The Wilderness that is Alaska

I don’t even know where to begin about Alaska. This place is incredibly magical, WILD, remote and possibly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. There were a lot of things we witnessed and experienced in this incredible place, while spending a couple weeks between Fairbanks, Denali National Forest, Anchorage, Seward and the cherry on top, Hatcher’s Pass. I knew that in order to really comprehend the vastness of this place, we needed more time.  Unfortunately, as you probably know, late September isn’t the most ideal time to be in a place that is known for brutal weather and its winters. We were averaging high forties to low fifties fahrenheit during the day, and high twenties and low thirties at night, and the idea of having to sleep in the van in even colder weather sounded really unpleasant (we do not have a heater), so we explored what we could and decided that we would be back for another round of venturing in the near future.

Luckily, we had another pleasant border crossing from Canada to Alaska and we were grateful for it.  The hours and hours driving through the rest of the Yukon Territory without cell service were great because not only did we learn A LOT from the podcasts that we downloaded prior, but it also helped us enjoy the views throughout the drive without distraction as our journey continued into the Northern wilderness. Here is a list of some of the podcasts that we really enjoyed learning from:

Once we gained access into the state, we arrived in Fairbanks and visited the Morris Visitor’s Center where we learned that there were huts in the back countries of Alaska that are maintained by MCA (Mountaineering Club of Alaska).  This is important information that will be relevant in the later part of this post. We also read about a hot spring destination called Chena Hot springs, but as soon as we realized it was a resort, we decided against it and headed to our next destination, Denali National Park.

Once we entered Denali and made a quick stop to the Visitors Center, we learned that Denali is a very very remote National Park that only allows a certain number of vehicles in per season to maintain the park’s fragile ecosystem.  The season begins in May, when the park holds a lottery for visitors that applied to take their own vehicles into the park.  If you are chosen, you have access to the park at the end of the season once the shuttles stop running (Mid September).  Since we didn’t know about the lottery and we arrived in Denali the last open week of the season, we lucked out, but we also missed out on the opportunity to explore further into the park because we were unprepared.  They have daily shuttles that take hikers/backpackers into the park, but those also stopped running for the season by the time we arrived. There was some good news though; there was a sled dog demonstration going on that afternoon, and we both love animals, so if there is an opportunity to spend quality time with them, we will.

There have been sled dogs working in Denali NP for over 100 years, and they still use them today because during the winter months, the sled dogs are more reliable than motorized vehicles.  The pups are trained early on and become full fledged sled dogs by the time they reach two years of age.  They serve the park until they reach 9 years old and then get adopted to new homes. After they park rangers gave the sled dog demonstration, we visited the main training facility building and it was covered with the name tags of all the previous dogs that have served in the park over the last century. Here are some fascinating facts we learned that day about these brilliant animals:

  • Sled dogs ideal environmental temperature is -20° F………..
  • They have big fluffy tails that they use to cover their nose when they sleep so they can keep the heat close to their bodies
  • Each dog on a sled team pulls an average weight of 60 lbs, but they can carry a lot more
  • They seriously LOVE their job.
  • Each dog in the sled line has a very specific role based on where they are placed in the sled line.
    • Front Leaders (most experienced with good environment instincts & listen to commands)
    • Swing dogs (learning from the leads, helps turn and keep pace)
    • Team dogs (horsepower of the sled)
    • Wheel dogs (strongest)
  • And basically everything else that you read about in the last paragraph

We hiked back to the van after the demonstration/dog cuddles and decided that since the park was still accessible for the first 15 miles from the entrance, we would explore and hike Savage River the next day. We found a quiet spot along the road to settle in for the night in Chugach National Forest and we were very grateful for the views.

The next day we hiked the 2 mile Savage River loop trail just before the rain moved into the area and since the rain decided to stay, we headed out of the park towards our next destination. Denali, we fudged up and didn’t get the chance to explore the way we wanted, so I vow that we will be back to experience more of your great wilderness very very soon.

The longest part of our visit took place in Anchorage.  Our first adventure was a hike in Winner Creek.  It wasn’t a difficult hike, but there was a very fun hand tram that took hikers across the gorge in a 2 person metal cage that was hung from one side to another on a pulley system that we used to get ourselves across.  The hike itself was about 6 miles long and had some of the most lush green forests we have ever seen.

