Can’t Get There From Here

Original posted in London to New York blog, May 31, 2010

Petersburg, Alaska

THE Second Amendment of the US Constitution declares “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”.

The Mosquito Amendment, being written in braille on my left forearm, declares “the right of the people to bare arms shall be infringed by horrible, little buzzy things who leave you covered in welts and scabs and have you itching like crazy or covered in sticky, filthy anti-histamine cream”.

We have heard tales of a huge drop of Deet – the active ingredient in most anti-buzzy bastard sprays – in parts of India and Nepal which all but eradicated the rampant population.

From my experience of the last couple of weeks, the sprays are of no use whatsoever, but if the Alaskan authorities want somebody to drop bucket loads of the stuff on the annoying little gits, then then we will have a willing volunteer.

Inside PassageI love the smell of Deet in the morning, it smells of… actually, scrub that, it smells absolutely foul.

Of course the mossie problem – a quick count has the number of bites and scabs on the back of my right hand alone at about 20 – has been magnified by the quite remarkable weather, which held out throughout our stay in the 49th state.

Since the downpour which greeted us in Whittier two weeks ago, we have not seen one drop of rain in Alaska. The only rain we have had came during a detour into Canada.

We have had some cold nights, particularly as we edged to within 140 miles of the Arctic Circle, but the days have been glorious – the coldest night in Denali National Park to the heat of Juneau spanning more than 30 degrees Centigrade in little more than a week.

Mossie Bites
Scars of battle between the mossies and me

The warm weather brings T-shirts, shorts and sandals and acres of open skin for the mossies to attack. And boy have they risen to the challenge.

Not everybody, Phoebe for one appears not to have been bitten at all, but for those of us in the firing line, it has been a frustrating few days.

Even in the evenings, fully clad from head to foot, hands buried deep in my pockets and with my hoody top pulled tight, they’ve still found their way in.

Tonight, we have the sanctuary of the overnight ferry from Petersburg, out of Alaska and into Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

This is our third ferry down the Inside Passage on the Alaskan panhandle, the thin sliver which runs down the coast between the mountains, glaciers and the coast. It is also, bar a few small planes, the only way to get around in this neck of the woods.

Our first ferry belatedly ushered out of Haines to the state capital Juneau. In largely glorious sunshine, it was four hours on deck soaking up some breathtaking scenery and the wildlife it contains.

Douglas Island
View from the capital – Douglas Island seen from Juneau

Bald eagles have been regular companions during the last week, but there were sightings of sea otters, reports of whales and a lengthy escort by a pod of creatures.

There were those, seeing the white markings and black bodies, who argued they were baby orcas, but we were soon put right and informed they were a type of porpoise. Either way, they were spectacular.

Juneau itself is not what you expect from a state capital.

It is small and there’s not that much to the city centre, with most of its downtown shops and businesses geared to serving the cruise liners which line up at the dock (there were between three and five each day we were there, including a visit from our old friend the Diamond Princess).

Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier

There’s also not many places which can host a large green bus and a few tents dotted around it, hence us setting up camp 20-odd miles out of town.

Sadly, this caused a split in the group with half a dozen ‘rebels’ opting to stay closer to what action is on offer in a city centre hostel – or hotel for one of their number who fell victim to the pet stomach bug.

Why they did it is understandable and any resentment between the two camps has been buried since we reunited over a few beers. But we are in this trip together and, in my mind, we should stick together pretty much regardless.

It’s also a shame, because they missed out on a pretty good laugh at the campsite as we sparked up a roaring fire and broke out the marshmallows and a few beers.

Not that Fran was laughing as she became the latest victim of the stomach bug and set up home in the toilet block for the night. A guy did the same the following night and reported two bears wandering past the window.

Thankfully, she was soon back on her feet and back to full health, but not soon enough to enjoy another of the ‘wow’ moments on this trip – the Mendenhall Glacier.

Nugget Falls
Nugget Falls at Mendenhall Glacier

Having skied for many years, the odd glacier has crossed my path, but not normally on a stunning blue sky day and very rarely this beautiful, particularly if you throw in the neighbouring Nuggett Falls.

