Fairbanks to Anchorage

Thursday morning dawned covering Delta Junction in a thick layer of fog. We fuelled up and headed north on the Richardson Highway the 90 odd miles to Fairbanks. Around 20 miles north of Delta we managed to break free of the fog but the day was grey and drizzly all the way north – pretty app that it was turning cold as our first stop was the town of North Pole – 15 miles south of Fairbanks. North Pole is Alaska’s version of Santa’s hide-away. He stands proud and tall at the North Pole Visitor Centre – it’s more a Xmas gift shop. You can get post cards stamped with North Pole here, and of course you can sit on Santa’s knee. All the roads and streets in the town have an Xmas theme – St Nicholas Drive, Santa Claus Lane, Mistletoe Drive and more.  From there it’s another 15 mins and you reach Fairbanks – the south side of the city is dominated by Fort Wainwright Army Post (just south of North Pole you have Eielson Airforce Base – I noted F-16 and F-35 fighters preparing to take off in the grey drizzle).

Fairbanks is known as the Golden Heart City – so named due to the gold found in the surrounding hills in the early 1900’s. The establishment of Fairbanks is interesting – an opportunist by the name of Barnette wanted to get into Central Alaska to supply those heading out for gold. He common dared a river boat captain to take him up the Chena River as far as he could – when they could go no further the captain kicked them off the boat and Barnette established his trading post there – renaming it a few years later to Fairbanks – a Vice President. We got ourselves downtown to the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Centre – a really nice facility where we spent some time looking at historic information and displays. Having studied up on the local area and found out some info on the local Indian tribe – the Athabaskan, we had a walk around downtown before heading out to our accommodation – the large Wedgewood Complex. An added bonus at the Wedgewood is the nature reserve they have established so we have a wander around the man-made lake and surrounding area. Another bonus is the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum – hard to believe I know, but I didn’t actually partake in what the museum had to offer – a conscious choice, but I hear it is very good.

On Friday we headed out – I dropped the girls off to have a wander around ‘down town’ and I headed out to Pioneer Park which is a large and popular facility. I wanted to have a look around the aviation museum, but unfortunately the facility was all closed up around a week earlier – someone had made the call the winter was on its way, and a lot of things get closed up / battened down for the winter. I was able to have a look some of the static displays in the park – one of the larger ones is the SS Nenana paddle steamer – they claim it is the second largest all wooden boat still in existence – was pretty big. I headed back into town to find the girls experience of ‘down town’ was pretty limited, so we headed off for the afternoon to do the Riverboat Discovery excursion. The Binkley family have been plying their trade on the Chena River for something like 90 years – they are now on Discovery 3 which can carry something like 900 passengers / tourists. The skipper / captain these days is the grand daughter of the original Binkley family. Like most things in Fairbanks, the cruise excursion only had a couple more days to run before being moored up for the winter – apparently the river completely freezes over in the next month or so. On the excursion they arranged for a float plane to take off and land around the steamer – the pilot talked about the floats being replaced with skis for the winter months – he will take off and land on the river ice moving forward.

The riverboat (which only needs about 4 feet of water to operate despite its size) moves up the Chena River to the convergence with the Tanana River (same track Barnette had taken almost 120 years earlier). Along the way you pull up at the Dog Mushing base of Dave Monson. Dave and his former wife Susan Butcher who died of cancer in 2006, were champion dog mushers – Susan is famous for being the only woman to win the gruelling Iditarod Dog Mushing race 4 times – defying believers that a woman could win this race (the Iditarod is famous for being an 1100 mile mush across Alaska and into the Yukon of Canada). Dave honours his wife by maintaining a very strong dog mushing kennel – the riverboat pulls up alongside their property and Dave talks about the training techniques they adopt to breed champion dogs – very impressive. From there the riverboat runs up the Chena to where it meets the Tanana, where it turns around and heads back up river to the Chena River Athabaskan Village. Some of the team on the boat explain and demonstrate some of the traditional ways of the Athabaskan and how they would have lived in the area. Some of the furs and garments they had were stunning. The team took us around the village – some of the mushing dogs were there, huts were open to view, and there were a group of large Caribou to take in – was well done. After a time the boat whistle sounded and it was back on the boat for the final steam back up the river with the accompaniment of Binkley family’s smoked salmon – the samples were very nice. In all the excursion took 3 hours – and despite it being a cool grey day, it was very well done.

Saturday dawned cooler again – the temperature gauge on the car hovered around 37 Fahrenheit most of the morning (less than 4 degrees). We got on the road early and headed out of Fairbanks to get south to the Denali National Park. We were aware that we may have left our run a little late getting up to Denali as the park closes in late September, but we set out with optimism. The run down to Denali village took us a bit over 2 hours and then it’s a short run from the village into the park (you follow the Parks Highway south). We reached the park around 10am and whilst it was grey and drizzly we did hope to get as far as the 30 mile gate (the farthest private vehicles are allowed to run year round – during the summer season you can drive to Mile 15 and then have to board the park bus to travel through to around Mile 65 – we were told the bus trip can take around 8 hours). By the time we had a bit of a look around the info centre and talked to the ranger, she advised that the weather was packing in and the road was now closed at Mile 15. We headed off hoping to see some wild life but all we got was snow – which in itself was very nice, but by the time we reached the gate the snow was very steady – not a problem for all the pick ups and SUV’s but our Prius was a bit lower to the ground. We had a good look around but weren’t able to see any animals at all. We trekked back down – once we dropped back down to around mile mark 5, we were below the snow. We headed out of the park a bit disappointed – we had planned to spend the day seeing wild life everywhere.

Once back on the highway it was a solid 3 – 3.5 hour run down to Talkeetna where we were staying. Our new friends Sandra and Loomy have a very nice AirBnB house in the village of Talkeetna (14 miles inland from the main highway). We were very fortunate to be able to stay at their lovely place – they live and are developing 80 acres out of town and are building an eco-home off the grid – it’s a labour of love – it’s been 5-7 years in the making so far between stints down in Antarctica, and they have a couple more years work ahead of them but the sounds of it. A bonus of the AirBnB home is the wood burner – Carol was very happy to get the fire going and curl up near it for the evening. On Sunday we had a quieter day – we had a look around ‘down town’ – which consists of touristy type shops and eating / drinking establishments. Talkeetna was established as a mining and trading post at the junction of the 3 rivers – the Talkeetna, Susitina and Chulitna Rivers and the little town is considered the ‘base camp for adventure’ being a key stop on the way to or from Denali National Park. Having had a good look around – the town has a couple of good vantage points to take in Mt Denali if it’s showing (there’s a good tee shirt around that refers to the 30% club – supposedly only around 30% of people get to clearly see Denali – we were amongst the lucky ones). Having studied town, Netty took the opportunity to do a scenic flight out and around Denali National Park and timed it well weather wise and got some great views. Carol and I headed out to see Sandra and Loomy’s rural property and enjoyed a really nice catch up with them.