We also had friends that lived in town, so after the hike, they introduced us to Kincaid Park and then to the best pizza joint in town (Moose Tooth Pizza), which was followed by “IT” at the local cinema during $5.75 movie nights! While spending 5 days in Anchorage, this is what we learned about the 49th state:

  • Internet is still metered in a lot of places in Alaska, and because of this Blockbuster still exists
  • There is NO sales tax in Anchorage
  • Food costs more because everything is shipped, but if you have a Costco card, all the prices are the same as the lower 48.
  • There is a fresh water spring that flows from a spigot on the Seward highway by mile marker 109 1/2, where locals come to fill up water containers with clean natural water.
  • From the Seward 1 HWY, you can see the Bore tide in the Turnagain Arm Bay. A bore tide happens when a rush of water comes into an inlet after an extreme low tide during a new or full moon.  The low tide is so extreme that the bay looks just a smooth and glossy mud flat for miles between the mountains before the tide comes back in.
  • During the summer, they do experience temperatures in the 80-90 degrees F
  • The Aurora Borealis is visible under the right circumstances and isn’t always easy to catch. During the fall, the lights are a greener hue and other colors appear later on in the winter.  Get away from the city lights on a clear night for best viewing. It also helps if its a new moon.  During our stay they said the best time to see it is around 2-3am, but we were lucky enough to catch it around 10:30-11:30pm.

Thanks to our dear friends Bruce and Alexx, we learned a lot about Anchorage and what it has to offer, so the following day we decided to go back to Kincaid Park for some mountain biking.  We went on a 8.8 mile ride picking our route on the following trails: Middle Earth Trail > Mighty Bike > Toilet Bowl > Boiling Alley > Tower Power > Change of Pace. The trails were very well maintained and because there was only 790 ft of elevation gain throughout, the rolling trails were a blast to ride in such a lush environment.  On the last mile or so though, on the Change of Pace trail, Szymon and Izzy rode ahead and took a left turn that was surrounded by tall brush.  I was picking up the rear about 5 seconds behind them and approached the same turn as I saw Szymon whiz by. While preparing to lean into the corner, a big black bear popped its head out of the bushes onto the trail.  I yelled BEAR as I hit the breaks in a panic slowing out of the turn, too afraid to look back behind me.  I knew not to run, but every part of my being told me to (that fight or flight response happens very quickly), but I got off my bike and saw Szymon coming towards me with the bear spray in hand and he watched the bear just saunter across the trail and back into the bush.  Here was the problem.. The bike path on that portion of the trail are switch backs and the bear was cutting right through it, so we didn’t know if we should ride or walk until we knew the coast was clear.  I have NEVER in my entire life encountered a wild animal of that size in its natural habitat.  When people told me about bear encounters, I brushed it off thinking it would never happen to me, but never again will I underestimate bear country.  They share the land with people up there and their habitat is shrinking as our population grows.  It is important for us to do all that we can to make this world a safe place for all of its inhabitants, so if you want to explore the Alaskan wilderness, ALWAYS CARRY BEAR SPRAY, and bring bear bells.

The following couple of days consisted of home cooked meals with our friends, visiting the Anchorage Museum, working out of cafes, some indoor climbing at Alaska Rock Gym and learning that if we don’t close the freezer door all the way, we will have an ice melt in our van.

From Anchorage our next destination was Seward.  It was a difficult decision to make because we heard that Seward is always raining this time of year, but while we were on the way there we were able to visit the Animal Conservation Center and the Exit Glacier that is located in the Kenai Fjord National Park with light rain. Our visit to the Exit Glacier was a real eye opener because there were markers along the road that showed where the glacier used to sit during different periods of time.  Within just 1 century we saw that the glacier has receded over a mile into the mountain pass.

Seward is a small port city located in the Kenai peninsula and its landscape is surrounded by mountains. The clear crisp air was filled with the salt of the sea and even though a lot of the town has shut down for the coming winter, the stillness of the town was a beautiful sight. Since we haven’t had seafood on our trip so far, we decided to stop into a local spot that serves a “Bucket of Butts”, which is their spin on fish and chips and it is done right with hand breaded halibut and fries. We highly recommend it, along with a bowl of seafood chowder. Afterwards we grabbed a coffee and headed down to the beach and took some time staring out into the infinite views of mountains that meet the sea.

