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Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.

—Helen Keller

We’ve been home now for several weeks, and a new school year is getting underway.  I am way overdue in putting up a post to wrap-up our summer odyssey and had better do so now before the teaching treadmill picks up too much speed.

Denali Highway, Alaska: a long, long way from home.

Looking back over my posts from the road, I’m struck by the way they fizzled out toward the end, partly due to technical issues but also partly due to languor, the daily demands of logging significant mileage often leaving little time and less energy for blogging at the end of the day.  Compared to the posts from my 2008 trip with the boys, a journey with no real agenda or timetable, the writing just didn’t measure up.  And besides the tyranny of the timetable, there was another significant difference with this trip: I had adult company for the duration.  After the boys went to sleep, I still had someone to talk with.  And, while my dad was with us, someone to knock back a few Alaskan Ambers with.

Anyway, unlike my blog posts, the trip most definitely didn’t fizzle out toward the end.  In fact we ended on a real high before I put Belinda and the boys on a plane in Salt Lake City and drove the rest of the way back.  But more on that later.

First, a couple of general reflections: (more…)

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We’ve listened to a lot of radio in the nearly 6000 miles we’ve covered so far, typically alternating between small-town NPR on the left end of the dial and small-town country music stations on the right.  The emptier the country, the more interesting the seek-button results.  Because every station goes fluttery within half an hour at best, there are no keepers, but here are a few high points from our catch-and-release airwave trawling:

  • Driving across northern Nebraska with a signal from the Rosebud Indian Reservation across the border in South Dakota.  The young lady behind the microphone read a surprisingly long listing of all job openings in the immediate area and then, to open the daily “Birthday Show,” announced the names of everyone celebrating a birthday on that particular day. The first birthday song request, from a grandfather to his grandson, was the theme of SpongeBob SquarePants as sung by a Blackfoot Indian powwow drum group.  The boys were both fast asleep in the car at the time and missed it.
  • In Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, I heard “Electric Avenue” for the first time since perhaps 1983 on a station that played wall-to-wall reggae music seemingly without commercial interruption or commentary or station identification of any sort. Whitehorse also had a Caribbean eatery. I reckon the idea of the tropics has a powerful hold on the imaginations of those who live in this part of the world—three days later in Fairbanks we came across a twenty-piece community steel drum band (players ranged from preteen to septuagenarian) jamming away in the downtown riverside plaza.
  • Local public radio in Haines, Alaska, treated us to an involved and entertaining local crime story from Skagway about two Canadian men caught trying to smuggle marijuana over the border in the tool box behind the cab of their pick-up truck.  When the news report was finished, another voice came on to let us know we had just heard a re-broadcast story from 12 years ago in their “News from the Past” segment.  I guess little enough happens in Haines (and I mean that in the best possible way) that a recycled narrative of a decade-old drug bust can still retain some novelty.

But our best (semi)serendipitous listening experience didn’t come over the airwaves at all.  In one of the Yellowstone visitor centers I impulse-purchased an audio copy of Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage (about the Lewis and Clark Expedition), which proved to be the best-possible companion for our drive north towards Great Falls.  To a surprising degree, the boys were swept up by the narration.  Too bad I hadn’t thought about audio books before we left . . . right now we should be listening to John Muir’s Travels in Alaska as we island-hop our way southward.

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We made it to Fairbanks.  In fact, we’re about to leave again after a busy 36 hours.  Dad has the boys downstairs in the hotel pool while I scrape together a quick update.  It’s funny how quickly the time seems to go up here, even when the daylight lasts forever, as you’re tempted to keep cramming in activities and stay on the move.  Following dinner last night, we left my brother’s apartment at nearly eleven with the sun still up and would have probably stayed there and kept talking until the wee hours had the boys not kept us honest by looking tired.

The Alaska Highway took us a leisurely four days, and I might have a lot to say about the drive if I had more time.  On the other hand, how much is there to say, really, about a drive?  In general, the road was emptier and prettier and in better condition than I expected once we got beyond the surprisingly busy and refined Dawson Creek and Fort St. John area.  Our campsite at Muncho Lake will undoubtedly be a highlight of the trip.

Every chance they got in this campsite, the boys would say “You know where we’ll be” and disappear to the lakeshore to journal, skip rocks, and fish. The boys have now fished unsuccessfully in Wyoming, British Columbia, and the Yukon Territory.

We saw lots of wildlife, including this black bear right at the side of the road who probably would have let us hang out with him all afternoon.

Hey, BooBoo.  Let’s go get us some motorhome tourists!

