It took us almost two months to leave the wider St. George area, there is simply too much climbing, life is easy and the weather is great - but by mid May we decided to move on. We drove east, visited Bryce Canyon, Escalante, Arches National Park climbed a bit around Moab and then headed north-west towards Maple Canyon.
Located in a very rural section of Utah, Maple Canyon is a major but unique climbing spot. The canyon is made up of conglomerate rock of all inclinations but offers some very steep climbing on features - mostly cobbles of all sizes - that can’t be found elsewhere. Our climbing got interrupted by a cold-front that brought snow for two days and in the end it were our tired bodies that made the decision to move on - as hard as it was - relatively easy. Our time in the USA was slowly coming to an end and we had to decide between two major climbing spots in Idaho, The City of Rocks and The Fins - both came highly recommended and in the end we decided for the technical and slightly overhanging limestone of The Fins, near Arco and Howe, both small towns in southern Idaho. On our way we visited Pocatello, the famous potato museum in Blackburn, and EBR I, the world’s first nuclear power plant located in the plains of Idaho, just nearby one of the huge national laboratories of the US. The whole area is still proud of the achievements in nuclear science (still being) made there and you will find everything from atomic burgers to a small town called Atomic Village that makes reference to them.
The Fins are an amazing place, located on the edge of the first mountain range after the plains of the Snake River valley with breathtaking views of extinct volcanos and empty land. The Fins as such are not less amazing - “slices” of perfectly cut limestone aligned along the hills.
The climbing can be accessed from either below the cliffs or from the top of the mountain. On our way up the steep road we managed again to get stuck in a short stretch of muddy road below the last remaining snow field. With a lot of digging an the friendly help of a local climber we finally made it out. After a few days of climbing Linette, Gabe and Ethan joined us from their home in Washington State and together we climbed, barbecued marshmallows and ate atomic burgers until it was time to head to the border - because of both, an expiring visa and the lack of skin on our fingers. Enjoying hot springs on our way north through Idaho and Montana we crossed into British Columbia at Roosville and soon entered the vast national parks of Yoho, Banff and Jasper where we encountered our first bears. The compass was set to north and via a short stretch through Alberta we arrived in Dawson Creek, the official beginning and mile zero of the Alaska highway.
The exhaust pipe was due for some welding before we continued. Soon thereafter the distances between outposts of civilisation became longer and the wildlife more prominent. We saw the first caribous, wild bison, black bears, moose and endless forests and lakes. Traffic was almost non-existent and after Fort Nelson we entered the wilderness of northern British Columbia - disrupted only by some oil exploration activity. Just before Watson Lake we entered the Yukon Territories that really live up to their slogan “Larger than Life” - 55’000 people live on almost 500’000 square kilometres, 2/3 of them in the capital Whitehorse that became our base for a few days. Our niece Susi was due to arrive via Calgary in a few days and our plans to surprise our friend Martin and Lisa’s father that were on an expedition to climb Mt. Logan - Canada’s highest peak - seemed to work out. We had to wait a few days but finally the weather was good enough to fly the members of the expedition down from the glacier to the small airfield near lake Kluane. The surprise worked and after many beers, lots of Korean soju and countless travel stories we went to bed, it was way past midnight but it still wasn’t dark.
Back in Whitehorse we said goodbye to the Martin’s, collected Susi and continued our way north on the Klondike highway. We enjoyed the wilderness, jumped in one and the other lake and lost more and more track of time, the sun set after 11pm. Shortly before Dawson City we took a right and entered the Dempster highway, Canada’s only road and one out of two in North America that crosses the arctic circle. Finished in 1979 this dirt road takes you on 740km through absolute wilderness, boreal forests and tundra, to Inuvik, a town of 3500 people in the Northwest Territories. We took it slow and it took a few days to arrive in Inuvik, we crossed a major wildfire where forests were burning over more than 50km and enjoyed the views but saw surprisingly little wildlife. Inuvik has 56 days of permanent sunlight and even though it is quite fun in the beginning it is really hard to adapt to it and get a reasonable sleep rhythm.
Inuvik is a new town and was founded in 1953 to offer the native Inuvialuit and Gwich’in a “modern” place to live. As one can imagine, not all went as planned and many of the original villages in the vast Mackenzie delta and on the coast of the Arctic sea remained populated. Most of them can only be reached by boat, plane or via ice road in the winter.
