August 11th, 2001
As we wake up in the morning the bad weather of the last day hasn't changed at all. Well, ok, it doesn't rain anymore, but Kesugi Ridge, which we picked for a 3 day hiking trip is covered in clouds. The chances for a glance on Mt. McKinley is close to zero and so we decide to head on northwards. We stop shortly on Denali National Park (not to be confounded with Denali State Park), but here it's not much better and more packed with tourists.
We drive on an only few minutes later some moose browse in a lake beside the road. They don't mind the people stopping and watching them.
In Nenana we stop at the visitor information center to call a Andi, a friend of Bine from Bavaria, who came here to make his dreams of breading sled dogs come true. We stop by and agree on a boat trip later that week.
Fairbanks is our next point, where we fill up gas, gather information and pick up a weather report. Then we go for a hot chocolate. Later that day we take highway 2 northbound which leads us to the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which runs from the Artic Ocean to the Pacific and conveys large amounts of crude oil from the drillings in Prudhoe Bay to the shipment place near Valdez.
The pipeline runs on the surface for most of its way, only from time to time it dives into the ground just to reappear some kilometers away. On the surface the tube (about 1 m in diameter, a 6 cm wall) is supported by a frame of which each post is equipped with a radiator. That is to prevent the posts to be warmed by the 40-50°C warm crude oil and so the soil to be thawed. We are in the permafrost zone, where the ground is frozen from 60 cm below the surface down to 600 m! If the ground would thaw the pipeline would just sink into it.
After few kilometers the highway becomes a gravel road and an additional 80 miles later, close to Livengood and in pouring rain we change onto the James Dalton Highway (highway 11). This muddy beaten track stretches up to the Arctic Ocean and is private property of the local oil company.
Only about 10 years ago the track was opened for public traffic and since then mostly Americans sneak up here. Beside those we have to pass trucks which transport a never-ending stream of material to the drilling holes and which drive with high speed..
And so we fly over the potholes and mud puddles. All we can see (if anything through those dirty windows) are stretched out woods, the shiny pipeline which runs parallel to the highway and a pump station from time to time. The only variation is a bridge across the Yukon. About after 200km we stop at Five-Mile-Camp, some barracks, a gas pump and a fresh water tab.
Here - surrounded by mosquitos - we pitch the tents and try not to touch our van while unloading our stuff, 'cause it's covered by a thick layer of mud. After a quick supper we disappear in our tents for some reading and writing.
August 12th, 2001
We hurry to break camp and take a shelter from all these mosquito in the van, where we try to smash them all. As we are done (and the mosquitos as well ;-)) we have a short breakfast. Some miles later we get to Coldfoot where we get gas ($2.40 per gallon instead of an average of $1.60) and borrow some bear boxes from the little visitor center. We plan for a hiking trip in the tundra where we otherwise would have a hard time to store our food bear proof on a tree ;-))
Some time later we stop for a hot soup on the Marion Creek campground. The weather is still really shitty and we seriously think about giving up driving back. But the our curiosity is stronger than our hesitation and we head on. As we cross the arctic circle we stop to traditionally baptize Simon and Bine. Since we have no champagne I tell them that beer is the beverage of choice ;-))
Back on the road we have to stop at a construction site and we ask ourselves what for they move that much ground ;-))
Just behind the construction site the track is still muddy and one of the bigger mud holes we can only cross with some momentum which has to big enough for the following hill as well.
In Wisemann we stop hoping to find a place to have a hot chocolate in this solitude, but the houses - from around 1910 - look like deserted, there are only field paths rather than roads. We agree on a little walk an the road towards Nolan, just to get out of the van for a while.
The landscape turn out to be quite nice, the road rather scary. Beside car wrecks we see some caribou antlers and fresh bear tracks.
Shortly later we drive on. We have to cross the Atigun Pass, up to which to road leads pretty steep. Sometime the fog is really thick, the curves narrow. On the other side the weather gets better the road only worse. No more pothole though, but rocks that point of the hard surface, real tire killers. We can only hope not to have a flat tire. We do have a spare tire, but for this road a second spare tire is strongly recommended.
Close to Galbraith Lake and after about 500km we leave the highway and drive another few kilometers to the starting point for our tundra hike. The sky suddenly becomes a little bit more blue than grey and we are being rewarded for the last hours we spend in the car.
The panorama up here is just breathtaking. We can see far in the tundra, no trees at all.
As we get out of the van I hear a faint whistle and at first can't really say where it would come from until it finally comes to my mind. On of our tires is damaged. Just lamenting doesn't help, we have to change it. It's done quick and we prepare supper. We spend the evening with reading and talking and go to sleep early.
August 13th, 2001
The next morning we get up early and prepare our gear. Soon we are ready to go and start of into a nearby valley.
We didn't really realize until now is what it feels like to hike in the tundra. Each step is dampened by the heather-like low-growing plants but we do notice that damage is done very easily.
We follow the advice of the governmental information center in Fairbanks namely not to hike in a file, but in a rank. If only 4 people take the same path a lasting damage is done.
The colors of many mosses and lichens are amazing for the rather poor growth.
Quickly we find out that we have to cross that river we were hiking along the last half hour. The crossing becomes an adventure as nobody wants to get wet feet but doesn't want to try it bare foot either.
After roughly 3 hours we set our camp on a little hill from where we have a great lookout on the valley below.
We finish lunch while it is still nice and sunny. Peter, Sabine and I go for a little day hike towards a nearby glacier. We notice soon that it is still too far away but it is worth the walk anyway. After 90 minutes we stop have a break. In bright sunshine we head back.
