In October and November, we start losing daylight at a rate of 7 minutes per day. As the days shorten, the temperature starts to drop as well. Many people up here consider October to be the most difficult month because it feels pretty dark until the snow starts sticking. Snow is highly reflective, so even when its dark outside, it can feel fairly bright out if the moon is up. Fortunately, we received a lot of snow in October and November, which helped with the darkness and laid the foundation for a great ski season.
The cold was definitely something that took getting used to. When the temperature first started dropping below freezing, it felt very cold, and the thought that the temperature could drop 70 degrees lower was hard to fathom. That said, once it started snowing everyone was hoping the temperature would stay below freezing. The reason being that when the snow melts it makes things incredibly icy to the extent that simply walking out to the car can be difficult. For this reason, UAF passes out micro-spikes for your boots to prevent people from getting injured when they walk into their buildings. This was only a problem for a couple days until it snowed some more.
The other benefit of the snow and cold weather is that it makes it much easier to travel out in the backcountry. People who cross-country ski, snowshoe, or fat bike absolutely love the cold weather because all the streams and marshy lands freeze and turn into excellent paths. We got our first taste of traveling in the backcountry when a colleague invited us out to his cabin for the weekend after Thanksgiving.
The cabin was located 8 miles off a main road, so the six of us snowmobiled, skied, and hiked in. Matthew graciously offered me a snowmobile, which was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. During the first 45 minutes, I got quite comfortable handling the snowmobile. There were a couple tricky drops and short, steep banks as we crossed the frozen stream on the way in that I handled well. Just about the time I was feeling confident in my skills, I noticed there was a small branch lying across the path. Matthew was already 100 m ahead of me, so I assumed that it was safe to navigate, since he’d just gone over it. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I went over the small branch and one of the skis got hooked beneath it. Instead of the branch breaking, the right ski of the snowmobile broke off – I felt horrible. The good news was that Matthew has made his career snow sampling typically on long snowmobile expeditions in the arctic and had the skills to fix anything. He assured me it’d be alright and fortunately had a spare for the broken bolt back at the cabin. I hopped on the back of his snowmobile for the last mile and we dropped off the group’s supplies. We also got the wood-stove burning to warm up the cabin before returning to the snowmobile. It turned out to be a quick fix and 20 minutes later I drove my snowmobile into camp feeling relieved.
The cabin and its surrounding felt like it belonged on a postcard. The trees were completely snow-covered and smoke was coming out of the chimney of the wood-burning stove that was doing a tremendous job of keeping the cabin warm. There were two beds in the cabin, so the rest of us were spending the night in an Arctic-oven tent. As the name implies, the tent has a wood-burning stove of its own for warmth. In fact, the oven worked so well the first night that the main problem was that we were too hot. Over the course of the night the temperature in the tent oscillated between 90°F to -10°F. A new log would burn for about an hour, so you’d fall asleep and then wake up a couple hours later to a cold tent. Sometimes the cold naturally woke me up, and other times it was a nice poke in the head from Leigh. No words needed, it was time for me to add another piece of wood to the fire and warm things up again. On the second night when the temperature dropped to -35°F, it was a pretty cool to think that we were sleeping outside. As one might expect, the bathroom was also a latrine outside – sleeping and going to the bathroom outside at -35°F – that’s going to be a tough record for us to break!
When we weren’t sleeping, most of our time was spent in the cabin eating, playing games, and hanging out. Both nights we had a wonderful Thanksgiving meal that was prepared in the cabin’s kitchen. When the sun was out, everyone took to the trails to go hiking and skiing. When the weather is cold, the sky is typically clear since any clouds will actually trap in heat and warm up the air. Hence, we had clear skies all weekend, which made for some wonderful sunsets and beautiful starry nights.
Two days later it was time to head back to the cars and face the moment of truth– were the cars going to start after the temperature had been so cold for the last few days? One of the first things we did in preparation for winter was put on our snow tires and get our car “winterized”. This included installing an engine block heater, battery pad heater, and oil pain heater, so we could plug our car into an outlet with an extension cord. Needless to say, there were no outlets to plug our car into where we were. When I turned the key to the car, it took a full five seconds before the engine turned over, but it did! In the event that the cars didn’t start, Matthew had brought an extra battery with him, so we were well-prepared to jumpstart the cars again. I’ve heard from others that you can also create a small fire and then put the coals underneath the engine to warm things up. Fortunately, we were all set, and shortly thereafter were on our way back home. While we certainly enjoyed the adventure of the weekend, I think we both were ready for a nice hot shower and a warm place to sleep in our house that night.
The fall here lasted about 3 – 4 weeks. Towards the end of August, the temperatures started dropping and the leaves began to change. Leigh and I began wearing our “Austin-winter” jackets in the evenings and there was a feeling that everyone was starting to prepare for winter. But before winter arrived, there was a month of fall to enjoy.
The first thing on our to-do list was to visit Denali. It may come as a bit of surprise that it took us over 2 months to get down there, but in the summer Denali receives a lot of rain, which commonly obscures visitors from seeing the peak. This is the reason that the 30% club exists, i.e., only 30% of the visitors who come to Denali each year see the summit. Hence, when the weather for the weekend showed clear skies, we packed up our hiking gear and made the 2-hour drive.
Denali is the third largest national park in the US trailing behind Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic National Parks. There is only one main entrance for visitors and only the first 15 miles are accessible via your own car. The easiest way to travel the remaining 77 miles of Denali’s single road, which takes you into the heart of the park, is by bus. The full out-and-back takes around 8 hours, so we opted to drive in on our own and hike one of the trails closer to the park entrance.
The trail we chose was the Savage Alpine Trail, which is one of the few maintained trails in the park. The start of the trail was nearly straight uphill for the first mile before following a ridgeline for the next couple. As we neared top of the ridge, we got our first glimpse of Denali! It was exciting to see the tallest mountain in North America. It’s hard to believe that we live just 2 hours away from it.
That said, arguably more spectacular than the summit was the fall foliage. I kept saying to Leigh that it felt like my eyes were saturated with color – the mix of greens, reds, oranges, and yellows was simply spectacular. The other major highlight of the hike was spotting a couple moose only 100 m off the trail. We’ve seen a few moose while driving, but seeing them without the safety of the car was a bit exhilarating. The average moose stands about 6 ft tall and weighs around 1,000 lbs and while they aren’t known for being too aggressive, we were glad that these two were simply resting.
Speaking of moose, another experience I’ll forever associate with fall in Fairbanks was helping my friend Andy after he shot a moose with a bow-and-arrow. I had mentioned many times that I would gladly help if he got one, so when I got the text at 6:45 a.m. on a Saturday that he had, I raced over to help. It took the four of us the entire morning to skin and quarter the moose, which was followed up by a celebratory beer at Hoodoo (our favorite local brewery), and a moose dinner that night. Andy and our other friend, Marc, cooked up an incredible moose meal that included the liver, bone marrow, and the back strap. It was a little gamey, but absolutely delicious.
Food and the fall seem to go hand-in-hand here in Fairbanks. It’s the start of hunting season, time to harvest the gardens before the cold, and time to stock up on fruits. While nothing can compete with our fondness for blueberry picking, cranberry picking was a treat as well! The key to picking cranberries is to wait until the first frost, since the frost makes the cranberries sweeter. It’s been wonderful to have a stash of cranberries and blueberries all winter. Our main use for them has been for making shrubs, a vinegar-based cocktail mixer, and a variety of desserts – both of which help make the winter a bit brighter.
The last and arguably biggest highlight of fall was we got our first visitors! Our good friends James and Taylor from Austin flew up here for the last week of September. It was a week packed with activities and adventures. We went berry picking, visited a glacier, visited all the breweries and distilleries in town, had some delicious smoked salmon at a friend’s bbq, went to Chena Hot Springs, saw many moose, and best of all saw our first aurora. They must have been good luck charms because friends who have been living here for years said it was one of the best auroras they’d ever seen. It’s hard to describe, but it started out looking like a small green cloud in the sky. Over the course of a couple hours, the glimmers of green light grew until it spanned from horizon to horizon. At one point, there were two streaks across the sky that were weaving and dancing with one another, but the grand finale came right as we were heading home for the night – the sky erupted in dazzling streaks of blues and purples.
As the activity-filled fall came to an end, Leigh and I gladly welcomed the slower pace of winter with open arms. Unfortunately, it seems like we enjoyed our “hibernation” from the blog a bit too much – we’ll write all about winter soon.
