When we were camping at Blueberry Lake earlier this summer, we spent a rare sunny day hiking up to Worthington Glacier.
Worthington Glacier is located in Thompson Pass at Milepost 29 of the Richardson Highway. It’s a typical small valley glacier, approximately 4 miles long, and sits at an elevation of 3800 feet.
In normal years, the glacier is one of the most visited recreation areas on the Richardson, but this year we were the only ones hiking out at the glacier, while a few people hung out at the viewing area.
Worthington Glacier is retreating, although not quite as fast as other glaciers in Alaska. Thompson Pass is the snowiest area in the state of Alaska. On average, the pass gets 500 inches of snow every winter. It holds the state records of 974″ of snow in a year (81 feet!), and the most snow in a single day at 62 inches.
Still, Worthington is in retreat. In the late 1990’s, the glacier extended to the pond in the picture above. In the last 20 years, Worthington has retreated a quarter of a mile, in spite of the tremendous snowfall in the area.
Today, the Richardson Highway runs through Keystone Canyon, en route to Valdez. Back in the early territorial days of Alaska, people traveled this route on the Valdez Trail from coastal Valdez to Interior Alaska.
In 1905, nine separate entities were competing to build a railroad through Keystone to the copper mines of Kennecott. This tunnel, which is accessed off of the Richardson, is all that is left of the proposed railroad.
A gunfight erupted between opposing factions, work ceased in 1906, and the hand cut tunnel was never finished.
When we were recently camping down by Valdez, we stopped by to explore the old tunnel. Graffiti covers many of the rocks, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the effort it would have taken to cut through this rock wall in 1905-06 with hand tools.
There is both a silent film, and a novel titled “The Iron Trail”, based on this era of Alaska’s history.
After the strip down search my car suffered getting into Canada, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the U.S. Border Patrol. The officer was professional and to the point, and after a quick exchange of identification, I was welcomed back home. For the first time, I was asked for my car’s registration, but other than that, everything was par for the course.
The Yukon; finally I was in the Yukon Territory. I have nothing against B.C., but now Alaska is in the sights.
The AlCan is not fully paved
Don’t let anyone fool you, the Alaska Highway is not completely paved. It’s close, but it’s not complete. The Yukon always has sections that are gravel, and the sections go on for miles. It can be a bit dusty, especially when a semi truck is in front of you.
I admit the gravel travel is worth it once you come across Muncho Lake. The jade colored waters light up even on a dreary day. “Muncho” in the Kaska language translates to “big water”, and it is that,
Kluane Lake is the largest lake within the Yukon, that lies entirely within its borders. It’s a huge lake, and in normal years there is a visitor’s center that is worth a stop. This year, due to Covid-19, it was closed.
Another river to cross, but we’re getting closer
There were many businesses and sights closed to the public along the entire route. Places that I have historically stopped at for food or gas, were closed. Laird Hotsprings, a very popular natural swimming hole and gathering place, was completely shut down. For much of the route through northern British Columbia and across the Yukon, there were signs out on the road frontage thanking truckers. After a while, it made total sense. There is no one else driving these roads; just the truck drivers. One place I stopped at, near the Alaska border, there was a sign out front, and I did ask the owner about it. He told me that the truckers were the only reason he was open and able to stay afloat. No tourists, and only a few Alaskans like me, trying to get home.
A friend recently sent me this photo. I came back to Minnesota a year after first driving up to Alaska, because I needed a pickup, and vehicles can be expensive in Alaska, and often beat on. I forget all of the details, but it’s possible, I simply wanted to drive the AlCan again.
I found a 1966 Chevrolet C20, Camper Special in one of the auto trade magazines that were around back at the time. It came with bald, bias-ply tires, but a sound 327 engine, and a rather smooth ride, compared to my Bronco. I didn’t have anything in the trailer that belonged to me, but the canoe riding on the top is mine. I sent my Dad into a state of mild depression, when he saw what I was about to drive for 4000 miles.
I bought a set of tires, replaced all fluids, hoses and belts, and the truck made it to Alaska without so much as a hiccup.
I pushed the mileage to just under 650 on this day, getting to Toad River at around 8pm. A shortcut on Highway 29 meant that I could avoid Fort St John, but there was a major construction project on 29, so I doubt it cut off much time. Still, it was a highway I had not driven previously, and it’s always good to get in some new territory.