Finally, after all that, our last destination was awaiting us. Remember how I mentioned the MCA manages huts in the back country and Hatcher’s Pass trail? Well, that was our last hoorah before leaving Alaska and it took place in a small town just an hour and a half outside of Anchorage called Palmer.  We prepared our backpacking gear (Izzy too) and headed to the trail head just 15 miles outside of Palmer; the Gold Mint Trail that leads you to the Mint Hut and Glacier.  The hike is a 9.3 mile hike with 2500 ft of elevation gain.  We started the hike mid day and the first 4 miles were beautiful and well maintained with wide open views of the mountains surround the pass.  The following 4 miles were a bit muddier because of the rains and we had to break brush a bit more to get to the base of the mountain with, so far, a total elevation gain of around 800 ft.  We were also in deep bear country so we had to yell “Hey bear” every few minutes or play music to let them know we were around. Then came the final ascent.  In the ratings we read that the hike was easy, and we learned later that it was considered easy on the mountaineering scale, but if you’re just an average hiker from LA, this can be a pretty big challenge. If you choose to take this on, be prepared.  Once we got to the base we look up to see a mountain of boulders that we had to climb to get to the top.  Since they were boulders and not dirt, there was no trail at that point and we had to follow the cairns to know that we were headed in the right direction.  The final 1700 ft of elevation gain happened in the last mile as we headed straight up the mountain (I will never complain about switch backs ever again). Once we reached the top and turned the last corner, we saw the little hut, and it was the most glorious thing we had ever seen.

It is a small hut that sleeps 9 with gas lanterns, a toboggan, an outhouse just for poo, sleeping bags/pads, a dining table with cards and board games and last but not least a journal.  The journal was filled with entries from previous hikers that have visited the hut and they had some amazing stories to share.  Backpackers from all over the world came to this place and shared their experiences and some of the stories dated all the way into the 1970’s when the hut was first built. We spent the night reading other people stories and realized how much world there was to experience.  People are capable of seeing and doing so much in a lifetime, I wonder sometimes if we even have the time to see it all, but these people have taught me that if you want it bad enough, anything is possible.

The next day we woke bright and early surrounded by the cold air of the mountains. We repacked our bags, warmed up the last of our water for tea and began our hike back to the van.  A side note: There is an opportunity to hike up a bit higher from the hut to see the Mint Glacier and also another route which leads you to a traverse that takes you to the Bomber hut.  This Mint Bomber traverse is used when people wish to take a multiple day hike through the pass.  The Bomber hut gets its name from a B-29 bomber that crash landed in the pass in 1959 and is still there for adventure seekers to see.  If we had a few extra days, we would have loved to have hiked the whole pass, but that will also have to wait until next time. Remember that these huts are managed and maintained by the MCA and the contributions matter. If you visit and you are not a member, apply beforehand on their website and leave the hut in better condition then you found it for others to enjoy.

Once we got down the mountain and made it back into town, we hobbled into a thai restaurant with major hunger pains. Then the realization came… The views and hike are incredible, but I hike for the food reward after an adventure.  Thank you Alaska for all that is your wondrous glory and the memories made.  We will be back to explore more very soon.  With love, K & S.

Crossing Borders: Glacier NP to Alberta, Canada

We made it! We are finally in Canada and I am really excited to be crossing imaginary lines that divide lands and mindsets. We drove up through Glacier National Park which borders Montana and Canada.  The visit in the park was short lived because of the fires that were burning in Kootenai National Park, just southwest of where we were visiting.  The fires weren’t as big as the ones that started back in July of this year, but the shift in the winds blew the smoke in our direction and for a second there, we swore that the fires were following us. We heard about the fires happening at home in LA, Hurricane Harvey that hit Texas, Hurricane Irma picking up speed in the Atlantic heading towards the Caribbean and Florida and the fires that were burning through Montana and my heart was filled with sadness and worry for all the people affected by these disasters. Our prayers are with you and we were grateful for the people that helped us stay informed.

I really did wish that the weather permitted us for a longer visit, but sometimes life happens and we learn to roll with the punches, so the same day we explored Glacier we headed North to the Canadian border.