After tagging along with visiting students to the permafrost tunnel, we were offered the opportunity to continue accompanying the group on their tour of Gulkana Glacier. We were quite excited to be included in another excursion, particularly because two glacier researchers and experts (Regine and another UAF professor) would be leading the tour.
Gulkana Glacier is located about 175 miles southeast of Fairbanks, so the day began at 7:00 AM in order to have as much time as possible on the glacier. We met up with the group in a parking lot at UAF and spent some time making sure everyone had crampons that fit their shoes. Within in an hour, we were on the road and drove for about three hours with a few stops to view scenery and purchase lunch. As we drove southeast, views of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) became more frequent. The TAPS is a giant oil pipeline that stretches from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez and transports millions of barrels of oil each day. The road to Gulkana Glacier is the same route that the pipeline takes, making for great views of the engineering marvels associated with the project.
The turn to access Gulkana Glacier was unremarkable and came up suddenly on the windy road. After turning off, we followed a dirt road covered with fairly large stones for approximately fifteen minutes. As we drove further along, the road became increasingly rocky. Finally, we stopped in a nondescript area along a river that is fed by glacial runoff. Throughout our drive to the glacier, the weather seemed to worsen with each mile. By the time we parked alongside the river, a steady rain was falling and the temperature was about 45 °F. We ate our lunches quickly in the car and bundled up with all of the warm, waterproof clothes that we brought.
Eventually, we left our warm, dry car and started the two mile walk towards the base of Gulkana Glacier. As we walked, the rain fluctuated between a steady downpour and a light mist. We walked quickly to keep warm and soon came upon our first challenge of the hike: a 20-foot high bridge over a roaring glacier-fed river. The bridge was well-made from wooden planks and steel cables, so we were confident that it was secure. However, the wooden planks were spaced approximately 6-10 inches apart, giving the bridge-crosser a glimpse of the swift river below with every step. While one may at first be tempted to take the “don’t look down” strategy while crossing, the wide spacing of planks unfortunately meant that a foot could easily slip between and leave you dangling above the river. We crossed as quickly as possible and hoped that the bridge was the most challenging experience of our day.
Alas, as we hiked a bit further, we reached an equally demanding obstacle that once again involved crossing a river. This river crossing was located right near one edge of the glacier, and the rushing water was higher than seen by Regine on previous trips. With no way around the water, the only choice was to cross by jumping on some large but sporadic stones. It was possible to reach the middle of the river relatively easily, but to make it to the other side, a huge step (or a small leap for some of the smaller people) was necessary. One by one, we made our way across. There were thankfully no issues, although some chunks of ice and a sizable rock fell off the glacier and hit some nearby stones while Leigh was mid-journey.
After the second river crossing, the base where we would climb onto Gulkana Glacier was finally in our sights. All that was left to reach the glacier was a short, muddy walk. With the worst behind us, we started confidently hiking towards the ice. We were towards the back of the group and soon began hearing surprised yelps from those in the front. The seemingly solid, flat ground leading up to the edge of the glacier was much less firm than it looked. While stepping on larger rocks was still relatively stable, stepping into the mud or gravel areas would result in a cold, wet, and dirty leg as you sank into the swamp. This area was made of glacial silt, which is very fine particles of rock that are created by glaciers. Glacial silt is also what causes some glacial lakes (such as Lake Louise in Banff, Alberta) to be turquoise in color.
By the time the group realized we were in the middle of a glacier soup, we were too close to turn back. Each member of the group tried in vain to navigate successfully through the treacherous mud. Some people escaped relatively unscathed with only the sole of their boot covered in muck. Others were less lucky and had to extricate their entire ankle or lower leg from the goop. We landed in the middle of this range; both of us had boots completely covered in the mud by the time we made it to the edge of the glacier.
Once we recovered from the shock of the freezing mud, we pulled out our crampons and got ready to hike onto the glacier. Neither of us knew what to expect. Though Dave studies glaciers, he works with debris-covered glaciers and had never hiked on exposed ice. We were pleasantly surprised to find that walking up the relatively steep edge of the glacier in our crampons was as easy as walking on a trail (and much easier than getting through the glacial silt!). We made our way up the glacier, with frequent stops to admire different scientific phenomena. Regine showed the group how to safely check for unstable ice or hidden crevasses, and she pointed out interesting features like moulins (a vertical glacial river) and ablation stakes used by previous scientists to measure glacial melt.
We spent about two hours hiking around on the glacier. It was an awesome learning experience. Every few steps revealed another beautiful or interesting feature to admire, and it was scenery unlike anything else we’d seen so far in Alaska. Eventually, the rain and cold temperatures prompted us to make our way off the glacier and journey back to the car. The trip back was filled with the same obstacles, but the excitement over seeing Gulkana Glacier and the promise of a warm car helped us make it back without issue. After taking a few minutes to change in to warm, dry clothes and grab a snack, we were back on the road and made it to Fairbanks by 10:00 PM. Though we were tired from the long, busy day, we both agreed that seeing Gulkana Glacier was an incredible experience. We feel lucky to live relatively close to such cool natural features, and we’re looking forward to the next day of exploration.
Because of the unique temperature, weather, and location of Fairbanks, a great deal of research takes place around the city. One of the most well-known research projects in Fairbanks is U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility. The tunnel was excavated in the 1960s in order to study a variety of scientific questions related to permafrost. The tunnel is generally not open to the public, so when we got the opportunity to take a tour with a group of students visiting the University of Alaska, we jumped at the chance.
Permafrost is soil that remains frozen continuously, despite above ground temperature. Permafrost does not mean that the ground is frozen permanently; the term may refer to ground that remains below freezing from anywhere between two to thousands of years. Permafrost exists in different amounts throughout Alaska (here is a fairly recent map of permafrost distributions). Parts of southern Alaska have areas with little to no permafrost, while northern Alaska is characterized by continuous permafrost due to its cold temperatures year-round. In much of the interior of Alaska, the permafrost is defined as discontinuous, meaning that it occurs in patches throughout the land. Discontinuous permafrost is a particularly large headache in Alaska because of the problems it can cause for construction.
We noticed several of the problems discontinuous permafrost can cause while we were travelling to Fairbanks from the Lower 48. Once we entered the Yukon Territory, Canada and until we reached Fairbanks, the road was rough. Cracks, potholes, and frost heaves populated many stretches of road, and sometimes the road was so bumpy that we had to slow down and cross into the other lane in order to navigate it safely. These inconsistencies in the road are caused by periodic freezing and thawing throughout the years. Along the Alaska Highway, we saw two research projects (one still in progress and the other long abandoned) investigating methods to regulate the temperature of the ground underneath the road. Another issue caused by frequent freeze-and-thaw cycles was evident when we saw the crooked utility poles that paralleled the road in Alaska. Most utility poles were leaning to some degree, and some of the poles we saw looked seconds away from collapsing. Although many poles were leaning haphazardly in different directions, the electrical wires between them were in no danger of being stretched. Engineers and utility workers in this state must factor this phenomenon into their plans.
In Fairbanks, we learned that permafrost is an important factor to consider when buying a home or a housing lot. Buying or building a home on permafrost requires extra considerations to ensure stability and prevent heat losses to the ground. Additionally, there is always the chance that the permafrost may thaw, which can cause a home’s stability and structure to be compromised. Research by scientists at the University of Alaska indicates that, as Alaska’s surface temperature warms, areas of permafrost in the Fairbanks area will vanish within this century. As that happens, many homes built on permafrost may begin to sink unevenly into the ground. This link to an old but accurate article about the permafrost in Fairbanks by our local paper, The Daily News-Miner, summarizes the risk of disappearing permafrost for those who are interested.
With all of these issues in mind, we were excited to visit the permafrost tunnel and learn how scientists use this handy site. The tunnel is about a twenty minute drive from Fairbanks. On the outside, the research area is underwhelming; if you missed the sign indicating the tunnel, you might think the site is someone’s work area. Two tiny buildings, an office and a visitor center, stand outside the tunnel’s entrance. In the visitor center, research posters outlined some of the things the tunnel has been used for in the past. Old photos showing the excavation of the tunnel and informational posters on Alaska’s permafrost were posted throughout the room. Perhaps the most interesting, though was the collection of bones that were found while creating the permafrost tunnel. Bones from mammoths and an extinct type of bison were found while excavating the tunnel, and some of these are on display in the center.
