USA 16 – Leaving California and heading east through Arizona and into New Mexico.


13th – 23rd February – Leaving behind California’s Joshua Tree National Park, we head east on Interstate 10, crossing the Colorado River  and returning once again into Arizona’s vast Sonoran desert landscape amongst the Saguaro cactus, symbol of the American Southwest.

Once through Phoenix, we camp at Apache Junction and meet Dave from Chicago, taking a break and heading south on his big Harley. A great guy who loves a challenge, achieving the IRON BUTT title after having ridden from Ysidro in California to Jacksonville in Florida in 45 hours.  He has also done ‘The 4 Corners’  ride beginning at Maine down to Key West in Florida, across to San Diego in California and finishing in Blaine in Washington.  He managed to complete this amazing journey in 15 days!

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Arizona’s wild and spectacular landscapes have made it one of our favourite states and so it’s a ‘must’ to explore one of its oldest and most ancient highways, the historic Apache Trail.  Named after the Apache Indians who once used this route, the trail links Apache Junction with Theodore Roosevelt Lake winding steeply through the rugged scenery of the Superstition Mountains, with its twisting ravines and deep reservoir lakes.  Along the Apache Trail, we make stops at the once booming gold mine town of Goldfield, the old-west style settlement of Tortilla Flat with its story of the Lost Dutchman Mine and Canyon and Apache Lakes formed by the damming of the Salt River.

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The Apache Trail, snaking its way through the Superstition Mountains.

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Canyon Lake

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Stopping for a chat at a viewing point.

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Apache Lake

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A much cherished Harley at Tortilla Flat.

At the little town of Superior we stop at the Visitor Centre located in an old railway carriage.  The lady here is very dedicated and well informed and tells us the haunting story of nearby Apache Leap Mountain and the legend of the Apache Tears.  She has a basket of ‘Apache Tear Drops ‘ and lets me pick out a couple….small black obsidian stones that appear opaque but when held up to the light, reveal the translucent tears of grief-stricken Apache Women, mourning many of their men who chose to leap to their death rom a high bluff, rather than to die at the hands of white men, who had taken them by surprise and attacked them for raiding cattle from Arizona settlements.  The story continues that the Apache Women gathered at the base of the cliff and as their teardrops fell and hit the ground, they froze forming small black stones.  It is said, that whoever owns an Apache Tear Drop will never cry again, for the Apache Women have shed their tears in place of yours.  The stones are also said to bring good luck to those possessing them.

Continuing through Globe which owes its existence to the Wild West mining camps that sprang up out of the desert following the discovery of silver and copper.  The Gila County Courthouse is worth a visit here.  Built from locally quarried stone, this building houses the Cobre Valley Centre for the Arts.  The paintings, sculptures and pottery displayed here is certainly impressive, as is the current exhibition of beautifully hung quilting, their colours and shapes that very often tell a story, portraying great skill and patience.

From Globe we head southeast on Highway 70 to Thatcher, passing through cactus strewn landscapes, rolling yellow grasslands and cattle ranches, clearing mountain passes and plunging canyons with snow still on Mount Graham at just over 3000 metres, long been considered sacred by all of the region’s Native peoples.

And so we continue to the State line with New Mexico and camping at Silver City will provide a good base for exploring the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument located deep in the rugged, mountainous terrain of the Gila National Forest and the Gila River Wilderness area of southwest New Mexico.  These cave dwellings offer a glimpse of the homes and lives of the Mogollon people who inhabited the area in the late 1200’s, a remote wilderness where only the sound of the river and birds would have been heard.   By 1300 however, they had suddenly abandoned their homes and moved on.  Today, the caves can be reached by a 1 mile loop trail through a narrow canyon, followed by an easy climb.

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Gila National Forest and River Wilderness Area.

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!5 miles east of Silver City is the vast Santa Rita Copper  Mine, one of the oldest and largest open pit mines in North America.   Named after the small community of Santa Rita, once located here, the mine is often referred to as the ‘Chino Mine.’  Today, this mine is well over a mile across and over 1000 feet deep and mining occurs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.   The viewing point provides an awesome sight but there is also a tour that takes place on the second Tuesday of every month.

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Leaving Silver City, Highway 152 takes us on the scenic route towards Las Cruces, passing once again through the mountains, canyons and forests of the Gila Wilderness Area.  The mountains fade to the horizon in every direction as we reach the Emory Pass at 8228 feet, named after Army Officer William Hemsby Emory, who made a crossing with the army in 1846.    We meet an elderly cyclist who we overtook on the winding, uphill road as he now tucks into his energy bar before the easier descent.  It’s an almost 3 hour round trip he tells us, from his home in Silver City….what a great guy, his legs must be made of iron and his lungs enormous!   A biker arrives on his Royal Enfield originally bought from India.  Loving the great outdoors, he tells us that it is the perfect bike for climbing slowly up through this fantastic scenery.

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Views from the Emory Pass

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We descend into Kingston where rolling, yellow grasslands take over, a few homesteads and cattle down amongst the ribbon of water winding its way through the cottonwood trees.  Hillsboro is only a little bigger but there’s a small, wooden homestead advertising coffee, candy and rocks.  We open the door to an Aladdin’s Cave of gemstones, rocks and polished stones, a little grocery store tucked at the back with the welcome coffee machine.  A very interesting couple own this place, the guy telling us fascinating stories of locating old mines and entering the shafts, often going down about 600 feet.

The Caballo Mountains rise up in front of us as we continue south toward Las Cruces.  A number of crosses in this sprawling town at the foot of the Organ Mountains, mark the graves of members of a caravan ambushed by Apaches, giving the town its name.

We cross the Rio Grande and it’s a shock to see an almost dry river bed.  The Caballo Dam and many irrigation channels supplying water to the farming in the Mesilla Valley, are apparently responsible  for draining the river.  The traditional Farmers and Craft Market held in Las Cruces, brings fresh produce grown in the surrounding valley to its stalls.  Pecans are a speciality, plus alfalfa, chilli peppers, onions, corn and cotton.

About 20 miles east of Las Cruces is the White Sands Missile Range with its museum and outdoor Missile Park.  It is open to the public following a short registration and security check and makes an interesting visit.  Since 1945 the missile range has conducted more than 42,000 missile and rocket firings, examining new weapon systems for the army, navy and air force, as well as conducting purely scientific research.  In March 1982 Columbia landed here.

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It has now turned bitterly cold camping at Las Cruces, our blue skies have disappeared under stormy grey clouds and we have a freezing wind.  We check the weather and discover that ‘Quantum’, a winter storm is heading east toward the middle and north of Texas, our next state.  The north of New Mexico is also having ice storms with some roads closed which is disappointing as we would liked to have visited Santa Fe and Albuquerque.  Even the town of Alamogordo in New Mexico where we are heading next, is having snow flurries.  But fingers crossed that the weather will hold out, as we have really been looking forward to visiting The White Sands National Monument, where waves of white gypsum sand create an ever changing vista.

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USA 15 – Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park

9th – 12th February 2015  –  Joshua Tree National Park protects 794,000 acres , nearly 3/4 of which is designated vast wilderness.  It’s a land shaped by extremes of climate, sparse and unpredictable rainfall but also sudden torrents and strong winds.   Two great deserts meet together in this park, the Mojave and Colorado deserts dividing the park into two very different ecosystems.  For these two contrasting ways of desert life, survival is an art and the genius of plants and animals for locating and conserving water, adapting to the extremes of temperature and escaping predators, is always amazing!

The western half of Joshua Tree is Mojave Desert habitat, considered ‘high desert’ with elevations above 3,000 feet, wetter and slightly cooler and with more vegetation in comparison to the park’s eastern side.   There, the hotter and drier ‘low desert’ of the Colorado, slopes away across the huge, arid plain of the Pinto Basin edged by the Eagle and Coxcomb Mountains.

We enter Joshua Tree at its western entrance and choose a camping site at the Black Rock Campground.  Here, in this Mojave Desert habitat, giant Joshua trees thrive amongst huge boulder stacks and massive granite formations……a living symbol of the desert.

According to legend, these large, branching yuccas were named by early Mormon settlers who considered their limbs to resemble the up-stretched arms of Joshua, leading them to the promised land.  It is possible for Joshua trees to reach a height of 50 feet during a lifespan that could exceed 200 years.  We are too early to see their large clusters of white blossoms that bloom in early spring but their short, spiky leaves however, are useful for providing protected nesting places for many species of birds.

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Still on the western side, the Hidden Valley is worth a visit.  Piles of granite rocks ringing the valley help to create a special microclimate to support many plants and animals by blocking strong winds and collecting moisture, as rainfall runs through their cracks.  Amongst the jumble of rocks and boulders, there is enough moisture to support oaks, junipers, cacti, yuccas and pinyon pines, these latter trees having been one of the most important plants used by early Indian settlers.   It is also said that long ago, a hidden ‘corral’ amongst the rocks became the perfect place for rustlers to hide their stolen cattle.