On all accounts, the drive out went astonishingly well.

So now we begin the slow road back.  We’re heading toward Denali and will then take a few days to reach Haines.  From there,  several short ferry hops through the southeast islands will take us to Prince Rupert, BC.  On the 12th, Belinda will meet us in Vancouver and I’ll kick my Dad out of the car so she can travel with us for a week or so.

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There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,

A race that can’t stay still;

So they break the hearts of kith and kin,

And they roam the world at will.

They range the field and they rove the flood,

And they climb the mountain’s crest;

Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,

And they don’t know how to rest.

—from Robert Service, “The Men That Don’t Fit In” in The Spell of the Yukon

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I always expected that the middle third of our outbound trip would be the most psychologically difficult.  We’ve been getting further from home with every mile yet are still a very long way from road’s end, and it’s been difficult to strike the right balance between keeping the driving days manageable and making enough progress to feel like we won’t be on the road for all eternity.  Moreover, I know from her tone of voice on the telephone that this stage has been tough on Belinda, too.

But things are looking brighter.  Tonight, we’re holed up in Hinton, Alberta, and by perhaps lunchtime tomorrow we should make Dawson Creek, BC—Milepost Zero for the Alaska Highway, the beginning of the end for our outbound journey.  Tonight I had the first chance since we left to have a substantive phone conversation (beyond routine checking in) with my beautiful and tolerant (and lonesome) wife.  And firm plans are taking shape for her joining us for the middle third of the return journey.

Some notables from the last few days:

  • On Tuesday, we camped at Belly River in Waterton Lakes National Park (Canada’s sister unit for our Glacier).  We were worried that the little campground there might be full by the time we arrived, but we found it absolutely empty.  We enjoyed such a quiet night that we found ourselves ludicrously annoyed when two cars rumbled through during breakfast the next morning.

We had it all to ourselves.  Why this place wasn’t overrun is still a mystery.

The wind was just right to break out the big kite for her maiden flight.

  • We spent much of Wednesday afternoon at a place called Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the Blackfoot people (before horses and firearms had been introduced by European contact) hunted bison by stampeding them off a cliff (that’s an exceptionally condensed summary of a fascinating and complex practice).  This site is well worth the visit—the haunting physical location and first-class interpretive center made quite an impression on the boys.
  • Driving north from Great Falls, Montana you can’t help but be struck by the emptiness of the landscape, the feeling that you’re coming to the end of things. It’s just too cold and lonely way up there.  And then you cross the border and continue north into Alberta and the country strangely starts filling up again until you reach Calgary, a sprawling and gleaming ultra-modern metropolis that feels like a city the Sunbelt somehow misplaced.  Driving through on the third day of summer, I had trouble imagining it ever being cold and snowy and dark there.
  • Banff is a funny place.  I think about it in comparison to Jackson, WY . . . Jackson might also be touristy and glitzy and expensive (and not without its charms) but at least it’s tucked away in the southern end of the valley and doesn’t sit smack-dab in the heart of the Teton’s signature scenery.  Banff shows no such modesty.  Then again, the Canadian Rockies have so much signature scenery that one jaw-dropping valley can be “sacrificed” for a township.  In particular, all 140 miles of the Icefields Parkway heading north through Banff N.P. into Jasper N.P. had scenery so numbingly spectacular and pristine that, had I been in a pull-over-and-take-a-picture mood, the traverse might have taken us  two days.
  • That said, Lake Louise did not live up to my expectations.  Any mountain hiker worth his or her salt has been to numerous alpine tarns of equal or greater beauty that didn’t have an incongruously modern hotel and parking lots packed with tour buses at one end.

The obligatory snapshot.  Thousands of other people were taking one, so I had to, too.

  • The interpretive portion of the Athabasca Glacier visitor center (sorry, I mean “centre”) in Jasper N.P. was very, very well done.  The gift shop, however, was a joke, filled with the same useless trinkets that you might find in a Gatlinburg T-shirt shop.  I’m struck by the irony that downstairs they hit you with displays extolling conservation and living in harmony with the earth while right above they push mindless consumer dreck like Canada shot-glasses and Jasper N.P. ashtrays.  And I’m reminded of the wisdom shown by our own National Park Service in turning over visitor-center gift shop duties to non-profit natural history associations.  Instead of Gatlinburg T-shirt shops, we get independent niche booksellers.

If all goes well, by this time next week we’ll be in Fairbanks.  The roads get awfully (wonderfully) lonely from this point . . .

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