Going into the tunnel was a strange experience. Although it was 65°F and sunny outside, we bundled up in warm coats, gloves, and hats. The entrance to the tunnel is built right into the side of a hill, and crossing the threshold feels like walking into a Hobbit House. After the first door, there is a small entrance space and another, more official-looking door. As we crossed into the entrance space, the air was notably colder than the warm air outdoors. The second door looked like the entrance to a walk-in freezer. As we stepped through the second door, the air became even colder. Because summer temperatures are too warm for the tunnel to remain frozen and stable, the tunnel is mechanically cooled to a temperature of 25°F during summer months. We shivered with the change of temperature and made our way slowly down a slightly frozen ramp to explore the tunnel.
In the tunnel, our guide pointed out many interesting features about the geology. Some of the most interesting features to see were visible ice wedges. An ice wedge is a portion of ice that forms and creates a crack in the ground. It was quite interesting to see the transition between solid ground and frozen ice wedges. One fascinating feature dealt with the vegetation in the tunnel. The earthen roof of the tunnel is covered in tiny roots that extend downward from the ceiling. These roots are from plants that existed more than 30,000 years ago and were covered in soil and frozen in the ground. Research on the types of plant roots found when excavating the tunnel has revealed what type of vegetation was thriving thousands of years ago. An unexpected but prominent feature of the tunnel was the distinct, slightly unpleasant smell. The earthy, musty smell is unlike anything we’ve experienced before.
After about an hour of exploring the tunnel, we made our way back to the warm outdoors with a new-found appreciation for the researchers studying permafrost. It was incredible to experience such an interesting research site and learn about some of the scientific studies being conducted around Fairbanks. Though the tunnel is not usually open to the public, there are occasionally exceptions. If you ever get the chance to visit this special research site, we suggest you take it!
I have very fond memories of picking blueberries growing up. Over the summers as a kid, I remember going to Dzen’s (a pay-to-pick blueberry farm in CT) with my mom and picking as many blueberries as we could fit in the large cardboard box (something she still does to this day). I remember raking the bushes with my hands and eating them by the handful. Absolutely delicious! The only problem was my mom would get upset with me when I did this because we hadn’t paid for them yet and they weren’t washed. Nonetheless, whenever I eat a handful of good blueberries, my mind takes me back to those times as a kid.
Fast-forward a couple decades and we are in Fairbanks, which is known for their wild blueberries. Every year at the beginning of August the blueberries become ripe and the locals get to picking. It seems like everyone has their favorite spot whether that be behind their house, Skiland, Murphy Dome, or their own secret place. Some people stay local, while others swear that going a couple hours away gets you away from the crowd, and avoids the blueberries from being picked over. They key is clearly finding a good spot and being the first one there once the blueberries are ripe.
Looking back, the thought that all the blueberries could be picked already by everyone else is laughable. There are so many blueberries all over the outskirts of town that if you’re motivated to find some, you most certainly will. Nevertheless, we were anxious to find a good spot and pick some of our own. Our first attempt was a bit spur-of-the-moment over the last weekend in July. We were doing chores and going to yard sales, when we decided we should give picking blueberries a shot. We drove 20 minutes outside of town to the Blueberry Preserves. This is a large plot of land that was purchased simply to protect it from development, and is known for being a good spot for blueberries. Off we went in sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt with a couple of plastic bags. In my mind I envisioned a free version of Dzen’s back home! It turned out to be a very boggy area (at one point my foot sank into the water up to my calf) that did not have many blueberries. Perhaps that’s because we stayed close to the road and they were already picked, who knows.
The good thing was we were determined, and decided enlisting local help/advice was our best option. The next day we drove out to Skiland with Regine. Skiland is 30-40 minutes outside of town and is supposedly filled with blueberries. Regine got us excited by telling us that in years past she just parked her car on the side of the road and picked gallons right off the road – awesome! To Regine, the blueberries at Skiland were a bit disappointing. Perhaps this was a bad blueberry year as people were saying. However, Leigh and I were thrilled. We picked 4 lbs of blueberries in approximately 4 hours, and the novelty of picking blueberries certainly fueled our excitement.
The next day we drove out to Gulkana Glacier with Regine, another professor named Vlad, and a group of summer students (a post will be coming soon about that trip). While we were waiting for students with Vlad we mentioned the “lack” of blueberries at Skiland. To our surprise, he said the blueberries were terrific at Murphy Dome. That was all we needed to hear to start planning our next trip. A couple days later in the evening, we drove out to Murphy Dome, parked where we saw a bunch of cars, and into the woods we walked in search of an even better blueberry patch! Just 20 feet into the woods and there were blueberries everywhere. This had to have been what a good blueberry patch looked like. We picked for a couple hours, and ate our fair share, and walked away with another 4 lbs of blueberries!
The next day over lunch I told Regine the good news – Murphy Dome was filled with blueberries, so we should all go out again over the weekend. And that we did. Unfortunately, the same spot that we’d been to just days before seemed to be fairly well picked, so after an hour we decided to try our luck further up the road near the top of the dome as Regine recommended. We walked quite a way to find a spot, but it was well worth it. The view for starters gave a “Sound of music” feel with rolling hills and mountains as far as the eye could see, and clear blue skies to go with it. And here was the first time that Regine said we’d finally found a good spot. You could sit for half to a full hour in one patch and be picking constantly. Leigh and I walked away with another 12 lbs.
Picking blueberries is a bit different compared to the picking I grew up with at Dzen’s. The blueberries we found were all in little shrubs right on the ground, so you were constantly bent over. Furthermore, a really good patch might have ~10-20 blueberries on it that you could rake through with your hands, but for the most part we had to pick each blueberry separately. Alaskans typically use a blueberry picking tool that allows you to rake through the shrubs (perhaps next year we’ll invest in one if it’s a good year). The blueberries themselves were also a bit different. On average they were much smaller than the ones found in stores, but what they lacked in size they made up for in taste. These were the strongest tasting blueberries I’ve ever had, and they were more tart than a typical blueberry.
You might be wondering what we could possibly due with 20 lbs of blueberries. Here in Fairbanks, we’ve really been amazed by how much people live with the seasons and live off the land. The reason everyone picks blueberries is because they freeze them and save them for the winter. The ideal way to freeze them is to lay them out on a baking pan and put them in the freezer that way they freeze individually as opposed to freezing as a big mush. Leigh took the lead on this, so I will give her all the credit and all the thanks when we start eating them as a treat in the middle of the winter. We have about 8 lbs of them stored this way. Leigh turned another 4 lbs of blueberries into a jam to go with yogurt or pancakes. She combined them with a bit of sugar, cooked them down, and put them in jars. Now all we have to do is make some pancakes once it starts getting cold here! Lastly, with the remaining 8 lbs of blueberries, I’ll be using them for a blueberry American wheat ale that’s currently fermenting. Hopefully that will be one more nice way we can enjoy our summer harvest down the road.
After the previous week’s whirlwind trip to Kenai Fjords, we were craving a relaxing weekend in Fairbanks. We spent Friday night having drinks at Ursa Major, a distillery in Ester, AK (we’ll post about Ursa Major sometime in the future – we love this place for its cocktails and close location to our apartment!). Our Saturday was filled with visiting the Tanana Valley Farmers Market, errands, and grilling.
We made plans with Regine, Dave’s supervisor, to canoe and kayak down the Upper Chena River on Sunday. After a casual start to the weekend, we were excited to float on one of the many rivers near Fairbanks. Regine has a two-person canoe that she and Leigh used. David borrowed a kayak from our landlord, who conveniently works at a local outdoor sports shop. After a delicious breakfast of sourdough pancakes made by Regine, we tied the boats to the tops of our cars and were on our way.
The Chena River flows right through Fairbanks and is easily accessed from our apartment by following a short bike trail. Many people canoe, kayak, boat, and raft down this portion of the Chena, although this is a relatively calm and very populated stretch of the river. To access a more interesting and less populated stretch, we drove about an hour away to the Upper Chena River. After unloading our boats at Mile 44 on Chena Hot Springs Road, we dropped another car off at our anticipated stopping point at Mile 39. We donned lifejackets, secured everything to the boats using carabiners, waded into the water, and started paddling to our destination.
The appearance and level of difficulty of the Upper Chena River changes drastically depending on the amount of water flowing. On our trip, the water level was quite low due to less-than-average rainfall in the previous weeks. While a shallow river is easier to navigate in some respects, there were many obstacles presented by the low flow. Huge tree trunks and branches stuck out of the water throughout our journey, requiring some quick paddling in the canoe to avoid. Seeing the immense size and quantity of trees that had been swept into the river helped us imagine how powerful it is when water levels are higher.