Overall, this part of B.C. is just stunning country, and there was wildlife galore. Black bears and bison, for the most part, but I did see a couple of moose.
Inside the Toad River Lodge: They collect hats.
My usual layover in this part of British Columbia is at the Toad River Lodge, and I swung in here once again. I’ve written about this lodge on here before, but I can offer a quick refresher. On my second drive to Alaska, I was driving a slightly older Chevy pickup, pulling a UHaul trailer. I don’t believe I had anything in the trailer, it was full of stuff a buddy of mine talked me into hauling up for him. I did make use of the trailer roof though. I pulled into the Toad River Lodge on that trek to Alaska, and watched a single engine aircraft land alongside the Alaska Highway, and then promptly taxi down the highway, where it pulled in front of the Toad River Lodge. They landed for some breakfast. I knew this was my kind of country at that moment.
They are currently doing a lot of work to the lodge. The old, and probably original cabin I stayed at, is no longer standing. Several new cabins, with running water even, now stand along the lake shore. I rented one of those new, fangled cabins for the night. Not as cozy, and without a bit of atmosphere, but I had a sound night of sleep.
The fourth day of the drive back to Alaska took me to McLeod Lake on the famed Fraser River of British Columbia.
I was starting to see more wildlife now, and that always adds to the drive for me. I was woefully unprepared for wildlife photography however, with a cell phone and the 120 shooter, a Kodak 66. I made do, as best I could.
The first real sighting in BC was a moose. I did not stop for a moose, nor did I later stop for a caribou. I see them all the time, as it is.
One of many black bear
I do not normally see a lot of black bear in Alaska, so I stopped to take pictures of a couple of them. In all, black bear ruled the animal sighting roost: I spotted 17 along the road, all eating the lush grass, like the one in the picture.
This picture came about, mainly because I had spotted a lynx, which is an incredibly rare sighting along a road. I hit reverse, but by the time I came to where I had seen the wary cat, it had made its way to the tree line. Just 100 yards further on, was this black bear. I hadn’t even made it out of second gear yet, so it didn’t take a lot of effort on my part to slow for it.
Further on down the road, I came across a pair of bison. I would go on to spot several on this day. They really are magnificent beasts.
I did not see my first grizzly until the final day of my drive, after crossing into Alaska. It was a sow and her cub. The cub was absolutely adorable, as it stood on its hind legs in order to get a better look at me, or maybe my car. I did slow down in order to attempt to get a picture, but that action seemed to intrigue the mother a tad too much. She started to trot right over to my car, leaving her cub standing on the opposite shoulder. Since I was in a car that sat lower than she stood, and I had an open window for a clear view, I decided the picture wasn’t that important and released the clutch to move forward. The sow continued to trot, and I proceeded to engage second gear.
The only restaurant food I had on the entire trip was in Missoula. I stopped at a small, local shop on Hwy 93. I walked up to the restaurant, and was greeted on the sidewalk by an employee. Several menus were on display boards along the sidewalk; it could have been a drive-in. There was only one other customer, a fellow traveler on a motorcycle. I placed an order, and waited out on the walk.
Any drive through western Montana is a passage through some beautiful country. The temps had dropped dramatically from the day before, the skies were overcast, and a light mist hung in the air. Highway 93 winds north out of Missoula, skirting the western shoreline of Flathead Lake. Eventually, it passes through Kalispell and Whitefish. The only bad traffic was in Whitefish. Oddly enough, I think it was the worst of the entire trip.
The Portal was different. Most of the normal questions were not asked, although I was asked if I was transporting a firearm. Covid-19 questions were on the front burner, opioid questions came in second. In all my travels through Canada, this was the first time my car was searched. And boy, was it searched. An agent even opened a mouthwash bottle, and did not screw the lid on properly. My duffle will have a minty fresh scent for the rest of the trip.
I was a bit surprised about the overzealous border agent, but I chalked it all up to boredom. I was there for approximately 40 minutes, and no one else came through. I was given my orders: Take the shortest route to the Alaska border, no stopping for food, no stopping for pictures, and only pay for gas at the pump. During the search, they found that I had all the food needed to cross, along with plenty of water and camping gear. I was asked if I had lodging plans, and I said I only had one night planned – camping near Golden, British Columbia. They must have been satisfied, because they let me pass.
