We constantly evolved and updated our route plan as we started our way back home. We definitely tried not to travel the same roads we took to get north. As we still had plenty of time in our schedule, we zig-zagged a bit and tried to hit side destinations as we went back through western Canada. The route we ended up driving had us ducking between Canada and Alaska repeatedly.
One side trip that we did was to drive the dirt road to McCarthy through the Wrangle St. Elias National Preserve. Maybe it was just our mood or the weather, but it was very dry, dusty, and not as pretty as many of the other places we had recently been to, so we drove the length of the road both ways in one day. But heading east from there, toward the Canada border, we camped at a really great nature preserve with a beautiful lake and vibrant ecosystem. We spent the evening watching beavers busily doing their thing and we heard wolves calling to each other at dusk from either side of the lake.
The drive down to Haines, Alaska, area from the Yukon was really pretty; lots of open expanses and alpine tundra. It’s really interesting to see how seasons come and go as you travel in latitude, elevation, and weather. One morning we woke up and it was locally fall. The fall color was really nice in western Yukon.
We had a little trouble finding good camp spots in the Haines area as it is a very geographically constrained area. We spent a day in a wetland perfecting our salmon photography and then found a reasonable camp spot at a state park. We saw a really pretty lynx running down the road that evening. The lynx we saw was quite a bit bigger and lankier than bobcats down south.
There was a big cold weather front coming down from the north, so the wind in Haines really started picking up and we changed our plans a bit and got a standby trip on the ferry to Skagway to jump ahead in our route before the weather hit. It worked out great and we were able to get a nice camp spot in the Yukon before the wind really picked up.
That evening, we ended up sharing a camp spot with a nice German couple that turned out to be the parents of an expedition couple that we had met a few days earlier. They were there to meet up with their son and daughter-in-law and travel together for a while. They were super into our truck and it was fun to talk expedition trucks with them.
We sure avoid touristy things like the plague. The whole vibe of our trip is just to see the beautiful sites and spend time in nature, but now that we’ve checked off all the major goals of our trip in the arctic and have started working our way south, we thought we’d duck into a few more well-known Alaskan destinations. Interestingly, we ended up liking the Valdez area a lot. It’s a really great setting and the drive south into the Valdez area is super pretty. Like always, we avoided the crazy congested organized camp areas and we were able to find really nice primitive camping in some remote spots along the area.
The truck has been running really solid, but we did pick up a screw in one of our back tires some place along the Denali Highway. It was holding air, but we decided to do a quick tire swap with our spare while we had the chance. It was no big deal and the whole thing took less than an hour.
We’ve been getting in a lot more hiking lately. It feels good to get out and stretch our legs. Despite how much we liked being up in the arctic, we never found places we felt very comfortable going for a hike. We found a nice mining road near Valdez that gave us a good 5-mile hike for a few nights in a row. We also met a really nice family that is gold mining up there. A few nights later we shared a camp spot with a super friendly French couple that drove up from Patagonia in their Inveco. So far, their trip has taken them 3 years. We’ve run into a lot of great people in our travels.
We also helped out a young guy that got a little over zealous and drove his FJ Cruiser halfway off a cliff, but that’s a story for another time.
Anyway, the Valdez area is beautiful and was a nice addition to our trip. There were a lot of salmon running while we were in Valdez, so that was cool to see. And we got some better underwater pictures this time (with permission and supervision from local forest rangers)!
After finishing up the Dalton Highway, we were able to meet up with our friend and his wife that have a truck almost identical to ours. It’s funny that the two trucks live only a handful of hours apart, but the first time we got the two trucks together was in Fairbanks, Alaska. Anyway, we had just finished the Dalton and they were about to start, so we didn’t get to travel with them, but it was nice to meet up and swap maintenance and road condition stories for a bit.