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The thick leaved Mojave yucca was also valued by desert Indians for its strong leaf fibres that could be woven to make mats and sandals.

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Camping allows us to appreciate the stars that fill the sky at night and hear coyote howling clearly in the distance.  In the morning we have a little cactus wren singing in a nearby tree against a cloudless, blue sky.

On our second day we drive to Twentynine Palms where a short walking trail takes us to what remains of the Oasis of Mara.  Now just a small cluster of fan palms, it was once a place where early  Indian settlers found abundant water, shade, food and game.  However, as gold hunters, cattlemen and homesteaders began to arrive, they slowly displaced the Indians and with the growing population, the natural water of the oasis was also slowly depleted.   Today, due to the shrinking water table, the National Park Service has found it necessary to pipe in water so that oasis plants and animals can survive.

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We have noticed on our map of the park, that there is a back country 4×4 dirt road that would take us through a pass in the Old Dale Mining District in the mountains, before dropping down into the Pinto Basin on Old Dale Road.  After crossing this basin, it finally meets up with a tarmac road going south to the Cottonwood area of Joshua Tree.  It sounds remote and very interesting and the Rangers think it possible with our high clearance vehicle, pointing out however, that the track is not maintained and that some drivers have got into difficulties when crossing the pass, as rains can create gullies and wash down rocks and boulders.  They would rather 2 vehicles travel together but if we make it, they would like us to let them know of the condition of the route.

We decide to give it a go but first have to find the unmarked track that leads off from Highway 62.  There is no sign to indicate the beginning of this dirt road named The Gold Crown Road which leads into the Old Dale Mining District but after driving 15 miles east from the 29 Palms Visitor Centre, we notice a piece  of pink tape tied around a post by a track leading off on our right.  Within a short distance, we discover a board showing a map of the area with a maze of numbered tracks but which all appears very confusing and impossible to remember.  But we are in luck, as a vehicle suddenly appears on the dirt road and we flag him down.  A really helpful guy who has been checking out one of the old closed mines as someone wants to re-open it again.  He has local maps of the area and gives us lots of good advice on which numbered tracks to take, at least as far as the mining area.

The sand track stretches off into the distance with a conveniently painted arrow on a rock to show us the way……25 miles to the Old Dale Road and it’s an easy beginning.

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Tracks lead off in every direction and we have to be careful that we take the right one as there is no room for turning around once we begin to climb higher.  We are very glad of our new tyres as we pick our way over and between many rocks and sharp stones.

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The chase for gold here began in the 1880s and wagons and trucks would have bumped along these tracks carrying supplies and ore.  We take a short detour to explore one of the old, disused mines. It must have taken an amazing effort to get all that machinery there.

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As we near the pass, the going gets tougher and I’m holding my breath at times guiding Bill through the gullies and rocks.  With a heavily loaded vehicle we can’t afford to make a mistake and there is now always a steep drop on one side as we reach the pass.  The light is also beginning to fade but we want to complete this difficult section before we make camp.

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Suddenly around a bend, we see the Pinto Basin spreading out below us and a sign to say that we are once again back inside Joshua Tree.

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It has taken us three and a half hours to do approx. 12 miles but safely, thanks to our vehicle, Bill’s driving and also probably our new Firestone tyres.  We have not seen a single vehicle since we started and this latter part of the track over the pass is obviously rarely used.

We find a flat area free of rocks to camp for the night, as the final descent into the basin tomorrow does not look too difficult.  We can’t see the moon, but the sky is studded with stars…….not a sign of light pollution in this wonderfully remote and peaceful spot overlooking the vast Pinto Basin….not even a coyote calling.

In the morning the sun reaches us quickly.  We clamber down into a nearby, completely dry river bed and wonder how long ago it was that water flowed through there.

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We make our way slowly down the last, stony stretch into the Pinto Basin.  In more verdant times when it was once crossed by a sluggish river, it provided a home to possibly one of the Southwest’s earliest hunter-gatherer inhabitants, the Pinto people.  Today, this inhospitable, flat and sandy section of California’s Colorado Desert, sweeps east toward the Coxcomb Mountains. Because much of this desert is at, or below sea level, it is one of North America’s hottest and driest places, with temperatures often reaching 120 degrees F in the summer.  Although dominated by creosote bushes, there are many other interesting desert plants and a roadrunner dashes in front of us as we continue on this last 11 mile, sandy stretch through the basin.

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We stop to look at the old pump and Mission Well.  Drilled in 1934 to a depth of 449 feet, it provided water to nearby mines.

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Eventually, we join up with the tarmac road that will take us to the Cottonwood Springs and Campsite.  This backcountry road has been a real highlight away from the organised trails and it is times like this, that we realise how lucky we are to have a vehicle that is capable of crossing this sort of terrain.

It’s first come first served at the campground but we manage to find a quiet site.  Whilst Bill has a break, I take the trail to the Cottonwood Spring. A very relaxing and interesting walk amongst ochre hills and fan palms…..just me and the trail, the rustling fan palms and perfect weather!

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Arriving at the oasis, I am standing atop a crack in the Earth’s crust.  Geological faults criss-cross the park.  When groundwater hits a fault, it rises to the surface and creates conditions for an oasis, providing welcome vegetation and a refuge from the extremes of the desert.  Cottonwood Spring with its beautiful Californian fan palms, Cottonwood and Mesquite trees, was used by the Cahuilla Indians for centuries.  Mesquite was one of their most valued food sources.  The beans from the tree’s long pods were sometimes eaten raw but more often dried, pounded into flour and then stored in large baskets or pots.  Stone mortars and broken pottery have been discovered at the site.  Later, prospectors and miners established gold mills here due to the abundance of water.

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We have Minerva Hoyt to thank for this park.  A community activist and desert lover, she recognised the threat from humans in this fragile environment, where she saw beauty in in all the flora and fauna.  In 1936 she persuaded President Roosevelt to designate more than 800,000 acres in the area as the Joshua Tree National Monument.  It was later named Joshua Tree National  Park.





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USA 14 – Leaving Canada and returning to the USA……Washington, Oregon and finding the sun again along California’s beautiful coast!

January 21st – 9th February 2015   –  Our ferry leaves Vancouver Island from Dukes Point in Nanaimo for a 2 hour sailing to Tsawwassen on mainland Vancouver.  The Strait of Georgia is like glass on this clear, cold day with snow-topped mountains lining our route.   As we leave the ferry and head for the US border, we are mesmerised by views of northern Washington’s shining, snow-clad Mount Baker situated in the Cascade Mountain Range, along with other surrounding peaks.

We are surprised not to be stamped out of Canada as we leave but the US border police issue us with a yellow ticket which means we are required to have a secondary inspection at another building, which proves to be a lengthy process.  Many questions have to be answered about ourselves and our vehicle, whilst our route so far is tracked on a computer.  We are eventually asked for finger and thumb prints and have our photos taken, so surely this must mean that we have finally been accepted, but for what length of time……..we have asked for 6 months.  Our Land Rover is searched and we lose all our fruit and vegetables, plus eggs and rice.  Our passports are finally returned however, and we have been given our requested time….this is good news and with so many places yet to visit, it’s exciting to be on our way to explore them!

Washington, named after George Washington, is the 42nd state and the only one named after a President.  Mount Rainier, Washington’s highest peak in the Cascade Range at 14,411 feet, is considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes due to its enormous amounts of glacial ice that would produce massive mud and debris flows. The weather however, has changed to being grey, cloudy and very wet, which means that we sadly won’t be seeing any of Washington’s majestic mountains from now on.

We do however, make a stop at Mount St. Helens Visitor Centre at Silver Lake.  The cloud lifts enough to enjoy the trail around this huge, natural lake, protected by surrounding hills and an important marsh and wetland area to thousands of migratory birds and other animals.

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Another 1 hours drive inland could take us closer to Mount St. Helens, but the video recorder inside the visitor centre, is showing low cloud obscuring everything.  This volcano suddenly erupted on May 18th 1980 killing many people and destroying a massive area with landslides and volcanic debris.  In 2004, St. Helen had another dramatic awakening, rumbling once again to life and producing thousands of small earthquakes and more steam and ash eruptions.  A new lava dome rose from the crater floor and the volcano underwent amazing transformation, as activity continued until February 2008.

We do however, leave Washington with a new set of tyres from a Firestone dealer in Tacoma.  Great guys here, very interested in our Land Rover and our journey and who get the tyres that Bill wants and then fit them all in the same day.  Four Firestone Destination Mud Terrain costs us $911 (including tax and fitting), still cheaper than Canada, even though our exchange rate here is not so strong.