We did not see or hear another person throughout the entirety of our float. We kept our eyes focused on the banks of the river for signs of wildlife but were not rewarded with any bear or moose sightings. Focusing our gaze on the water proved much more rewarding; we spotted many enormous, bright red salmon swimming upriver to spawn. Typically, mid-July is the time of year that the salmon swim upstream to their birthplace to spawn and die. According to Regine and other locals, if we had floated down the river a week or two later, we might have experienced the unpleasant smell of hundreds of dead fish as we floated. Luckily, all salmon we encountered were still alive and swimming hurriedly upstream.
Because we paddled for most of our journey, it only took us about 2.5 hours to reach Mile 39. Had we not paddled or set a more relaxed pace, this float could have easily kept us entertained for 5-6 hours. Once we successfully pulled our boats out of the water and retrieved the other car, we packed up our things and were back home within an hour. Being able to drive only a short way away to immerse ourselves in nature was incredible, and we are looking forward to our next float trip with Regine. Fairbanks is fantastic for day adventurers!
The original plan for this weekend was to visit Denali National Park, but when the forecast was all rain, we decided to look for alternatives. I proceeded to google National Parks in Alaska and on a whim picked out Kenai Fjords National Park, since it looked drive-able. Weather forecast was two days of sunshine, so our destination was selected. It turned out to be our favorite National Park yet.
We took off early Friday morning hoping to beat the rush-hour traffic from Anchorage heading to Seward. As we drove by Denali, it started to rain on us, which only solidified that we’d made the right choice for this weekend. The drive through Denali was beautiful, although the most scenic part of the ride was definitely between Anchorage and Seward. The first hour of this portion hugs the coast of Turnagain Arm and gives the feeling of being on Highway 1 near Big Sur. Unfortunately, it also gave us a clear view of rain clouds ahead – what happened to 3 days of sunshine? Oh yes, while I was busy looking up campsites, booking a whale-watching/tidewater glacier cruise, and scouting the best hikes for us, I forgot to read the portion that said Seward was a temperate rainforest!
We arrived in Seward around 5:30 p.m. Hard to believe, but the 8.5 hr drive felt relatively short compared to our trip up to Alaska. Fortunately, we secured the last campsite at Waterfront Park, which is located along the coast of Seward itself. We set up camp and decided to walk downtown. Seward is a port town that appears to draw a large crowd each weekend who are looking forward to fishing, seeing wildlife, and checking out the glaciers. Our site was only a mile away from downtown, which mainly consists of a few blocks of restaurants, stores, and bars.
Our choice for dinner was a no-brainer: Seward Brewing Company. There was a bit of a wait for the main restaurant, so we went upstairs where they only served pizza and beer – what more could you ask for. Both were delicious. Plus, we had some leftover pizza that we boxed up for lunch on Sunday (a nice trick that Leigh’s dad, Mark, taught us).
We woke up early in the morning filled with excitement. Today, we were going on a cruise to hopefully see some whales and glaciers! We booked the 8.5 hr cruise with Major Marine Tours. This cruise was on their smallest ship, which was supposed to provide more opportunities to get close to the wildlife. Needless to say, it did not disappoint.
When the cruise began, it was quite foggy. Perhaps this was the reason that the boat was only half full. As we pulled out of the port, we passed a bald eagle and an otter. Then about 30 minutes in our captain called out a Humpback Whale sighting over the loudspeaker. Everyone raced out to the front of the deck, and the boat slowly maneuvered closer to the whale providing us with spectacular views. The whale was blowing its spout, diving down showing off its tail, and slapping the water with its pectoral fin. Even our captain and his deckhand/assistant were amazed by how good of a show this whale was putting on for us.
It’s hard to describe the beauty of Kenai Fjords. The water is filled with little jagged-rock islands that reminded me of Capri. Sea lions, puffins, and countless other birds all called these islands home. One pair of sea lions was playing a little game of king-of-the-hill, which ended with the smaller lion jumping off the cliff into the water ~10 feet below. The puffins were adorable with their brightly colored beaks. Many people joked that they must have been eating well because as they tried to move out of the boats path, a few looked like they were having a little difficulty taking off.
One of the highlights in the morning was when we came across a sea lion that was swarmed by a flock of birds. It turned out the sea lion had caught a sizeable halibut and the birds were waiting for any chance to get some leftovers. Another highlight was when we came upon a group of Dall’s Porpoises, which are known for being playful. We approached the porpoises, then turned the boat around to put them in our wake, and cranked up the engine to speed away from them. To our amazement, as we peered over the front of the boat they darted into our view and swam alongside and in front of the boat! It was exhilarating.
After seeing so much wildlife, it was time for the second part of the cruise – seeing some glaciers! We entered a fjord and were absolutely amazed by the number of glaciers all around us. Kenai Fjords National Park is home to the Harding Icefield, which covers ~700 square miles and feeds the tidewater glaciers along the coast. As we ate lunch, our assistant described the glaciers we were seeing out the windows and indicated how far they had receded over the last couple hundred years. He pointed out an old terminal moraine, which indicated the maximum extent of the glacier from the last Little Ice Age, that was over a mile away from the main glacier that we were going to see. Imagining the size of these glaciers just a couple hundred years ago was hard to fathom. Instead of being buried underneath hundreds of feet of ice, we were cruising into a beautiful fjord with smaller glaciers on both sides of us now.
Northwestern Glacier, the main destination of our cruise, was spectacular. The sun finally started to break through the fog allowing us to have some excellent views of the surrounding peaks. The glacier descended down the steep valley ~300-500 ft before reaching the water. It’s technically a tidewater glacier because a small portion of the end of the glacier reaches the water. At first everyone rushed to the front of the boat to take their photo with the glacier. Once all the photos were captured the front of the boat cleared, and we were able to relax and savor the view. We heard the glacier creaking and cracking, and got to see a small “calving” event, i.e., a small part of the steep portion of the glacier falling into the water. It was quite small, but exciting to see nonetheless.
After 30 minutes, it was time to start heading back to Seward. Most people headed back into the boat during this time, so the outside areas were empty. Leigh and I opted to savor the views of the fjord, so we took a seat outside on the back of the boat and slowly watched Northwestern Glacier fade into the distance. Before leaving the fjord completely though, the boat made a quick stop into Crater Bay. This was a smaller side fjord that was incredibly deep! So deep in fact that the boat came within 10 ft of the coast. The rock face both above and below the water was more-or-less completely vertical. Coming down the vertical rock face was a series of waterfalls. Here we also saw a new marine animal – the star fish! It was clinging to part of the vertical wall, although I doubt it lasted too long because it appeared to be slowly peeling off.
After we left the fjord, we stopped briefly for one last humpback whale on the way back, but it turned out this one was a bit shy. They can hold their breath for upwards of 30 minutes, so when they don’t want to be seen they can go away for a quite a while. The nice thing by this point and time was the clouds completely parted and the sun graced us with its presence. This was welcome, since it was cold out on the water by Northwestern Glacier (~45°F). As we sat on the back of the boat, we both found ourselves enjoying a short power nap under the sun. We woke up 15-20 minutes later and decided to shift to the front of the boat. This allowed us to get a nice view of Seward and Mount Marathon as our cruise came to an end.
Looking back, I think 8.5 hr was just the right amount of time on the cruise. By the end, we were ready to head into town for a good bite to eat. Our venue for dinner was the Salmon Bake restaurant, which is known for its seafood as one might expect. It was our first “fresh” seafood meal in Alaska, and the salmon and halibut were delicious! We finished dinner fairly early, so we decided to head into Seward to see what the entertainment was like on Saturday night. The highlight was definitely the Yukon Bar, which was described to us as an old fishing bar. The ceiling was filled with dollar bills that people have written messages on. When I asked the bouncer how much money he thought was on the ceiling, he guessed a couple thousand dollars! Besides the interesting atmosphere, the live music made for a nice way to end the night.
Today we had a lot of driving ahead of us to get back to Fairbanks. But first, it was time to hike to a glacier! The actual visitor center for Kenai Fjords National Park is fairly small and located just a short drive from Seward. We got an early start in order to make sure that we could get on the road in the early afternoon. Today’s hike was up the side of Exit Glacier to the Harding Icefield. Exit Glacier is easily accessible via a short hike from the visitor’s center. Hiking to the Harding Icefield is a bit more of a challenge. It’s an 8.2 mile out-and-back hike that gains 3,500 ft. We highly recommend it if you have the time.