Sandra and Loomy’s ‘adopted son’ Jeremy was visiting from Anchorage and very kindly offered us a lift south to Anchorage the following day so that worked out very well for us. We have a real nice catch up with them all before heading back in to hear all about Netty’s flight. She’d had a great experience – flight was supposed to be an hour but they ended up being up for over 1 ½ hours. Sunday evening was spent keeping an eye out for the aurora – Carol wants for nothing more to see the northern aurora in all’s its splendour. Although the sky was clear, no defined aurora was experienced – not yet anyway. On Monday morning we woke to a nice cool but clear morning and headed down to the river lookout and were rewarded with great views of the Denali mountain range. From there we had to get back and clean up the house before heading out to Sandra and Loomy’s to link with Jeremey for the ride back to Anchorage. We had a great ride south – an area at the south end of Talkeetna had been badly affected by bad fires in the last couple of months – its impact was very clear from the road. Jeremy played a great host pointing out key sites and keeping us entertained as we worked our way south. He dropped us off at our hotel near the airport – and we said our goodbyes. Carol and I took the opportunity to go and have a good look around Lake Hood – the local Seaplane base. There are around 1000 aircraft that use this area – many of them float planes. We stopped to see planes land and take off on the lake – very cool. We enjoyed a really nice meal out – thank you again Netty for that, before retiring for an early start Tuesday.

Tuesday morning has us checking in at the airport early for a 7am flight to Seattle – our time in Alaska draws to a close. We have really enjoyed our time here and would be keen to come back for more of what is on offer. The sights and sounds have been great as has the hospitality we have been shown.                There’s loads more here to see and do, but unfortunately that will have to wait for another time – thanks Alaska.

Anchorage to Fairbanks

The boat docked early Monday morning at the port of Seward on the southern side of the Gulf of Alaska. For us it was an early start – one more go at the breakfast buffet and then we had to get off the boat at 7.45am to get a coach through to Anchorage. Our coach driver Wallace was very good – it was his last run of the season and his commentary was very playful – he referred to the light dusting of snow on the surrounding hills as ‘termination snow ‘ – when it falls, summer is over and with that your summer jobs comes to an end – your employment is terminated. Seward is essentially a port town of less than 3000 people, but every 4th July the town swells for the annual Mountain Marathon Run – thousands of people come to run us a steep hill in Seward – fastest time is around 42 minutes (it’s not a marathon distance run). The Seward Highway is a run of approx. 130 miles over to Anchorage – by coach this took us a good 2 ½ hours. Along the way you follow around Cook Inlet – yes, so named as Captain Cook was an early explorer in these waters. According to our driver, along the Turnagain Arm of the inlet you often see Beluga whales, but despite the efforts of the driver and most of the people on the coach, no whales were spotted.

Our driver shared some local facts and details with us – some interesting points were there are approx. 3,000,000 lakes across Alaska but to be considered a lake, it has to be big enough for a float plane to land and take off from it. Supposedly 82% of the population of Alaska have some connection to flying – either they fly themselves (apparently 1 in 78 Alaskan’s are registered pilots), or they are reliant on flight for supplies etc. The impact of the float plane was very evident at Lake Hood which is next to the International Airport. Lake Hood is where loads of float planes park up and operate from. The rim of the lake was one little garage after the other with float planes everywhere. The coach had to do a series of drop off’s – the airport and then all the main hotels – our stop was the last stop, but it meant we got to see a bit of the city.

Anchorage is nicely positioned jutting out into the Cook Inlet, and is Alaska’s largest city with a population of upwards of 300,000. Anchorage was originally a summer camp for the local Athabascan Indian’s, with James Cooks calling here in 1778. The city itself wasn’t properly established until 1915 when the area was selected as the headquarters of the Alaskan Railroad. Our Montana friend Dale linked us with a couple of locals – one being Dick Armstrong. We gave Dick a call and he suggested we do lunch so Dick and his dog Mickey met us 15 mins later and whisked us around the road to the local fried chicken shop – I got the impression the team here knew Dick pretty well. Dick was a really interesting character – not sure of his age but he did say he retired in 2000 only to get bored. He’d sold his engineering business and took up flying and eventually got himself a fleet of small aircraft. Several successful ventures later, Dick is sometime of a philanthropist and has donated aircraft and facilities locally to the universities flying programme. After some lunch Dick took us out to his hangar and gave us some suggestions for things to do, including linking us up for a scenic flight. Dick was keen to take us around himself, but his 78-year-old sister and boyfriend were flying in for a couple of weeks – family comes first. Dick has been down to New Zealand a number of times and is currently helping the Deep Freeze team with the building of a new scientific base in Antarctica. Dick dropped us back into town and we spent the rest of the afternoon having a look around some of the downtown area including the nice coastal trial (runs around 11 miles along the each of the city and the harbour).

We had an early start on the Tuesday – we hired a car for the day in order to go and collect a car – there’s a means to this. Dale has a couple of friends who when not working down on the ice in Antarctica, live in the little town of Talkeetna which is around 110 miles north of Anchorage. Sandra and Loomy (John’s surname is Loomis and looks like that’s what he goes by) very graciously lent us a car and also provided us with a couple of the night’s accommodation in their AirBnB in Talkeetna – very much the bonus for us. We arranged to meet them in Wasilla which is about 45 miles north of Anchorage and after a good coffee catch up with them both, Netty and Carol followed me back to Anchorage in their car. We dropped the car off at the hotel and got ourselves around to Merrrill Field Airport where we met Lucas – our pilot. We’d arranged to go up for a ‘1-hour introductory flight’ but we ended up being up in the air for just over 1 ¼ hours as we searched the valley’s for moose and other wildlife.

Lucas lifted us off – there is a constant stream of small aeroplanes taking off and landing Merrill – a load of flight instruction is done from this field. Lucas worked his way north following the Knik River till we came to the very impressive Knik Glacier – we were flying over the glacier at quite a low height so it was quite the spectacle. On the way back we searched high and low – literally and figuratively for wildlife – spotted some swans, some mountain sheep and a handful of moose. We were led to believe the wildlife was everywhere up this way but we’d have to say they have been few and far between. Flying back into Merrill Field gave us a good perspective of Anchorage and the bay that it sits in – very cool. With our feet back on the ground we headed across town and out to Kincaid Park which sits right out on the point where the Turnagain and Knik Arms of the Cook Inlet meet. There are loads of trials and tracks here – very popular in the winter for cross country skiing and related activities. After a good walk (with very little additional wildlife to show for our efforts – we’d been told there are something like 1500 moose that move within the city boundary, as well as a few bears), we headed back and dropped the rental car off on our way out for dinner. Carol was after some King Crab so we found a busy spot in town – all the busier for it was quiz night, so we ate and worked our brains at the same time – a good evening.

