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Once upon a time on a trip to Alaska, day 36

Haines, Alaska

Saturday, July 21, 1973

On this day we drove back into Alaska for the last time, not north or west, but south from Yukon Territory into the panhandle.

It was still wet, but at least we were off the gravel for the last time.  Although, as my diary says, “the pavement was worse than the gravel.”  I’m presuming because of more permafrost heaves.  One thing about the Alaska Highway, it was very well maintained.  Which basically meant that they were maintaining it all the time.  Or so it seemed, mainly because there’s only a window of a few months in the summertime when they can maintain it.  The rest of the time it’s covered with snow and frozen solid.  The roads in Yellowstone National Park have the same problem, with the road construction and tourist seasons being almost identical.

Haines was where we caught the ferry south, but it wouldn’t be our turn to sail south until the 24th, so we spent three nights in Haines.

We spent our first afternoon there at a performance of the Chilkat Dancers, a group of Tlingit native children (my diary says the youngest was about eight or nine, and the oldest about nineteen — I don’t know if I was guessing or if I was told that or read it in a program).  They don’t appear to have a website — I hope the organization still puts on performances.

A Tlingit dancing troupe from my visit to the Alaska Panhandle in 1995, in Sitka.

I remember enjoying both performances that I saw.  And being quite amazed at the beautiful costumes and the talent being displayed.  And the stories that were told.  There was a Northern Exposure episode one year, that told the Winter Solstice story from the Native American point of view, that also featured a performance like these.  I liked Northern Exposure just on general principles, but also because the writers did things like that.

True Gold, a novel about the Klondike Gold Rush, is now available through Amazon and Smashwords

Once upon a time on a trip to Alaska, day 35

Dezadeash Lake, Yukon Territory

Friday, July 20, 1973


We had been rained on before during this trip, mostly the kind of weather we here in the Pacific Northwest refer to as showers and sunbreaks, but on this day it literally poured all day long.  As my diary says, we got a late start, and we almost didn’t travel at all that day.  But at last we decided to go on, and drove south on the Alaska Highway to the small community of Haines Junction, where the highway south to Haines, almost at the top of the Alaska Panhandle, starts.

Nowadays you can drive from Whitehorse to Skagway on a paved highway that follows the old White Pass and Yukon Railroad route.  The railroad was built during the Klondike Gold Rush, and went into service a little over a year after True Gold‘s heroine Karin and her companions climbed over the Chilkoot Pass from the now-ghost-town of Dyea, just across Lynn Canal (not a canal at all, but a natural channel) from Skagway.

A historic photo of the Chilkoot Pass, as it would have looked when Karin climbed it.

But in 1973, if you wanted to get to the Alaska Panhandle by road, you had one choice — the Haines Highway.  The Haines Highway, like the Alaska Highway at the time, was unpaved (it’s paved now, too).  And with the torrential rains coming down, it was a sea of mud according to my diary.  So we didn’t get all that far that day, only sixty miles from Kluane Lake to Haines Junction

We stopped in Haines Junction for gas, and went another thirty miles to a lake with a very odd name, Dezadeash, where we spent the afternoon in the trailer, playing a lot of cards, and listening to the rain pound on the roof.

Dezadeash Lake, in much better weather than what we saw it in.

True Gold, a novel about the Klondike Gold Rush, is now available through Amazon and Smashwords

Once upon a time on a trip to Alaska, day 33

Kluane Lake, Yukon Territory

Wednesday, July 18, 1973

The morning after our last night in mainland Alaska (but not in Alaska altogether) began with sourdough pancakes.  This must have been the fanciest campground we stayed in on this trip, because it had a breakfast room as part of the facilities, which specialized in sourdough pancakes.

Sourdough, as the term is used in Alaska, has two meanings.  One of them is the stuff used in place of packaged yeast to make baked goods of all kinds rise.  The most common baked goods made with sourdough in Alaska and the Yukon Territory are pancakes, or flapjacks, or hotcakes, or whatever you call them in your part of the world.  They were a staple food for miners in the area’s many gold rushes, from Juneau to the Klondike to Nome to Fairbanks.