The fascinating portion of this hike is how the surroundings change with the elevation. The trail starts beyond the Visitors Center and dives right into the temperate rainforest. At times, the trail becomes single track and you can’t see far in any direction. Normally, this wouldn’t bother us, but 0.8 of-a-mile into the hike we ran into a couple that had already turned around… the young woman had turned a corner just a 0.1 of-a-mile in front of us and was face-to-face with a grizzly. Fortunately, as she started talking to the grizzly and slowly retreating, the grizzly didn’t follow. Nonetheless, just hearing about the encounter spiked our nerves. At the same time, we’d come all this way down to Seward, and this was the one hike we were planning to do. Turning around would be very disappointing, yet we also didn’t want to make the headline of the next day’s paper. We decided to stay put, talk loudly to one another, and wait ~20 minutes before proceeding.
As the 20-minute mark approached, we heard a few more people coming. It turned out to be an ice-climbing guide with a group of 3 people. When we told him about the bear, he smiled and said we were more than welcome to follow their tracks – terrific! I imagine that as we hike more up here our “bearanoia” will settle, but for the present time it seems better to be safe. We asked the guide about bears around here, and there was no mistaking that we were in bear country. He told us that one summer, there was a bear and her cubs living by the trail that their company saw every day for more than two weeks straight. He reassured us that they don’t want to see us just as much as we don’t want to see them, and as long as you let the bear know you’re there and don’t run, they will leave you be. Sounded great to us, but we were still more than happy to have him blazing the trail.
After the first 1.5 miles, the environment changes from temperate rainforest to meadows. This is also when Exit Glacier comes into view! Fun fact: this is “the glacier” President Obama visited on his trip to Alaska. It is quite fascinating to see the signs denoting the extent of the glacier over the last 200 years as you enter the park. Once again, it’s quite hard to fathom what the area looked like when the glacier was several hundred feet thicker and extended miles down the road. Nonetheless, it’s still a beautiful glacier today, and wonderful that it’s so accessible to the public.
Here the guide’s group took a different route to get onto the glacier, while we continued hiking uphill along the side of the glacier. Without the guide’s bravado, we used a couple songs to alert the bear of our presence: “Ohhhh were halfway there, ohhhh haven’t seen a beaaar” and “Bear check bear check one two one two”, the latter proceeded by some wonderful freestyling by whoever was on “alert-the-bear” duty. Hikers around us must have thought we were insane. Most people simply say “Hey bear” every so often.
The meadows were beautiful and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. After a mile in the meadows, my favorite portion of the hike began. We had ascended above the tree-line, so the next couple miles provided unimpeded views of Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield. The Columbia Icefield was the first icefield I had ever seen on our drive up to Fairbanks, but to be hiking to one was simply awe-inspiring. When we got to the top of the trail, the view of the icefield went on as far as the eye could see. With all the glacier retreat that you see on the way up, it’s hard to grasp how much ice is still present. Obviously, the ice field isn’t as healthy as it used to be, but it’s still incredible to see.
We took a break at the top and ate our lunch overlooking Exit Glacier and the icefield. This was when it finally started to sink in that we still had an 8.5 hr drive ahead of us. After we finished lunch, it was time to descend. The first two miles of the trail down were just as wonderful. In fact, hiking downhill made it even easier to look at Exit Glacier along the way. By this point and time though, the trail was becoming a bit more crowded. It’s not particularly wide, so every time you see someone, one of the groups has to step aside. The amazing thing about the way down was when we passed a guy that looked incredibly familiar. I’m not very shy about these things, so I blurted out “you look so familiar”, which was reciprocated. After a minute, we figured it out… he had been parked in an RV in front of us for the 8 hr delay outside of White Horse on our way up here! Small world.
By the time we made it back to the car, we were exhausted. It felt good to hop in the car, roll the windows down, and get started driving back to Fairbanks. The beautiful thing on the way out was there wasn’t a cloud in sight allowing us to see some of the views that we missed on the way in. About an hour into the drive, we passed a car that was on fire. Every looked like they were safe, so we continued onward. Shortly thereafter, a flurry of firetrucks passed us. They ended up closing the two-lane highway for 3.5 hours. Glad everyone was alright, but even more glad that we were able to continue onward. 8.5 hrs later at 11:30 p.m., we arrived back in our home in Fairbanks with our minds filled with fond memories of the whales, sea lions, puffins, glaciers, and ice field. It’s hard to believe all these things are just a day away.
One of our first challenges in Fairbanks was finding an apartment to call home. While apartment hunting in any new city is difficult, the extreme winter temperatures in Alaska add an extra layer of complexity to the process. Before moving to Fairbanks, we spent some time browsing through apartments on Craigslist and encountered some unfamiliar terms used to describe living spaces. After talking with some locals, we soon learned about all of the different ways that homes are built to deal with the frigid winter temperatures.
The first and most pressing option that we needed to consider was water availability. Because average daily temperatures in the winter months are between -20 and 0 °F, maintaining water systems can be energy-intensive and costly. In general, there are three options for water in a Fairbanks home: be connected to the city water supply, have a well and septic system, or be a “dry” home without any running water.
To have a home that is connected to the city water supply, the location is key. The city water supply only extends so far from the water treatment plant. While the area of Fairbanks that is connected to the city water is fairly large, the University of Alaska is near the edge. In some areas, homes on one side of the highway may be connected to the city water supply, while homes on the opposite side may not. Homes that cannot be connected may have a well and septic system. Living in a home with a well and septic system would be similar to living in a home connected to city water, but the well must be tested periodically to ensure that the water is safe to drink.
Dry homes are not uncommon in Fairbanks. They are particularly popular among graduate students at the university due to their price and their prevalence near campus. Others choose to live in dry cabins for the unique experience of living without water. Dry cabins usually have a detached latrine and no shower. Dry cabin residents take showers at work or school and bundle up in the winter to walk from their home to the bathroom. Water tanks of different sizes can be purchased and used for cooking and washing dishes. There’s even a company – Water Wagon – that supplies water to remote homes.
While we were intrigued by the idea of living without running water and know many people in Fairbanks who live in dry cabins, we ultimately decided that being connected to city water was best. Getting used to the frigid weather in the winter will be enough of a challenge without having to adjust to walking outside to a latrine.
The next quality to consider when looking for apartments was parking. In the winter, the temperature is so cold that it can prevent cars from starting. As a result, installing an engine block heater is essential in Fairbanks. In general, an engine block heater is plugged into an electrical outlet and can periodically or continuously warm the engine. The University of Alaska campus and many other places in Fairbanks have electrical outlets for each parking space that are used in the winter. In a home, having a designated parking space with an electrical outlet is essential. Even better than a simple outlet is one that comes with a timer; a timer allows you to periodically warm your engine up rather than paying the electricity bill to heat it continuously. Additionally, a timer can heat your car remotely a few hours prior to leaving so that you’re guaranteed to have no troubles.
At first when we looked at apartments, we were determined to have access to a garage in addition to an electrical outlet. As we looked at different apartments, though, we realized that many people in Fairbanks park their cars outside all year long. The only criticism we heard about parking outside is that your bumper often accumulates several inches of ice during the winter and it is sometimes necessary to chip or thaw it off.
Snow removal and mail service were two other questions we had while looking at apartments. We have been told that Fairbanks does not get snow frequently. However, when it does snow, Fairbanks gets a lot of it, and it doesn’t melt away until late spring. On roads maintained by the city, snow removal is taken care of. On roads in more isolated areas, however, residents are sometimes responsible for snow removal. Similarly, there are only certain areas of Fairbanks that have typical, daily mail service. In more remote areas, mailboxes may be located on the main highway and require residents to stop on their way in and out of the neighborhood. In the most remote areas, mail is not delivered at all, and residents must instead set up a PO box. While mail was not the most important factor for us to consider, we did make sure to ask about it to get a sense of the isolation of each apartment.
The last inquiries we had were more typical for anyone who is apartment hunting: bills, utilities, and services. In our experience, most landlords in Fairbanks pay the bills for water and heat, while residents are responsible for electricity. This is likely because maintaining adequate heat in all parts of a building is essential for preventing things from freezing. We also found it important to ask about internet service providers because not all areas in Fairbanks are able to be connected. There are only two internet service providers in Fairbanks, and some areas can only be serviced by one company. In the most remote areas, it is not possible to have internet at home. Although we were once again intrigued by the idea of living without internet, we ultimately decided that being connected would be important for entertainment and creative outlets in the winter.