Wednesday morning we loaded up the car and got ourselves on the road to head north. We opted to do a loop up to Fairbanks which had us head east on the Glenn Highway to then connect north on the Richardson Highway. The day started off very wet but once we got onto the Old Glen Highway, the traffic eased and we could pretty much dictate our pace. Working up to Palmer you go through a little place called Butte and between Butte and Palmer every other yard seemed to have old cars of some description – would have loved to have been able to stop and look but a fleeting glance as we passed was the extent of my viewing. From Palmer you hop on the Glenn Highway proper and you climb up to an area called Glacier View – yep, a couple of very impressive glaciers can be viewed along the highway, so long as the weather cooperates. Today wasn’t the best for viewing as there was very low cloud sitting in the valley but you got the odd glimpse. One of the glaciers was very interesting – it almost appeared to lay horizontally along the valley floor with little or no drop to it. Along the road, every available parking area off the road was taken by what were obviously hunters looking for moose – most were pulling trailers for ATV’s and side by sides – must have been a load of hunters out and about. At the top of the summit (3300 feet) the weather cleared and by the time we stopped at the Eureka Roadhouse for refreshments, we had a nice day ahead of us. As we were going in a couple of guys in their hunting camo were coming out so we had a good talk to them about the hunt and questioned where all the moose were – obviously hiding as it turns out and for good reason.

The host at the roadhouse was very friendly – we had a good talk about the local area – differences between summer and winter in the area. I asked how much snow they get on the highway – she suggested that if I checked the 2.5-metre high markers up the road I would get a good idea – the markers are so the snow plough can see where the road is for clearing. With food in our bellies we pushed on through to Glennallen which is the junction for the Richardson Highway north. We trekked up the Richardson to the junction town of Delta Junction – aptly named as this is where the Richardson and Alaskan Highways merge north and south. Along this stretch of the road you get a number of glances at the great Alaskan Pipeline – this runs oil from the top of Alaska at Prudhoe Bay, 800 miles south to the deep port of Valdez where the ships come in and take it south. Some smart stuff was done with the design of the pipeline – it’s built up off the ground so that the heat of the oil in the pipe doesn’t melt the permafrost, changing the environment – very smart. Besides the pipeline we were lucky to spot one female moose on the roadside – these guys are few and far between, and well camouflaged. Besides the moose we saw a few golden eagles. When you do hit Delta Junction, it’s just that – a junction of two main highways, with a couple of gas stations and a couple of motels – one of which we were staying in. On your way into Delta you do pass a large military base – Fort Greely is the militaries cold weather base – for testing equipment in the cold extremes of the area, and the military personnel. Fortunately for us the weather wasn’t that cold – yet. Thursday sees us moving further north to Fairbanks – update pending.

Cruise Alaska – Inside Passage

Alaska here we come – well once we get out of Canadian territorial waters. We grab a taxi and get down to the terminal building – there are two cruises going away this morning – ourselves on the Norwegian Jewel, and a Disney cruise (there are a lot of people getting around with Mickey Mouse ears on this morning). The boarding process with checking in, customs and screening takes around an hour and then we are allowed onboard. Our rooms aren’t going to be ready for a couple of hours so what to do – emm, find a restaurant and have a munch (we would pay for that later in the week – the boat had something like 7 complimentary eating options and then the specialty restaurants where you pay as you dine). We are soon able to access our rooms (for us an inside cabin, and with the three of us, it would be cosy). We explore the boat – I think there are 8 main levels for us to get around. The boat casts off from Vancouver around 5pm – the weather had packed in and it was raining heavily and clagged in but once we got up the harbour a bit, things started to clear. Each day on the boat you get a schedule of activities – our evening routine for the week would consist of taking in the evening show and either having dinner before or after the show.

Tuesday was a full day at sea so we did plenty of exploring around the boat and explored some of the eating options. We went to an art auction, and enjoyed a great disco themed show that evening, and started going to the trivia sessions. Obviously on a large ship like this you meet a load of people – we bumped into one chap that we would see most days – Gus from Foxton Beach. Like myself, we were some of the only ones on the boat getting around in shorts the majority of the time. Like the range of guests on board, the crew came from 60 countries we were told – majority being from the Philippine’s.

Wednesday dawned with us crossing over into Alaskan territorial waters. First port stop for us was the town of Ketchikan which is in the south eastern tip of Alaska (with arriving into Alaska our clocks had to slip back a further hour as well). We miscalculated with the alarm clock and instead of getting up at 6.30am, the alarm had us up at what was actually 5.30am so we headed out to the deck to watch the ship enter and tie up at Ketchikan. We headed off the boat and had a wander downtown before heading back to the wharf for our excursion – we were going on the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman tour. The boat used was formally a real crab fishing boat – made famous from the wave that hit it in season 2 of Deadliest Catch (fortunately the boat righted itself after being hit by a rogue 60 foot wave, after which the skipper decided it might be safer to convert the boat – the Aleutian Ballad, into a tourist operation). Captain Derek and his crew did a nice job telling stories, explaining how things work on a crab fishing boat and of course, pulling up some crab and fish for us (we had the bonus of a couple of octopus being caught as well). No King Crab were caught – they are too protected, but the boat carries plenty for you to look at and hold – as the photos will support. The tour was well done. Back on Ketchikan we had a wander around the rest of the town – a quaint fishing town that back in its heyday would have been quite the rollicking place to have lived / visited. One interesting area is the Creek Street brothel area – being a sea port, the brothel trade was strong and some of the houses from that era, and stories are displayed in the area (essentially Creek St is a channel off the harbour with the walkway stretching out over the water’s edge with old houses dotted along it). Interestingly, the salmon spawn up this ‘creek’ and then subsequently die – the bottom of the creek was littered with dead salmon and a very fat seal / sealion having a great feed. After some further exploring we were both damp and hungry so it was back to the ship for a late lunch and to take in activities on board for the rest of the day.

Thursday mid-morning had us docking at Juneau the state capital. Carol and I hadn’t arranged any excursions for this stop but Netty was off the boat to do a helicopter excursion up to one of the glaciers. The day was overcast and it wasn’t until she got out to the shuttle that they advised that they couldn’t fly – a real shame as the day actually started to improve as it wore on. Juneau is obviously a real cruise ship hub – there were 4 cruise ships in whilst we visited. Population of the city is around 32000 which obviously swells on days like today with all the tourist activity around. One of the main attractions is the Mount Roberts cable car – takes you up the hill to look out over the bay (I think the announcer on the boat quoted some crazy fact that by area, Juneau is the second largest ‘city’ in the US – not sure how they works – must have a very large city boundary). Carol and I opted to walk the city instead and walk we did. We have a good look around the water front and down to the Overstreet Park Whale in the Water sculpture – very impressive. From there we went for a bit of a hike up into the hills behind the city to the Last Chance Mining Museum and had a look around before heading back into town and then back onto the ship.

