Alaska 2
  New Zealand

In the summer of 1999, my brother Tom (being of sound mind and body) decided it was time for a change of scenery and headed out west. Loading everything he owned into a Toyota 4-Runner and a 6' X 12' U-Haul trailer, he rolled out of town late one warm July night and didn't stop until he hit Anchorage, Alaska. I figured it might be the last chance to see him for a while, so I decided to tag along.

This page contains: brief synapsis of the trip, lots of pictures, and fun facts and tips for your own trip to Alaska.

Trip Synapsis

Let me begin by saying that the definitive narrative of my adventures that summer is available elsewhere on the internet. The semi-embellished, two-part account is well worth the read: Part the First, Part the Second.

If you're in a hurry, the cliff notes are as follows:

  • Brothers Mason load up earthly possessions and leave scenic Fulton, Maryland.
  • Drive like hell through the midwest and make it to Canadian Border in two days.
  • Bike, camp, bond, and drink tasty beers throughout Northwest Canada.
  • Arrive in Anchorage a week later, spend next week touring the last great frontier.
  • Elder Mason checks in to short term housing, Younger Mason hops on a plane back east.

Photo Gallery

The scenery in Northwest Canada & Alaska is the most beautiful that I've seen. The views along the Al-Can highway are particularly amazing. Bear in mind that a photo never does true justice to the actual scenery, and that reasonably sized (for the internet) scanned images never do justice to the original photos. What I'm trying to say is that these pictures are two levels removed from being there, and that it's really the kind of thing you need to see for yourself.

Mountain on Crescent Lake trail [Yashica T4S]

Mountain seen from about the half-way point of the Crescent Lake bike trail. The pinkish flowers seen in the foreground and in clear spots on the mountain itself are called "fireweed," so named because it is usually the first plant to grow in an area after a fire has cleared it of vegetation. Also notice the very distinct tree line two-thirds of the way up the mountain, and the fact that there's still plenty of snow at the top, even in late July.

Oil Spill Museum in downtown Seward [Yashica T4S]

This is the oil spill museum located in downtown Seward. We thought about giving it a look-see, until we found out they charged like ten bucks or so just to get in. They get 18 jillion dollars from Exxon in the Valdez settlement, and they still have to charge us for the museum?! I don't think so, Jabroni. For ten bucks you'd better be able to grease up an otter or something, and they had better provide the motor oil.

Campground at Riding Mountain National Park [Yashica T4S]

A shot of our campground at Riding Mountain National Park in Central Canada. We camped here for a night and rode the "Moon Lake" trail. The bells are for the sake of our good friend Mr. Bear. Supposedly if you make a bunch of noise while riding you're less likely to take a bear by surprise, and therefore less likely to get eaten. I yanked the bells off a Christmas decoration, which explains the red bow. Also note the gen-u-ine Canadian-style beer, the handy GPS receiver, the bottle o' Gatorade, and the shameless plug for Cycle-Recycle.

Run-off from Exit glacier [Yashica T4S]

This is the bottom of exit glacier, near Seward. A quick hike takes you to the vantage point this picture was taken from. Note the distinct tree line on the mountains in the distance, and the milky-gray nastiness that is a glacier stream.

Giant train-mounted snow blower [Yashica T4S]

This is, quite possibly, the world's largest snowblower. It's mounted on the front of a steam locomotive and is used to clear the tracks around Anchorage so supplies can get through in the winter. There's a festival in the spring where native Alaskans come to the train to celebrate having made it through another winter. They traditionally bring vegetables, breads, or a cut of meat to offer to the train. The giant engine is fired up one more time, and the natives throw their offerings into the whirling blades of the snow blower. The resulting shredded food is collected and mixed together into a dish known as "Alaskan casserole," which has a taste not entirely unlike shepherd's pie.