Border crossing was a lot simpler than we thought. We organized the van, had all of our documents (for us and Izzy) on hand and we pulled up to the window.  We presented our passports, letting the lady know that we were making our way up into Alaska and she just waved us through no questions asked. It was the easiest crossing we could’ve had and we were so grateful for it.  Once in Canada, we made our way North into a small town called Cardston. We looked up what our camping options were for Canada and to our surprise we found out that RVing through this country is not exactly the easiest to figure out.  We found that there is free Crown Land camping available for residents, but outside of RV parks within the small towns, there wasn’t any designated places to park over night.  With a bit of luck though, we stumbled onto the Lee Creek Campgrounds.  They had wonderfully clean bathrooms/showers, a coin laundry available for guest, WIFI and water fill stations throughout the grounds so we splurged a whole $20 to stay worry free for the night.

After leaving camp the next day, we headed into Calgary.  There were a couple car maintenance routines we had to take care of and luckily we found a service center in town that works on Sprinters.  We took Gaia into Astra Automotives for an SRS light that triggered when we left LA.  They ran the codes and found that there was a malfunction in the seatbelt buckle and if we wanted to wait for it, we would’ve had to wait a week or so for the parts to come in.  So instead of getting it fixed, we had the oil change done and they also put in a air intake pipe and new filters instead. (It needed to be done, plus we figured we could take care of the SRS when we got back home around Christmas time) The guys at Astra were great and I was so glad we were able to find an honest mechanic so far from home.

Calgary otherwise was uneventful.  It was a convenient place for the things that we needed, and the Walmart parking lot was filled with other van lifers, but it was time to move on to greener and better things, so on to Banff we went.

Banff is awesome. We got into the small mountain town and we were in love with how green and scenic the area was.  It had a bigger downtown and a very helpful visitors center where they gave us trail maps for mountain biking.  We followed the map to a parking lot that happened to have a bike park right by it, so guess what we did:

We also got lucky with an unmarked parking spot nearby, and got to camp for free near the bike park.

The next morning, we woke up with the sun knowing that we had an epic bike ride on our hands before heading back to a cafe for some more work so here is a glimpse of our morning ride. We haven’t known you long Banff, but we love you.

The Nicest People Live in Bozeman, MT

Have you ever heard of a city called Bozeman? Neither have I before coming into this town.  Bozeman is a small city located about 90 miles north of Yellowstone National Park.  Speaking of Yellowstone, I won’t bore you with the same details that any google search can tell you about it, so here are just a few photos from our visit.

Bozeman surprised us.  We didn’t know anything about this city or what to expect.  The thing that we noticed initially was that it seemed like it was a more progressive place than the towns we passed prior on this trip. The first thing was the amount of solar panels that were on the buildings and homes.  It wasn’t a common sight anywhere else except for the solar fields in Nevada that we passed through.  The second thing we noticed were how kind the people were that we encountered.

The first encounter happened at the The Community Market CO-OP. The CM CO-OP was better than any Whole Food or Sprouts that I have ever been to.  A two story building with a market downstairs, a cafe upstairs and the entire building was powered by 48 solar panels on the roof of the building.  The amount of organic choices and bulk items they sold were second to none and the prices were very reasonable. The first encounter happened like this: We brought our own bottles from the van to fill with Kombucha because the market had it on tap. I have never used a bottle cleaner on a water dispensing machine before, so instead of having the bottle pointed down for the water to push up into, I had the bottle facing upright on the wrong spigot. When I hit the cleaning button on the machine, the water jet exploded shooting water everywhere and all over me. A guy came over from the meat department came over and asked if I enjoyed the shower.  We laughed I apologized profusely and he helped me clean up the water saying not to worry about it because it happens all the time and we all had a good laugh.  He also suggested that we visit a place called Dean’s Zesty Booch, because it was a cool spot to visit if we are booch fans (they brew their own in house), so that is what we did.

Dean’s Zesty Booch was a great place.  We parked our van in their parking lot and strolled inside.  There was a band setting up outside for a performance that was happening that evening around 6-9pm.  Since we had a few hours before the show began, we purchased a bottle of the blackberry vanilla booch and sat down to do some work.  The guy that served us went by the name of Q. He has been there from the beginning and watched the business grow into what it is today.  They had two 750 gallon tanks of booch fermenting behind the bar and a dozen wooden barrels behind it to finish up the fermenting process. While Szymon and I worked, we asked him a few questions about the best route up north and he helped us map up the drive into Whitefish, MT. He made a few suggestions and said the town was worth a visit and he knew it well because he grew up there and he also told us about the fires that were blazing in the area and told us to be careful and to stay informed.