Friday dawned grey and wet as we docked at Skagway (the inside passage is just that – a network of different channels, some of which have small settlements in them such as Skagway – I think the population locally was less than 1000, but with three cruise ships in, it would swell to closer to 7000 on a day like this). Skagway was once the major Klondike gateway and was very important as the gateway port for the Yukon Gold Rush in the 1890’s. Around 1895, gold was found near the junction of the Yukon and Klondike rivers sparking a rush to the area with people ‘hoping to find their fortune’. The shortest but more difficult route to take to the gold fields was to catch a boat up to Skagway and then hike (carrying all you needed on your back) up and over either the Chilkoot Trail, or over White Pass. White Pass was the shorter route, but much steeper and yet 10’s of thousands set out over this route. In 1898 someone decided a train line could work and put a gang together building the line up and over the pass – a steep 20-mile track that due to the terrain had to be narrow gauge. The line took 2 years to build and really only saw action for a couple of years before the gold rush was over in the area (getting up and over White Pass was only the start of the trek – from White Pass they had to trek 20-30 miles down to Bennett Lake and then it was a 500 mile paddle up the Yukon River – hard core).

Anyway, we took the opportunity of doing the White Pass Rail excursion – the loaded old wagons were pulled up the hill to the top of the pass where it turned around and trekked back down. There were loads of waterfalls, drop off’s, viaducts, couple of tunnels – was very well done. The train pulls right up towards the dock in Skagway – traffic stops for the train to pull in / pull out. The train excursion was the better part of 3 hours and then we explored the town on foot – the town has restored / maintained its look from the late 1800’s and has a very rustic feel to it with old saloon style buildings – very popular with the tourists. One of the stores made an Alaskan special – fried bread – looked to be very popular. Satisfied that we had seen a lot of what Skagway had to offer, we wandered back to the ship, dried off and enjoyed the activities that the ship was offering that evening.

Saturday was all about the glaciers – the boat pulled into the area known as Glacier Bay – the area is a national park and preserve in the vast area of the southeast Inside Passage – a favourite area for the cruise boats. Carol was up and out early wanting to secure a good spot to view the action that lie ahead and sure enough her pre 6.30am start rewarded her with a front row sit in the Spinnaker lounge at the front of the boat. The ‘bay’ is flanked by high peaks, and glacier after glacier (the park comprises 3.3 million acres of mountains, glaciers, forest and waterways and is part of the wider Inside Passage World Heritage site – which covers 25 million acres of area). The boat made its way up the Tarr Inlet for everyone to view the Margerie Glacier which spills down to the water’s edge, and the Grand Pacific Glacier that sits out over the back of the ranges. Of note is the fact, or rather the impact that global warming is having on the glaciers – they are receding at a faster than anticipated rate – yes, much the same as we see back home, but the scale of the glaciers here is like everything in the US – they are upsized. The ship gets in close to the glacier but not too close – the area is well known for being a fur seal breeding area so all boats have to ‘reserve the seals space’ as we are nearing the end of their breeding season. From the Tarr Inlet we come out and around and into the John Hopkins Glacier – another massive ice structure greets us. The majority of the boat are outside to view the glacier activity today – nice to see. A group of National Park rangers had come on board to provide commentary on the area and they did a really good job. Much ice later we pulled out of the main inlet and back into some open water. Carol had a great day – she managed to see whales (Humpback and Orca), sea otters, seals and sea lions, mountain goats – she ticked a lot off today and was nice to see her very much in her ‘happy place’.

Sunday represented our last full day on the boat / on the water. Early morning we were in place to view the Hubbard Glacier – North America’s largest tidewater glacier that covers 1350 square miles of blue ice (the glacier is located in eastern Alaska and part of the Yukon (Canada), and was named after the Bell Telephone Company president – Gardiner Hubbard). To make the glacier bigger, the Valerie Glacier ‘flows into / blends into’ the main Hubbard Glacier just before it spills down into the water. I think I heard them say the glacier has moved 74 miles in 400 years. Whilst we were viewing the glacier, lumps of ice were breaking off and falling into the water (there’s a special name for this that eludes me at this time). I think it’s the share scale of the faces of these glacier’s that surprise you – they are very wide. Coming back out of the inlet, the pilot who helped glide up and around the inlet is disembarked and we head back out into the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska as we make the last push through to Seward. Our last evening on the boat involves the final trivia quiz (which were pretty hard), more eating, and a show before retiring as we have an early start to disembark the ship in the morning (ship is due to dock / tie up in Seward by 5am, and we have to catch a shuttle to Anchorage at 8.30am, so we will be up earlier).

Summing up my first cruise experience, it was good, I enjoyed it. You get to see a lot of different landscape, if you’re lucky you will see some wildlife, and you get to meet a load of people – if you want to. Excursion days are good as you get a good dose of exercise walking around, but you have to be disciplined on ‘sea days’ and do some laps of the ship etc (for me I think I’ve only written in an elevator twice – the rest of the times I have tackled the stairs – to say I have seen enough stairs is an understatement). Proximity to food can be dangerous – yes, I feel heavier as I leave the ship – back to crackers and tomatoes once we get back to the camper van. In talking to Carol we’re not sure if we would rush back to do the cruise experience again, and I think for me anyway, I wouldn’t want to be on any bigger ship – the Jewel had just shy of 2400 passengers, and well over 1000 crew so there are people everywhere – it’s a fact you can’t avoid. We can see why people love this form of travel – it offers loads of dining and entertainment choices, and the options to go out and explore with the excursion packages – to be as active or inactive as you choose to be, all in one contained area. For us, whilst we can, I think we prefer being in charge of the direction we take so let’s see what the next week brings as we explore Anchorage and beyond.

Facts and figures

  • Norwegian Jewel was commissioned in 2005 and refurbished 2015
  • 810 miles of cabling and 65 miles of piping through the ship
  • 25,000 light bulbs onboard
  • 60,000 eggs consumed during the passage
  • 34,000 lbs of vegetables (excluding spuds)
  • 5,000 lbs of rice consumed
  • Crew come from 60 different countries
  • Average fuel consumption – 48 gallons a minute

Vancouver

Crossing the border, it was a comparatively short run till you start reaching the outskirts of Vancouver. I think by 10.45am we were dropped off at the Central Train and Bus terminal. Some questioning later we were directed across the road to hope on the Expo light train line and it was a short 2 stop ride and we arrived at Granville St Station – in the heart of downtown. From there it was a walk of only a couple of blocks up the street to our hostel (dragging a bag up the street felt a bit like our travel of old – I’d only commended to Carol that morning that this stint of travel seemed / felt a lot different from when we were in Europe and other places). At the hostel we connected with Netty who had just finished her Canadian Rocky’s tour so it was nice to connect with family again. It was too early to check into the hostel (the Samesun Vancouver – nice and central and very popular with the young ones but there were a few older stayers as well), so we dropped our bags and with the advice of the hostel (who said the forecast was better today Saturday than the next couple of days) we headed down town to the waterfront. Just down town you have the convention centre and this is the area where all the cruise boats dock – there were a couple in today (these set sail at 4 and 4.30pm respectively). There’s a really nice walk around the waterfront and as we set out the day warmed up and we have a really nice time exploring the area all the way around to Stanley Park – a really nice park area that dominates the main point of Vancouver. The waterfront area was full of eateries, float planes going off at regular intervals, loads of people our enjoying the day, and plenty of apartment buildings.

