant and bar. It did sell Diet Dr. Pepper, so +1 for Paxson.

Paxson also had the dubious distinction of where I officially turned onto a new road. Technically I've driven the Richardson Highway before, even if I never drove that particular segment before. But in Paxson, all was shiny and new as I turned onto Alaska Route 8, aka the Denali Highway. It was all paved and lovely, at least for the first 30 miles. Then it reverted back to the potholed gravel I had grown accustomed to. It didn't matter much to me, as I was willing to drive slowly, and I had an iPod full of NPR podcasts.

Hunting in Alaska is a tricky subject. Some hunts, it seems, are already open, whereas others don't start for a while yet. So it's hard to say who was legally hunting. But as I came around a corner and spotted a black Honda Civic stopped in the road and a man standing in the road, pointing his rifle toward the hills, I was pretty sure I was seeing something, well, illegal. As if hunting from the road wasn't foolish enough, there was his vehicle choice. How, I ask, are you going to get a carcass home in a Honda Civic?

Around McClaren Summit, I decided to hop out of the car and enjoy some hiking. My friends had been of two minds about my solo trip: One group thought I should bring a gun, while the other thought I could adequately protect myself with a really big knife. I demurred on both accounts and opted to bring bear spray. It kept me safe on the Chilkoot Trail, so I figured it would keep me safe once again. About a mile into my hike, I came across a large pile of bear scat. At this point, I realized I had left the bear spray in the car. Nothing for it but to keep going, right?

The rain stopped while I was hiking, and I was rewarded with a merely cloudy view of the mountains on either side of me. After staging some photos with my new Gorillapod (love it!) I decided to head back to the car. The clouds shifted long enough for me to spot several men with guns wandering around on the hills. I was thankful I wasn't wearing my moose jacket, even though I'd heard everyone was wearing them this year.

After one cold, rainy night of camping, my mind started wandering in the car. Specifically, it started wandering south. I decided the most logical thing to do was to drive to Cantwell, call some friends and head down to their place in Chickaloon and enjoy the rest of my weekend in the Valley. Hey, I could even go shopping at Target! (Don't you judge me! The nearest Target is 300 miles away. It's a treat to go there.) I was pretty much set on this plan, until I decided to take a random dirt trail off the highway and found a nice flat area with a couple of fire rings set up. At this point, the sun was starting to peek through the clouds, and it seemed like the day might turn around. Plus, I really wanted to take a nap.

I yanked the still-soggy tent out of the trunk and let the sun and wind dry it, then set up camp near one of the fire rings. I went looking for firewood, and as I wandered back into the bushes, I kept coming across more and more bones. Not, like, a random bone here or there. More like a set of shoulder blades, a spine and ribcage, a leg with the hoof still attached. Perhaps this wasn't the best camping spot. But laziness prevailed, and I decided to take a nap rather than move on.

As the sun set later that night, I lit up my pitiful supply of wood and enjoyed breathing in smoke. After burning a few holes in my fleece, I went into the camp to try to accomplish my goal of the trip: figure out my game plan for upcoming travel. I can't say it was a huge success. I've decided to maybe go to Belize in Dec-Jan for a 2-week diving vacation. But I will definitely be joining Cara in Africa this summer to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. If I have to dump the Belize plans, so be it.

Before drifting off to sleep, I decided I was too narrow-minded in my think and played a game of How Will I Die? Round Two: Aliens and Zombies Could Get Me, Too. In the end, I decided I would most likely meet my maker at the hands of Nazi ghosts. Specifically, this guy:

Hey, nightmares are nightmares.
But the next morning I was still alive. It was freaking cold, and I laid in my sleeping bag for about an hour, whining about getting up. By the time I was rolling up my Thermarest, it had started sprinkling again, and I was able to get the tent bagged up before the skies opened.

The drive home was a continuing orgy of NPR, interspersed with the occasional song or two. I can now confirm the theory that a full tank of gas will get me from Fairbanks to Healy via the Denali Highway (with several miles to spare). After two nights of hip cramps from sleeping in a tent, I was looking forward to getting home and sleeping in my new marshmallow of a bed. I also eagerly anticipated a long, hot shower. Since sleeping in just isn't an option when you're camping (especially when you're a morning person), I was back in Fairbanks around 12:30.