We push on to Oregon.  We have heard so many good reports about this state, its beautiful coastline, the mighty Columbia River winding through the Columbia Gorge where vineyards climb on both its cooler and sunnier slopes, and of course Mount Hood, an active volcano and Oregon’s highest point whose slopes we are told, just beg to be climbed, skied, snowboarded and hiked.  As we near Portland, Oregon’s largest city, skies briefly clear and we have a short view of Mount Hood’s snow covered slopes, but winter is not a good time to enjoy Oregon’s sights as a thick, cold and clammy fog descends as we head towards its wild and rugged coast following the Umpqua River.

As we continue travelling south we notice many warning signs about earthquakes and what immediate action to take to avoid getting caught in a tsunami.

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At the small fishing village of Winchester Bay, we turn off for the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, where the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America, extend for some 40 miles along the Oregon coast between Florence and Coos Bay.  This desert-like landscape blends with forests, rivers, lakes and ocean, creating a diverse ecosystem for many plants and animals.  It is here also, that the Umpqua River flows into the sea and the spring migration of grey whales and their calves can be viewed from prominent headlands.

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The town of Brookings is the last before the Californian State Line and the world’s tallest trees are just waiting to be discovered in the northern Redwood National and State Parks.  These giant redwood trees are spread over a large area and it can appear confusing where to visit, so a visit to the Parks headquarters provides us with useful information.

From Crescent City we take the unpaved Howland Hill Road through the Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park, with its towering old-growth redwood trees that get their name from their reddish-brown bark and heartwood.  These coastal redwoods that grow in a narrow strip along the northern Pacific coast of California and southwest Oregon, thrive on rich soil from the Smith River flood plains and are kept continually damp, even during summer droughts, from heavy winter rains plus fog from the Pacific Ocean.  Before logging began in 1850, approx. 200,000 acres of ancient  redwood forest covered the coastal mountains of California.  Today, sadly only about 5% remains, now fortunately protected by the National and State Parks.

To really appreciate these colossal trees, that are estimated to be between 600 and 1,500 years old, to feel the cool, moist air and feel the heavy silence, it is best to walk amongst them.

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We have a delicious bowl of soup for lunch in the Palm Cafe at nearby Orick, whilst the friendly waitress tells us all about the small community here struggling to keep their town alive.  Before we leave, she hands us a paper bag with a little message written on it and slips a 2015 calendar and a copy of their menu inside as a momentum for us.

From Orick we walk the Lady Bird Johnson Trail that winds its way between more old growth giants in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.  We see a herd of Roosevelt elk in a field, one of the most commonly seen mammals in the Redwood Parks and it’s good to know that protection of their habitats is allowing their numbers  to increase once again.

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We decide to take Highway 1 and follow the steep and winding, scenic route that runs down the Californian coast.  At Cabrillo Point a trail takes us to the top of sheer, crumbling cliffs with views of the Cabrillo lighthouse and pounding surf along a wild and rugged coastline.

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After our bracing walk, a little cafe in the nearby attractive town of Mendocino serves us more welcome bowls of soup made from locally grown organic vegetables.  Lots of lovely houses along this route built high on the cliff tops with fantastic sea views, as it changes from blue to silver once the sun slowly slides down below the horizon and clouds and mist begin to appear.  It’s the weekend and it’s becoming difficult to find anywhere to stay and rooms are at weekend prices.  However at Sea Cove Lodge we are given a good discount on a small room with just about a sea view and we are told that many whales were spotted today…..very nice, helpful guy.  We haven’t got far today but the beautiful weather needs to be enjoyed rather than driving a great distance!

Another sunny day and many people heading out from the cities for this stretch of rugged coastline and its many sandy coves.  Our road has been cut through pine forests that once would have reached the edge of the cliffs.  At Fort Ross we stop at a viewing point and see our first whales way out at sea, their spouts clearly visible and also chat to a guy who pulls up beside us with an English bulldog puppy.  An avid surfer, we learn many interesting things from him about his surfing experiences, this coastline and the different waves, seals and even the great white sharks that he has seen as they head out into the ocean for Hawaii.

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As we lose the trees, steep, rounded hills slope down to the sea and at Petaluma we meet Aram and Jill who also enjoy the freedom of travelling the world.  Jill writes a useful Travel Tips blog and maybe Aram will be writing another book!  Thanks for all your advice on what to see…..great talking to you guys and enjoy your travels!

As we near San Francisco, campsites become more expensive but we can’t leave without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and so drive to the top of Marina Heights, where all those famous pictures are taken.  Alcatraz Island and Downtown San Francisco are visible in the distance through the haze.

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Guided visits to Alcatraz we are told, have to be booked well in advance, so we head out over the bridge where paying our $7 for this privilege becomes quite complicated.  To avoid traffic queues, there are no pay booths as you enter the bridge, payment has to be made either beforehand online, or within 48 hours of crossing. However when we try to do this later, it refuses our payment as it will only accept numbers of registration plates from a US state.  Let’s hope we don’t get a ticket!

So it’s dark and we have had enough driving for one day when we finally find a small motel in Castoville, a well-kept little town in which many Mexicans have made their home.  It is also the artichoke centre of the world with huge fields dedicated to growing this plant!

We continue down Highway 1 hugging the coastline along California’s famous Big Sur.  A deep blue and turquoise ocean with surf pounding the rocks, miles of sandy beaches and secluded coves hidden under rocky headlands.  Wild flowers are beginning to bloom and the air is heady with the scents of pine and dense herby shrubs……..roughly 85 miles of stunning scenery and we have found the sun!   We see more whale spouts out at sea……wonderful to think of these huge creatures slowly making their way south and not that far away from us.  When they make their return journey with their calves, we are told they swim closer to the shore.

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Shortly before San Simeon, we arrive at Piedras Blancas and walk the short trail to the beach which today is full of Northern elephant seals, pregnant females and mothers with pups as well as enormous males laying prostrate at the edge of the surf, awesome creatures with their huge dangling noses and massive blubbery bodies.  The Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery began near the lighthouse in 1990 and today it has become the largest mainland elephant seal rookery.  Northern elephant seals spend most of their lives at sea, but come ashore to breed, give birth, moult and rest.  The males began arriving here in December to establish their territories, whilst January and February are the months for the pups to be born.  Seagulls patrol the beach to clean up the afterbirths.  The mothers will nurse their pups for about a month and are then ready to mate once again.

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San Simeon State Park has a welcome campground but with toilet facilities only, as the showers are closed due to acute water shortage.  There are only a handful of other campers here, including Mat  who is returning home to Fairbanks in Alaska after cycling down to Mexico……a very interesting guy with many fascinating stories to tell of his past and present travels.

We take Mat’s advice that the last remaining stretch of California’s coastline does not get any better than the Big Sur area and turn inland on to State Route 46 soon after San Simeon.

This road takes us through the beautiful San Joaquin Valley, California’s top agricultural producing region, bordered by rolling, emerald hills….home to cattle ranches which then give way to a huge wine producing area.  Well tended vineyards stretch for great distances, with beautiful wineries set up on the hills approached by long drives often lined with trees, their buildings and homes influenced by Spanish architecture.  Near Shandon, farming seems to consist of nothing but nut trees, particularly the Pacific Almond, the rows of trees just seeming to go on for ever.

A local store  has variations of just about every kind of nut for sale….roasted, salted, hickory, cajun etc. etc.  Jars of pickles, olives, honey and jams, wine and salsas and amazing fudge fill the shelves.  The walls are adorned with huge pictures of Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and there’s an old vehicle packed with just about everything that people needed in times gone by, as they left for the dust bowls of California as in Steinbeck’s books – The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden…….definitely worth a stop and it’s impossible to leave without a treat!

Moving on through The Lost Hills, the landscape is dotted with hundreds of nodding donkeys….an unusual sight to see so many together!

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On the outskirts of Bakersfield we discover Orange Grove RV Park which we certainly rate high amongst our nicest campsites.  The large, quiet and well spaced out camping areas are literally between rows of orange trees, laden with fruit.  To prevent wastage, the hosts provide us with a long picking implement and a carrier bag and we help ourselves to some of the best oranges we have ever tasted……juicy, sweet, no pips and never been sprayed!  A  couple opposite us with a large camper appear to pick a bag every day but tell us they are great for juicing.  She sounds quite incredulous when she discovers that we don’t have one of those useful pieces of American equipment.  “You don’t have a juicer?” she says in amazement and we laugh.  Now where I wonder could we make room for that!

It’s easy to understand why we end up staying here for 5 nights because not only are the oranges a bonus but large doughnuts and coffee are provided free of charge every morning, the restrooms are also spacious and kept very clean and our camping neighbours are all very friendly.  Moby continues to attract a lot of attention and is constantly photographed.  We step outside one morning and there is a lady with her camera poised…..”Can I take a picture of your rig, it’s soooo cool! ”  I suppose we do appear a bit of a novelty as we are dwarfed by all the other huge rigs, most  of which look like luxurious second homes.  Many of the people look to be of retired ages and some who stop to talk are well into their seventies…..79 years old one guy tells us and he and his mates all have their rigs and enjoy travelling together.  We do admire them and am sure it keeps them young and of course, they do have an amazing country to explore!