From Stanley Park we caught a bus back into town and got off in the Gastown area – an older part of town that has made a revival with eateries and shops, and the famous steam clock that goes off on the hour. Can’t recall the exact details but pretty sure the clock dated from the 1890’s??? From there it was a short walk to the Seabus terminal and we took a ferry over the harbour to North Vancouver. There’s a nice market on the waterfront but by mid afternoon the market had wound down and it was just some food vendors still plying their trade. We stopped for a cuppa and to take in the sights before getting the ferry back across the harbour. We staggered up the street – I think we ticked over 18000 plus steps today so a good outing for us. We had a mixed dorm room of 4 bunks and found we had a room mate who arrived in once we have all tucked up in bed for the night – lights on and so forth whilst they got themselves sorted – that’s hostel staying for you.

Sunday, as warned dawned damp and wet but by mid-morning the day was clearing up so we headed up the road and out across the Granville Street Bridge that seemed to just go on and on. There’s a small knob of land on the south side of Vancouver that they call Granville Island – not sure if it was an island back in the day, but nowadays it’s connected to South Vancouver. There’s a popular market on Granville island so we explored all that was on offer and then had a nice walk around the waterfront before looping back over the Burrand Street Bridge to the west – a nice loop. There was lots of comings and goings – loads of little harbour ferry boats – looked like little tugs were taxing people around the lower harbour, whilst from the bridge we could see a line up of ships waiting to come into port. We trudged back to the hostel after stopping for some refreshments and parked up with a book for a time before Carol and I headed back our downtown looking for postcards. We had a really nice walk around – there were some really nice shops, still lots of people out at near 6pm on a Sunday afternoon. There is an interesting collection of houses around and a load of apartment blocks.

Back to the hostel we settled in for the night – which was a bit disrupted again – our room mate (an older chap from Indian I think) had an early start so when he came in he was shuffling some bits around and then he was up early again this morning to get away. Awake I opted for an early walk downtown – keen to see the boat we were heading off on the cruise on later today. Sure enough I found the Norwegian Jewel docked – we will head down to her later in the morning to get locked in for the cruise. Summing up Vancouver – it was another short visit to a big city, but all in all the city is very nice – a lot of high rises – both business related and apartment buildings, the waterfront areas are very nicely presented, there’s loads of float plane activity, and the waterways are busy with boaters and ferries, and cycling is very poplar around the city. There are loads of people around – locals but certainly a good influx of tourists – seems a popular spot ‘with the young ones. Only really disturbing thing for me was the level of homeless people living on the street. Because we were staying downtown we might have been a bit more exposed to this than we have been, but just seemed to be a load of people ‘living rough’ – very unfortunate to see. But don’t let they detract from your experiences of Vancouver – it has a load to offer, and is obviously a key gateway to Alaska for the cruise industry. So that’s where we are off to next – we update post the cruise.

Washington State

Having crossed the mighty Columbia, we headed to the west to follow the coast line north. Was long till we came to a small seaside area called Long Beach – so named as it’s supposedly the second longest stretch of uninterrupted beach in the world at 20 miles long. Long Beach is at the foot of a peninsula that ‘obviously runs out 20 miles’. We stopped for some lunch and to get some supplies and pushed on with the I101 – Coastal Highway. We called it quits at a state forest camp at an area called Twin Harbours. We were right up against the best so as headed out and I dipped my feet in the Pacific – nice and refreshing. Was nice to be on the beach and by the sea again – had been a while. The weather came and went this late afternoon – clagged in and then cleared and then clagged in and rained lightly as it got dark – putting pay to Carol’s hopes of seeing a nice sunset on the horizon.

On Tuesday morning we were up and on the road early – trying to get ahead of the traffic. Had a really good run through to the last coastal port town and then you hit the interstate (I5) and the traffic got heavier and heavier as we made our run towards Tacoma. Fuel prices were all over the place but we found a station just below Tacoma (in the Olympia area) that was less than $3 a gallon so filled up and then pulled up at Camp Lewis Joint Military base (Marines and the Airforce Airlift for the Pacific Coast is based here) to work out exactly where we needed to go. Our destination was the LeMay Auto Museum – claimed to be the largest car collection (in the US anyway). To make matters worse, this is just part of the collection – at the family’s home area outside of Tacoma at Marymount they have ‘his other collection’. LeMay sounds like he was quite the character – pre-WW2 he had a rubbish collection run and then after the war decided to buy a few more runs. As he and his team were collecting the rubbish they were also on the lookout for vehicles – if there was an old car on the side of the road or if someone said they didn’t want their motor anymore, LeMay picked it up and brought it back and worked on it. Not sure of the exact number of cars that he ended up with but apparently he really liked 1941 Chevy’s and ended up collecting 51 of the one model. The collection proper at the Auto Museum was very impressive – the museum is set on 5 levels – you wind your way down and then back up with each ramp up / down and level having a different theme of vehicles on display – I saw some beauties and the afternoon passed very quickly.

We pulled away from the museum later hoping the traffic would have subsided and made our way up the main interstate to a rest area below Seattle that would be our park for the night – noisy but okay. On Wednesday we were on the road early thinking we would get ahead of the traffic. They wasn’t quite the case – there was still plenty of grid lock at 6.30am but eventually we managed to work our way through to the Museum of Flight which is right by Boeing Field – a very busy freight haulage hub and private airport – there were a load of private executive jets flying in and out over the course of the day. We arrived at the museum car park at 7.15am – museum doesn’t open till 10am so we have plenty of time to make some breakfast and watch the airport coming’s and goings. Carol opted not to come into the museum proper so at 10am I set off – with the exception of coming back out for some lunch and a cuppa I returned at 5pm – there was a lot to take in. The museum is made up on 5 main galleries – the main gallery, the Red Barn which tells the history of Boeing, the WW1 and 2 gallery, the Space Gallery and the Open-Air galley. In the case of the Space Gallery and Open Air Gallery, these are both located across the road (the area is surrounded by Boeing manufacturing and right next to the museum is their Military installation – whilst we were there they were finishing some new military 767 refuelers and also some of the maritime Poseidon’s which New Zealand is scheduled to purchase). The Open-Air gallery is just that – it’s a large covered roof that houses a Concorde, B-17, B-29 and B-47 bombers, the first 747, the first 787, a Presidential One and several other significant machines. This is a great site to visit – there is loads to take in and you have the bonus of Boeing Field Airport next door and all it’s activity.

