To say that both Mr. Wonderful (MW) and I had been dreading the drive on Monday, June 19, would not be an understatement. We’d read and heard that the Top of the World and Taylor Highways sucked…lots of gravel and dirt, terrible pavement where it was paved, narrow, steep drop-offs, etc., etc., etc. The drive from Carmacks to Dawson City had been pretty darned bad, and it appeared that this one was going to be MUCH worse. In addition to the actual drive, we also had to get across the river on the George Black Ferry, which we had heard often had big delays with hours-long waits and priority for commercial traffic. To prep for all of that, we got everything hooked up and ready to go on Sunday night, including taking a few extra precautions with spices, etc., on the inside. Pulling out of the RV park at about 6:10 AM, we got our first surprise at the ferry. It was parked on the other side of the river and there was NO ONE WAITING! It is truly a tiny boat: we figured it would hold two large RVs/semi-trucks with a couple of cars. By the time it came across, picked us up, and deposited us on the other side, it took about 25 minutes, total, and no one else showed up. Awesome! (Incidentally, in the winter there is an ice road at this crossing.)
So off we go on what started out as dirt, then did alternate between that, gravel, and occasional pavement all the way to the U. S. border about 50 miles away. If you’ve read this for any period of time, you know that we are not strangers to dirt roads and have drug Penelope and then Petunia all over the place on the dusty tracks. After all the hype about this one, imagine our delight to find that it was a really good road. There were sporadic rough spots, but nothing really bad at all. Plus, there were plenty of places to pull off and take a break. Whew! Just a few miles up the road, we came upon a porcupine on walkabout, then saw another a little further along. We also caught a glimpse of a black bear, but he was too quick for pics. The drive to the border is dominated by high, rolling hills, deep valleys, and beautiful, snowy mountains in the distance. We also ran up on snow at our level in north-facing areas. This first section is truly remote. There were a couple of turn-offs right past the river that might have gone to homes, and we passed three campers boondocking close to the U. S. border. Other than that, we passed ONE truck, and looking out across the vast openness, NOTHING else. No power lines. No cell towers. No houses. No nothing. At one rest stop, we saw the remains of a tiny cabin that was clearly very old. What would it have been like to live up there? That is independence on a grand scale. We had to wait about 15 minutes for the border to open, so we walked around a bit at the last rest area, then were first in line to cross. After three questions, we crossed back in the U.S.A at Poker Creek, Alaska.
After crossing to the American side, we were pleasantly surprised with a beautifully paved, perfect road. That lasted until we hit the Taylor Highway at the Jack Wade Junction, then boom…dirt/gravel again. I have to say, the Canadians do a better job on their “unmaintained” surfaces than we seem to, but this road was not anything like the “road to hell” in Montana. Washboarding was only in a couple of spots where water crossed, and potholes in general were minimal. The road was narrower, too, but I only recall one spot where two RVs would not have been able to pass. There were also a couple of tight turns, but not at all like some mountain switchbacks. We drove another 27 miles to Chicken, Alaska, our planned lunch stop. Having lost an hour at the border, it wasn’t even 10 AM, though, so breakfast was the ticket. Owner Max and crew at the Chicken Creek Cafe cranked out a pretty nice meal, but the true eye feast was cooling along the counter…apple pie, blueberry pie, cookies, brownies, scones, and cinnamon rolls…all fresh baked. The smells were amazing, and I’ll admit we ended up leaving with a brownie and two scones…orange with dark chocolate bits. Yum!
FROM THE CHICKEN FACTS SIGN: 1) Chicken is so named because the original, miner inhabitants could not spell ptarmigan. 2) There are around 15 full-time residents. 3) The road closes in winter. 4) Mail is delivered by plane twice a week, if the weather is okay. 5) Medivac goes to Fairbanks in the event of emergency. 6) There is no sales tax. 7) The Pedro Dredge was dismantled and moved from its original location north of Fairbanks to Chicken in 1959. There it operated for 8 years on lower Chicken Creek, removing over 55,000 ounces of gold…that’s ~$80 million today. After sitting idle for more than 20 years, the dredge was moved to its present location and became a National Historic Site.
