Day 14- 21: July 24-Aug 1 2008: Fairbanks to Denali park via North Pole!
July 24 – July 29: resting & recovering in Fairbanks
We spent almost a week in Fairbanks, relaxing and catching up on resting, washing, shopping & working. Besides the overwhelming abundance of We were pleasantly surprised food-wise on two occasions. First the day after we arrived at Ericka’s place, they celebrated Miles’ b-day and we were invited to share the pizza, coke and pie and meet some of their family.
The next day we went out to see a bit more of Fairbanks and we cycled around the town visiting some places along the way like the lovely Farmer’s market, selling extremely expensive but . There were no video camera batteries for my camcorder anywhere in the city, so not sure if and what I can film before the next big city, which is Vancouver, 4000km away…
At the end of the day we visited the Pioneer Park, a place for tourists and locals to hang out. It is a bit corny, but they preserved and moved some of the oldest houses of Fairbanks here. We noticed a lot of people eating and unconsciously followed them to the source. We ended up at a set of tables, covered with fresh fruit, salad, chocolate cake, chips and meat. Besides it were a few large containers filled with cans of soft drinks, it was biketravellers’ heaven.
We asked a lady where we could buy a ticket for this feast, but she answered that we could just go ahead and get what we wanted. It appeared to be the yearly public picnic of one of the hospitals and food was catered for and free for everybody…
Ericka had gone rafting close to Denali park, which was our next destination and she had taken a box of our food, which we could pick up there. Though we are easy guests, we felt that we were overstaying a bit and did not want to bother Ericka too much and so we moved out. Michelle, the girl that had driven us up in the van to Prudhoe Bay had told us to come by when we were back in Fairbanks. Here is one lesson for friendly people: do not invite biketravellers to come by just out of courtesy, because they will come
We were welcome though and had a great home-cooked meal together with Michelle and one of her best friends Cathy. We could stay the night and the next morning were introduced to Bill, a pilot working for the tour company. Like all people we met so far in Alaska, they completely trusted us, went out the house giving us the key, leaving us alone with all their valuables, even though we barely knew them.
We decided to take one more resting day from cycling and took the bus to North Pole. Yes, that’s right, about 20kms from Fairbanks is a small town called North Pole. Santa Claus lives there and it is Xmas all year round. In Santa Claus House we actually talked with him and with this started a new small video project. The house is a shop & toy museum and filled will all kinds of cuddly and cute things.The walls are lined with letters from kids all over the world: everybody who writes a letter addressed to ‘Santa Claus, North Pole, Alaska’ will get it delivered right here and might even get an answer. Meanwhile Mr & Mrs Claus are sitting in their chairs and talking to children. When we were there a family walked in a small girl went straight to Santa, her eyes glowing, and without even introducing herself, she said:
‘Santa, Santa, do you remember me? We talked on the phone last year?’
‘Of course I remember you!’ Santa replied cheerfully and the child was completely happy
We stayed another night at Michelle & Bill’s place and got to know them a little better. One thing about travelling so much is that you get to meet a lot of people, but you seldom have time to spend more than a few minutes with each of them, so it is nice to have some extra time.
Day 20: July 30, Fairbanks to Nenana
The next day we were on the road again! We were on the George Parks highway now, the first real busy road we were on. The nice cycle path ended just outside of the city, but the smooth road had shoulders a few feet wide, so practically a cycle path as well.
We had not even left Fairbanks and we were fighting a very strong headwind with a serious threat of rain hanging into the air. It stayed dry, but the road started going up. First it seemed like a small hill, but then it just kept going up until we had climbed 15km almost non-stop! The headwind was so strong that we still had to pedal hard on the downhills and I never could get above 46km/hr, even on steep smooth slopes; at least it blew so hard that we only felt it when on top of a hill or going down; when going up it just blew over us, shaking the trees, but leaving us alone.
We only climbed two real hills, but together with the downhills we climbed more than 1000m and cycled over 90km before we rolled into the small town of Nenana. It is based at the confluence of two major Alaskan rivers, the Takana & Nenana rivers as well as the Alaskan railway & the Parks Highway. As always we were spotting for good campsites around town but noticed that the river was very high and flowing fast.
When we crossed the bridge we entered the town and it appeared charming enough for a longer visit, so we decided to ask around for a place to stay. There was actually a campsite in town, but the $15 they asked was out of our budget, so we asked some locals on the street. Everybody warned us to not camp close to the river, as its level was at its highest point in 40 years and still increasing as a result of the non-stop rains and more was expected. We hinted at pitching our tent on people’s lawn, but everybody just sent us to the baseball field a few blocks away. As it was summer holidays, there would be no classes playing, so we pitched our tent near one of the dug outs. The rain had started again and we were happy with the shelter the dug out was supplying us with, so we could cook and eat dry and then quickly enter the tent.
Nenana is also the place where the famous Nenana Ice Classic is being held each year. A huge wooden tripod is placed on the river when it is frozen solid in winter. The top of the tripod is connected with a bell that rings when the ice breaks up. The exact moment is something that betted on heavily, many thousands of dollars can be won if you predict the time the alarm will sound, audible many miles around..
Day 21: July 31st: Nenana
The next morning the rain had not stopped and not only there were puddles forming around our tent, we also noticed that our Big Agnes tent was dripping, somehow the fly was letting water through. As it is a very expensive tent that has won the Backpacker’s magazine Award, I trust that it is a bad sample, so we will write Big Agnes and ask them to replace it as we have barely used it a dozen times, of which only a few nights with heavy rain.