From the museum we made a short run up the road to a boondock site we had looked up – not to flashiest area but we parked up none the less. On Thursday morning we were a little cheeky and drove back to the museum car park to park the camper and from there we got a bus into downtown Seattle. We rode the bus to the area near the Space Needle and got off to have a look around that and the surrounding area. There is the Pop Culture museum which is a standout building – same architect as designed the Bilbao building. We didn’t go into the tower – everything was an expense so we had a nice look around the wider complex here and then made our way down towards the waterfront where there is a sculpture park and nice walkway. Wee trekked back downtown to Pike’s Market. The market is famous and you could tell by all the people about – a bit too manic for me. There are great fish vendors, the flowers and fruit stands looked good, there were a raft of crafts and much more all on offer. From the point of view that Seattle is a port town and the water is nearby, we liked that aspect, but I guess we have become fond of ‘smaller town USA’ and so we found the scale of Seattle just a little big for us and we were also somewhat over whelmed by the levels of homelessness in and around the city. It was a bit of an odd mix – on one hand you had well dressed business people getting around and homeless on a lot of the street corners looking for a handout.

From the market we headed up to the Info site to try and sort our bus ticket up to Vancouver and with that sorted, headed back to the museum and Romin. I showed Carol around the Open Air gallery (from the outside) and then we discovered that the museum is open free to the public on the first Thursday evening of the month 5-9pm so Carol came back with me and was able to have a bit of a look at some of what I had seen the day before. I used the time to study up some of the detail I had glanced over the day prior. After a long busy but enjoyable day we trekked across Seattle on the I5 up towards Everett to a rest area on the interstate and parked up for the night. Friday morning was another early start but it was only a short run through to Paine Field Everett – location of the Boeing Factory. I’d booked to take a tour and first tour of the day at 8.30am. Paine Field is a large international airport which is very well supported by the Boeing plant and all that comes out of the plant – the surrounding area was full of Boeing aircraft. The factory tour takes you into the Boeing factory – the building is famous for being the largest building in the world. I can’t recall all the stat’s but I think the space was something like 13 million cubic metres of space that covers a footprint of 98 arches. Under the factory there are a series of tunnels that run for a number of miles. The building was erected in the mid / late 1960’s for the construction of the new Boeing 747 – the Jumbo Jet. The building wasn’t yet finished when construction of the first 747 got underway. I think I heard the guy say that to prepare the ground area for the Boeing plant, more dirt was moved / graded that was moved for the construction of the Panama Canal – a big site.

The factory tour is very good – you get to see the 747 and 767 production and then you head down to the other end of the plant to look at the 777 and 787 production. Boeing are developing a new 777 model called the 777X – it has a larger wingspan and so as to be able to park it at current airport gates, Boeing have designed the wingtips to fold up when coming in to park – clever. A treat on the 787-production line was a brand new 787 for Air New Zealand sitting at the end of the line ready to be rolled out for final painting – to rub salt into the wound it was sitting ahead of a new Qantas jet. The guide said the plant produces around 5 747’s a month, 6 767’s (they are making a lot of the freighter and air force versions of these), 5 777’s and around 7 of the 787’s. Down the road they make the 737 and produce something like 50 of them a month. After the tour the site had a Future of Flight display to take in so I have a good look around and then did some shopping in the Boeing store. On the tour I got to talking to a nice chap Bill – he was from Michigan and was tripping around ‘in a big RV’. I got back to Romin to find Carol had moved next door – Bill had invited her in to see what a real RV looks like. To cap things off he had a large 1600 cc BMW motorbike that he carries on the back. We had a wonderful talk to Bill – he was in the boat building industry and did very well in the hay day and got well cashed up. He had homes in Florida and Michigan and of course his big RV. He was just tripping around with his dog Scobie with no real fixed plan. Big was a boat racer so I loved the conversation and the pictures.

But then it was time to pull ourselves back to reality and we headed off to find the RV park we had booked into for the night, and to store Romin whilst we head up to Vancouver and then Alaska. We had a very restful night (quietest night we had experienced in quite some time). Saturday morning was an early start – we had to be up to store the camper next door and get a taxi up to Everett to the bus terminal for the Bolt Bus to Vancouver. A very full bus rocked up at 7.40am and by 10am we were at the border – hoping it would be a straight forward process – will update you on that. So, summing up Washington, a state of great museums (Bill told me there is a great Hydroplane museum so may have to try and wangle a trip to there when we return), nice coastlines, very busy roads, Seattle was nice, Boeing have a huge building, and there are plenty of planes to be seen – all in all pretty good.

Oregon

Once across Brownlee Dam you work your way up to Oxbow Dam before turning and heading inland through Oregon proper. First stop / main stop is the town of Baker City – not sure why most places are called cities – was more ‘town size’ to what we know back home. Baker City is a bit of a junction town – the I86 we had cut across on intercepts with Interstate 84 at this point. The main street of Baker was interested – it had a selection of large safari themed animal sculptures on each of the street corners – lion, giraffe, zebra, hippo etc. We had a walk round and took some pics – not something you would see every day. Our chosen path across central Oregon was to be the I26 so we had to cut through the I7 to link up with it. The day was getting late so we found a pull off on the side of the road and parked up for the night. We were entertained by some great rolling thunder and lightning – and rain. The following morning we joined the I26 proper and started trekking across Oregon. The landscape varied from rolling countryside to forested canyons and hills. We took the I26 all the way to Redmond where we stopped to refuel – both petrol and wifi courtesy of the local Starbucks. We ‘sat’ on our cuppas and charged devices and caught up on some bits and pieces online.

It was not Friday afternoon heading into a holiday weekend (Labour Day on Monday), and the road post Redmond started to get very busy. Fortunately for us most of the traffic was heading south in opposite direction to us, but we still have a steady stream going our way and had to pull over from time to time to appease the faster road users. The I26 became the I22 as we headed up into the hills. We were going through state forest areas and soon came to Detroit Lake. At the head of the lake was a road down to the dam so we made our way down there to park up for the night – much quieter. Saturday morning had us on the road early and we moved on through to the east of Salem. We went through a settlement of Silverton – was proclaimed to be the Garden City of Oregon – it was full of cropping, horticulture, grapes, hops, hemp, fruit and vege production etc. Our destination this morning was Wilsonville – our ‘outer suburb’ of Portland. Wilsonville is home to the World of Speed Museum. As we arrived we were greeted to the added bonus of it being the end of month Portland Coffee and Cars run that congregate at the museum – added bonus of a car show for us to take in. Just sitting in the camper watching all the vehicles come in was a pleasure. We headed around to have a look at the cars on display and got to talking to a couple from Portland (well fairly new to Portland) – we had a good talk about the area, the cars, the food, travel etc. So much so that we lost track of time and a load of the cars started pulling away from the event before I was able to do justice to them – not to worry.

The rest of the day was spent in the museum – Carol joined me for this one. There was a great collection of cars and memorabilia on display and it took literally all day (to just on 5pm) to cover all that was on offer and be confident that I hadn’t missed too much. The displays change from time to time – current display was honouring Mario Andretti so lots of his cars and achievements were displayed (he’d actually been at the museum for an event the day prior – an evening with Mario). Pretty wrapped with the day / experience on offer, we headed a bit south towards McMinnville. Just outside of McMinnville is the Evergreen Aviation Museum – the home of the Spruce Goose and they provide / allow RV / Camper parking on site for 2 nights – a real handy way to ensure you can get an early start on the museum the next day. We made our way to the museum and parked up out back with probably around a dozen other campers – a popular spot.