We have a day of rain but am sure the farmers are wishing for more, as California has long been suffering drought conditions.  We have seen many signs reminding people of the water shortage.

From the orange groves we head out east on Highway 58, stopping at Tehachapi to look at its very impressive murals painted on the walls of various historic buildings and to have lunch in Tehachapi’s Original Apple Shed,  today  a restaurant, bakery and gift shop.

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‘Beekay Mural’…..Tehachapi’s latest mural on the side of the Beekay Theatre.  Locals waiting to buy their tickets.

IMG 3402“People of the Mountains – The Nuwa Tribe’ mural.  Village scene from before contact with the white man.

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‘The Red Front Blacksmith Shop’ mural.

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‘1915 Street Dance’ mural.  A street dance showing local residents past and present to commemorate Tehachapi’s first electric streetlights.

It’s an interesting town, where long before California became a state, the Tehachapi Pass was used by the native Nuwa people as they arrived to settle in the nearby valleys and hills.  Today, Highway 58 carries travellers through the pass and is a major east – west corridor.

If you are a train enthusiast, then before leaving Tehachapi, you must drive approx. 8 miles out of town and visit the famous Tehachapi Loop, considered to be one of the railroad wonders of the world.   This single track main line climbs out of the San Joaquin Valley and winds its way up the Tehachapi mountains through 18 tunnels and over many bridges.  When it reaches the Loop, it’s fascinating to watch how the line climbs in a spiral over itself, gaining 77 feet of elevation.

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We continue on Highway 58 to Barstow on the edge of the Mojave Desert and cross the bridge over the Mojave River which is completely dry.

It’s taken longer than we thought when we finally arrive at Yucca Valley, near to where we plan to visit southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park.  We have seen these fascinating trees before in Arizona when we took the desert drive to to the western end of the Grand Canyon.  However, numerous people have told us that the mountains of jumbled rock and exposed granite monoliths amongst these trees, create a very special desert landscape and so we look forward to our visit.

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Canada 6 – Visa problems for Alaska after driving ‘The Top of the World Highway’. Returning for wildlife in Vancouver and wintering on Vancouver Island.

August 24th – January 20th 2015 –  It’s back to Bonanza Gold Campground at Dawson City for a few days, before we set out along The Top of the World Highway for Alaska.  We share our Dempster Highway journey with camping neighbours Tom and Nancy who invite us into their comfortable camper to sample some of Nancy’s delicious banana cream pie.   A kind thought and safe and happy travelling to you both!

Once their camper had left we meet up with a very special couple in the next trailer.  Norman and Dottie and I’m sure they won’t mind me sharing the fact that they are both over 80 but still have the enthusiasm and strong spirits to keep travelling in both Canada and the USA.  They have 2 fascinating maps, one on each side of their trailer, the first is almost completed with stickers showing states that they visited before they were 80, and the second showing stickers of where they have visited after their 80th birthdays.  We think you are both wonderful and admire your sense of fun and adventure.  Have a great winter down in Mexico and thank you for a lovely evening with wine and nibbles and the  chance to meet up with more neighbours, Fredy and Ruth from Switzerland.

We are shocked and saddened however, to hear of Ruth and Fredy’s recent bad experience when travelling up the Dempster.  We had a very lucky  warning from travellers Ike and Bethany that we met on this highway, not to stop at the gas station at  Fort McPherson because of suspected bad fuel.  Unfortunately, Ruth and Fredy  filled their tank there and within a short while were going nowhere, except to return to Dawson on the back of a breakdown lorry.  Their big Ford is now in a garage here, waiting to be taken by another truck to Fairbanks in Alaska, where they hope their engine can either be repaired or a replacement fitted!  We try to help them sort out this disaster during the next couple of days by helping with phone calls and letters……..we wish them luck,  will be thinking of them and will keep in touch.

Back on the road, we leave Dawson City by taking the short, free ferry across the mighty Yukon River as it continues its way across Alaska and out into the Bering Sea.  We are now following  The Top of the World Highway, a gravel road that takes us above the low cloud and mist that was covering Dawson when we left.

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These surrounding hills were once home to thousands of Fortymile caribou herds but sadly, heavy hunting and severe winters have caused their numbers to drop drastically over the years.  These migratory caribou travelled long distances between their winter and summer grounds.  Recovery has been very slow, but it is hoped that one day, these caribou may once again occupy this area in large herds.

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105 km to the US border and we have an unexpected shock in store.  The border officer refuses to give us an extended time on our 3 month visa which has expired.  He is unfortunately, not a very pleasant guy to try and reason with and after giving us a lecture on illegal immigrants, he suggests we fly to Belize or back to the UK and then on our return, we can be given more time!   We were assured by officials at the US border with Mexico that our 3 month visa could be extended, but now we are being told that this is quite incorrect and apparently we are the 5th vehicle that he has turned away today.  There’s no way this guy is going to change his mind so we have no choice but to turn around and head back.

Disappointed but determined not to give up, we will head back south to Vancouver and apply for a B1/ B2 multiple entry visa at the American Consulate there…….fingers crossed of course!

It’s a long way back and it takes us just over 2 weeks as we retrace our journey through Whitehorse, turning south again at Watson Lake and once more at Prince George.  At Williams Lake, a fruit stall is selling frozen cherries and whilst we are contemplating the unusual way to eat these fruits, we meet Tarver and Sally, more keen travellers from Georgia.  What a wonderful way to live, by spending their winters in Florida and their summers in beautiful Montana and Wyoming!   If we are passing through Georgia then thank you, we would love to call in and see you.

Continuing to Whistler, then Squamish and on to Vancouver, but we are never short of spectacular scenery, exciting wildlife and beautiful lakes as we pass from the Yukon back into British Columbia, described as ‘A Land without Limits’, with its mountains and glaciers, lakes and rivers, ocean fjords and canyons and much more!

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Just one of the many lakes that we pass, Gravel Lake in the Yukon, the Yellow Pond Lilies now completely finished……..

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a male Spruce Grouse showing off his feathers to a nearby female…….

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Teslin Lake, a reflection of the sky, taking us back into beautiful British Columbia….

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a grizzly trying his luck at catching salmon at Hannah Creek, soon after Meziaden Junction.

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spectacular Seton Lake…….

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a black bear is about to cross the road in front of us……

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and the clear turquoise waters of Lower Joffre Lake where we meet some great guys who love our Land Rover…..Jorge and Alvaro both from Spain and Mike from Quebec.

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The Tantalus Viewpoint gives us a spectacular view of the Tantalus Range with its jagged and impressive peaks clad in icy glaciers, towering above the Squamish Valley.  Home to generations of Squamish people, the beauty of these vast lands and the power of these mountains are held in great respect, just as they consider sacred, the fresh waters of the rivers and creeks that flow from them.  There is an old story that tells of some mountain goat hunters and their dogs caught in a ferocious blizzard on these mountains.  It is said that they were transformed into the Tantalus Range, forever covered with a blanket of snow.  Some of the jagged peaks that can be seen today, are considered to be the hunting spears and the foothills of this mountain range, their dogs.

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This area provides an abundance of wildlife, including the Bald Eagle who returns every year to feast on the wild salmon that arrive in these rivers to spawn.  We plan to visit the Sqamish River a little later on, as it is famous for these eagles that return every year.

Squamish has provided us with not only some good camping but also a very popular Visitor Centre with informative staff and an excellent coffee shop with tempting home made goodies and access to wifi.  There is also a craft shop, where I one day get chatting to Jack and Alice.  On hearing about our travels, Jack insists on buying both Bill and I a pocket spirit each, to keep us safe.  Little metal discs with a Squamish Nation carving…….Wa chayap yuu stenamut  –  We wish you well on your journey.  This is just one more example of the kindness and generosity of the people that we have met throughout our travels in North America…….and they are very special.  Thank you Jack and Alice, we will make sure we keep them safe and always with us.

Leaving Sqamish we start the last 64km or so to Vancouver, on a road that has been carved out of the mountainside……sheer rock and forests dropping sharply down to the still, blue water of the Mamquam Blind Channel with numerous, small islands.  This opens out to the Howe Sound where the Squamish River ends its journey as it passes through the Squamish River Estuary, a unique eco-system of tidal canals, mud flats and wetlands, which not only provides a home for thousands of ducks and geese, as well as many other species of birds, but also the perfect environment for young salmon, as they prepare for their huge ocean journey.

It’s not easy to adjust to the busy streets of Vancouver but the Plaza RV Park in Surrey will be a good place to stay again whilst we wait for our US visa interview.  We hardly need to use our Land Rover whilst here, as good supermarkets and other shops are all within walking distance, as is Bear Creek Park, a green haven with forest walks, carefully tended gardens, an art gallery and athletics track.  We also have a good bus service close by (which for us is free) and which will drop us off to catch the Skytrain, an excellent way to travel into the city, high on elevated rails flying past the traffic below!

