Days 24-27 Fairbanks to Valdez

This segment took me on the Richardson Highway from Fairbanks to Valdez. The Richardson was the first highway in Alaska, and is one of the most beautiful to ride. On the way down to Valdez I took a side trip on the first 40 miles or so of the Denali Highway. That was also a beautiful ride – all of it in the Arctic tundra, and all of it quite remote.

Day 24 – Sunday, June 24 – Fairbanks to Denali Highway

I rode south of Fairbanks this morning on the Richardson Highway to where it intersects with the Denali Highway. The Richardson was beautiful, but stretches of high, gusting headwinds added some interest to the ride.

I wanted to ride the first portion of the Denali Highway to see if I could find the place where we took a fishing trip when my family drove up in 1958. We took an amphibious vehicle back off the road several miles to a glacial lake that looked much like this one. We could see big lake trout swimming 10 feet below the surface, and managed to hook several. It was one of those memorable moments of that trip.

About 20 miles down the road I came to the Tangle River Inn. It had a familiar look to it. This was about the distance we had traveled down the road before deciding to bail on the Mt. McKinley trip and take a guided fishing trip instead. We were told that we had only a 30% chance of actually seeing the mountain once we got there, due to weather, so the fishing expedition seemed like a better bet.

It was a little early to stop, but I decided to stay here to see what I might learn. It turns out the present buildings were built in 1970 after the original building burned to the ground.

Inside I met Jack Johnson and his wife Naidine. Jack’s father had homesteaded here in 1953, and had erected a lodge and bar near here. Jack verified that they were doing fishing tours in 1958, and they probably took us to Swede Lake. I can’t be absolutely sure it was Jack and his dad, since there were several other lodges in this vicinity, but this one rings a bell with me. Here’s Jack with the grizzly he killed a few years ago – the grizzly had been tracking the moose Jack was hunting.

The inside of the lodge looks very much like the one I remember from 49 years ago.

This turned out to be quite a day! It all seemed so familiar around here, although it could just be my memory playing tricks on me. But in any case Jack and the Tangle River Inn brought back some very pleasant memories. Tomorrow on the way out on the Richardson Highway I’ll take several more photos of the area…

Day 25 – Monday, June 25 – Denali Highway to Valdez

Based on the enthusiastic recommendation of Steve and Andy, two BMW riders who rode the Denali Highway yesterday, I decided to continue on west today. Before that, however, I noticed this view outside my window at 5 a.m. this morning. It was almost other worldly. By 9 a.m. the sun had burned the fog off.

I caught this reflection in Tangle Lake as I left the lodge.

The Denali Highway is gravel west of the Tangle River Inn, and rather narrow, closely following the contours of the land. I found this one of the most enjoyable roads of my trip thus far. It was alpine tundra, I was pretty much by myself, and the relatively undeveloped road put me in close contact with my surroundings, giving me a feeling of solitude and peacefulness, and awe at the grandeur of it all. 

These two bikers – the only other ones I met on the road – were heading east. I soon got to a place where a crew was working on the road and it was muddy – very slippery. So I turned around and go back to the Richardson Highway to Valdez. But not before stopping for lunch at the Tangle River Inn. I began to feel like a “regular.”

On my way east to the Richardson Highway I saw this expansive view of the mountains in the Alaska Range. The views in Alaska just go on and on…

As I neared Thompson Pass before going down into Valdez I had some spectacular views, like this one of Worthington Glacier. Thompson Pass gets an average of 500 inches of snowfall a year, which is one of the reasons so many glaciers are in the area, some of them still growing.

Day 26 – Tuesday, June 26 – Valdez

Today I took a 9-hour glacier cruise on Prince William Sound to see the Columbia Glacier and the Meares Glacier. We also saw a variety of wildlife and learned about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Fortunately, most of the effects of the spill are no longer visible, although it will take another 30-50 years to get completely back to the way it was.

Columbia Glacier, in the distance where it meets the water, is a retreating glacier. Ice breaks off it in many smaller pieces, and prevented us from getting closer than several miles. The ice in the water makes popping sounds as it melts, like stepping on bubble wrap, as it releases gasses trapped in the ice.

This was a particularly beautiful iceberg. The ice was crystal clear, with a beautiful blue hue.

These harbor seals were relaxing atop this iceberg.

Meares Glacier is an advancing glacier, increasing in size. The snows high up in the mountains add to the glacier, which then moves down the mountain and into the ocean. Chunks of ice fall from the face of the glacier (called calving), creating sounds much like thunder. The face of the glacier is about 200 feet high above the water.

Here we are about a half mile from the face of the glacier. Alaska has 30,000 square miles of glacier ice that covers 5 percent of the state.

We saw a lot of animals and birds out on the Sound. Bald eagles are very common.

Another common bird is Puffin. I believe this is a Horned Puffin.

Stellar Sea Lions were also a common sight along the shore.

We were particularly fortunate to catch this humpback whale swimming along. We didn’t see much of the animal, but they are big, weighing 35-40 tons!

This is an Orca, a member of the dolphin family. This one happens to be a female.

This larger Orca is a male. Here he had just exhaled.

We saw lots of these cute little guys – sea otters. This is a very common pose, as they float on their backs with their paws out of the water to try to warm them. Sea otters are part of the weasel family.

On our way into port we saw this large tanker taking on oil from the terminus of the Alyeska pipeline. All of the oil from the north slope comes through the pipeline to Valdez and is then shipped south to refineries along the west coast.

This was a fantastic day – the 9-hour cruise was fun and informative. Being out on the water gives one quite a different view of Alaska than riding on land. I’m glad I took this cruise, and the flight-seeing trip to Mt. McKinley, to give me a more complete perspective of this marvelous land.

Day 27 – Wednesday, June 27 – Valdez to Tok

Today was mostly a riding day. I stayed in this cute little cabin outside of Toke tonight. The color matches my bike exactly. The mosquitoes are voracious! Eight bikers from Texas are staying here also on their way to Prudhoe Bay. They are all riding GS’s.