Keeping all of the previously described questions in mind, we searched for apartments during the first three days after we arrived. We looked at dozens of apartments in different areas of town. At first, we were a bit discouraged by what we saw – it seemed like most of the apartments we looked at were too big, too small, or too inconveniently located. Then, on the third day of our search, we found an apartment that we loved. We had to wait a few extra days to move in while repairs were being done (huge thanks to Regine for letting us stay with her for an extra week), but we eventually moved in about a week after finding it.
Our apartment is in a four-plex located about two miles from UAF’s campus. It has two bedrooms, one bathroom, a storage unit, lots of windows, and a designated outdoor parking spot with an electrical outlet. Our landlord is great, and she has two dogs that we see and play with frequently. There is a bike path next to our building that leads to the banks of the Chena River. We’re close to the university and several of the city’s restaurants and bars. We’re in an area that has city water, city plowing, and mail service. While the apartment hunt was frustrating and stressful at times, we are happy that we had the patience to wait for the perfect living space. After learning about all of the different options to consider when choosing housing in Fairbanks, we’re interested to see how our choice plays out during the long, cold winter. We’ll be sure to update!
Over the next year, I’ll be working as a postdoc with Regine Hock at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on modeling the evolution of High Mountain Asia’s glaciers for various climate scenarios. While I’m incredibly excited for the research that I’ll be doing, I’m equally excited to experience living in Alaska, and, most of all, to be doing so with Leigh. As this will be a unique experience for us, especially since we’re coming from the nice warmth of Austin, Texas, we decided to blog about it. Plus, we hope it’ll be a great way to keep friends and family up-to-date on all of our activities.
Before we could start living in Alaska, we had to get there. We heard that cars (and most other items) were less expensive in the Lower 48. Because of this, we decided to buy a car suited for harsh climate, pack in all our worldly belongings (and leave quite a few at our parents’ houses), and start our 4,000-mile road trip to Fairbanks.
We planned to make the trip over 11 days with three long days of driving at both ends of the trip and five days in the middle exploring national parks. We left on June 12 from Leigh’s home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Fortunately, we were able to ease into the driving on the first day with a nice rest stop in Downers Grove, Illinois to visit my dad’s side of the family. After a wonderful visit and delicious dinner, we hopped back on the road and continued for three more hours to Tomah, Wisconsin to end the night. Our day-by-day destinations for the rest of the road trip were as follows:
Overall, we are quite happy with our road trip’s route and activities. While some days consisted of 10-12 hours of driving, the stops at national parks were filled with so much hiking and exploring that we felt rejuvenated. In the posts to follow, we’ll outline some of our favorite parts of our journey to Fairbanks and the sights we saw along the way.
Part 1: Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The first major stop was Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota. Although we considered this a major stop, we were camping overnight and only had about 14 hours to spend in the park. Because we had such limited time, we only planned to briefly see the park and visitor center and get a good night sleep. Despite our expectations, we found ourselves immediately captivated by the wildlife and primitive feel of the park.
As we pulled into the parking lot for the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, we were immediately greeted by a bison crossing the road in front of our car. Wild buffalo were re-introduced to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 1956 and roam the park. After navigating around the buffalo road block, we walked to the edge of the Painted Canyon and were instantly struck by its beauty. The Painted Canyon is a northern portion of the Badlands and is one of the park’s main attractions. It features canyon-like topography and contains colors that reminded us of the Southwest landscape. We loved the view of the Painted Canyon so much that we decided to postpone our dinner in favor of taking a short hike to experience the canyon up close. To complete our hike, we had to closely pass by two bison (including the one that we met upon entering). We gave the bison a large buffer by walking off the trail and detouring through fields of long grasses on our way into the canyon. Though this seemed to work perfectly on our walk in, one bison did not appreciate our presence on our hike back out. This bison showed his displeasure by raising his tail and running in our direction for a few seconds. Though we were more than one hundred yards away, this was a definite warning sign to us and we diverted our path even further.
After our short hike, we drove through the small town of Medora, which looks like an old “wild west” town. On the drive to our campsite, we passed more bison, a group of wild horses, and large towns of prairie dogs. The wildlife, sunset, and beautiful scenery made for a lovely drive. Our campsite was equally as wonderful, with a large, flat space for our tent on a spot overlooking the Little Missouri River. We slept soundly, though David awoke in the early hours of the morning to see four more bison dozing across the river.
The following morning was spent packing up camp quickly and embarking on the 36 mile scenic drive offered by the park. The scenic drive took us about an hour to complete, although we would have spent much more time admiring the landscape and wildlife if our schedule was more flexible. After a brief stop in the visitor center, we continued our journey to Glacier National Park.
Part 2: Glacier National Park
Driving to Glacier National Park took us the better part of the day due to several delays for roadwork. By the time we reached the park around 7:00 PM, we were eager to get out of the car and stretch our legs. Our campsite was at Saint Mary, which is situated at the eastern entrance of the park. One great feature of the Saint Mary campsite is its location off of the Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTSR), which is a road that winds through the scenic, mountainous interior of the park. Because driving the GTSR is a major attraction, we decided to complete that activity with what little time we had left of the night. Though we originally wanted to stretch our legs with a short hike, the GTSR was so spectacular that we quickly forgot our frustration with being stuck in a car all day. We could only drive approximately 12 of the total 50 miles on the GTSR before it was closed due to snow, but the scenery was full of mountains, lakes, wildlife, and brilliant flowers.
We took in the gorgeous views and completed a short hike to a waterfall before realizing that it was much later in the evening than we thought. The sunset in Glacier while we were there was at about 9:45 PM, making it easy to sightsee until quite late. We headed to our campsite and quickly set up our tent, still marveling at the magnificent scenery and sunset. Though the night was a bit chilly (lows in the mid-40s) and windy (10-15mph), we slept relatively soundly and awoke ready for our first full day of hiking.
For our only full day in Glacier National Park, we opted to complete a hike to Iceberg Lake. This hike is in a portion of the park called Many Glacier, which was a quick 40 minute drive from our campsite. We chose this hike based both on its great reviews and its accessibility; while many of the park’s hikes are still snow-covered and inaccessible, this hike had only a small amount of snow near the very top of the mountain. After loading our packs with several different layers of winter and rain gear, lunch, and bear mace, we started the trail.
The path to Iceberg lake lead us up a moderately steep hillside featuring both forest and meadows. We climbed higher and higher, until eventually we were walking on paths of hard-packed snow and were wearing our hats and gloves. Iceberg lake is surrounded by peaks and high ridges, so it remains shaded from the sun for most of the day. Because of this, the lake was still completely frozen and covered in thick snow when we arrived. Even in the peak of summer, the ice on this lake never fully melts. We took some time to admire the beauty of the snowy landscape, ate our lunch, and then headed back down on the same trail.
Some brief rain showers and persistent snow cover prevented us from doing another hike to view Grinnell Glacier, one of the park’s most famous natural features. We drove back towards our campsite while we waited for the rain to stop. Once the rain showers diminished to sprinkles, we decided to embark on a 7.2 mile (roundtrip) hike to see Virginia Falls and round out our evening. The hike to Virginia Falls took us past several other spectacular waterfalls as we climbed through the heart of the park on a path right off of the GTSR. Virginia Falls was much larger and more powerful than we expected; we could not get within 20 feet of the falls before being soaked with mist and spray.
By the time we got back, it was nearly 9:00 PM and we had hiked approximately 16 miles throughout the day. Needless to say, we were craving a hot meal and some sleep, and we high-tailed it back to our campsite at Saint Mary. When we returned, a park ranger gave us some fantastic news – Saint Mary had hot showers available for campers! After postponing our plans for food and sleep briefly to indulge in a shower, we eventually went to bed clean, fed, and happy.
Part 3: Banff national park
Our trip to Canada began early on the morning of June 16, when we packed up our campsite in Glacier National Park and crossed the border into Alberta. Though we were briefly held at customs (for reasons we still do not know), we eventually began a 4.5 hour drive to Banff National Park. Banff is both a park and a city, so we were excited to see and experience both environments. Banff is also one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations, drawing nearly 3.9 million people to visit last year. Because of Banff’s popularity with tourists and the timing of our visit on a weekend, we had to do some last-minute scrambling in April to reserve campsites on Friday and Saturday nights.
