(C)  2002-2014 J. Watson       All rights reserved  
Travel Letters
       RV Travel notes from
         the traveling gran'ma and gran'pa
Vol 17  No 4                                                                                                                                      Late July/August, 2007          
Dear Gals …   Your guys …
Our grandchildren…     and sisters

FAIRBANKS, AK; 7/23/07

Seems like we’re always on the go.  The University
museum alerted us to a number of things off the
beaten path related to their Arctic research activities.
There’s so much to see and do in the area.  One of
the great assets of Alaska is the university’s Arctic
Research Laboratory in Fairbanks.  Tundra,
permafrost and other arctic climatic and weather
conditions provide unique research problems to
solve.  These are areas of importance as they impact
the local and world economy, communications, and
security, as well as living conditions.  The University
of Alaska at Fairbanks has earned an international
reputation for Arctic research.  

A major segment of work is jointly sponsored and
operated by the United States and Japanese
governments.  Additionally, research is conducted by
a number of other governments that share our
interests and concerns of arctic conditions.  Key to
this is analysis that requires the great capacity of the
supercomputer – we took a virtual tour of this and
what an experience.  We had never seen a virtual
reality presentation and were amazed at the effects.  
Supercomputers are so sensitive to heat that if more
than two people are in the room their body
temperature causes a shutdown, thus the need to
tour via virtual reality.  The 3D effect of the
presentation almost eclipsed the subject.  

They say there is global warming but don’t attribute it
to man’s actions: source unknown. Thought you’d like
to know.  

Tours of the geophysical research labs, below,
include the NOAA weather bureau, volcanic study
center, and related areas.  Alaska is an ideal place to
conduct such studies as there are a number of active
volcanoes here as well as frequent earthquakes.  
These are mostly not felt and because of Alaska’s
sparse population we seldom hear of them.  There is
constant monitoring of these conditions as well as
development of exquisite computer models for data
There were dozens of sand-hill cranes at Creamers
bird sanctuary, which is on the other side of town
from our campsite.    

About 30 miles north of Fairbanks is Poker Flat a
rocket launch site, below, that we toured.  From here
researchers probe the aurora borealis, which is about
sixty miles above the earth.  Rockets go up through it,
more than six hundred miles.  This is the only US
university with its own missile launch site.  

As mentioned earlier, the gold miners worked this
area heavily.  Panning for gold was for those who
couldn’t afford a dredge.  At the missile launch site
we met a local couple who told us of a gold dredge
and they told us to just follow them.  They led us back
about five miles toward Fairbanks and parked in front
of a restaurant.  Across the street was a heap of
tailings left over from the dredging operation.  We
climbed the stone piles that are probably 25-30 feet
high.  (Some Alaskans build their homes on tailings.  
The advantage of this is that the stone doesn’t freeze
so the house is not affected by the freezing of the
tundra.)  The dredge would creep along and pull in
the ore-bearing rock, tumble the stone and get gold
to settle out and then discard the rock as tailings.  
What a piece of equipment this is.  One gear must
have been twelve feet in diameter used to spin the
tumbling drum that sorted the ore for size of stone.  
These drums are about four feet in diameter.  
Without sophisticated ear protection there must have
been a lot of deaf miners.  The dredge was
abandoned in the early '30s.

Next stop: Denali National Park is located about a
hundred miles south of Fairbanks and is the site of
Mount McKinley – the tallest mountain in North
America, over 20,000 feet.  The park is “Alaska-size”
(that’s bigger than “Texas size”) being the size of
Massachusetts plus Rhode Island with a little left
over.  Most of it is above the tree line with low growth
or just plain rock.  The parkland is fragile permafrost
which means that much of the surface is marshy
during the summer.  A number of small lakes form.  
To protect the park there is only one road going into
the park and only authorized vehicles are allowed.  
Busses take visitors about eighty miles into the park.  
Hiking and backcountry camping are permitted.  

Since the wildlife is truly wild, animals are not waiting   

The highlights of the park are sightings of wildlife and
the view of Mt. McKinley.  We saw both.  Dall sheep,
above, are wild sheep.  Dozens were grazing on a
nearby mountainside.  Also moose were visible.  A
caribou blocked the way of our bus as did a grizzly
bear which was casually sauntering along the road.  
Mt. McKinley is usually heavily clouded.   We did get
a reasonable view – some clouds, but it was almost
70 miles away so photos were poor.  (This is about
as close as you can get unless you take a road
south of the park which is used by the climbers and
is so bad that they say towing insurance is void.)
along the side of
the road to be seen
by tourists.  So we
ourselves fortunate
to see what we did.
Seward is on the coast, south of Anchorage.  Salmon
start their journey upstream here.  Sea otters play in
a river.  The harbor is a fjord, which means it is
narrow with steep banks beneath the water surface.  
Some nearby mountain peaks are snow covered,
and often obscured by low clouds.  Its deep water
harbor is suited for cruise shops -- two were here
when we arrived.  One was the
Volendam, the ship
we took two years ago from Vancouver up through
the Inner Passage.  

Like any waterfront at tourist ports there are many
tourist traps with T shirts, trinkets, hats, etc.  Many of
the items marked “Alaska” are labeled “Made in
China”, which really irks us.  