By the time we hit the road again, traffic had picked up in both directions, although still fairly sparse. For this last section of the Taylor Highway, approximately 65 miles, the notes say “Mostly paved. Few rough sections and some gravel patches along the way.” Now, you’d expect the “mostly paved” portion of the road to be better than the dirt/gravel sections, but you would be wrong. The pavement actually heats up the permafrost, causing lots of heaves, which makes it a little like riding a kiddie roller coaster. Ugh! Plus there are lots of potholes and broken pavement, too. That is the only section on this trip that shook our spare tire loose. (After losing one in Montana a couple of years ago, we have a backup holder.) It is also the first time EVER that my magnetic spice tins came off the wall. Our last stop was to take in the view at the Mount Fairplay Wayside. At the deck there, I found fresh elk/caribou poop.
INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: Caribou and reindeer are the same species with very few differences. Some people call the domesticated version…think Santa’s sleigh…reindeer and the wild version caribou, but that is not completely true. Although there are some wild reindeer in Alaska (imported from Siberia), the vast majority of what you see there are caribou. Reindeer are native to Northern Europe and Asia.
Unfortunately, for the last 20 miles or so, we ended up behind someone towing a travel trailer and driving at least 10-15 mph slower than the road required, so basically jogging. That aside, we finally made it back to the Alaska Highway and arrived in Tok early enough to give Petunia and Brutus a bath before settling into the Tundra RV Park & Bar. Our campsite was in the woods, and when we stepped out of the truck, we were attacked by mosquitoes. Everyone who comes to Alaska talks about them, but this is the first time we’ve really encountered it. MW grabbled the bug spray, then we got everything set up. I was exhausted, but needed to make a quick run to the grocery store to get dinner together. Then it was totally feet-up time.
Tuesday morning was rough. The night before I had been coughing a bit, and thought I aspirated a bug or some of the bug spray the day before. Sleep was elusive overnight, so I turned it into a pajama day, napping a bit. MW went to the post office and the Visitor Center to scope out activities. Mid-afternoon he took a nice, long walk and sat up at the lounge visiting with the locals for a while. He particularly enjoyed talking to one who was an engineer on the B-1 and F-111 programs. You know airplanes get him all tingly!! By nightfall it was clear that I was actually pretty sick. Unbeknownst to me, by bedtime, MW had begun to feel it, too.
Wednesday we were both pretty puny and only went out to run by the grocery store for more NyQuil, keeping our distance from other humans. Tok doesn’t have a pharmacy, so I put off any doctor thoughts until we get to Delta Junction on Thursday, if needed. MW napped a bit, and I outright slept for several hours. Later I worked on a little writing. That was pretty much it.
Of all of the private places we have stayed, the Tundra RV Park & Bar campsites felt most like a state park. Located on the Alaska Highway just west of Tok, you can easily access anything in the area. Heck, you can even take the 1-1/2 hour drive up to Chicken if you like. Amenities include the Tundra Bar, camp store, laundry, vehicle wash, and dump station. Sites in the seasonal campground are wooded and spread out nicely. Options include full- and partial hookup with 50/30/20-amp electric and basic tent sites. All have fire pits and picnic tables. There is a potluck in the bar on the first Sunday of each month with campers and locals, and they occasionally have live music, too. With the road so close, we were surprised at how quiet it was. For this stay in June 2023 we paid $180.00 for 3 nights.