The other meaning of the term is someone who has lived in the North through at least one winter.  As opposed to the term cheechako, which is an Indian term, and used to mean roughly “a newcomer.”  Getting called a sourdough is a term of approbation in the North.

And now’s probably a good time to talk about moosequitos, too.  We saw a lot of moosequitos while we were in Alaska.  Mostly in gift shops.  Apparently my google-image-fu is failing me, but no, a moosequito is not just a misspelled mosquito.  A moosequito is a piece of moose dung, dried and varnished, then gussied up with pipe cleaners and googly eyes to look like a mosquito.  They’re not just a gag gift, though.  They’re a nod to the fact that Alaska and the Yukon have enormous mosquitoes.  Ubiquitous, too, yes, but the biggest ones I’d ever seen.  And they apparently thought of bug repellent as some sort of interesting sauce.  If there’s one thing I really, honestly did not like about our trip to Alaska, it was the mosquitoes.

After our breakfast, which I for one was pretty impressed with, we drove on into Tok and turned east on the Alaska Hi-way again, for the first time since Fairbanks way back on Day 12.  We crossed the border back into Yukon Territory, and the skies opened up on us and turned the gravel road into a sea of mud, and coated our trailer clear up to the windows.

We stopped that afternoon at the Kluane Historical Society Museum, which either no longer exists or doesn’t have a website.  I wasn’t very impressed with it, which is the first time I said anything like that about a museum on this trip.

Then we stopped for the night at Kluane Lake Campground, the same campground we’d stayed in on Day 10, where I met a boy fishing along the shore.  “We had a couple of arguments.”  I wonder what about?

True Gold, a novel about the Klondike Gold Rush, is now available through Amazon and Smashwords

Once upon a time on a trip to Alaska, day 32

Sourdough Campground, Tok, Alaska

Tuesday, July 17, 1973

This was another let’s-drive-partway-down-a-road-and-back day.  The main roads in Alaska (which really only cover about a third of the southeastern part of the main part of the state) create sort of a lopsided triangle, with Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Tok Junction (see Day 11) at the points.  Two more roads cross the triangle, one from north to south about 100 miles west of Tok, which continues on to the south to Valdez, and one west from the middle of that highway to Denali National Park, which is not quite equidistant between Fairbanks and Anchorage on the westernmost leg.

Our campground the previous night was near the junction of those last two roads, so that morning we drove west from the junction to where, as I wrote, the pavement ran out.  Which at the time I think wasn’t more than fifty miles in.  This day was also the first, last, and only time I mention the frost heaves that make paved roads in Alaska such an adventure.  When roads are paved over permafrost, which melts and refreezes every year at the surface, it causes the asphalt to bow and buckle, and the result is a journey that’s almost as much up and down as it is horizontal.  Wikipedia has a more scientific explanation.  All I remember is that “the road makes you seasick.”

Frost heaves on the Tok Cutoff road.

After we turned around at the end of the pavement, we backtracked to the Tok Cutoff road and headed on to Tok, where we spent our last night in mainland Alaska at a much better campground than the one we’d stayed at the last time we were there.

True Gold, a novel about the Klondike Gold Rush, is now available through Amazon and Smashwords

Once upon a time on a trip to Alaska, day 31

just north of Paxson, Alaska

Monday, July 16, 1973

Maybe it was because the day’s trip was almost entirely backtracking that I had so little to say.  Or maybe I was just plain grumpy.

Here is my entry for the day, in its entirety:

“We left kind of late this morning.  We went north towards Paxson.  We are a little north of Paxson.  This is not the best campground we have been to.  In fact, it is one of the worst.  We have electric hookups.  We fished some, no luck.  It is pretty here.”

So much for Monday, July 16th!

