Haines & Strange

Original posted in London to New York blog, May 24, 2010

Haines, Alaska

AMONG the welter of advice passed our way before we headed out of London what seems another lifetime ago, one nugget of information appears to ring true for all inhabitants of the bus.

All of us were assured, by friends wanting to be helpful or shop assistants seeing the chance of a few winter clothes and expensive sleeping bags going on their sales figures, that Alaska in May would be cold and wet.

And while a couple of evenings have turned very cold when the sun eventually vanished in the early hours, we have been in far greater danger of sunburn than suffering from the cold.

Takhini Hot Springs
Hot stuff at Takhini

As for rain, that has been confined to our detour into Canada on top a mountain pass and a 20-minute shower in Takhini, when most of us were already wet as we boiled in the hot springs.

To avoid us constant forays under the bus to fish stuff out of our main bags, we have been limiting access and packing smaller day bags to equip us throughout the next 24 hours or so.

My bag included gloves, woollen hat and stuff to keep me warm and dry at the start of this leg. Now it is stuffed full of shorts, T-shirts and suntan cream. Forget Jack Frost, the only thing nibbling at sandal-clad toes are the mosquitoes.

As well as the weather leaving us slightly dazed and confused, for much of the time since docking in Anchorage we have barely had darkness.

Haines Highway
Spectacular views at the top of the Haines Highway from Canada back into Alaska

As we drift south towards the Canadian border and onwards to the Lower 48 States, it is now getting dark around 10.30pm, but for the bulk of the first week back on land, the combined effects of it still being light until the early hours and a couple of erratic time changes left us all a little disorientated

Nothing like, however, as disorientating as the sickness bug sweeping through the camp, claiming roughly half the bus to varying degrees over the past few days.

One ended up deserting the campsite in favour of the adjacent hotel, while two sufferers have set up overnight camp in toilet blocks of differing degrees of comfort to make life a lot easier.

Haines Highway
And the view was pretty good down in the valley

As a consequence, life on the bus and campsite has had to change a bit.

The bus is currently being attacked with bleach and disinfectant and the kitchen has been closed down until the weekend at least.

And, before somebody else alleges otherwise, we can rule out any link between my stint running the kitchen and the current outbreak – at least three victims ate elsewhere that night and didn’t sample my burritos.

Kitchen stints have been split into teams of three for an evening meal and the following breakfast and, on the whole, have produced some pretty good food.

Washing up and packing stuff away onto the bus has also become a well-drilled art, particularly as it seems to be the same old faces weighing in every time.

Breakfast is mixed in with the scramble to pack down tents and return the cushions and assorted stuff onto the bus, which has produced a few bits of tension with Pam and myself installing ourselves as cushion monitors to prevent a repeat of the evening when there were not enough left aboard for the bus dwellers.

View from the campsite in Haines

Despite illness problems and campsite conflicts, the past few days have sailed along dominated by stunning scenery and wildlife.

When you left us, we were back in Canada, rolling onto the ferry across the Yukon at Dawson City at the start of the long haul to Whitehorse (part of a 1,000 mile stretch without a traffic light).

Courtesy of a late night and a sore back from sleeping in a cubby hole on the bus – very comfortable, but not the easiest of access- much of the drive passed me by, as did much of Whitehorse itself.

But, awoken from a snooze under one half of Phoebe’s sleeping bag and a pile of other clothes, we got our first sighting of a bear as he gambolled on the grass verge before heading back into the undergrowth.

From Whitehorse, we veered back towards to Alaskan border via a night at the Takhini Hot Springs and probably the warmest swim any of us have had.

The drive from Haines Junction across the border to our stop in Haines has to rate as one of the most thrilling pieces of road around.

Chilkoot Lake
Sunset over Chilkoot Lake, Haines

Having travelled on some stunning roads in the Alps, Pyrenees and the eastern USA – not to mention this trip – the Haines Highway ranks right up there.

Flanked by high, snowy mountains, it drops down to run alongside a wide, fast-flowing river where initial howls of horror on discovering our comfort stop’s facilities were closed were replaced by cries of glee and the clicking of cameras at the sight of a giant moose playing to his audience on an island in the middle.

The town of Haines itself is pretty spectacular, draped around a natural harbour and flanked by a range of towering mountains.

It must be pretty bleak in winter, but with the sun out it is stunning and smalltown America at its best and friendliest.

It is also our starting-off point for the ferry down the Inside Passage, the only way down the panhandle of Alaska to state capital Juneau and beyond, cut off from the interior as it is by the mountains and glaciers.