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Bear Creek Park

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During our stay here we visit The George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, nearly 740 acres of ponds, natural marshes and low dykes in the Fraser River Estuary, all of which provide important protected resting and feeding habitats for flocks of various migratory birds.

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Each year, the Sanctuary is visited in the fall by some 20 – 50,000 Snow Geese with black wing tips.  We watch large, noisy flocks beginning to arrive after having travelled some 5000km from their nesting colonies on Russia’s Wrangell Island in the Arctic Ocean…….an amazing journey!

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Pumpkins lay scattered in the surrounding farm fields as we near Halloween.

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Granville Island is also definitely worth a visit, its Farmers Market a fascinating assortment of colourful stalls, selling homemade products and the very finest of gastronomic delights.  Everything fresh from the ocean, the oven or the field!

If you like fresh seafood, then a trip to the waterfront at Fisherman’s Wharf, Steveston is also the place to go.  Whether your choice is fish and chips, crab cakes or the delicious fresh lobster cakes that we tried, it’s once again, all fresh from the ocean.

We find Vancouver’s Chinatown disappointing however, so much poverty there, many people sleeping on cardboard with their life’s belongings in shopping trolleys, and I have never seen so many people in wheelchairs.  Literally around the corner, there is a big Gucci sign and the luxury shops begin.

We breathe a sigh of relief as we are successful in obtaining our US visas at the American Consulate in the city and pick up our passports with them in a few days later at the Loomis Office in Richmond, close to the airport.  Now we have to hope that when we cross back into the USA we will be allowed to stay for at least 6 months, as there are still many places that we would like to visit.

It’s getting colder now however, and we have to make some plans so that we are not caught up in Canada’s freezing winter weather.  How lucky we are to find a house sit in Parksville on Vancouver Island, where their winters are much milder.  We will have a warm home to stay in and care for, as well as looking after two lovely cats, whilst their owners are away in Arizona, hoping for sunshine and warmer weather.  Our house sit doesn’t begin however, until toward the end of November, so it’s a great opportunity to leave Moby in storage and fly back to the UK to visit our family for 2-3 weeks.  Lovely to see everyone again after such a long time!

We find freezing temperatures on our return to Vancouver however, minus 6 at night with heavy frosts and ice that linger until late morning, so it’s a few warm nights in the Best Western Abercorn Inn in Richmond.

We have one last visit to make before taking the ferry to Vancouver Island and beginning our house sit.   Each Year, between November and January, Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park in Squamish, plays host to one of the largest congregations of wintering bald eagles in North America.   These majestic birds migrate from northern British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska to the Squamish River Valley, where the Squamish River watershed provides them with an abundance of food in the form of salmon, and the surrounding trees offer the necessary security for roosting and perching….an ideal habitat!  The eagles will stay until the salmon finish spawning in February.   Although our visit  is a little early we are fortunate in seeing some of these beautiful birds at close quarters…….a real highlight!

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And so we have a beautiful home in Parksville on Vancouver Island, behind a ‘real’ door and with two lovely cats, to enjoy for 2 whole winter months!   It will be our second visit to the Island as we were here earlier in the summer.  Now however, we have many days of rain and grey weather, which this island is well known for in the winter and yes, even some snow!  But we visit many places.

Beautiful nearby Rathtrevor Beach, a gently sloping, sandy beach that recedes 1km at low tide leaving behind fascinating driftwood shapes and providing  many long and interesting walks…….

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…….the seals at Fanny Bay, here now for the salmon and returning later again for the herrings – they know what’s good for them!   It’s also an excellent place to buy fresh oysters.

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Qualicum Bay in late afternoon cloud……..

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….the beautiful Comox Valley, stretching about 50km along the eastern side of the Island from Fanny Bay north to Saratoga Beach.  The wharf at Comox Harbour has grown into an extensive marina…….

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Mount Arrowsmith, largest mountain in the southern part of Vancouver Island at 1819m and part of the Mount Arrowsmith Regional Park.  This is where we find most of the remaining snow, not deep and only a sprinkling on the mountains but intense cold in the tree shaded valley with uphill tracks quickly turning into a sheet of ice.  This is where we experience a lesson well learned, that you do not begin to climb the hills without a good set of winter tyres or snow chains!   We know that we need to get new tyres as soon as we get into the USA.

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And the winter warnings have begun across Canada.  Frost bite warnings in Ontario.  Warming centres opening in Toronto due to freezing temperatures.  A number of British Columbia’s highways have closed due to snowstorms, whilst the Okanagan is experiencing its worst snowfall since 1899.  And in the USA, there are people climbing the massive, granite monolith in Yosemite National Park, sleeping on its sheer sides in freezing conditions, using ropes in case they fall but hands to aid their climb!  We later learn they all eventually made it to the top….incredible!!

And so our stay on Vancouver Island comes to an end and we must thank all those people in our small community here in Parksville, that helped make our stay a memorable one.  Thank you Phil and Jan for a lovely meal, we hope Quinn is well.  Our next door neighbour Ivan, who gave us lots of advice on where to visit and Carol on the other side of us, for a very nice evening with drinks and nibbles.  Marie and her plates of delicious home cooking in return for helping with her little dog Beau and Connie and Jim who live next door to her.  Thank you also to all those people in the community, who simply stopped to talk to us, as so many Canadians have done everywhere we have travelled in this spectacular country.

A special mention must also go to Eileen who came over to ask about our Land Rover whilst we were parked by the harbour at Comox.  After a long chat she invited us to an ‘Open House’ lunch at her home the following weekend.  Thank you for a lovely meal and the chance to meet your family and other friends, particularly Sandra, who then later invited us to her home for Christmas. Although we spent that day making sure the cats had their Christmas dinner, we appreciated her very kind invitation.

We are fortunately not leaving Canada for good however, as after heading down the west coast of the USA to California and then along the deep South to Florida, we will be heading north and up into Canada once again.  We look forward to that!

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Canada 5 – A road less travelled……The Dempster Highway to Inuvik in the Western Arctic.

14th – 23rd August –  We have had to make a decision between driving the Dempster Highway in Canada, or the Dalton Highway in Alaska and we have decided on the famous Dempster, a road less travelled, stretching 736 km through some of the most remote and beautiful wilderness scenery in the world we are told, plus a very good chance to see some wildlife, which is always a highlight for us.

So follow our journey with us up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik in the Western Arctic Region, as it winds over two mountain ranges, crosses the Continental Divide three times and passes through various natural regions or eco-zones on its way to the great Mackenzie Delta, which empties into the Arctic Ocean, the Mackenzie River, another of the world’s great rivers.  Some of the mountains that it passes have amazingly, never seen a glacier and one of the world’s largest caribou herds, The Porcupine Caribou Herd, (named after the river that they have to cross), winter on the rolling, arctic tundra that it crosses.

In 1958 the Canadian Government made the decision to build a road from Dawson City in the Yukon, to Inuvik in Northwest Territories, this town being well under construction as oil and gas exploration was booming in the Mackenzie Delta.  This unpaved highway was officially opened in 1979 and became Canada’s first and only public highway to cross the Arctic Circle.

The Dempster was named after Jack Dempster, who joined the Northwest Territory Mounted Police in 1897 and was chosen to lead the search for the ‘Lost Patrol’ in 1911.

It’s an overcast day as we leave Dawson City and return east for 25 miles for the start of the Dempster, having checked out the weather and latest road reports at the Northwest Territories Dempster Delta Visitor Centre located on Front Street in Dawson.  Conditions along the Dempster we are told, can change quickly at any time of the year, but we have a full tank of fuel as services are few and far between along the highway and our tyres are in good condition, although many people have advised us that two spares are preferable to our one.  We have heard so many different reports about the condition of the Dempster but will soon be finding out for ourselves!

0 km (mile 0) marks the start of the Dempster Highway and the long stretch of gravel and dirt ahead of us, dry at the moment, but rain is forecast in a couple of days.   It is also worth stopping at the Dempster Gateway Interpretive Display board here, which provides some interesting information about the highway.

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How lovely to be free of traffic on this long and lonely road lined with pine forests and which takes us into the Tombstone Territorial Park area at the 50 km marker.

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Tombstone protects over 2,000 sq. km. of Yukon’s rugged peaks, sub-arctic tundra and ice-carved landforms.  Caribou migrate through here and flora and fauna have had to devise ingenious methods to survive in this harsh and extreme climate, where summers are short, bright and intense and the winters long, cold and dark.  Temperatures can stay below -40 for weeks at a time and fierce winds can pile snow waist high.

The 72 km marker brings us to the Tombstone Mountain Campground with large, private sites and free firewood. It’s hard to imagine those bitter winters as we take a hike through the park in warm, late afternoon sun, although the berries, changing leaves and fungi, are a sign that autumn is approaching fast.