After our second encounter, we headed back to the van to get ready for the show.  While in the van, we had a couple (Tim & Carli) come up to us and they asked us if they could take a look inside. We told them about our trip and they said they did a road trip all around Mexico not too long ago.  They wrote down for us the places we should visit during our drive through.  They wished us luck and headed in to enjoy the show.  We also met a nice 2 nice women that came by and asked the same.  They said that we were brave and that they would love to follow our journey online.

Once at the show “The Band” that was covering “The Band” (Bob Dylan’s band) was playing and they put on one heck of a show. There were so many people there and everyone was laughing, drinking, eating and having a great time. After enjoying the show for a while, we realized that as we head north we might have less and less internet, so we went back by Dean’s to use their WIFI to download music and podcasts to our phone. During that time, we couldn’t leave the area so I approached a girl that was standing by us.  Bridgette had 3 of her little nieces with her and it was a joy watching them play.  She was also with a guy named Jordan and he used to be band mates with the people that were on stage.  We all had a great conversation about music, passion in what we do and traveling.  Everyone we came across were the best kind of people.  People that were curious, open and kind.  Our favorite encounters happened in this town and we will never forget the kindness that the people there showed us and we will be sure to pay that forward.

Joshua Tree National Park

Shortly after driving Gaia the van across the country from Chicago to Los Angeles, an opportunity to go to Joshua Tree National Park came up. A friend of Kyuri’s extended an invite to go climb the boulders & rock formations at the national park, and to camp overnight with his group of his friends. A short distance drive from Los Angeles, the iconic Joshua Tree made famous by the U2 album cover is located in the Mojave desert of Southeastern California. The park is very popular with rock climbers, with thousands of climbing routes available at various levels of difficulty. It didn’t take long to convince me. Climbing gear, sleeping bags, and food supplies were packed, and both Kyuri and I headed out for a short weekend of climbing and van camping.

I’ve done a small amount of indoor climbing, but this was to be my first time rock climbing the outdoors. Climbing is a sport I’ve picked up as an internal physical and mental challenge to myself, especially since I fall into the not so great with heights camp. I’ve gotten more comfortable climbing the 50-70 feet tall walls at indoor gyms, but was really looking forward to getting that first outdoor climb off my bucketlist. Through gym practice I’ve gotten familiar with tying the figure 8 follow through-knot, and belaying, but was told by friends that outdoors poses different challenges.

As our group settled on a climbing spot and got the gear ready, I had the opportunity to watch some of the more experienced climbers lead climb their way up to set up a top rope for the remainder of us. The sight of the 100+ foot wall in front of me was making me a little anxious, but eventually it was my turn to try my hands at a 5.9 route. I began my way up and the first thing I noticed was how much more grippier the rock was compared to gym holds, and then when further up how much more abrasive the rock is on one’s hands. The approach is also a bit different in that there are no color coordinated holds, and one has to find their own way up. I immediately enjoyed that aspect of outdoor climbing. After getting up halfway through the approach, I made the rookie mistake of looking down (for someone with a fear of heights). My first reaction was to get back down and get more comfortable with a few more attempts, but some encouragement from the group & belayer below spurred me to take a deep breath, tell myself I can do this, and proceed up.

Halfway up the second climb looking down.

The climb was going well, and I got about 7/8’s of the way up before a more challenging section got the better of me and I ended up getting belayed down. Despite not making it all the way up, I was glad I gave it a try. It could have been easy to back out and not make the move up when I was halfway up, but it’s amazing what a small change of mindset and internal pep talk can do. Not only in relation to climbing, but in all walks of life. I ended up trying a 5.11 approach that required a different technique, and also made it a decent way up. That one also felt good, and I can’t wait to do some more outdoor climbing.

Our group left the climbing spot right around sunset, and we headed out to our camp spot right outside the park. There were a couple of children amongst the group, and one of the more memorable moments of the trip for me was when one of them asked me why I pronounce Theo as “Teo”. The TH sound is almost non-existent in Poland, so I naturally pronounce TH as T. Let me tell you, getting taught proper pronunciation by a five year old can be a trip!