Sunday was all about the museum and trying to take in what was on offer. Since a young boy I had read about the Spruce Goose in one of Dad’s old (late 1940’s) Popular Mechanics magazines and have had a fascination with this plane every since. For many years the Spruce Goose (which is actually made out of Birch and not Spruce at all) was the largest aircraft ever built. It’s only in recent years that the Spruce Goose has been surpassed in length and carrying capacity, but pretty sure it still has the widest wingspan of any aircraft every built, and is certainly the world’s largest and greatest every ‘wooden plane’. You walk into the museum and you aren’t disappointed – the museum was specially built to accommodate the Spruce (the Spruce was built by Howard Hughes and sat for many years on display next to the Queen Mary in Long Beach Los Angeles, but was relocated to Oregon in 1994 where it took the best part of 7 years to ‘tidy it up’ and get it set up for static display).

The Evergreen facility consists of 4 similar shaped buildings – the main one houses the Spruce Goose Display, another houses their Space display – and needs to be talk to accommodate the height of the Titan Rocket on display, the third is a movie theatre complex and the 4th separate building is a large water park that has an actual 747 jet on the roof with hydro-slides coming out of it – looked like it would be a pretty cool experience. Also around the outsides of the wider complex there are a number of other static aircraft displays to take in. Again both Carol and I spent all day studying all that the museum had to offer – I kept being drawn back to the sheer size of the Spruce Goose – was really an impressive site and was one of two planes on my ‘must see’ list that I have now seen (number two is on the agenda for November). The Evergreen museum is a wonderful facility that I would encourage every aviation buff to put on their list to see (Evergreen Air were a large helicopter and air transport provider – the son of the founder of Evergreen Air came up with idea of bringing the Spruce Goose to Oregon and they subsequently won the bit to do so – a few years later before the Spruce was to be put on display, the son who was an Airforce pilot was killed in a traffic accident – the museum is a dedication to his visionary ideals).

Monday was Labour Day and time for us to move again. We made the call we weren’t really interested in heading into the heart of Portland so instead we headed west on the I18 and then branched north on the 122 up towards Tillamook where we are greeted with our first views of the Pacific Ocean – it’s been a few weeks since we had seen the sea – well since San Francisco. Once you hit Tillamook you then follow the I101 which you can effectively drive from the top of Washington all the way through California hugging the Pacific Coast – hence its known as the Pacific Highway. We worked our way up the coast enjoying the views on offer and then you come to Astoria which sits on the south side of the mighty Columbia river. This was the area where the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803 / 4 came out before they turned around and headed back across the US the opposite way. I think I heard / read that the Columbia is the second largest piece of water / river system in the USA. For us Astoria is the junction between Oregon and Washington State on the other side of the river so it’s up on over the big high bridge and the sweeping causeway as we say goodbye to all that Oregon offered, and hello to Washington.

Idaho

Our time again in Idaho was supposed to be short and straight forward but as the day panned out it had other ideas for us – but more to come on that. The border between Montana and Idaho is marked by the summit of Lolo Pass. This was an area where Lewis and Clark trekked in 1803 when trying to cross the continental USA. We stopped at the National Forest Visitor Site at Lolo Pass and studied up some of the history, learnt up about the Lewis and Clark trek through the area, and loaded ourselves up with maps for the coming states. It’s a good long decline down the pass on the Idaho side before you link up with what I think was the Clearwater River which then runs into the Snake River – the I12 follows the winding contours of the river for 100 miles before you come to a little junction town of Kooskia. There we turned south and got onto the I13. The day was hot and fuel was down to quarter of a tank – plan was to fill up in the next town of Grangeville which was around 25 miles away – easy. Emm, no.

About 10 miles north of Grangeville there is a solid climb as you come out of an area called Harpster. We had just about got to the top when Romin decided enough was enough and started coughing and spluttering and then just stopped – on the main road (which fortunately for us was still a fairly quiet road). That said we were parked in the middle of the road and decide our best efforts, Romin just wouldn’t fire. A volunteer fireman by the name of Matt was kind enough to stop to assist us. First thing he did was call the sheriff to report our vehicle stuck in the road and then he marshalled traffic around us as I worked on getting a tow from our Good Sam provider. I was still busy on the phone trying to convince the operator of our position when the local sheriff turned up. To my surprise he was very good with the situation and effectively told the Good Sam operator to get a tow truck out to us or he would – and he did. Eventually and some $200 later we were towed the lowly 5 miles into Grangeville to an auto repair shop where we were told they could replace the fuel pump for us but it would be the following day. They allowed us to park up on site for the night (irony is that once Romin had been towed into Grangeville to the shop, she fired up – funny how things work out like that sometimes).

We had a wander into Grangeville – quiet town of several thousand, picked up some groceries and headed back to the camper for a cold one – plan had been to cover Idaho in one day – 170 miles into it was were going to be staying put for the time being. The following morning whilst we waited for the repairs to be carried out we wandered back up town and had a look around some of the nice homes and gardens in the area – had a good chat to a builder doing some recladding on a home – he was able to tell us a bit about the area and building techniques used etc. Back to the auto shop and with a new fuel pump installed and some more $’s parted we pushed on. We weren’t taking the most direct route across to Oregon – we have found a nice central by-way we wanted to explore so that meant taking us further south in Idaho before we could cut back up to head across the border.

Just after leaving Grangeville you have a bit of a climb and then a long 8 mile drop down to Hell’s Canyon where you cross the Salmon River. We would then follow the Salmon through the base of the canyon to a little place called Riggins which appears to have its livelihood based on rafting excursions on the river – there were rafts everywhere. We pushed further south to a junction town of New Meadows where we branched off to head down to a town called Cambridge – on the way we went through a couple of state forests – nice countryside. At Cambridge we made our final move out of Idaho – we headed back up the I24 to Brownlee Dam. At that point you cross the dam and you are then in Oregon – our eventful Idaho experience was behind us. I may have been a bit bullish in thinking we would be able to skirt Idaho in one day and may good inroads into Oregon – didn’t look that far on the map.

Montana

Last update had us exiting Yellowstone National Park at the north entrance / exit at Mammoth Springs. This spot takes you over the border into Montana. Mammoth Springs is the National Park Head Quarters so a lot of older NP buildings around, and large elk roaming around munching the front lawns of some of the places. From Mammoth it’s a short 6-mile drive ‘out of the park’ to Gardiner – this is the spot where entrants to the park first came back in the day. There’s a unique arch that you would have ridden in under – called the Roosevelt Arch it was constructed in 1903. As we explored the arch, there were Pronghorn Antelope wandering around freely on the outskirts of Gardiner. From Gardiner it’s a 50-mile trip into Livingstone to intercept Interstate 90. We would struggle along the interstate for a good 200 miles this afternoon as we trekked across Montana. I say struggle as we were plugging away at a fairly consistent 55 miles an hour whereas the speed limit in Montana is 80 miles an hour – cars, trucks, campers were all whizzing by us as we pushed on.