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We follow the river and have a fantastic view looking up the North Klondike River Valley, with the 2,140m peak of Tombstone Mountain clearly visible in the far distance some 40 km away, tucked between the Tombstone  and Cloudy mountain ranges.  It’s still broad daylight at 10 p.m

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It’s an overcast day with rain just about holding off.  We pass snow laying at the sides of the road as we clear North Fork Pass at km 82 the highest elevation on the Dempster at 1,289 m and the first crossing of the Continental Divide.  A huge valley under heavy cloud with the grey, meandering Blackstone River then lay before us, strong contrasts of light and cloud providing us with spectacular scenery as we gradually leave the mountain ranges of Tombstone Park behind us.

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We now meet our first vehicle and see our first, lone moose since beginning the Dempster.  Having long legs but relatively short necks, moose find it difficult to reach the ground, it is easier for them to browse on low shrubs such as willow, as this one is doing in a marshy area.

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Leaving the river valley, the Dempster once again begins to climb into the Continental Divide through the rolling Eagle Plains.  This is dry, open and windswept country, offering few resources to travellers.  The remote landscape and vast skies make us feel very small!

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We reach the Ogilvie and Peel Rivers Viewpoint at km 259.  Approximately another 100 km and we will reach the Eagle Plains Hotel and RV Campground for the night, but here seems an appropriate place to stop and make sandwiches for a late lunch and enjoy another fantastic view.  The sky is beginning to look a little clearer in our northerly direction, whilst light filtering through the clouds illuminates the rich autumn colours of low growing shrubs and plants.

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A camper pulls in coming from the north and we meet Ike and Bethany.  They advise us not to fill up at the gas station further north at Fort McPherson as they have heard that the fuel there is not good.  Many thanks guys for that important piece of advice!

At km 369 we reach roughly the half way point and our stopping place for the night.  The Eagle Plains Hotel somehow manages to remain open all year and offers a licensed restaurant, bar and lounge with a very interesting collection of old photos around its walls from the era of The Mad Trapper of Rat River and The Lost Patrol.  There is also a garage with propane, diesel, tyre sales and repair, a licensed mechanic and limited aircraft facilities!  There are a number of camping sites, however only 6 have electricity hook-ups, but as there are only three of us here tonight, no one will be left in the cold.   We are a little uncertain about our position however, as we heard earlier that one guy was not allowed to park in the campsite with a roof top tent and had to take a room because of bear activity. In fact just before we arrived we are told that a large black bear had wandered through the hotel grounds and we are surprised to see him again later through the restaurant window heading for the kitchen.  The  cook rushed out banging saucepans to scare him away but we reckon he knows where to find food!  The owners however, are happy with our vehicle set up and for us to stay in the campsite, so we can enjoy a hot shower and use wifi in the lovely warm hotel and support them by enjoying one of their hearty meals.  Bill fills up with fuel from some drums and we have a beautiful sunset before settling down for the night……and no more bear sightings!

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From Eagle Plains it’s approx. another 36 km before we cross the Arctic Circle at latitude 66 degrees 33 minutes North.  From this latitude northwards, the sun never sets at the summer solstice (June 21st) and never rises at the winter solstice (December 21st).   The distance around the Earth  when standing here at the Arctic Circle is 17,662 km compared to 40,075 km at the Equator……interesting facts from the information board!

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So far the weather has been kind, scenery fantastic with autumn colours becoming richer the further north we go and the road well maintained but as forecast, the rain begins and the gravel has turned a slick grey with mud and sharp flints.  We don’t feel however, that specialised vehicles are necessary to drive this highway except perhaps in winter when it must be a completely different story.  However it is necessary to have a good set of tyres and be well prepared, just in case you have the misfortune to break down.

The highway traverses the tundra of the Eagle Plains where only low-growing shrubs, berries, mosses and lichens grow in an unforgiving terrain of permafrost covered by rock and shallow soil. These plants have only a short growing season but today we are lucky in seeing a female grizzly close to the edge of the road, teaching her two young cubs that they must make the most of precious food here.  We watch them for quite some time, their coats are matted and wet and the smaller of the two cubs is finding it hard to keep awake as the others dig amongst the roots.  We hope they all manage to survive the winter.

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Devoid of trees, the highway continues through the Richardson Mountains and by the time we reach the Yukon / Northwest Territories border crossing at km 465, Moby has changed colour!  It is here that the Dempster crosses the Continental Divide a third time and we have to set our watch ahead one hour from Pacific to Mountain Time.  Over the Wright Pass Summit, the last high point on the highway and the sun slides out from between the clouds, creating a huge arching rainbow over the road as we descend towards the Peel River.

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There will be a short ferry crossing over the Peel River and also one a bit further on, the Mackenzie River and Arctic Red River Ferry Crossing.  These ferries run on a daily on-demand schedule and usually operate from early June to late October, depending on weather conditions.  Access to Inuvik is possible for most of the year, except however, for periods during the spring when ice on the rivers begins to thaw and break up and in the fall, when the ice begins to freeze.  River crossings from the end of November to the end of April will be by driving across the ice……scary thought!

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Cleaning the windows whilst crossing the Peel River at km 539.  We take a look at Fort McPherson at km 550 which does offer a good range of basic services but thanks to our extra fuel tank, we fortunately don’t need to fill up yet and certainly wouldn’t want to chance the fuel here following the warning at Eagle Plains.

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The Mackenzie River, Canada’s longest river and we’re boarding the Mackenzie River and Arctic Red River Ferry at km 608.  Inuvik beckons but is still approx. another 130 km.  As we continue north on the Dempster, we enter the maze of waterways known as the Mackenzie River Delta, a home and a stopping place for centuries for people and wildlife.  Covering an area of approx. 12,000 sq km. it provides the perfect environment for a huge variety of plant, fish, waterfowl and wildlife populations.  We are lucky in seeing a red fox with an amazing bushy tail.

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A welcome sign at last at km 736 as we arrive at Inuvik, which means ‘ Place of Man’ in Inuvialuktun.  At 2 degrees above the Arctic Circle and built on permafrost, it is Canada’s northernmost town and traditional homeland to the Inuvialuit, Metis and Gwich’in peoples.

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Our Lady of Victory Church is one of Inuvik’s best known, downtown landmarks but probably better known as the Igloo Church……..

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……..and Inuvik’s Ingamo Hall Friendship Centre, built from 850 logs that were rafted down the Mackenzie River, is the largest log building north of the Arctic Circle, providing a popular meeting place for young and old.

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Many people followed the journey of the Midnight Sun Mosque when it made its 4,000 km journey by road and river from Winnipeg in 2010.  Known as ‘ The Little Mosque on the Tundra,’ it is one of the northernmost mosques in the world!

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We had an interesting tour of Inuvik’s Community Greenhouse, converted from the former hockey rink.  Presently containing 74 individual, indoor garden plots for growing bedding plants, fruit and vegetables, it enables the local people as well as restaurants, to benefit from fresher and less expensive food.

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Inuvik’s excellent Happy Valley Territorial Campground is where we stay whilst in town.  Situated by the banks of the river, it’s still light at 1 a.m. but we have beautiful skies when the sun does decide to set.  The Western Arctic is well known for having some of the best Aurora Borealis displays in late fall and early winter.  What a shame that we are just that bit too early to see them.

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A journey by small plane from Inuvik can take you even further north if you wish, to outlying communities on the edge of the Arctic Ocean such as Aklavik, Herschel Island and Tuktoyaktuk, where scenery must be stunning.  We are told that these planes are well suited to the North’s landscape and weather conditions and that they can be fitted with floats, skis and even Tundra Tyres – big, balloon-like tyres that can land virtually anywhere.  It must take a certain type of pilot to fly under these conditions!

Here in Inuvik, we see the start of another road under construction, a continuation of the Dempster Highway which will eventually go all the way to the small community of Tuktoyaktuk, north of here. At the moment, Tuk (as it is known), is only accessible by plane and by the winter ice road.  A truck driver tells us that that not all trucks have a lucky journey across this ice!  This new road will mean, that in the not too distant future, Tuk will be accessible year round.  How I admire these people living in such a harsh and unforgiving climate!

Not surprisingly, there are many amazing artists across the Northwest Territories, their work inspired by this dramatic landscape and often using natural materials that can only be found up here in the North.

Our return journey is approaching but Bill discovers we have a leak of coolant coming from the header tank and so an extra day is spent taking this off and then sealing any suggested cracks.  Fingers crossed that this holds up on our long way back to Dawson City!

Fine weather has dried out the mud roads.  A check on the coolant reveals the level has dropped and still leaking.  Hopefully by topping it up with water at intervals on the journey we should be fine as long as it doesn’t get any worse.

At km 703 we make a stop at the Tithegeh Chii Vitaii Lookout where a short walk from the road takes us to the edge of cliffs that overlook Campbell Lake.  These cliffs provide nesting places for Tundra Peregrine Falcons.