Subdued by the first outbreak of sickness and the growing need to wash (both ourselves and our clothes), our scheduled day in Haines was taken up largely with housework and pootling around the camp, particularly for those of us on cooking duty.

But news that the evening ferry to Juneau was delayed until morning proved a blessing in disguise as a group of us piled on the bus for a short evening trip to Chilkoot Lake.

And, not for the first time this trip, sitting on the banks of a lake as the sun disappeared behind a mountain produced a real ‘wow’ moment.

Sitting on the edge of such a remarkable setting was good enough, but then something broke the water about 30 yards out – a sea otter fishing away regardless and providing us with a stunning show until swimming off downstream , only to be trumped by the bald eagle sat in the tree across the river.

We had seen a couple flying over the harbour the day before at a distance, but this commanding bird sat yards away, seemingly uncaring about his grateful audience and soaking up the evening sun.

Truly marvellous and well worth an extra night in Smalltown USA.

Mosquito update: Basically, the little buggers appear to be telling their mates about the bountiful meal to be had down at the local campsite.

My arms, hands and knees are an interesting mixture of old and new (in one place, a new bite on an old scab), my back has become a new favourite (they’ve moved up from my arse, but not without leaving their mark) while they have moved down from my hair to my face.

And as for the huge great welt on my big toe – this means war…

Next time: Glaciers, waterfalls, imitation orcas, paddling Puggles and more bloody mossies


I Don’t Want To Wait…

Original posted in London to New York blog, May 22, 2010

Dawson City, Yukon, Canada

“One of your guys looks like he’s been Chicken’d”

IT may be the smallest town any of us have come across, but the settlement of Chicken, Alaska, has left its mark on our band of weary travellers.

The top count was nine buildings of any major note – and four of them were toilets, or Chicken Poops as they are known at the bar – but its legend has obviously gone far and wide.

The guy who ran the hostel which housed us in our next stop, over the border in Canada, had no doubt about where we had been.

Heart of the action in Chicken

It wasn’t the Chicken T-shirts which have appeared throughout the group and should really require us to check what each other is wearing in the morning to avoid clashing (they have certainly been crucial in a week without any washing facilities).

No, he took one look at one our of younger members looking much the same grey as the rock he was sprawled on for much of the day and uttered the above words of welcome.

Sadly, his identify has to remain a secret due to the threat of a high-powered legal team being sent my way.

But suffice to say, Freddie (oh sod it, here come the legal letters) was merely the worst affected from a cracking evening in Chicken. You could say he got roasted.

Caps and remnants of underwear adorn the Chicken Saloon

It is a tiny town. There are a few houses tucked away somewhere, but Downtown Chicken – as it is proudly titled on a road sign – consists of three wooden buildings in the middle of a dusty, dirt area.

On one end is a café, linked via a chicken coop – complete with ‘Beware of the Attack Chicken’ sign – to a tiny bar which was not big enough to hold all of us that evening and a gift shop which we raided for Chicken paraphernalia.

Apart from that, there is the campsite at the old gold mine (very Scooby Doo) where we stayed, complete with a small café and shop.

And that’s all folks – nothing more to see or do, yet it provided us with a truly memorable short stay.

We arrived four days after much of the town (settlement? hamlet? fork in the road? shed?) had opened for the season, just as the first of the gold miners who head this way each spring have started to trickle into town.

Yep, that is a runway with a chicane on the Alaska-Canada border

But, sadly, a day before they had taken delivery of any gunpowder for the cannon used to fire underwear over the car park.

The torn remnants of knickers and bras hang from the ceiling of the tiny bar, along with hundreds of baseball caps, signed and donated by past customers.

The room also crams in a pool table which requires anybody playing half seriously to read the break to see which way their balls will run.

Having started off with five straight wins in our two visits either side of dinner, my form deserted me as Mike took control of the table for much of the evening.

The rest of us settled in to chatting at the bar, raiding the shop, meeting the locals and assorted summer visitors (which is where it all went a bit wrong for Freddie) and waiting for it to go dark.

We gave up sometime after midnight, with it still light, and went to bed.

Little Gold CreekEarly the next morning we bade farewell to Chicken (and a litany of bad puns) via the Top of the World Highway and into Canada, via the smallest, remotest border crossing any of us have seen.

I now boast a stamp from Little Gold Creek in the Yukon Territory in my increasingly full passport. Just try to find it on a map.

From there we rolled off the top of the world and down to Dawson’s Creek, where we were subjected to endless hours of teenage angst, played out by a bunch of all-American looking actors who left High School years before, who never get round to sleeping with each other and are incapable of using one word when an entire page of script will do… Oh, hang on.