Our trek down to see both also produced another type of wildlife – the paddling Puggle.

Puggle is the nickname Phoebe has been landed with. Actually, it’s one of several, but the less flattering Skanky Weasel only applies to those times when we’ve been away from showers for a few days.

It harks back to day two, all those weeks ago, as we drove across Germany and Phoebe’s contribution to Phil’s team-building quiz: What do you call a baby echidna?

The name has stuck and, with her insistence on wandering around barefoot whenever possible, the walk down to the glacier provided plenty of opportunities to paddle in the lake and she left little wet Puggle tracks all the way down (quite helpful to track her as she walks inordinately fast for someone with such little legs).

Douglas Island
View from the capital – Douglas Island seen from Juneau

The glacier trip also produced not one, but two reprimands for Matty.

First up came one from Mr Ranger (it was like being in an episode of Yogi Bear) for parking in the wrong place and then, most dramatically, from the elementary school teacher who stepped out in front of the bus to scold us for turning in their car park. She actually made the time out signal in front of the bus.

She had a point, but why are her children playing in a busy car park in the first place?

There were no such run-ins with authority the next day as we ploughed into Juneau itself to sample its delights and did what has now become traditional when we hit any form of civilisation – grab our laptops and head off in search of wi-fi access.

Don’t worry, we didn’t spend all day in the same bar tapping away. Some left to head out on walking trails, some went to Wal-Mart (bizarrely) while several hit the multitude of barbers in Juneau and, in my case, grabbed the first haircut since Cardiff.

From there it was back out to sample the delights of Juneau by night.

Ohmer Creek
The reward for the basic campsite at Petersburg was this…

Poor old Nick, however, never reached that far as he became – in quite spectacular fashion – the latest victim of the sickness bug.

Shame really, he missed a good night which finally saw me enjoy a basketball game with a spectacular finale (Lakers v Suns, Western Conference Final, Game 5), but by the time we got back to the coach to head onto the ferry, we were delighted to see him back on his feet.

Freddie was not so delighted to see Nick had raided his collection of Coke at the back of the bus to hasten his recovery.

And so starts the tale of two nights which kicked into action sometime after 1am.

The first came on the ferry from Juneau to Petersburg, which a group of us opted to spend wrapped up in sleeping bags on the aft deck to watch the scenery go by and the sun rise.

It was surprisingly pleasant and the plan is to repeat it tonight. Hopefully, this time some of us won’t sleep through the sunrise.

The next night – following a quiet day on a Petersburg campsite, enlivened by the late arrival of a local not too happy we had pitched our tents all over the space he claimed to have reserved by throwing a flea-bitten tent on the ground – had a rather less pleasant outcome.

Petersburg
Leaving Petersburg on the ferry to Prince Rupert

The sickness hit sometime between 1am and 2am and boy does it come on fast.

Around 11am I was lying awake listening to my iPod, feeling fine. By midnight, I was fast asleep (eyewitnesses can vouch for this – or should they be earwitnesses). By around 1am, I was lying there wondering why the previous night’s veggie lasagne was having such a strange affect on me.

About five minutes later, we had an answer as, propped against the wall of a less than salubrious toilet, the lasagne returned with a vengeance.

Crawling back to bed and for long spells sat watching the dawn break, it was with huge regret about the amount of feta cheese consumed the night before.

Thankfully, the bug appears to last no more than 24 hours and this bout appears to have come in on the shorter side of that.

There won’t be anything too extravagant passing my lips until breakfast, but at least there was significant recovery to enjoy the lovely town of Petersburg, although not to eat the sandwich Mike kindly made me for lunch. Apologies, both for that and sitting on the one he made himself.

There’s not much in Petersburg, but it is charming, friendly and enough to recharge anyone’s batteries.

You can tell how good a place is by how energised everybody is when they eventually return from their exploring to descend upon the bus. Everyone was buzzing tonight and enlivened by wonderfully hot ferry showers, we head to Canada in high spirits.

And nobody, it appears, is sick…

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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.

Chicken
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.

Moose
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…

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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.

Whittier
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.

Anchorage
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…

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