Our campsite on Friday night was at Johnston Canyon Campground which happened to be at the trailhead of one of the attractions we wanted to see: Johnston Canyon. After checking in and setting up our tent, we hurried to the Johnston Canyon trailhead and began the 3.4 mile (roundtrip) hike at about 3:00 PM. We soon realized that Johnston Canyon is one of the biggest tourist destinations, likely because of both its incredible beauty and accessibility. We wove our way through throngs of people while walking up the paved, gently-graded pathway. Though Johnston Canyon is incredibly popular, it was also gorgeous. The path winds through a narrow canyon and often protrudes over the flowing water below, allowing visitors to look straight down on its beauty. The trail leads to lookouts at the upper and lower waterfalls, which are both spectacular. Though there were many more tourists than we’ve ever experienced at a park, we still loved this hike and would recommend it to anyone.
After our short hike was over, we debated whether to embark on another hike or relax for the rest of the day. We were both sore from hiking in Glacier, and we knew that we had big hikes planned for the following day. When we realized that there was an affordable hot spring in the nearby town of Banff, we instantly chose relaxation. The Banff Upper Hot Springs looks like a swimming pool, but is filled with hot water that emerges from a nearby spring. Though it was warm outside, soaking in the hot spring water was the perfect remedy for our sore legs and feet. When our fingertips were prune-y and our bodies on the verge of dehydration, we took complementary showers and headed off for dinner. To extend our night of relaxation, we decided to grab dinner and a beer in one of Banff’s many restaurants. We chose the Elk & Oarsman Kitchen and Bar, and our first non-camping meal in a few days was delightful. After eating and drinking, we headed over to an Irish pub for some live music before returning to our campsite to sleep.
The next morning, we woke up early to ensure we got a parking space at Lake Louise. Lake Louise is likely Banff’s most popular attraction, and we were not surprised to see the parking lot swamped with tourists early in the morning. We had plans to complete a loop hike that would take us to the mountains high above the lake, so we spent a few minutes making sure that we had all of our warm clothes, food, and water packed securely. Walking up to Lake Louise was an experience unlike any other; the water was such a bright, perfect aquamarine and the surrounding mountains were absolutely breathtaking. Once again, it was hard to mind the huge groups of tourists when we were in such a spectacular location. We took in the view, and then decided to get moving on our hike to get ahead of as much of the crowd as possible.
The first destination of our hike was the Lake Agnes tea house, which is a little chalet nestled into the mountains 1,300 feet above Lake Louise. The tea house was originally constructed in 1901 as a resting place for hikers, and it still operates with no electricity and running water. One big delivery of supplies is made by helicopter at the start of the season, but all trash and weekly supplies are carried up and down the trail by the staff. The hike to reach Lake Agnes and the tea house was slightly strenuous, but we were rewarded by beautiful views of Lake Louise below. At the tea house, we stopped for a hot drink and some tea biscuits, which was greatly appreciated after the steep, cold hike up the mountain. A word of warning for anyone who may want to stop at the Lake Agnes tea house – they accept Canadian cash only! Shout out to Leigh’s dad Mark for giving us some Canadian cash before the trip and allowing us to have a sweet treat in the middle of our hike.
We continued up to a feature called the Little Beehive, where we glimpsed the best views of Lake Louise and our favorite sights of the whole hike. After a brief stop to eat our lunch, we continued walking to intersect with another trail that would take us to our second destination, the Plain of Six Glaciers. This trail took us further away from Lake Louise and into a valley between several high mountains. We encountered quite a bit of snow as we walked and had to take care to prevent slipping on the icy trail. The scenery throughout this hike was beautiful, with more snow coverage and views of glaciers as we hiked further. We hiked out to the very end of the trail to see Victoria Glacier up close and were enthralled by its sheer size. After spending some time at the glacier, we turned around and headed back. There is another tea house located on the Plain of Six Glaciers path, so we stopped for a warm snack to prepare us for our chilly hike back to Lake Louise.
Upon arriving back at the shores of Lake Louise, we spent some more time admiring the scenery and watching a team of soccer players jump into the frigid water. After leaving Lake Louise, we drove a quick 12 miles to Moraine Lake, another beautiful glacial lake. Though we could have spent hours admiring the mountains and water, our hunger eventually tore us away. We grabbed another dinner in the town of Banff on the way to our second campsite of the park. We hopped in our sleeping bags after a quick shower to prepare for our drive up to Jasper National Park the following morning.
Part 4: jasper national park
Though we were quite excited to see Jasper National Park, we were equally as excited for the drive up to the park on the Icefields Parkway. The Icefields Parkway is named for the Columbia Icefield, which is the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains. Driving the Icefields Parkway was a phenomenal journey; there were breathtaking views of mountains and wildlife around every corner. We stopped at the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center on our way into the park. At the discovery center, we learned about the Icefields Parkway and the glaciers surrounding it. We took a brief detour to walk up to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, which was across the street from the discovery center. This glacier is one of the six endpoints of the whole icefield, and its enormous expanse was amazing to see up close. The Columbia Icefield is the origin of the Athabasca River, which flows northeast, and connects with rivers that eventually flow into the Arctic Ocean. We continued our drive north into Jasper National Park, with brief stops to see views of the Athabasca River and Athabasca Falls on our way.
We decided to continue our pattern of hiking to waterfalls in Jasper National Park by completing the Maligne Canyon hike. We parked and began our hike at Sixth Bridge picnic area. The path took us over Sixth Bridge and onto a beautiful woodland trail that followed the Maligne River. As we walked, we encountered the beginning of a canyon and passed over two other bridges called Fifth and Fourth Bridges. The beauty of the canyon and our curiosity about Third, Second, and First Bridges compelled us to walk beyond where we originally planned. We were not disappointed by the resulting views of the steep canyon, fast-moving water, and increasingly higher bridges.
By the time we returned from our hike, we had walked about 4.5 miles and were eager to grab some dinner. We stopped at the Jasper Brewing Company for dinner and a drink, and we loved the ambience, food, and beer. After hanging out for a while, we drove to our campsite and found that it was on the banks of the Athabasca River. Our journey northward had steadily increased the length of day, and we spent some time marveling at how light it was at 11:00 PM before finally conceding to our sleepiness and going to bed.
On our last full day exploring national parks, we were deciding between completing the Edith Cavell Meadows hike or the Sulphur Skyline hike. Both were listed as some of the best hikes in Jasper National Park, but the trails were long enough that completing both in one day seemed too ambitious. We first drove to the Edith Cavell Meadows trailhead, intending to hike at least a portion before driving over to Sulphur Skyline. Upon reaching the trailhead, we talked with a park ranger about the large amount of snow still covering much of the path at Edith Cavell Meadows. Our decision was thus made, though we spent some time hiking to Angel Glacier, Ghost Glacier, and Cavell Pond, which are all within the first half mile of the Edith Cavell Meadows hike. In 2012, part of Ghost Glacier broke off and fell into Cavell Pond, triggering a small outburst flood. It was quite interesting to learn about this event and see the resulting natural features, particularly because David studies glacial lake outburst floods in the Himalaya.
Eventually, we made our way to the trailhead of Sulphur Skyline, which was conveniently located next to another hot spring and only a few miles from the night’s campsite. Though the trail was only about five miles long, the steep, rocky climb up the mountain was definitely still a challenge. Along the hike, we encountered a beautiful alpine meadow and several hordes of school children on field trips. Reaching the top of the ridge gave incredible views of the surrounding mountains, although the wind was so intense that we found ourselves ducking behind stones for relief. The trip back down the mountain was simple in comparison to the trip up, although the weather threatened to rain throughout the journey back.
After we reached the parking lot, we decided to eat an early dinner before heading to Miette Hot Springs for some relaxation. We ate our camp dinner in an adjacent park and spent our time watching a group of more than 30 mountain goats wander around the parking lot. We loved Miette Hot Springs because it offered four pools with different temperatures: very cold, cold, hot, and very hot. Jumping in and out of the different pools while admiring the mountainous surroundings was the perfect end to our time in the national parks. As we drove the few miles to our campsite, we were stopped behind several cars that were admiring a grizzly bear on the edge of the road. Though we had seen many bears at this point in our journey, this was an unsettling sight because our campsite was less than a third of a mile away! That night marked the first night that we slept with bear mace in the tent (at Leigh’s request). That night was also the first night that we went to bed before it was dark outside – we were simply too tired to wait until 11:30 PM to sleep.