True Gold, a novel about the Klondike Gold Rush, is now available through Amazon and Smashwords

Once upon a time on a trip to Alaska, day 30

Valdez, Alaska

Sunday, July 15, 1973

We’d been on our trip for one month as of this day.

A short drive today, the sixty-five miles on into Valdez (Val-DEEZ, although I wanted to pronounce it Val-DES, as I recall).  We drove through both a tunnel drippy enough to require the use of the windshield wipers while traversing it, and over a bridge to get there. Valdez is yet another beautifully-located coastal town, this one on the shores of Prince William Sound, a name which became familiar to the world in the worst possible way, being the location of the Exxon-Valdez spill, one of the worst ecological disasters in history.

An aerial view of Valdez.

The main thing I remember about Valdez, which would later become the southern terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, is the huge piles of metal pipe stacked everywhere, awaiting government approval for the pipeline’s construction later that year.  The pipes were bigger in diameter than I was tall, as I recall, and pyramidal stacks of them were all over the place.

Alaska pipeline pipe.

Our afternoon was spent exploring Valdez, and going to a slide program at the city’s information center.  I don’t remember what the slide show was about, nor do I mention its subject in my diary.  I suspect it was either about the 1964 earthquake, which hit very hard in Valdez as it did everywhere else along the south coast of mainland Alaska, or about the proposed pipeline.  Or it could have been about both, I suppose.

And we did do some more fishing, so I was wrong about our last time fishing on the trip being on the Kenai Peninsula.  I know we didn’t catch anything, though.

True Gold, a novel about the Klondike Gold Rush, is now available through Amazon and Smashwords

Once upon a time on a trip to Alaska, day 29

north of Valdez, Alaska

Saturday, July 14, 1973

 The day started with more grocery shopping.  Since my aunt took my mother to do it, I suspect they went to the base commissary, which makes sense as it would have been more economical.  Prices are high in Alaska, or at least they were back then.

 After they got back we left and headed east on the Tok Cutoff (Glenn Highway) from Anchorage, then turned south on the Richardson Highway towards Valdez.  It was apparently a long day’s drive compounded by the delay caused by the grocery shopping, because we didn’t get to where we stopped for the night until after six pm, which was late for us.

We stopped at a campground called Little Tonsina 65 miles north of Valdez.  Nowadays (and I’m sure back then) it was a state recreation site.  What my diary says of it is that it had a pump instead of a spigot for water, and that there was a bunch of old equipment lying around, including a wagon, that was very nice to climb on.

 This is one of the campgrounds I have a vivid mental image of, because it was right by a very gravelly, glacier-fed river, and because we ate the last of the frozen salmon that night.

Little Tonsina River

 True Gold, a novel about the Klondike Gold Rush, is now available through Amazon and Smashwords

Once upon a time on a trip to Alaska, day 27

Elmendorf Air Force Base, Anchorage, Alaska

Thursday, July 12, 1973

I wasn’t feeling well yesterday, so today you get two posts to make up for it.

And we head back to my aunt’s before beginning the long trek home.

But not before having a close encounter with an Alaskan brown bear:

Alaskan brown bear

My father and I were awakened in the wee hours of the previous night by something thrashing around outside.  My diary says the bear was raiding the garbage can.  I remember it as having something to do with that piece of leftover roll, but upon further consideration he couldn’t have possibly been making that much noise with just a piece of roll.

Anyway, Daddy and I peered out the windows of the trailer, and saw, in the long twilight of Alaska at that time of year, an enormous brown bear.  I did not know at the time that brown bears are the same species as grizzlies, but apparently they are.  All I remember is that he was absolutely enormous, and that when my father tried to wake my mother up to see him, she just rolled over and ignored him.  Then the next morning we had to convince her we’d actually seen it.

That was as close as we got to any large animal on the trip.  Less than 10 feet away, which was more than close enough, thanks.  He could have opened the trailer like a can opener with those claws.

After that, the drive back to Anchorage, including another stop at a Dairy Queen (why DQ every time we ate out on this trip is something of a mystery to me now), was something of an anticlimax.