By definition, an Alaskan port means good fishing,
both commercial and recreation.  At Seward’s

Much of Seward's waterfront is used as a large
campground for RVs.  The sites face the harbor.  A
walkway, along the edge of the water leads to town.  
This whole area is located where the tsunami hit and
signs direct people to high ground in the event of a

View from our site in Seward

Seward, Anchorage and Valdez were heavily
damaged by the 1964 earthquake, which was
followed by a tsunami.  Hundreds of homes were
destroyed or damaged in Seward.  The entire port
was left in ruins with railroad tracks twisted and
tangled like spaghetti.  Loaded forty ton railroad cars
were tossed hundreds of feet.  Giant oil tanks were
ripped apart.  There is no question of the
seriousness of signs posted around town advising
on quake and tsunami evacuation.  

A couple of days ago we took a boat to see the
sights of the coastline and what sights they were –
glaciers (below), whales, bears, and magnificent
snow covered mountains.  
Mt. McKinley as viewed from about 10 miles south of entrance to Denali on our way to Seward
waterfront dock there
are fish cleaning
stations for the
recreational catches.  
There were a lot of
salmon as well as
halibut.  These are
trophy size fish.  Before
the fish are cleaned the
happy fishermen pose
for pictures.  Every
evening the fish
cleaning station is busy.

The views are sensational.  It’s getting cooler, so it’s
time to head back to the lower forty eight.  

While leaving Seward we visited Exit Glacier, above,
on the edge of town.  This is the end of a large ice
field.  As you can see, people walk to it.  Along the
walkway and road approaching the ice are signs that
mark the retreat of the ice over the past years.  It’s
believed that the ice reached down to Seward, eight
miles away, centuries ago.  During the past fifty years
the glacier has receded a quarter mile.  Along the
trail leading to the ice there is heavy gravel and
stones that were picked up by the ice as it moved
from the ice field down the hill and then dropped as
the ice melted.  

The next stop was Valdez.  This coastal city is the
southern terminus of the oil pipeline.  That means the
highway leading into the city is parallel to the exposed
pipeline and is used to service it.  It is above ground
until about fifty miles north of the city.  Reason: at
about this point the permafrost is not a concern so
the warm pipes can safely be below ground.  

Valdez has a warm water port so ships can use the
harbor year round.  The weather is cool in the
summer and downright cold in the winter.  However,   
it’s in the eyes of the beholder – they are near the
warm ocean so are not as cold as Fairbanks that
often gets more than twenty degrees below zero.  
Snow accumulates to the second story of the
buildings.  It must be a concern, but we heard nothing
of frostbite.  

From Valdez there are tour boats that go to several
glaciers.  These are very active glaciers that calf, that
is they spew off large chunks of ice.  These are
generally not “iceberg” size, but they are substantial,
as you can see, above.  These ice flows are of
concern to the ships.  


The local waters are home to an endless variety of
animals and birds – bears, puffins, porpoises – all
interesting.  And that is in addition to numerous
Okay, grandkids:  What is the largest U.S. National
Park?  It is larger than Massachusetts.  It would be a
good question to ask your parents, bet they don’t
know the answer.   We went there a few days ago.  It
is so remote that they have no paved roads into it; no
campgrounds; and nine of the sixteen highest
mountains in North America are located in it.  Though
I said we went there, it was only on the edge for a
good look.  It would be a worthwhile trip in a beat up
old jalopy that could stand the battering of the rough
road.  (car rental companies don’t allow their vehicles
to be driven in the park).  The goal would be to see
the old Kennecott copper mining village that was
abandoned some years ago.  It’s said to be an
interesting landmark of historic significance.  Surely
with all those hints you know it is the Wrangell-St.
Elias National Park, which is just north of Valdez.

We’re homeward bound.  But there are more new
things to see.  The Alaska Highway has great
wildlife.  In fact we saw more in the Yukon Territory
than in the Denali National Park where we expected
to see so much.  Buffalo blocked the way, moose
were alongside us, deer, caribou, and more were
also along the side of the road.  Bears ambled off the
road as we approached.  An eagle soared above us.

The scenery continuously changes.  In much of
Alaska there is scrub type growth, mostly black
spruce that is scrawny.  This is desert area with little
rain, a fair amount of snow and poor drainage
because permafrost blocks the moisture.  Along the
Alaska Highway, coming south, the landscape
changes to more robust growth and numerous lakes.  
Mountains are almost always close by.  

The re-entry to the US was uneventful except a
couple of packages of beef were confiscated by U.S.
customs – the concern of possibly contaminating our
domestic beef continues.  

The route continued through the arid area
interspersed with lakes and rivers.  It’s easier to
construct highways in the valleys and this means they
often track along the few rivers.  

Many communities trace their origin to the gold
rushes in the early 1900s.  Often a few houses are all
that remain of a community that topped a thousand
people, or several thousands, back then.
Some stampeders took paddleboats to the inland
areas to try their luck.  Others walked with horses
that were loaded with supplies.  Unfortunately, most
of them arrived after the best claims were taken.


We arrived in California yesterday and are taking it
easy and enjoying the cool breezes of the Pacific.  It
became progressively warmer (hotter) as we left the
Yukon so it is a welcome change.  

Hey kids, it’s back to school time,
Top of page
Previous page                Next page
Index of letters