Sorry, this was Dawson City, our first stop in Canada.

It wasn’t exactly a creek either, more of a bloody great river – the Yukon, scene of one of the great gold rushes of the 19th century. Back in 1898, the population was estimated at around 35,000, now it is a shade under 2,000.

Dawson City
The main street in Dawson City

How 35,000 fitted into the narrow strip between the river and the mountain backdrop is anyone’s guess, but it explains why (helped by a typhoid outbreak) the city spread across the Yukon (a river, does indeed, run through it) and why we needed to utilise the free 24-hour ferry between the two halves.

And well worth taking it is – not that staying back on the west bank hostel wasn’t a good option with another of the hugely relaxing early evenings spent sat out in the sun overlooking the scenery with appropriate iPod accompaniment (a bit of the Be-Good Tanyas).

But we headed east, first for an afternoon stroll into the delightful, small town and then for an evening sortie with the original plan of descending on Diamond Tooth Gerties Saloon for a burlesque show.

As usual, however, only a few made it as Nick, Mike, Barry and I were distracted by the delights of Bombay Peggys.

Moon over The Yukon

What was, again, meant to be only one dragged on rather longer as we settled in with the locals. Our excuse is that we are completely disorientated by the fact the sky is still a perfect blue at midnight.

As our numbers were swelled by refugees from Gerties (Pam and Marlo waving certificates to proved they had downed a Sourtoe cocktail – complete with mummified human toe), most of us eschewed an onward trip to The Pit, heading back through the 1am twilight to bed – in my case a cubby hole on the bus courtesy of the main sleeping area being stripped of mattresses by the tent dwellers.

Where one of those who did go to The Pit slept is anyone’s guess…

The Yukon
The Yukon under the midnight sun at Dawson City

NB Mosquito update: The nasty little bastards are still taking their toll. My right knee now looks like some complicated constellation is tattooed on it.

But the most concerning area is the collection of bites around the base of my back and, to put it bluntly, the top of my arse.

Travel tip: Don’t wear low-slung jeans when travelling in mosquito areas (or ever, if my fellow travellers had their way).

Next time: My turn on cooking duty – half the bus is ill. Are these facts linked?


Pretend Your Name Is Keith

Original posted in London to New York, May 20, 2010

Chicken, Alaska

YOU did read that right, we are cooped up (boom, boom) in a town called Chicken.

Well, for town, read small collection of buildings built around gold mining – a one chicken town you could say.

The locals don’t seem to mind the jokes about their town’s name. The café in which we are currently sat – taking advantage of an internet connection that won’t let us download or upload anything – has a rubber chicken hanging above the counter which you squeeze to attract attention.

Mike has just purchased a badge which reads “What goes on in Chicken, stays in Chicken”. It’s just quite hard to see too much happening in Chicken, as there doesn’t appear to be too much around or too many people.

Downtown Chicken
Downtown Chicken – All Of It

There is talk of an underwear cannon at the saloon next door which fires bras and knickers across the car park. A full report in the next instalment.

What you need to know about Chicken (and it is my duty to pass on as much information as possible) is that, according to the sign in the café, it is so called because none of the locals could spell Ptarmigan, the bird which inhabits these parts.

The same sign informs me that the winter population is around 15 (although the locals put that at around nine), a figure which swells to 30-50 in the summer as the gold rush hots up.

And the town has a three-legged half collie, half huskie called Tucker who, rescued from a life dodging planes in Edmonton, lost one leg in a collision with a GMC truck.

Chicken Facts
Everything you wanted to know about Chicken but were afraid to ask…

Apart from that, and the fact that the post arrives on Tuesdays and Fridays – weather permitting – there’s not an awful lot more to tell you about Chicken, except Mike says the cherry pie he bought with his badge was very nice.

We rolled into Chicken mid-afternoon on the fourth day of our tour around the Alaskan interior, which has been blessed with some quite remarkable weather.

Not when the sun goes down. The first night under canvas was, to put it reasonably politely, chuffing cold. No, sod being polite. It was fucking freezing.

But when the sun has been out, which it is from about 6-7am until around midnight – only getting close to dark for about an hour around 2am (and believe me, when you are shivering fully clothed in a sleeping bag with your hoodie top pulled tight over your head, you notice these things) – it has been glorious.

This has its drawbacks, particularly a constant application of sun cream and mosquito repellent.

Sorry, where are we again?

The sun cream appears to be working, not so the disgusting smelling anti-mosquito spray.