Teenage me was rather glad to watch some TV at my aunt’s, though.

True Gold, a novel about the Klondike Gold Rush, is now available through Amazon and Smashwords

Once upon a time on a trip to Alaska, day 26

Russian River Campground, east of Soldotna, Alaska

Wednesday, July 11, 1973

We left Homer on this day.  Time to go since we’d caught our salmon, I guess.  We didn’t go far after dumping and refilling our water and sewage tanks, just to a campground a few miles east of Soldotna, which is about 75 miles back towards Anchorage from Homer.

The campground was on the banks of the Russian River.  I imagine that name is a holdover from early in the 19th century when the Russians actually owned Alaska.  There’s another Russian River in California, too, which supposedly marks how far the Russians got in their explorations of North America’s Pacific coast back in the day.

We did some more fishing, but as I wrote in my diary, we “discovered that you had to fish with flies,” apparently a state park regulation, so the only thing caught was a minnow, by my father.  “It was cute.”  I think that was the last of the fishing on this trip, if I remember correctly.

That evening after supper, my father took a piece of leftover bread roll and tied it to the end of his fishing line, then set the roll on the picnic table.  Soon a ground squirrel came to investigate, and Daddy teased him by repeatedly tugging it away from him with the fishing line.  “At first I thought it was funny, afterward I didn’t like it.”  Honestly, I remember it not even being funny to begin with.

It was, to use my personal metaphor, like filling someone’s car with popcorn, being deliberately mean to get a laugh at someone else’s expense.  My three sisters all got married the year I turned twelve.  You know how people tie old shoes onto the back of the car when a couple gets married?  Well, at the first wedding reception, my new brother-in-law’s friends decided to do something different, so they filled the honeymoon getaway car with popped popcorn.  All the way to the roof.  Everybody else thought it was funny.  All I can remember is the mess it made and how it took forever to get the car cleaned out enough to drive it.  My sister said that they were still finding popcorn kernels in that car a month later.

There are some things that other people find hilarious that I find just mean-spirited and nasty.  And teasing some poor hungry ground squirrel is like filling someone’s car with popcorn.

True Gold, a novel about the Klondike Gold Rush, is now available through Amazon and Smashwords

Once upon a time on a trip to Alaska, day 26

Homer Spit Campground, Homer, Alaska

Tuesday, July 10, 1973

 Fish!  We have fish! 

The day started, however, with another trip up Skyline Drive, this time, I wrote in my diary, all the way to the end.  I don’t know what kept us from doing that the first time, but something must have.  We did a lot of that on this trip — in Fairbanks, we drove partway down to Mt. McKinley and back before going the whole way a couple of days later, and we drove partway out to Circle City and back, too.  And there’s more of that later on in the trip, too.  But we went back up Skyline Drive.  Maybe the weather was better or something.

After lunch we came back and fished for hours.  From the beach, from the dock, from the beach again.  I was a little ways down the beach from my parents by late in the afternoon, when my mother yelled, “Mary, Daddy caught a fish!” (I went by my first name back then — my mother is the only person on the planet who still calls me Mary), which was very exciting, but soon after that, “something hit my line like an express train” to quote my diary.  “I yanked it out of the water, screaming, and this little boy came over and took out the hook.”  Actually, he hit it over the head with a rock first to kill it.  My mother still talks about how he said “this won’t hurt it” and then went smash with the rock.

Anyway, the two fish, Daddy’s and mine, were both pink salmon  (since most salmon are pink, I don’t know if they were really officially the variety called pink salmon or if they were just salmon which happened to be pink).  Daddy’s weighed four and a quarter pounds and was male, and mine weighed two and three quarters pounds and was female.  Both were 21 inches long.

Pink salmon


I remember ‘helping’ my father clean and fillet them.  And I do remember eating them.  I still have a fondness for salmon at least partly because of that day.

And that was the day we caught fish!

True Gold, a novel about the Klondike Gold Rush, is now available through Amazon and Smashwords