Part 5: Alaska Highway
Although we were sorry our time exploring national parks was over, we woke up on the ninth day of our trip excited to drive on the Alaska Highway. The Alaska Highway was completed in 1942 and spans about 1,700 miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska. The road was only fully paved in 1992 and is notoriously difficult to drive on due to potholes, damage from extreme cold, wildlife, and the fact that it is a single-lane highway. The Alaska Highway is so infamous that there is a book published every year to update travelers on the road’s condition at each mile (the book is called The Milepost, and we highly recommend it for anyone driving up to Alaska!).
On the morning we left our last campsite at Jasper National Park, we expected to reach Dawson Creek and the start of the Alaska Highway within 5 hours. However, our plans were delayed a bit when a truck kicked up a large rock into the windshield of our Subaru. The rock’s impact made a sound like a gunshot and left a circular crack about the size of a golf ball. Luckily, the crack was on the bottom of the windshield, so it didn’t prevent the driver from seeing the road. As we drove, we debated what to do about the crack and whether we could continue driving the whole way to Fairbanks with a slightly shattered windshield. On the roadside, we began to see aptly timed billboards advertising businesses that could fix cracked and broken windshields in the next town. Apparently, broken windshields were quite common on this portion of the road.
We made a quick appointment with a windshield-fixing company to see what they thought about our new crack. The employees said the windshield crack was no big deal and were quite amused by our anxiety over it. One employee eagerly explained, “I’d wait to fix that windshield until you have so many chips that you can’t see the road!”. Another employee chimed in, “You’ll fit right in in Fairbanks with that windshield!”. We waited while one worker smoothed over our crack with glue so that it wouldn’t tear up our windshield wipers. After that quick fix, we hopped back on the road and drove to the start of the Alaska Highway.
The start of the Alaska Highway is marked by an arch and a few informational plaques. We stopped briefly for a photo and met a couple completing a similar journey to ours, but in reverse. The couple had lived in Anchorage for several years and were making their way back to Pennsylvania. They gave us some information about what to expect on the rest of our journey and shared that they were sad to be leaving Alaska. While speaking with them, we also met a man from Pittsburgh who was riding his motorcycle over the entire Alaska Highway. After some brief conversation, we got started on the last leg of our journey.
That day, we drove another 5 hours on the Alaska Highway with no major issues. Along the way, we drove through many little towns and saw a multitude of wildlife. We stopped in Fort Nelson, British Columbia and enjoyed the first time in a week not sleeping in a tent.
On the following morning, we woke up feeling refreshed and ready to take on our longest day on the road. We had planned for 12 hours of driving, and we got an early start to begin traveling the nearly 600 miles that would take us to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Our only big stop of the day was at the Sign Post Forest in Watson Lake, Yukon Territory. The Sign Post Forest is exactly as it sounds – an enormous area of land covered in posts with signs attached. Anyone can attach any sign that they want, and there were thousands of signs from towns, cities, states, and countries. We saw a few photos of the Sign Post Forest prior to arriving and were expecting a modest area with a few rows of posts. When we actually saw the exhibit and began to walk around, we were shocked by the sheer size of it.
We almost immediately found a sign designating Austin, Texas. We were pleased to see that it even had a sticker from one of our favorite Austin breweries, Adelberts, attached. After taking a photo, we wandered in separate ways to look for other signs and appreciate the variety. In the twenty minutes that we spent in the Sign Post Forest, we found signs from Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and even Penn State. Although we had looked at just a small portion of the entire forest, we decided to press onward in the spirit of time.
We arrived in Whitehorse at about 6:00 PM, which was much earlier than expected. After spending about an hour sorting through some hotel booking confusion, we finally had a room and were desperate for some dinner. While in the Sign Post Forest earlier, we met a man from Whitehorse who strongly recommended a restaurant called Klondike Rib and Salmon. When we realized it was one block away from our hotel and packed with people who had received similar recommendations, we decided we had to try it. Klondike Rib and Salmon was a fantastic choice, with excellent meals featuring beef and various fish. Dave went all out and ordered a meal featuring ribs AND salmon, and he was not disappointed. In addition, getting a taste of the local beer was pretty great, too. We highly recommend visiting this restaurant if you are ever in the Whitehorse area; it was easily our favorite meal of the journey.
The next morning, we woke up feeling relieved to have reached our last day of driving and incredibly excited to see our new home. We got an early start to the day and hoped to get into Fairbanks during the late afternoon in time to explore and see some potential housing options. We left our hotel around 7:00 AM and drove the five miles out of town with no trouble. As we continued driving on the highway for a few miles, we were overwhelmed by several police cars racing down the highway in quick succession. Within another few miles, we reached a short backup of four or five cars that had been stopped on the road. We stopped warily and braced ourselves for waiting on the inevitable construction that happens all throughout the Alaska Highway. On previous days of driving, we were stopped for up to a 45 minutes due to roadwork, and we were not looking forward to waiting around in Whitehorse.
Little did we know that, only 10 minutes before we got there, a fuel tanker carrying jet fuel had taken a turn too quickly and overturned on the highway. While the truck luckily did not explode and the driver was reportedly okay, the jet fuel was leaking from the tank into the ground and nearby stream. This was particularly bad in an area like Whitehorse, where many people get their drinking water from wells that could be contaminated by the spill. We heard from a police officer about the accident after waiting for a few minutes. The officer told us that the road would not be clear for at least three hours.
As the news of the several-hour delay spread throughout the line of traffic behind us, many cars turned around and headed back towards Whitehorse to grab some breakfast and kill time. Though we debated doing the same, we ultimately decided to stay in the line of traffic for two reasons. The first justification was that we thought three hours would go by relatively quickly – we could walk around, read, and chat with other people on the road. The second reason was that there was already a long line of cars and RVs waiting behind us, and we wanted to get on the road before them to avoid having to pass on the two lane highway.
The first three hours of waiting went by relatively quickly. We talked with people from all around the United States and Canada that were on the road for various reasons. We were lucky to be halted right next to a highway rest stop, so there were outhouses available for bathroom breaks. We shared candy with people, read our books, and David even completed a few edits for a journal article he was writing. When the three hours of waiting were almost over, however, there was no indication that the cleanup was coming to an end. We were disappointed but unsurprised to hear that the road would remain closed for at least another 1-3 hours.
Knowing that we had at least another hour to wait and a promise from an officer to save our spot in the line of traffic, we headed back ten miles to the nearest gas station to buy lunch and gear up for a longer night of driving than previously anticipated. As we drove to the gas station, we passed at least three miles of stopped traffic and were quite happy with our decision to stay at the front of the line. We returned back to our spot at the front and geared up for a long afternoon. Leigh read her book and walked around for most of the time, while David chatted with all the other people who were stopped.
The three additional hours of waiting passed with still no indication that the road would open soon. After waiting for six hours on the highway, we were frustrated with the situation but had no other options. The only road to Fairbanks from Whitehorse was on the Alaska Highway, so we resigned ourselves to waiting out the accident cleanup. Eventually, after 7.5 hours of waiting, we saw the cleanup crew haul away the truck and received word that we would be allowed to pass through soon. They set up a crew to monitor traffic because one lane of the road was still taken up by cleanup and environmental testing vehicles. After a total of eight hours waiting on the highway, we were the first car to drive past the accident and away from Whitehorse. As we drove, we passed a line of cars equally as long waiting on the other side of the accident. Everyone cheered as we drove through because we were all so thankful to be moving again.
We re-started our driving at 3:00 PM, which was nearly the time we were originally hoping to arrive in Fairbanks. Although we discussed driving part of the way and staying for one more night in a different town, we really wanted to make it to our new city. Luckily, our last day of the drive was the second-longest day of the year, and we had daylight for the duration of our drive. We also drove through some magnificent scenery and focused on finishing an audiobook we were listening to throughout the journey.
We reached the official end of the Alaska Highway in Delta Junction, Alaska around 11:15 PM. Although we were eager to get to Fairbanks, we couldn’t resist a quick stop to take our photos with the official sign. We pressed onward and eventually reached Fairbanks at 12:45 AM. We were staying with David’s new advisor, Regine, for a few days. She graciously made up a bed for us in her guest room, but was asleep due to our very late arrival. As we got ready for bed, we marveled about our journey – 11 days, 4,200 miles, 75 hours, 4 National Parks, 50 miles of hiking, 1 cracked windshield, 2 moose sightings, 13 bear sightings, hundreds of buffalo sightings. There was so much to reflect on that we could have talked for days, but as soon as our heads hit our pillows we were asleep.
Leigh joins me in writing about our adventures living in Alaska.