Amused myself while lying awake on the bus last night by trying to count the number of bites, the count was up in the 20s until the need to scratch beat the desire to count.

They seem to like the fact that my hair does not obstruct access to my head too much and somehow they have got huge symmetrical welts on my knees, despite the only time my legs have been exposed being when they were underwater.

But the best bites to date are the two, side by side, between two of my fingers which had me scratching all night. A lot like having very painful paper cuts.

The weather has had its major upsides – not least the staggering views.

Pick of these, and the one we were repeatedly warned we would be lucky to see, was Mt McKinley which, at around 20,300ft, is the highest mountain in the USA.

Mt McKinley
On A Clear Day – Mt McKinley

One guy when we pulled up at the very plush – and decidedly empty – Talkeetna Lodge told us he has worked there five years and only seen the top of the mountain about a dozen times.

We were treated to a completely unobstructed view – mosquitoes apart – of the entire surrounding range under a perfect blue sky.

There were more treats to come when we pitched camp in the Denali National Park.

Having eaten at the bus parked up in town, a group of us were walking back to our campsite just before midnight when two moose crossed our path and set the cameras clicking.

Mine clicked, hiccupped, sputtered, refused to flash and then turned itself off informing me of a dead battery.

Mother and baby moose walk through our camp in Denali. Not taken on my camera

Insult was added to injury when an even bigger moose and companion wandered slowly across the edge of our camp site in the morning and my camera was still very much in dead mode.

In between, we had shivered our way through the night. My abiding memory, apart from the desperate attempts to warm up, was the sight of Marlo pulling himself deeper and deeper into his sleeping bag alongside me until only his cold breath was visible.

At which point he pulled himself closer and closer to me…

The temperature dropped remarkably quickly, but thankfully it rose just as rapidly the next day, helped by a roaring fire which went from welcome heat to annoying point of conflict as the camp pyromaniacs threw everything they could get their hands on (including the next night’s firewood) into the flames.

The town of Denali, two miles down a forest trail from our campsite and home to the bus for two nights, is not that much bigger than Chicken.

Riley Creek
Not a bad place to wake up – Riley Creek runs round the back of our camp in Denali

It does have a few shops, hotels and food places, most notably the quite remarkable Salmon Bake bar and restaurant which was celebrating St Patricks Day when we first arrived – it is only open for 117 days a year and crams all major holidays into that time – and while others tackled a few of the major forest trails, walks to town and back  was enough for me(with a slightly warmer afternoon nap thrown in).

Thankfully, having learned from our errors and helped by a slight rise in evening temperatures, our second night under canvas was not so cold, but we were still up and about early for our next port of call.

First up was the town of Fairbanks and the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska. Very interesting and informative, but we still haven’t worked out quite what “The Place Where You Go To Listen” was all about. Maybe we should have listened.

From there, we headed to Chena Hot Springs, just 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

Chena Hot Springs
Chena Hot Springs – Roger joins the dip at the northernmost point of the trip

There was a veritable rush for the warm outdoor pool, even with the slightly tangy smell of sulphur, and much of a glorious afternoon and early evening was spent wallowing in the warm water.

An evening meal cooked in the open air, a few drinks in the bar, a final dip – just before midnight – for those willing to put up with wet kit on the bus and a quick re-opening of a fumigated Nick’s Bar in the RV Park and it was back on the bus for our first night on the road.

By the time driver Matty emerged from a few hours kip in his box sometime after 1am, we were sprawled all over the bus in a variety of sleeping holes.

Sleeping on the road has been anticipated with some excitement, a fair amount of trepidation and no small amount of tension as people bagged their berths and tried to store their bags in the optimum spot.

Chena at midnight
Midnight At The Oasis – Late night at Chena Hot Springs

Some of those up in the bunks had less than perfect nights, but having wandered on with most of the spaces taken, dropped my stuff in an available space and settled down with iPod and sleeping bag, it was a perfectly acceptable night’s sleep – certainly better than anything on the train.

Remarkably, the moment Matty fired the engine, all the snorers among the early sleepers immediately fell silent.

And as tonight’s volunteers start tackling the evening meal, we prepare to pick the bones out of Chicken…


Anchored Down In Anchorage

Original posted on London to New York blog, May 16, 2010

Anchorage, Alaska

“This is what I call riding around in a double-decker bus… Right on. I’m aboard the Freedom Bus, heading for Good Time City. And I haven’t even paid my fare… Who needs qualifications? Who cares about Thatcher and unemployment?! We can do just exactly whatever we want to do! And you know why? Because we’re Young Ones. Bachelor boys! Crazy, mad, wild-eyed, big-bottomed anarchists!!” – The Young Ones

SOME of us can barely claim to be Young Ones anymore, but there’s plenty of big bottoms around as we head out on our bus from one side of the United States to another (and they’ll be getting bigger if these portions continue).