We decided to take a small boat down the Mackenzie and across the Arctic sea to Tuktoyaktuk, the biggest settlement at the Arctic sea. We visited a whaling camp where natives hunt for Beluga whales and Tuktoyaktuk at latitude N69°27’ where it was impressive to see how people survive under the extreme conditions of long dark nights (lasting weeks) and ever lasting winters. We also took the chance to swim in the Arctic sea before we flew back on a small plane across the Mackenzie delta to Inuvik. We headed south on the Dempster highway back to Yukon, hiked in Tombstone Territorial Park and soon arrived in Dawson City, in the early 20th century - during the height of the gold rush - one of the most modern towns North Americas but now reduced to a small tourist outpost not far from the arctic circle. This small town still gives you a flavour of the times of the gold rush, with old steam ships on the Yukon, cabaret shows at night and dusty streets during the day. We took the ferry across the Yukon and embarked on the Top of the World highway towards Alaska. This highway - one of the roads leading into Alaska - runs through soft mountains and often offers nice views into the northern wilderness. We wer lucky and close to the border we encountered a huge pack of caribou - part of the 40 Miler herd. We hiked amongst them for a while, and even though they were curious about us they always kept a safe distance.
Shortly thereafter we reached the border and crossed into Alaska, as always welcomed by friendly and helpful officers. Via Chicken and Tok we reached Fairbanks, the first bigger town since weeks. On or way we enjoyed the scenery, snow capped mountains, wild rivers, lakes and endless forests. The weather was surprisingly warm, almost every day we jumped into a refreshing river or lake and soon we reached Denali national park.
We took the bus to the end of the park road an camped at Wonderlake where Denali peaked out of the clouds just after 11pm when we had finished a small hike - no need to say that it was still bright.
As in all national parks in the US the rules are strict and everything is well organised. On the long drive in and out of the park we saw caribou, moose, grizzly’s with their cubs and plenty of smaller wildlife - conveniently the busses always stop when there is something to see. Our way continued south and the east, along Denali highway and sometimes it was hard to decide where to stop for the night, just too many places offer great views in perfect locations. We hiked, jumped into lakes and continued our journey towards Valdez. On the way we took a left and visited the US’ largest national park: Wrangell St. Elias. A small road - formerly a railroad to bring copper ore to the coast in the early 20th century - lead us to McCarthy and on to Kennicot with beautiful scenery, deep blue lakes, high ice-capped mountain ranges and huge glaciers.
We continued onwards to Valdez, famous town located at the Prince William sound as it is the end of the Trans-Alaska-Pipeline. Surrounded by ice-capped peaks with glaciers that run into the sea this town offers great opportunities to see marine (and other) wildlife. We took a tour on Lu-Lu Belle out in the sound and saw humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, sea otters, seals, birds and the calving of Columbia glacier into the ocean - a great day full of long lasting impressions.
The Glenn Allen highway took us west again through cinemascope landscapes to Palmer and Anchorage from where we continued on to Kenai peninsula. It was the time when the salmon runs started - the yearly struggle of salmons up the rivers to their spawning grounds - a major event for fisher men, bears and also for us. More than once happy fishermen came and visited us to hand over some of their catch; Our diet changed to Sashimi, Sushi and other salmon dishes for a while. It was another sunny day in Alaska when we arrived in Homer, the southernmost town on Kenai, and we just had parked in front of the laundry for some free WiFi when it knocked on our door - Andrew & Heidi invited us to park at their house, an invitation we gladly accepted and was followed by a delicious dinner at their house. We got lots of great suggestions for our time around Homer and another invitation to a friend’s place for the next evening.
I also had to get our small crane fixed, I bent it a bit when we hit a barrier and finally ended up at Moose Run Metallworks, the only open place we found and more specialised on metal artwork than truck repairs ;-). The welcome was very nice and Marlon did a great job in fixing the crane so I decided to get a small welding job done as well. It didn’t take long and we again were offered salmon but finally we decided to cook together later that afternoon. We had to get our plane trip to Katmai on the other side of the Cook inlet - separating Kenai from the Alaska peninsula - fixed and went to town. Just before we left, Austin and Nurdan pulled up in their van - a couple we had met on the Top of the World highway and later again and we all decided to stay with Tarri and Marlon for the night and partied way too long for our early start the next day.
Our trip to Katmai was just outstanding to say the least. A Twin Otter carried us and 7 other passengers to a small lake from where we hiked to a small creek. The shallow water was full of red salmon and it didn’t take long to see the first bears filling their bellies, playing and chasing each other. Most of them didn’t really bother that we were sitting as close as 15 meters from them when they passed by to hunt their prey - a spectacle we watched for hours and probably would have watched for longer if we were given the opportunity. Back in Homer it was time to say goodbye to Andrew and Heidi and we were on our way back to Anchorage and on towards Tok. In between we stopped at more nice places, climbed a bit at Wiener Lake and finally crossed the border into Canada, before us more than 3000km to reach Squamish, Vancouver and the border. But as always, more on that in our next blog entry.