After Fairbanks, we worked our way to the Denali Highway. After spending so much time on our own up in the arctic, it was a bit of a shock to be around people. Even though it’s a 280-mile (round trip) dirt/gravel/mud/broken pavement road, there was an impressive number of people camped along it. It was definitely pretty, but I think we’ve been spoiled by some of the wilderness we’ve been in and it didn’t seem as scenic as we were hoping. Some of that could have been due to weather, but overall, it’s a neat area to visit and there are lots of great primitive camping options.
One thing that was kind of fun is that there were millions of blueberries along the Denali Highway. Most weren’t quite ripe, but it was still fun to forage for a bit.
Road conditions still seem like an odd topic to us. Like all the other “dirt” roads that we’ve traveled on our trip, they can be really quite good in one direction but a little bit of weather can make them a real mess when going back the other way. The truck does great either way.
We saw a good bit of wildlife through this area. We didn’t see as many caribou as we were hoping, but we have seen about 9 or 10. Still, wildlife viewing is often the highlight of our day. At one of our campsites we had a nice visit from a porcupine friend that hung out for a bit.
Despite all the hype of the Denali Highway, our favorite spot in the area was actually not on the Denali at all but just a bit north along the Richardson Highway: Gulkana Glacier. The Gulkana Glacier is a neat spot. Tons of primitive camping along a really rough road to get near it, and there is a really sweet hike all the way up to the bottom of the glacier including an interesting cable foot bridge. No one was there, primitive camping, and beautiful scenery: checks all the boxes for us!
In total we spent 19 nights above the arctic circle. It sure was super cool. The Alaskan arctic is pretty different than the Canadian arctic, and we are glad we got to see both. We had bumped into several people before we drove the Dalton that said that driving the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay “wasn’t worth the trouble,” and at this point we are just completely confused as to what they were talking about. It was a beautiful area and totally worth driving the rough road to see. Maybe in a lesser vehicle it wouldn’t have been any fun, but the truck handled it great and we were super comfortable. We guess that’s why we have the truck, anyway. We had also heard horror stories about how aggressive some of the freight truck drivers were, but we found them to be very friendly and there were fewer of them on the road than we expected. There were a lot fewer overland people on the Dalton than we expected. We saw quite a few adventure motorcycle riders, but only 2 other expedition rigs. The Dempster Highway had many times more overland people.
We are still continuing to find great camp spots on public land tucked away in the wilderness. We still haven’t found the need to stay in any campgrounds, but there aren’t really any campgrounds up here anyway. The wildlife has been pretty great recently. We were walking along a river bank right near the truck one evening, and looked over into the bushes to catch a glimpse of a large wolf watching us from nearby. It vanished into the undergrowth as soon as we turned toward it, but it was pretty cool. After dinner, we sat in the truck looking outside hoping to see a wolf again, and we spotted a very large grizzly on the opposite side of the river eating berries (we have found and eaten both wild raspberries and wild strawberries ourselves). We ended up listening to an audio book and watching the bear from afar for about an hour.
We also spotted several large herds of musk ox on the tundra north of the Brooks Range. We had previously been able to see to 2 older males, but we were able to view a group of about 30 that were resting on an island on a river. They were super chill and we enjoyed several hours of just sitting and watching them from nearby. It was neat to get to watch them do their thing (sleep, mostly). 🙂
The Brooks Range is a really beautiful place. We especially liked the area that is about 120 miles north of the arctic circle (along the highway) just north of the Atigun pass. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been. Sheer rocky mountains covered in moss and tundra. Not bad.
Other than just being chronically covered in mud these days, the truck is running really well. We seem to have daily little mechanical maintenance items (tightening bolts, resoldering some wiring for the turn indicator, chasing a gear box leak), but it’s all going well.
Note: Well, because of limited internet in remote places, it looks like our blog is going to be a good bit behind our travels for the foreseeable future.