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Beautiful cloud reflections in the Mackenzie River as we take the ferry once again…….

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…….and distant last views of the Delta and Peel River valley at the Tetlit Gwinjik Territorial Viewing Point.

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And so we leave Northwest Territories and enter the Yukon again where this time we can take an hour off our time now that we are heading south.

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We are amazed to see the same mother grizzly with her two cubs in almost the same place as before and still digging away amongst the tundra plants.  This time however, their coats are fluffy and dry and even the smaller cub looks fatter.  Great to see them in their natural habitat and they don’t seem a bit bothered as we watch them and take a few more photos!

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There’s rain falling in the distance……..

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……..and we don’t quite manage to escape the rain ourselves, as spectacular, dark storm clouds are rolling in on the horizon as we near Eagle Plains, reminding us of just how quickly the weather can change here.  The rain begins in ernest and by the time we reach the Eagle Plains Campground, everywhere is a sea of mud!

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We saw Tombstone Park at its best on our way north, as low cloud is now hiding all the views and rain follows us back to the beginning of this highway.  Moby appears once again to have been completely resprayed back to a mud colour.

The Yukon and Northwest Territories have provided us with a fantastic 1,500 km trip…….a real highlight!   If you like a wild and remote wilderness, spectacular landscapes, a good chance to see wildlife and to travel on roads with hardly any traffic then the Dempster is definitely the highway to explore.  The gravel and dirt roads were not as bad as we had either read about or been warned about and they are obviously maintained quite regularly.  With long distances between services however it is good to be prepared.  The scenery must be spectacular in the winter and there would be good chances of seeing caribou, but the roads and river crossings would then be another story!



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Canada 4 – Returning to Canada from Alaska and north to Dawson City in the Yukon where we prepare for the Dempster Highway.

8th – 14th August – Leaving Alaska, we are back in Canada, continuing north from Meziadin Junction on the Cassiar Highway.   Bell 2 Lodge (so named because it’s the second bridge across the Bell Irving River) has  colourful cottage gardens and a little restaurant that serves a very good bowl of homemade soup at lunchtimes.  In the winter months it also caters for Heli-skiing and Heli-hiking, where you can ski or snow board your way down the mountains, having been taken up by helicopter!

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We continue to Kinaskan Lake, known for its excellent rainbow trout fishing and camp at the Provincial Park there.  Richard Klocker our camp host, is very interested  in our Land Rover and our Kelly Kettle that we use for boiling water.  He brings us two trout caught from the lake, cleaned and ready to cook, we’ll have them tomorrow, so must be somewhere where we can have an open fire.  He also invites us to his ranch tomorrow morning, to see his home-made, hydro-electric set up, which supplies his remote home with electricity…..will look forward to that also.  The lake looks beautiful in the evening light as the sun sets behind the hills but once it’s disappeared it quickly gets very cold.

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Early morning light over Kinaskan Lake.

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Evening light.

7 miles north of the lake and Richard and Margaret’s Todagin Ranch is at the end of a long, gravel drive.   We are greeted by their dogs and cats but they also have Scottish Highland cattle, goats and hens amongst their 206 acres.  His hydo-electric set up is quite amazing, as are the panoramic views from their upstairs windows, of rolling meadows, mountains and pine forests…….the winters may be harsh but their views must be a winter wonderland!  Cosy, log cabins can be rented, and it’s great hiking country.  Nearby Mt. Edziza Provincial Park, which protects Canada’s most spectacular volcanic landscape, looks very interesting, but can only be reached by a 3 day hike and back country camping……sadly no way to drive there which is disappointing and we don’t have a ground tent.

We continue further north to Dease Lake, a former Hudson’s Bay Trading Post but today known as ‘ The Jade Capital of the World ‘ because of its proximity to significant jade reserves.  Jade City has a very small population but has a gift shop featuring locally mined, jade-based jewellery, sculptures and carvings, plus huge, very ordinary looking rocks at the side of the road but which have been split to reveal the jade…….worth a look.  We meet up with Ecki and his daughter Eva from Germany, also driving a white, 110 Land Rover but heading south.  We exchange news  and it’s good to see the two very similar landies together!

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British Columbia’s lakes just get more beautiful, as we stop next at Boya Lake to camp at the Provincial Park and buy a bundle of firewood to cook our trout which is delicious….many thanks Richard!

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Arriving at Watson Lake we have now entered Southern Yukon Territory and at the junction here as we turn west, the Cassiar Highway meets the Alaska Highway which will eventually take us to  Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital city.

Built in 1942 as a military access road, the Alaska Highway stands as a tribute to the determination and resourcefulness of the tens of thousands of men and women who have worked on it, not only during its construction but through the constant upgrading and maintenance of the highway, that has kept  it open year-round since it was built……often against enormous odds.

The Yukon is Canada’s 8th largest province.  Within its territory, 20 mountain peaks exceed 3,000 metres, Mount Logan being the tallest at 5,959 metres and it’s where you can find the world’s largest non-polar ice fields.  The Yukon’s official bird is the Raven, one of the few birds that live there year round, the floral emblem is the Fireweed, its pink flowers blooming everywhere at the moment and the Yukon also has its own flag and Coat of Arms.

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Real wilderness is becoming rare, yet more than 80% of the Yukon is a wonderful, remote wilderness of endless peaks, clear mountain rivers and uninhabited valleys.  Home to huge numbers of caribou, moose, mountain sheep, grizzly and black bears and many birds……but only home to 36,000 humans, who celebrate a varied history and a talented arts culture, inspired by the Yukon’s vast landscapes.

It’s a few hundred km yet to Whitehorse however, so we make a stop at Teslin, its lakeside approached via the seven-arched Nisutlin Bay Bridge, the longest bridge on the Alaska Highway.  Home to the Teslin Tlingit people, it has a small community of under 500 people but it has a good campsite with a small, adjoining museum, displaying many species of Yukon wildlife in their natural habitat.  It is extremely well done and most of the stuffed animals died from natural causes, such as the caribou, who sadly succumbed to exhaustion and dehydration when their huge antlers became entwined during a fight.

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A visit to the S.S. Klondike is a must once we arrive at Whitehorse.  This city is framed by mountains and named after the White Horse Rapids which resembled the mane of a white horse before the mighty Yukon River was dammed.

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For almost 100 years, a great fleet of sternwheelers plied the Yukon River and were the lifeline of the growing Yukon Territory.  Launched in 1937, the Klondike was the largest vessel ever to ply the Canadian part of this river.  Designed for the movement of freight, it could make the downstream journey from Whitehorse to Dawson in 36 hours, although the the return trip upstream against the current, could take 4 to 5 days.  The Klondike had a short spell as a tourist cruise ship before retirement in 1955, bringing to an end the era of commercial steamboat navigation in the Yukon.  Today it is an interesting National Historic Site.

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The Yukon is rated as having some of the world’s best road trips….but without all the traffic!  We have decided to attempt the famous Dempster Highway, of which we have heard many differing reports.  A 736 km unpaved road that will take us to Inuvik and the Arctic Circle.   This will mean a change of route, as instead of continuing on the Alaska Highway once we leave Whitehorse, we will need to head for Dawson City via the Klondike Highway.

From Whitehorse we are following the Klondike Gold Rush Trail after gold was found in Bonanza Creek near Dawson City in 1896.  Once the outside world learned of this strike, it triggered a stampede of miners who carried their loads, struggling over the snow-choked Chilkoot Mountains through blizzards and sub-zero conditions, inspired by tales of riches and golden dreams.  Following this icy journey, they then floated down the Yukon River, the main route to Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Fields.  A major obstacle and formidable danger along this route however, was the Five Finger Rapid……five huge, irregular shaped rocks across the Yukon River that created strong currents and swift flowing water and two, narrow channels.  Many ended up in the water in their handmade boats and rafts after choosing the wrong channel and not all survived this gruelling journey to stake their claim to fortune on creeks with names like Eldorado, Bonanza, Last Chance and Too Much Gold!   Only one channel was deep enough for the sternwheelers and many of these vessels were damaged when striking the rocks.  Eventually, the final solution was to get rid of the rapid, by blasting the rock away and widening the channel another 6 metres.

We visit the Five Finger Rapid whilst camping at the nearby Tatchun Campground.

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An old photo showing a sternwheeler making its way through the channel.

We continue through the small communities of Pelly Crossing and Stewart Crossing and cross both their rivers.  At Km 622 we stop at Gravel Lake, a huge wetland and major travel corridor for migratory birds in the spring and fall.  Yellow Pond Lilies are like a carpet over the surface of the lake in July but we have just missed them at their best.  However, distant storm clouds and rain  bring an amazing rainbow, its colours also reflected in the lake.

