(As I have neglected my blogging responsibilities for a while I am breaking this update into two posts so don’t forget to check both!)
After leaving Whitehorse, YT the terrain starts to become even more of what we expected on the Alaska Highway. As you approach Haines Junction the St. Elias mountains begin to appear. They are the first range of truly massive mountains with obvious glaciers and high peaks.
In Haines Junction you turn north and follow the St. Elias Mountains for about 100 miles. Along the way you hit Kluane Lake, which is a huge, presumably beautiful lake when it is not frozen over. On the side of Kluane Lake is an area Dall Sheep winter. Sara and her brother stopped here in 2010 but did not see any sheep. We looked up high on the hill and immediately spotted about 50 sheep in a few groups, but they were so far away we could not get any pictures even with a telephoto. We kept going just around the corner and immediately saw three rams on the hill just above the road. As I grabbed the camera and started taking pictures, Sara realized they were essentially hanging out on Soldier Summit, a memorial to the soldiers who helped build the Alaska Highway and the location of the ribbon cutting to open the highway in 1942.
We drove down the road and hiked up to the memorial. As we got on top we didn’t see the rams so I assumed they heard us coming and ran off, but in fact they were just over the edge of the hill below us! When they saw us they looked a little startled, but only moved very slowly away. I suspect they are pretty well habituated to humans if they hang out at the memorial.
After getting side tracked with sheep pictures, it was dusk as we approached the border. We couldn’t decide where we were likely to find the best roadside camping spots, but just as we approached the border we found a nice pullout on the Canada side. We are probably on some Homeland Security video somewhere as we were within a few hundred yards of the actual border.
That night Sara set her alarm so we could look out and check for the Northern Lights. We originally thought it would be unlikely we could see them on this trip because of the time of year, but Sara had done some more research and realized we had a good chance. Sure enough when her alarm sounded there was some light streaking in the northern sky. At first we just looked through the back windows of the van, but after the first round faded and we took a little nap, we saw them a second time so we went out to stand in the icy cold air. It was about 2:45 a.m. and hovering somewhere south of -7 deg. so my memory is a little fuzzy, but we definitely saw the Northern Lights. They were not a super green or colorful show (Sara thought she saw more green than I did), but we could definitely see the streaks slowly bending and shifting across the horizon. It was incredibly exciting to see, tempered slightly by having to wake up in the middle of the night and stand outside trying not to freeze to death.
During the night we were wondering if our heater was having problems because it was not as warm as usual. It was still completely comfortable, but not quite toasty. When we woke up (at the crack of 9:00 a..m. or so) it was still -7 deg. Well, that might explain it. Fortunately our water was still functional so perhaps our water system improvements did actually help.
We took the dogs for a short walk out a snowmobile trail and it was the quietest, most profoundly still feeling I have ever experienced. The sun was still low on the horizon, there was not a breath of wind, and it was very cold. I could very clearly hear sound, the cold snow crunching, the dogs running, the one or two cars driving along the road, but in between the sound was such a pure silence that my ears were ringing as if struggling to accept that there was no sound to register. It is definitely a unique sensation I will remember from that morning.
After breakfast we drove down the road the short distance to the border and took our celebration photo. We made it!
Beyond the border the mountains continued getting larger as the St. Elias mountains gave way to the Wrangells.
The Alaska Highway was beautiful and an amazing drive, but seeing the massive mountains rising out of the huge spruce forests really made us feel like we had made it to Alaska.
After learning about Tailgate Alaska from Jerry, the guy in Liard Hot Springs, Thompson Pass was our goal for the day. We had to go see the party and jump right in to the Alaska backcountry snowboarding scene. Stay tuned for Part 2!