At this point in our trip, we had made it to the arctic ocean in both Canada and Alaska via the only two roads in North America that cross the Arctic Circle. It’s pretty cool to have gotten up this far north. It’s quite a neat environment. The Canadian and Alaskan arctic environments have some similarities but they have quite a few differences, too. Yvonne really wanted to see some caribou and musk ox, and we were able to spend time with several of both. The Brooks mountain range was really impressive and a lot prettier than we expected.
The weather was quite nice on our drive north. The daily highs varied between the 50s-60s during the day and the lows hovered around the mid 40s at night. It was bright and sunny, cloudy, foggy, rainy, and everything in between. A lot of the time it was vert windy. The winds are actually way nicer than no wind. As soon as the wind drops down, about a million mosquitoes converge on you. With higher winds, it is quite nice to walk around outside.
The road conditions along the Dalton Highway are pretty much what we expected. Nothing too terrible, but generally fairly rough and lots of mud. At this point we’ve done over 2,000 miles on dirt/mud roads and the truck is starting to show it.
We did spend a few hours working on some German tourist’s van in the middle of nowhere between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. The sidewall of their passenger rear tire got split by a rock. All ended well, but we were all soaking wet, muddy, and cold by the end of the tire change. It took about 2 hours and we used a bunch of our tools including the onboard compressed air system on the truck. For a variety of reasons, we had to cut their spare tire mount system off with a hacksaw. Once the tire change was complete, their van wouldn’t start. After some troubleshooting, we discovered that their battery terminals had been shaken loose by the rough road. This place is pretty hard on vehicles; we’ve had to help 3 different vehicles so far on the arctic roads.
The truck is still very comfortable and doing well. We’ve had numerous little fixes and fluid leaks, but we are still feeling confident. We are starting to plan our route south and we think we are going to pretty much be on our original schedule. It’s still light 24 hours a day up here, so we are hoping that we might be able to catch some aurora in a month or so when we are further south.
We have been enjoying exploring central Alaska. We have been noting that a lot of our camp spots have really required high ground clearance lately. It’s pretty impressive what kind of road conditions the Mog can handle. Some of the roads we have been on are more like rocky streams than roads.
With several fires burning in Alaska, we decided to slow down a bit and relax near the Susitna River where there was almost no smoke in the area. It was nice to just sit for almost a week and relax. With the weather so nice, we were able to roll out the awning and spend some time reading with the sound of the river. We also got in some pretty sweet rock skipping practice as the river bank had some great flat skipping stones.
It is interesting on the trip how we see lots of wildlife for a few days and then go a few weeks without seeing much. We did have a bit of a treat while camped along the Montana Creek. After we had been there for a few hours, we realized that the creek was completely full of giant red salmon. Some of them were easily in excess of 2 feet long. It’s easy to miss them, but once you see them, the water was just full of them. Thankfully, there were no bears feeding on them, so we spent the better part of a day trying to photograph and watch them. Our attempts at underwater salmon photography were somewhat uninspiring.
We had gone a long stretch without needing to do any truck maintenance, so we took the slow time to check on a bunch of things and make little fixes. It all went pretty well and was nice to do in a leisurely manner.
Replaced amber habitat side reflector
Replaced driver side front running light bulb
Checked oil levels in all portal hubs
Changed engine oil and replaced oil filter
Replaced windshield wiper blades
Resoldered electrical spades on flasher control box
Rerouted forward portal hub vents
Resecured bikes on roof
Removed and stowed cab tip pivot lock pins and chains
We felt really good about reaching our goal of visiting the Arctic Ocean in Canada, and we were excited to start heading west into Alaska. Our overall plan is to head north in Alaska and visit the Arctic along the Dalton Highway. We look forward to visiting the Arctic again, but in the meantime, we have enjoyed our time in southern Alaska.
We have visited Alaska before and we had a mental list of places we wanted to visit again. It’s such beautiful scenery but it is interesting to see how much the climate has changed since we were in these same areas 8 years ago. Some of the glacier recession is really apparent. Knowing how much some of the areas are changing makes us appreciate the opportunity to see them even more.