Thursday we were both feeling a little better, but not great. Thankfully, we had less than 2 hours to drive and no real stops, so we had a slow ramp-up. I’d like to give you great observations about the drive to Delta Junction, but in all fairness, most of my visual was the inside of my eyelids. My eyes just would NOT stay open. I can say that, while there were still steep, snowy mountain peaks in the distance, the closer ones were less steep and severe. Near our destination, we came upon large, open, grassy fields, and then saw a herd of cattle. I didn’t realize I was missing cows until I saw them! We made it to the campground by 12:45 PM or so, and pretty much crashed as soon as everything was set up. Sadly, later in the afternoon we had to turn the air conditioning on in Petunia for only the second time since we left home. I hope that isn’t a trend approaching! At one point in the afternoon, MW said “moose”! He caught a glimpse of a mom and baby walking through the woods at the edge of the campground. Eventually they stepped out onto the dirt road beside us, so we got a good look. Love it!
Friday MW was a little more improved, but I was still the same except for the addition of a migraine. Ugh! But according to all of our mothers, clean underwear is a necessity in case of an accident, so off I went to find a laundromat. On the way into town, I did get to watch a C-130 doing touch-n-goes at Allen Army Airfield, so that was a plus. I found a small facility that was empty, so I could get the chore done without being around other people. That was pretty much all the energy I had for the day, though, so nothing else to tell you about. Oh, except that it was danged HOT again, and we had to run the air conditioner. Yuck! That is THREE days now, not that I’m counting!!
Saturday we were clearly both on the back end, but still had very little energy. After getting our act together, we headed in to check out the Visitor Center, then grabbed lunch at the Buffalo Center Drive-In. The plan was to get it to go, but they had an outdoor eating area that worked well to keep us separated from strangers. The food was typical burger fare, and pretty good.
Next we drove down to the Tanana River bridge where the Alaska Pipeline also crosses. I will share a lot more about the pipeline in the next post, but this crossing marks the second longest bridge in the system. A suspension bridge, it is 1,200 feet long between the two towers and uses nearly 25,000′ of steel cable (nearly 5 MILES!) to support the pipeline. They say it can withstand a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, -60 F temps, and 100-mph winds. Wow!
Delta Junction is pretty interesting. Aside from being the northern terminus of the Alcan, it is also a large, agricultural community. It all began with homesteading in the early 1950s. In addition to that acreage, the State of Alaska sold parcels ranging from 20-320 acres in the late 1970s to use for dairy, other livestock, and vegetable production. Larger parcels averaging 2,750 acres were also sold to be used for grain and other forage production. There was additional land sold in the early 1980s, which brought the total up to around 100,000 acres. Today the area is known for potatoes, beef, pork, barley, oats, and milk. In addition there are bison and elk ranches, and one guy even has Yak! It never would have occurred to me that so much farming/ranching would be done here.
On Sunday we opted to catch up on our Sneedville First Baptist peeps, then headed to the Big Delta Brewing Lodge restaurant. The food was just average, but it was nice to get out of the RV for a while. We rested in the afternoon in anticipation of the long drives coming up. Thankfully, we are both regaining our energy and are just dealing with the residual head gunk.
The Clearwater Lodge website will show you a nice bar a restaurant sitting on the banks of the Clearwater River. Except that isn’t there; it burned down a couple of years ago. I picked this place because it had everything sitting right on the river with terrific views, so imagine my surprise when we checked in with the owner a couple of weeks ago, and he said all of that was gone. What is left are three dry cabins that I’m not sure he is currently renting out; six 50-amp, full-hookup, pull-through sites; three back-in, electric only sites near the river; and a clean bathhouse. The owner was very nice and plans to rebuild the rest at some point, but it doesn’t look like any time soon. That said, it had everything we needed, and was within 15 minutes of town. We thought the remote location would make for a quiet stay, but many of the area residents race around on 4-wheelers quite a bit. There were also lots of families coming down to fish on the weekend bringing their quads and plenty of vehicle traffic, too. It wasn’t bad, though, and we will be staying again on our way out of Alaska. For this stay in June 2023, we paid $80 for 4 nights. We did tell the owner he needs to raise his rates for full-hookup!
That’s it for this one. Enjoy the short read, because the next one will be EPIC!! We are headed up to the ARCTIC OCEAN! See you on the path!!
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