We headed into town but it was still raining so there was not much to do. People were frantically running to and from the river, which was getting higher by the minute. As the soil was saturated with water, also the streets were filled with water now. We found a very nice library, run by a nice woman, with her kids helping her out. Not only did they have computers to use, they even had a nice sitting and reading place and free WiFi, so I could work for a while, sitting in a huge leather chair, while outside the rain was still pouring down. Not just another day in the office, but a day in yet another office…
We were asked to leave at 19.00 as they closed and we wondered around the streets. We tried our luck in one of the local hotels and yes, they also offered free WiFi. We ate some pancakes, when we noticed another BikeTraveller passing by, who stopped when he saw Kowalski & Greeny parked outside. Thierry was French and had been cycling on and off for many years. He stayed in the hotel -and managed to get a free room-, Ivana arranged for us to stay in the garage of a local couple. They opened up the garage, filled with snowmobiles, and loads of cleaning and repairing stuff. It smelled a bit like oil and gas, but we were happy that we could dry out our tent and sleep under a roof.
Day 22: August 1: Nenana- Denali Park
The flooding was getting more and more serious and parts of the riverside were now closed off for the public. In 1968 the last flooding of this size had happened. Alaska has 4 seasons: June (Spring), July (summer), August (Autumn) and Winter (the rest). Everybody we met told us that this year was the coldest as well as the wettest summer in 40 years and the river seemed to prove it. We met Thierry on the streets and headed out together as he was also going to Denali Park. When meeting other biketravellers it is always hard to know if you can actually cycle together as a small difference in pace can be very annoying, but it was fun to cycle with Thierry for a day. What was really unusual this day was the road. Though we had a slight headwind as usual, the road was actually flat. That’s right, no mountains, no hills! Actually we did climb about 400m, but it was so gradual it took us more than 90 km to do so, so for us it seemed completely flat, especially after the hills of the last cycling days. The weather was great, it was sunny and nicely warm, a great day for cycling and we did the 100km to Healy before we knew it.
Just before Healy we passed the Stampede Road, which eventually will turn into the Stampede trail. This place was made famous by Chris McCandle, a bright student turned traveller, who entered this trail one day to never return. He went to live into the wild, crossed a river he could not cross back again and lived months in an old deserted bus until he died, probably from eating wrong seeds. Jon Krakauer did a wonderful job describing his life in the acclaimed book ‘Into the Wild’ and Sean Penn made a great movie from the story, though that was actually filmed several miles away, to give it more the ‘Alaska look’ that the readers of the book expected… (Interesting to note is that I am actually writing this while sitting in an old deserted bus in Alaska myself, but more about that in a later post)
Since Chris McCandle’s adventures, Healy has grown and many lodges and employee lodgings (for the hotels in Denali Park) have been established. Thierry wanted to stay in Healy and we cycled around a bit to find a place for him, when we noticed a sign saying: ‘fresh fruit’. It attracted us like, well, biketravellers to food and soon we found ourselves next to a huge stall filled with all kinds of fruit, veggies and other goodies. Unfortunately the prices the friendly lady charged were as high as nearby Denali mountain and we settled for a few old bananas that were placed close to the exit, looking less fresh.
Just when we turned back onto the main road, Ivana noticed some large plastic bags, next to a large trash can, filled with lettuce and fruits. Most had some bad spots, but some others looked quite ok. We looked at each other but could not determine if this was trash or for somebody to pick up, so Ivana went back in to ask the owner. She came back out laughing: ‘This is for the pigs!’.
So that is it. we are now officially downgraded to pigs. We were allowed to take whatever we wanted and managed to salve about 3 das of good fruit and veggies that would have been fed to the pigs and that would have been sold for $20-$30 a few days before. The little son of the shop owner came running towards us with a small plastic bag which contained the rest of the fruit that had been on the counter. Just behind him followed the owner, apologizing.
‘I am sorry, I should not have told you that it was for the pigs. Here, take this bag of fruit, it would have ended on the same pile in a few hours anyway.’
This is one of the things I love about Ivana. She has not been raised in a throw-away society like mine or like the one in the USA. When it is past the due date, in Argentina food gets eaten (at least the good parts), leftovers get frozen and saved for later and broken stuff gets fixed. Unlike the Netherlands and USA where a printed date on a milk carton is considered sacred, even though it tastes perfect, where every household throws away dozens of kilos of uneaten food every month and luxury items end up in huge piles on the trash piles. Just we have so much money, we throw away perfectly good food and other items. Us ‘developed’ countries have a lot to learn from the ‘developing’ ones.
We had only 15km left to go to Denali Park, where we not only had left our food, but where we also had managed to find another Couchsurfing host. After a few last steep hills we entered the unexpected mix of cheap souvenir stores, pizza places, even a Subway and expensive lodges. Our host Eugene works for one of the hotels and they supply him with a very small cabin, just big enough for a bed and a small desk. he welcomed us and let us know that he would move in with a colleague for a few nights, so we could use his place, all to ourselves. Again we were pleasantly surprised by the hospitality and trust of the Alaskans. We cooked up a great pasta dinner with our saved zucchini & lettuce & cucumber and fell into a deep sleep, tired after our longest day yet…
Kowalski! Status report!
We did not cycle much in Fairbanks and even when we did, we did not always record it. So below are only the two longer days, from Fairbanks to Nenana and from Nenana to Denali Park, two of our longest days so far.
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