We climb a little slope and are fascinated by the colors. There are no animals we can see, only bones and antlers of a caribous decay in the wet soil.
As we get back to Simon after 4 hours we have just about enough time to prepare supper before it starts to rain. First it's just a drizzle, then it gets stronger and stronger. By the time we crawl into our tents dark clouds form.
In the night a storm shakes our little shelter and we are glad to be warm and dry.
August 14th, 2001
The next morning the storm is gone, unfortunately the sun, too. It's overcast and grey and so we pack our stuff and hike back to the van where we have to cross the river another time. We wash ourselves in the icy water, it is cold enough to make you breath hard. Then we leave, 500 km of dirty tracks and a some hard rain is what we see in the next hours. The weather is bad, but we all feel good.
On the way back to Fairbanks we only stop in Coldfoot (to return the bear boxes) and for a hot soup at the Five-Mile-Camp. We also fill up fresh water. In the evening we reach Fairbanks in daylight (until 11pm ;-)). A comfortable campground is where we are heading, a place where we can have hot showers, wash our cloth and check e-mails.
August 15th, 2001
We slowly start into the day and spend most of it doing errands. I can exchange my only 6 month old Gore-Tex hiking boots for some new leather boots. It is possible to repair the damaged tire for only $5.
In the early evening we leave Fairbanks for Fax where we enter the Steese Highway, where we pitch our tents on a lonesome campground in the middle of nowhere. Beside moose Peter sees a beaver close to the camp. The evening is really calm again, some good food and a cool beer, or two ;-))
August 16th, 2001
Very early in the morning I awake by a dull sound. As we get up later on we see, that nearby a big tree collapsed and now blocks one of the two exits. We head on the muddy gravel road until we reach the 12-Mile-Summit. Here we get out gear ready in dens fog and drizzling rain. We take off for a 3-Day hike on the Pinnell Mountain Trail, which stretches of 45 km on a mountain ridge.
The first hundred meters are covered by a boardwalk to preserve the delicate plants. As we climb higher and higher the rain stops and even the clouds become lighter.
In the afternoon the weather gets better and better, suddenly even the sun appears. For the first night we seek shelter in a little hut at North Fork. Inside we warm us up with a hot chocolate and munch on some fresh banana bread.
As we go outside later on we have a fantastic view on the surrounding valleys.
The little hut lies in sunshine for some more time and I enjoy the fresh air.
It is rather narrow inside and I take my sleeping bag outside. As I am almost asleep I suddenly start up as there is something that moves quickly towards me.
My heart almost stops beating, then I see that three geese come for me. In the last second they pass the hut (and me) with some strong beats of their wings. Finally I find some sleep but have to go inside as the dew wets my sleeping bag.
August 17th, 2001
The next morning the sun is out and shines bright, the valleys below are still in food though.
Most of the morning we hike scanty ridges, even down here (same latitude as Fairbanks) tundra is the dominating vegetation.
As we cross a saddle we see a single caribou running in all directions. Obviously it missed the big herd that presumably left for the south days or even weeks ago.
It looks at us and comes closer, curiously it circles us. Finally it runs away and we can see it long after running nowhere. Wolves will catch it during the next days. Not much later we get to the second shelter of the trail. Due to this nice weather we decide to only have lunch here and to cover the remaining 15km of the hike the same day.
Shortly after we got started again we see another caribou, a male this time.
After another break we can almost only crawl the last kilometers to the highway. During the last hour we can watch the traffic on it and it's frustrating. There is only one car going, and in the wrong direction. After 31km today we reach the Eagle Summit, where the Pinnell Mountain Trail ends. We have to wait for over an hour until the first car shows up that drives into the right direction. I almost jump onto the road to stop it. The guy looks a bit scary and he has to take a gun from the shotgun seat to clear some space for me to sit on. But soon I find out that he is a former pipeline electrician and now hunting for his winter supplies. He drops me off at the van and an hour later I pick up the others. Another 90 minutes later we reach Circle with its hot springs. Here we relax in the hot water, only the blisters make us scream as we touch it. We had back for some kilometers and pitch our tents on a clearing just off the road. The mosquitos don't really bother us tonight as we only have a short supper and fall asleep almost immediately.
August 18th, 2001
Today we have to cover some ground. First we head back to Fairbanks where we see some of the machines they used to build the pipeline in an area with almost no infrastructure.
We wash out cloth and buy some food. In the evening we drive southwards to Nenana again, where we have barbecue with friends of Andi.
August 19th, 2001
Today we sleep in and have a delicious brunch with potatoes, scrambled eggs and pancakes afterwards. Then we grab some of our stuff and load Andi's motor boat. On the Tenana river we fly upstream with Andi, his wife Bea, son Lukas and friend Bobby. After about 35 miles we unload two rubber canoes and while Andi takes off we paddle and enjoy being out here.
After 2 hours we reach a wood camp which little wooden huts and a barbecue where we meet Andi and the others again.
Here we spend the evening talking, eating and drinking. Before we go to sleep in one of the little huts a wonderful sunset ends the day.
August 20th, 2001
Most of the morning we paddle towards Nenana. As we stop shortly we can watch some otters. They look puzzled as they notice us and flee into the water. In the wet sand we can still see their little tracks.
Before we get back to Nenana we see a fish wheel - an Indian invention, that automatically catches fish out of the river.
Around noon Andi picks us up and we spend the afternoon in Fairbanks. In the evening we are back in Nenana and camp in the parkway.