Bad Restaurant [Canon AE-1]

Northern Rockies Lodge; a none-too-good restaurant on the Al-Can highway where we stopped for lunch. It's annoying to be forced to wait a long time for bad food. I include this picture in the hopes that you might avoid a similar fate. The unfortunate truth, however, is that you really don't have many choices along the Al-Can highway. If you don't like the looks of a particular restaurant and you're not willing to wait for another 100 miles or so, you're pretty much stuck.

Independence Mine [Yashica T4S]

River at Independence mine near Hatcher Pass. The mine was shut down after WWII and is now a museum. Guided and self-guided tours are available. It was rainy & foggy when we went, but there were enough inside exhibits to make it interesting. The road up to the top is pretty sketchy, but the scenery is well worth it.

Sunset on mountains [Canon AE-1]

A nice scenery shot of the sun setting on some mountains. Well, OK, the sun doesn't actually set, but it gets low in the sky and creates the same effect. I don't remember exactly where this mountain is (they all start to look the same), but for some reason I believe it's just south of Tok, Alaska.

Random Bridge [Canon AE-1]

Bridge Somewhere along the Al-Can highway. More than this I cannot say.

Things to do in Alaska when you're not dead

Three interesting facts I learned while in Alaska:
  • Grizzly bears, Kodiak bears, and Brown bears are all the same species of bear. Kodiak bears are brown bears that live on the Kodiak peninsula. Because of their high protein diet (salmon, mostly) they grow much larger than other brown bears. Grizzly bears are bears living inland in the wooded areas, and tend to be smaller than kodiak bears because of their more vegetarian diet. Neither variety appreciate the "hide the cub" game.
  • Never, ever drink anything claiming to be "pure as a glacial stream." Glaciers grind up all sorts of dirt and rocks as they make their way down a mountain, and the resulting powder (known as glacial flour) gives glacial streams and rivers a milky gray color. In fact, this glacial flour gums up the gills of fish and makes the water uninhabitable.
  • In the same vein, DO NOT LICK GLACIERS! The extremely cold temperature combined with the moisture on your tongue will form ice and cause your tongue to stick like glue to the glacier. I learned this the hard way. The park rangers at the Portage Glacier museum mentioned that they have to free about 100 tourists a year after glacier-licking incidents. The usual approach is the localized application of heat using nothing more fancy than a hair dryer. It is a relatively painless process, but highly embarrassing.

If you're heading up to Alaska some time soon, be sure to bring along this handy "to do" list and wildlife spotting checklist. I've filled in my scores, see how you do!

Alaska "To Do" list
Lick a Glacier Done
Free Gumby from glacial mud @ Portage Glacier museum Done
Ro-Sham-bo a moose Moose wouldn't hold still
Pan for gold Found about \\$0.06 worth
Pretentious drinks @ Crow's Nest in Anchorage Done
Bike/Hike Crescent Lake Trail Done
Eat some salmon Done
Eat some Alaskan king crabs Not yet
Go dog sledding Kinda hard in the summer...
Take bus into Denali park Nope
See Independence Mine & Hatcher Pass Done and Done
Whimper "Thank you, Seward" with tears in your eyes in public places Multiple times
Pawn off #\\$%&* left-over Canadian change at every opportunityAbsolutely
See Northern lights Sun never set
Stare at Russian River for half an hour Done
Climb Mount Mckinley Uhhh...Nope.

Alaska wildlife checklist
CritterSeen 'em?
Bald Eagle Yep
Brown Bear Yep
Black Bear Yep
Moose Yep
Elk Yep
Caribou Nope
Wolf Nope*
Doll Sheep Yep
Lynx Yep
Two fat guys whipping a mule Nope
*Note that wolves are nocturnal predators and generally avoid humans unless they are hungry. If you do see one, things could go horribly awry in the immediate future.

If you miss any of the above critters in your travels about Alaska, you can catch most of them at the Anchorage Zoo. This doesn't count, of course, but at least you get to see them.

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