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At Km 655 the rain reaches us too but we manage a quick stop at the Tintina Trench Viewpoint, a major geological fault that forms a 450km long corridor across much of the Yukon and which is even visible from space!  In May and September it is also an important migration corridor for Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swans, Peregrine Falcons and numerous other birds.  The sight of the Sandhill Cranes must be very spectacular, as over 200,000 of these birds pass through on their way to and from their tundra nesting grounds.

Only 40km more to Dawson City.  We actually drive by the turning for the Dempster Highway but the extra 80km is essential to stock up on fuel, water and food before we begin and we understand that Dawson is an interesting city to visit.

Situated at the foothills of the Ogilvie Mountains and at the the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, Dawson City quickly became the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush, a rollicking frontier town full of saloons, churches, gambling houses and theatrical shows to entertain the desperate prospectors.   Wharves and warehouses once lined the river’s shore and the majestic sternwheelers plied the Yukon waters from1896 to the mid 50s.

Today, Dawson’s boom days are still evident in the numerous false-fronted buildings that line the street, many of which have been well restored and the wooden boardwalks that serve as sidewalks. In fact there are many attractions to immerse visitors back to the Gold Rush Days.

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Old photo of Dawson City in the Gold Rush days.

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Dawson City today.

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The very well stocked General Store.

After checking out the campsites here, we decide on Bonanza Gold RV Park, far less crowded, with a relaxed atmosphere and about a mile into town. By far the cheapest also at $25 for a site with electricity and water plus very clean washrooms with hot water everywhere.  We get our tyres changed around ready for the Dempster and meet up with our friend Renee again before she sets off towards Fairbanks and Denali in Alaska.  Hopefully our paths will cross again later.

The weather forecast at the Dempster Visitor Centre on Front Street in Dawson, looks promising for the next few days before rain.  We are told the sharp gravel and mud road gets very slippery when wet and that two spare tyres are preferable to our one.  No doubt Moby won’t be staying white for very long!  We are also told that the wilderness will be beginning to show its autumn colours.  After a few days in Dawson and we’ll be on our way!

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Alaska – Glacial alpine scenery and plenty of salmon for the bears!

1st – 7th August – Still in Canada’s beautiful British Columbia, we leave behind the Cariboo Wagon Road on the Gold Rush Trail and head west from Prince George to Meziadin.   We are keeping our fingers crossed that the salmon will be spawning in Fish Creek in Hyder, Alaska and the bears will be there waiting for them.

It’s 67km from Meziadin Junction to the small border town of Stewart (Canada) where we will cross into Alaska (USA).   From this stretch of road, we have a good view of Bear Glacier’s massive toe of blue and white ice, as it flows down a valley between two mountains.

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Stewart sits at the head of the Portland Canal……a 90 mile long ocean fiord that forms a natural boundary between Canada and Alaska.  It has a relaxed feel with an excellent grocery store and attached coffee area that serves some very tasty variations of nanaimo bars, of which I am a great fan!  Stewart also has a number of interesting buildings and a boardwalk that crosses through a wetland area.

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There are no USA border checks to go into Hyder from Canada.  At first glance, this town appears very much a ghost town with a number of derelict buildings, however it does have a small number of resident people who survive the very harsh winters that can produce up to 30 feet of snow!  Hyder also has a grocery store, Post Office, a gift shop that also sells delicious home-made fudge, a few Inns and a bar where (if you wish), you can become ‘Hyderised’ with a local, strong brew, plus a stamp in your passport!

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And when it’s open, we can also recommend the Seafood Express for great fish meals.

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Camp Run-a-Muck located between the Salmon River and the road, provides us with an excellent camping place, hot showers and very helpful camp hosts.  Although it’s only 5  minutes from Fish Creek where bears can be observed from an elevated wooden walkway without disturbing them,  it’s still necessary to drive there because of bear activity along the road.

Fish Creek is located in the far southeastern reaches of America’s Tongass National Forest.  Spanning 500 miles and covering nearly 17 million acres of land plus 11,000 miles of shoreline, the Tongass is said to be the largest, protected, temperate rain forest in the world.  The mild temperatures and abundance of rain, nourish the deep, dark forests, home to a large number of North America’s black bears and grizzlies.  Summer however, is the season for bears to put on the pounds and they will travel many miles from the surrounding forests to fatten up on the protein and fat-rich salmon at Fish Creek. These salmon have an amazing life-cycle!  After spending some time in the ocean reaching adulthood, the Chum, Coho and Pink salmon then make their incredible journey to the clear,spring-fed waters and clean gravel of this creek to spawn, a mission they have to complete before they then die.   We are amazed at their size and energy as they constantly clear gravel and stones to lay their eggs, escaping the clutches of the bears and seeing off the trout who hover close by, trying to steal the eggs before the males are able to fertilise them.

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Fish Creek in the Salmon River Valley.

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Our first day watching bears.  Mother and cub are the first to arrive.  She encourages it to disappear amongst the bushes and trees that line the Creek, it even climbs a small tree at one point, whilst mum takes any fish she catches back into its hiding place.

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A young male black bear tries his luck at fishing.  Surprisingly it wasn’t that easy for him, the salmon were very quick!

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Having a rest from bears for a day or so, we head out on a gravel road to visit the Salmon Glacier, approx. 17 miles north of Fish Creek.  There are spectacular views of this glacier along the way, but the Summit Point View provides the best place to see the glacier curving down the ice field between snow covered mountains.  The Salmon Glacier region lies in the lower section of the Coast Mountains along the Alaska – Canada boundary.  In a beautiful alpine valley at 4,300 feet, Salmon Glacier is the 5th largest glacier in North America.  It is however, only a remnant of the massive glacier that once filled this valley, thousands of years ago!

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We are not the only people enjoying the views.  We meet up with bikers Steve and Janette from England.  Great to meet up with some more Brits exploring this spectacular part of the world and what a great journey they have in front of them as they head south… travelling!

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Our camp hosts at Run-a-Muck have told us that we may well meet up with Keith Scott at the summit and he is here in his car which is full of big mosquitoes.  They are also plaguing us, hanging from the peaks of our caps and covering our backs!  Keith has spent his life studying and photographing bears in the USA and Canada and thinks nothing of hiking a number of miles daily over hostile terrain, in search of them.  He makes his living by visiting schools, giving lectures and slide shows and endeavouring to educate people of all ages about bears and bear safety.  One of his very good friends commented in his book on how he really trusted Keith’s knowledge of wildlife and his deep sense of commitment towards protecting it, taking action whilst others are only content to talk.  He is here today, hoping to sell his DVDs and his signed book on bears and wildlife.  He must have so many interesting stories to share… camping in his little red tent under the glacier, which he said ‘was like camping inside a jewel.’  We enjoy having a chat with him and buy his book called ‘Coastal Bears’.

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His book includes many photographs with amusing captions and one I will quote as I totally agree with it.   These words go with a photo of two bears peeking out from some bushes and who could be looking at hunters …. ” Those animals on their hind legs are humans.  They are the most dangerous animals in the world.  Some of them kill bears for the fun or sport of it.  They go around mounting our heads on their walls, yet they act like we are the bad ones! ”  Occasionally, grizzlies will kill black bears and feed on their carcasses, but bear’s primary enemies are hunters.

Since we have been at Hyder, a black bear cub has sadly  been run over and killed on the road due to a thoughtless and speeding driver, leaving the mother quite distraught and Canadians have shot three wolves in case they were a danger to tourists.  Do we really have the right to invade their habitats and territories, most of which are becoming smaller.

We continue driving further along this gravel road, passing disused mines and more impressive glaciers, the road finally ending at Happy Valley.

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On our last day here, everyone on the viewing platform at Fish Creek is hushed as we hopefully wait for a sighting of some grizzlies that have been arriving recently around 8 a.m.  We wait patiently for about 20 minutes and then it seems as if from nowhere, a brown grizzly suddenly appears.  He looks a little thin and has a flap of skin hanging from around his mouth, hence the ranger has named him Jaws.  Having apparently had an encounter here with another grizzly yesterday, he appears very cautious as he makes his way upstream.  He tries his luck at catching fish, but finds an easier meal from some dead fish laying on the banks of the creek.

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Just as he decides to leave, another grizzly has been spotted, making its way up through the creek, also looking very cautious.   Both ears are tagged and the ranger tells us it is a female, looking much healthier now than a couple of weeks ago, when she was looking very thin.  She is successful in catching a huge salmon and drags it under the boardwalk and up on to the bank on the other side, where she remains partly hidden to enjoy her fish meal!  She is so close we can hear her crunching the bones!

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We have really enjoyed this small corner of Alaska, its remote alpine scenery and glaciers and especially being able to watch the bears from such close quarters but without disrupting their daily life.  And so it’s back into Canada through the small border post, no stamps needed in our passports.   We return to Meziadin Junction where we turn north on Highway 37 towards Watson Lake, also known as the Cassiar Highway, it stretches 720 km to Southern Yukon Territory.  It will be a few days before we reach here with a lot to see still in between!

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