*A footnote: I am not complaining about the procedure, as much as I’m detailing the account for other travelers. The world has changed, even between neighbors. I am extremely grateful that the Canadian officials let me return home through their country. They did not have to, and I am fully aware of that fact. Still, it was a night and day different experience, from what I have been through in the past.
The ZX resting in Kootenay NP
My first camp site in Canada was in BC’s Kootenay National Park. A little more formal of a setting than I had been visiting up until this point. Much of the facilities were closed. One tidbit of info: Just because a website says they have working showers at the campground, does not mean that one is allowed to use the working showers. All were shutdown due to the pandemic.
Notice, once again, I lost a front license plate to a souvenir hunter. The Nissan has been without a front plate since a visit to Tampa, Florida in 2016.
Day two of the road trip had absolutely beautiful weather. Slightly cooler than the day before, but still warm and a tad sticky.
I had camped out fairly close to Devil’s Tower, and actually had no real plans to stop. In the end, the sight of that column of rock rising up from above the Belle Fourche River valley, was too tempting.
Devil’s Tower is a butte formed of igneous rock. Known as the Bear’s Lodge locally, The Tower was the first national monument in the United States, established in 1906 by then President Theodore Roosevelt.
The Tower rises 1267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, and is 867 feet from base to summit. It’s an impressive sight, and I was not the only visitor to the monument.
The visitor’s center was closed. The parking lot at the trailhead was full, although the overflow parking was not. There was not one car in the parking lot with a Wyoming license plate; everyone was out of state. There were a lot of RV’s trying to force their way into some sort of parking situation, and park workers tried valiantly to get them to park in RV parking. So that part of the experience was no different than Pre-Covid.
There is a trail that runs around the Tower itself, that I had already trekked in the past. It was crowded, and confusion ran rampant. Once again, park workers were doing their best to get people to social distance, but few people were paying any attention. I decided to pass on that trail, and found a side track that no one else was on, just to stretch my legs.
Eventually, I had to get back on the road. It didn’t take long to pick up the interstate again, and I was off for Montana. Camping in the Lolo National Forest was the goal for the night.
Rolling hills of NE Wyoming, after the thunderstorm
Recently, I found myself in the Lower 48, with a car and no where to park it. The smart move was to sell the car in Minnesota, but the lure, and frankly, the need for a road trip was too strong to resist.
The rumor was that Canada would allow Alaskans to cross the border to return back home to Alaska. There were also several reports, that the final judgement was up to the individual border patrol agent at the port of entry. I decided to roll the dice, pack up the little 300zx, and drive the car back to Alaska.
This would be the twelfth time I have driven the AlCan, or the Alaska Highway, as it is more commonly known. I knew it would be a different sort of trip, but I didn’t know what to expect in these anxious times, so it was hard to predict how different it would be.
I drove I-90 across South Dakota. I have not driven the interstate for ages, as I try to avoid them, when I can. This trip, it seemed like the smart move. The interstate made it a lot easier to avoid people, plus I wasn’t sure if the small towns in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana would care to see a car zip through with Alaska plates.
Day one’s goal was to get to the Black Hills National Forest, just past Rapid City and into Wyoming. The weather was hot & sticky, and the air conditioner in the car had recently stopped blowing cold air. An attempt was made to fix that, but with working windows and a T-Top, I wasn’t overly put out by the heat. The 90 degree weather did force me to take the top off before I made it out of Minnesota.
Aladdin General Store
I veered off I-90 and took SoDak Hwy 34 near Spearfish. The hot & humid weather had been building dark storm clouds on my horizon for a while, so I stopped to put the tops back on the roof of the car. Immediately after, the wind picked up, the sky darkened even more, and the sound of hail hit the recently replaced glass tops. The cell phone gave me an automated message that I had never seen before: Tornado Warning in your vicinity until 7pm. Then the rain came down in absolute torrents. I was impressed, but I pressed on. There was no place to stop anyway. I followed a truck’s set of taillights as best I could, and continued on.
I eventually drove through the storm, and it was beautiful weather on the west side of the Black Hills. I stopped briefly in the community of Aladdin, Wyoming: Population 15, Cell Coverage: zero, wonderful country: as far as the eye could see.
Not long after Aladdin was the campground I was looking for in the national forest. Within minutes, I had started some charcoal, and was setting up camp among the tall pines of the Black Hills.