As we pushed onto towards Butte we stuck our first rain this trip. Made a change having to have the windows up and the wipers on and wasn’t the best for driving but we carried on. We had a little back and forth going on with one big rig – it passed us and then we passed it (believe or not) as we climbed up a hill, only for it to whiz by on the other side. We finally got the better of it on the last big climb into Butte and didn’t see it again for the best part of 40 mins. As you head west out of Butte (which you don’t enter staying on the Interstate) you are greeting by the odd sight of a huge chimney on the skyline. We discovered later the chimney had some history – the chimney at the base of the hills near Anaconda was constructed in 1918 and is the tallest free-standing masonry structure in the world at 555 feet high. The stack has an inner diameter of 60 feet at it’s top – all made from bricks – pretty impressive.

We pushed on some more to an area called Deer Lodge where we pulled into an RV park for the night. Deer Lodge got it’s name from being situated on a key gold rush trial and developed into an important ranching and retail area in the 1860’s. Settled into the RV park – taking advantage of hot showers and chance to have a good shave, we then headed over to the diner for some dinner (this would be only our second meal out whilst travelling – the budget is tight). We sat down and enjoyed a nice meal and waddled back to the RV. I may have had some rationale for stopping in Deer Lodge – turns out there is a good private car collection open to view – who would have known. Friday morning consisted of having a good look through the collection which is based in the old Deer Lodge State Prison complex which dates back to the early 1870’s. The prison ceased to operate as such in the late 1970’s and now is open for viewing, and also for housing the car museum. Sherm Anderson had / has a love for cars especially mid 50’s Chevy Belair’s and there is a bit of everything in the collection up to the mid 1970’s. Deer Lodge offers a package of museums to view – the Prison, car collection, a rail display, and then a history and toy museum – all very interesting and a real gem to find.

Leaving Deer Lodge we had approx. 100 miles of interstate to get to Missoula and then a further 20 miles or so west to link up with our friend Dale who lives in the area. The interstate experience was made all the more pleasurable by the fleet of Corvettes that appeared to be heading for a run in the east somewhere – I reckon we would have spotted 150 if not more Corvettes of all makes, models and colours. Heading west we linked up with Dale who lives in a nice wooden environment near one of the state parks. Dale lives a simply live living in a caravan out in a friend’s paddock – rustic and simple with nature on your doorstep.  Dale took us for a tiki tour of the surrounding area before we settled down to some barbeque and more catch up. Saturday was spent tinkering with the camper – be fair to say it wasn’t running 100% so Dale had a poke around it for us and picked up on a couple of things we would need to attend to. From there he took us back into Missoula (to the auto parts shop) and then we headed north. First stop was to sample some Huckleberry pie – a local favourite (the huckleberry is plentiful in the area He took us up to a nice area if you can get them before the bears do – the berry is a cross between a blackcurrant and a blueberry). We were now in local Indian Reservation land and stopped at a place called Arlee to view the St Ignasus Mission Chapel which has a wonderfully decorated / painted interior / ceiling – much like the Sistine Chapel but smaller.

From there Dale took us to the Bison Reserve, confident that Carol would see some of the wildlife she was yearning to spot. It wasn’t too long into the slow trek around the park (track is something like 19 miles up and around the hills) that Carol managed to spot a black bear happily feeding on local berries. You needed the binoculars to see the bear so Dale set us up with the spot and we studied the bear before winding up to the top of the hill to see if we could look down on the bear. Not sure if it was the same bear or another, but I spotted on and we studied that again for a time. We were told one of the trails was closed as a bear was in the area feeding on carron and we were told to stay clear. Winding around we spotted the odd bison, some different types of deer, a solo antelope and then as we neared the exit of the park, we spotted several large elk with fine antlers displayed. It was getting on for dusk so a good time – the elk were happy just feeding and we were maybe only 6 feet away from one of the big ones. Coming out of the park it was dark so we heading to a truck stop dinner and had some late dinner before heading back to Dale’s.

Sunday was a quiet day tinkering on the camper and then heading into Missoula to do some shopping. The local Walmart was huge – I managed to get separated from Carol and Dale for a time and had contemplated putting out an SOS call. Laden with groceries and supplies we headed back to Dale’s and enjoyed a nice barbe – eating earlier than we had the past couple of nights. Monday was all about getting the camper into a local mechanic to get the water-pump replaced. Had hoped to have the camper back that night but that was optimistic of us – it wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow. Dale showed us around some downtown areas – there’s an old carousel which is very much a focal point and very popular with young and old. Each of the horses on the carousel has a name and a story – was nicely done. We then went and checked out the Mountain Flying Museum which has a strong connection to the smoke jumpers centre which is based in Missoula. The museum had aircraft and memorabilia from the area with the centre piece being and old DC-3 that was used for many years carrying the smoke jumpers to fires. The DC-3 had been built at the end of WW2 but didn’t see any active service but was overhauled to get it airworthy so it could take part in Normandy celebrations this year. Miss Montana as she was named flew with 22 other US DC-3 / C-47’s to take part in the commemorations and to drop parachuter’s over Normandy.

After the museum we took a tour of the Smoke Jumpers base and learnt all about their training, what they carry into a fire, how they battle the blaze etc. This summer locally has been a vey quiet fire season for the jumpers but many of them have been sent north to help fight fires in Alaska. You get a good appreciation of what some people will do – the jumpers don’t exactly get paid that well – well not as well as we had expected, but Dale told us that then they are ‘out on a fire’ is when they start to make a few dollars. So a really interesting day looking around a couple of very good local facilities. We stopped at a quiet dinner on the way back out of Missoula and had an early dinner, before Dale took us up into the hills behind his place to look for some wildlife (which didn’t want to be found). Luckily Carol did spot a beaver in the river at the back of Dale’s place so that was a bonus.

Tuesday we headed back into Missoula and had a good look around the Elk Refuse Centre – some nice work being done there – and many ‘trophies’ were displayed on the walls – I felt that contradicted things a bit for me but I guess there are reasons for it. After a coffee stop (to get wifi at Starbucks as Dale’s place had no service) we collected the camper and headed back to Dale’s. Vibration we had was still there so Dale climbed under the camper and found the drive shift bottom joint was loose – another repair would be required – tomorrow. That evening though we spent with Dale’s neighbours Jimmy and Jenny and Jimmy shared photos and stories of his mountain lion hunting experiences and then played some guitar for us. Jimmy was one of those guys (he’s 68) whose crammed a fair bit of living into his life. Plus he liked cars so plenty to talk about. Keen to get on the road again, we arranged through Dale to get the camper looked at by one of his friends so the next morning we were up and away early to get over to Dave’s with the parts needed and within the hour Dave had us up and running again. We said our goodbyes (for now) to Dale and headed back up to Missoula and then worked our way down to Lolo and then across to the south west on the I12 – we were heading for Idaho.