Rik’s impassioned final monologue from the series finale came to mind as we clambered onto the Green Tortoise – our base for the next five weeks.

Land Ahoy – The spectacular surrounds as The Diamond Princess docks in Whittier, Alaska

There are a few hostels and a fair bit of camping, but the single decker will provide transport, accommodation and storage for all 19 of us (plus Matty, our driver on the opening leg to San Francisco) as we roll our way from the west coast on Alaska to the eastern seaboard in New York.

It all came as a bit of a shock when we clambered on board at Whittier, having prised ourselves out of bed early for one final breakfast with Vera, our angel of the morning.

We knew a sleeper bus was awaiting us to clock up the huge miles ahead of us, but we all had visions of a hefty beast which converted from normal seats into some form of sleeping arrangement.

What greeted us was something totally different.

Freddie and I were first on board, slightly confused by Matty’s insistence we take our shoes off before clambering on the cushions.

All became clear as we made our way down the bus and were greeted not with seats, but cushion-covered benches in the front half and one huge platform, again covered by mattresses, and rows of suspended bunks where the luggage racks normally are.

The Green Tortoise
Our New Home – Inside The Green Tortoise (before we messed it up)

Within moments, the normal inhabitants of the bus – augmented by fellow cruisers and pirate party veterans Mat, Lynsey and Ramsey – had taken up residence sprawled across our new quarters.

There’s not going to be much privacy, there’s not going to be much room and – judging by some of the snoring which has gone on in the previous weeks – there’s not going to be much silence when we are all sleeping on board.

While most of us were delighted with our new surroundings, one or two of our number were a bit more sceptical.

The plan for much of our American leg is to spend our time camping, starting tomorrow in Alaska’s Denali National Park, when my sleeping bag will finally be unclipped from my bag and used, with only a few people sleeping on the bus.

We will only get up really close and personal on the occasions we drive through the night to get maximum time at our destinations.

Interesting times ahead and all a far cry from two weeks on the Diamond Princess where, when you last left us, another late night was being slept off.

Alaskans show their pride

Don’t ask me what day it was, they all merged together in the final week as we became victims of a creeping jet lag as the clocks moved forward on a daily basis.

There was a vague attempt to return our body clocks to normal on the penultimate night, but all that really resulted from us heading up to the bar early for a couple of drinks at a Rat Pack evening was that we were further lubricated by the time our normal arrival time arrived.

So instead of heading to bed early, the grey dawn broke over me sprawled across a sun lounger above the pool with Phoebe leading Nick and I through a crash course in meditation.

It seemed to work, judging by how relaxing that stay in bed was until well into our final day.

Some washing, packing, a final group meal – albeit it spread over four tables and served in a random order – and a select group of us were back in Skywalkers to bid farewell to Romel and his group of bar staff.

He certainly saw us off in style with a final drink which owed plenty to a big bottle behind the bar and very little to anything in the mixer department.

And so we waved goodbye and, after a pitifully short amount of sleep, we were disembarking and launching into life on the Green Tortoise, starting with the run to Anchorage (and the excuse for the most obvious title for a blog entry to date).

We made it to Alaska’s biggest city via a brief stop in the one-moose town of Girdwood and a trip to huge supermarket Fred Meyers, where we all stocked up on those essentials which may well be in short supply in the North American wilderness. Food, drink, anything remotely luxurious or comfortable…

The rest of the weekend has been largely subdued, although a few energetic souls have made it out to explore Anchorage and its surrounds.

A select group of the normal suspects did venture out to a supposedly local bar to sample what Saturday night in Anchorage has to offer, only to discover the walk was considerably more than the 20 minutes we had been told (Travel tip: Take Barry’s directions and timings with a pinch of salt).

So, having made the effort, we decided to make it worth our while and stopped to watch the band, dressed up like a cross between early Manic Street Preachers and 1980s hair metal groups and playing a wide selection of standard rock covers (albeit very well).

As the band played on (for four sets stretched over nearly five hours), the bar filled, the drinks rolled down and Mike got his head round how to tip in America.

By the end of the night, Nick was pretending to be a car to get served at a McDonalds drive through window and Phoebe needed to be navigated into the right bedroom. Twice.

Things will have to change over the next few days…