The Yukon Territory: Canada’s Far North… The Alaska Highway Series— Part 4

A series of totem poles represented the different Tlingit First Nation clans at the Tlingit Heritage Center on Teslin Lake. This is beaver. I thought he would be a good kick-off to my posts on the Yukon Territory.

Peggy and I, along with our friends Bob Bray and Linda Hart continue to make our way north on the Alaska Highway in my Wednesday photo essay. Today we enter the Yukon Territory, a name that is almost synonymous with the Far North, at least in my mind. Sargent Preston and his dog King were big in my childhood! We didn’t enter with a bang, fortunately. We could have; a tire on our van had developed a large bubble. It was ready to pop! Fortunately, we were able to limp into the small town of Teslin and get it fixed at the local junk yard. The junk yard owner even turned out to be a shovel artist!

This bridge is a beauty backed up by some very impressive scenery. The beauty and the scenery aren’t why I was glad to see it, however. I was hoping the tire on our van that was threatening to blow at any minute would wait.

The tire with its tennis ball sized bubble. The steel belted bottoms of our tires handled the numerous pot holes of the Alaska Highway well. Not so much the side walls. We stopped at a small restaurant in Teslin and asked where we might go to replace the tire.  “Whitehorse” was the reply— 110 miles (177 Kilometers) up the road. “Not likely,” was my reply. “Well, you might try the local junk yard.” It came out more a question than an answer.

We were greeted by this. “Mmm, maybe not good,” Peggy mumbled. A small semi-derelict trailer was apparently the office. I knocked on the door. No one home. I went wandering out among the junked vehicles…

And found John, which is the name I sort of remember. He turned out to be a nice guy. “Well obviously the tire is dead,” he told us, “and I don’t have a replacement. But, I can put on your spare, and maybe you can make it to Whitehorse.”

In talking with John, we discovered he was something of an artist, painting both canvasses and shovels. He quickly agreed to break out his paintings for a photo.

One of his oil paintings of an old cabin.

On our way back south, Peggy and I spent more time at Teslin Lake, first camping there and then visiting the Tlingit First Nation Heritage Center. I decided that our two visits called for a post! Next Wednesday we will continue our journey up the Alaska Highway through the Yukon Territory.

We camped next to Teslin Lake and were treated to this view.

The clouds insisted on showing off. Distant shores suggested the size of the lake. And this was just looking across. The lake was much longer than it was wide.

I was surprised to find the Tlingit First Nation people with their Heritage Center on Teslin Lake since I normally think of the Tlingits and their fabulous totem poles as inhabitants of the coast from the American-Canadian border north. We were greeted with a line of totem poles at the Center that represented the different Tlingit clans. This is Raven.

Meet Frog.

I couldn’t help but think, “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,” when we checked out Wolf.

Eagle with its hooked beak.

The Center was quite attractive and included both cloth and wood art representing the Tlingit people. This is Beaver with an extra tail and pair of rear legs.

And here we have Wolf with his tongue hanging out.

A number of carved masks were on display. I think that this is Eagle.

I’ll conclude with this carving and what appears to be a female representation. The Tlingit are a matrilineal society with property held and passed down by the women of the tribe.

FRIDAY’S MisAdventures POST: When mischief took place in the town of my youth, there was a mantra: The Mekemson kids did it.

MONDAY’S Travel Blog POST: We continue our journey down the Colorado River, stopping off at the Phantom Ranch. Tom wears Bone and I jump off a cliff.

WEDNESDAY’S Photo Essay POST: We continue on our journey through the Yukon Territory and arrive at the Alaska border.

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The Striking Mucho Lake, Big Bison, and a Sign Forest… The Alaska Highway Series

Muncho Lake 6

Striking hardly describes Muncho Lake in British Columbia with its striking topaz waters and reflections of the surrounding mountains. The lake reaches a depth of  732 feet (223 m).

 

My Wednesday photographic essay will continue to take us up the fabled Alaska Highway. Last Wednesday we travelled from Dawson Creek to Toad River. I featured views along the way, the building of the highway during World War II, Stone Mountain Sheep, and some very busy beavers. Today we will travel from Toad River to Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory, a distance of 201 miles (324 K). Along the way we will visit the striking Mucho Lake, check out the large woodland bison that hang out beside the road, and view a few of the 70,000 town and city signs that have made their way to Watson Lake’s huge sign forest.

Toad River

After leaving Toad River Lodge and our visit with the busy beavers, we were treated to a view of the Toad River that parallels the road.

View along Alaska Highway in BC

And this view.

Muncho Lake north

We would stop to admire Muncho Lake both on our journey north to Alaska and on our trip back south. We were heading north when we caught this photo. (Note: all photographs in this series are taken by Peggy and me.)

Muncho Lake in British Columbia

We captured this view on our return trip down the Alaska Highway.

Muncho Lake on the Alaska Highway

As well as this photo.

Road construction, Alaska Highway, BC

Here’s a common sight along the highway: road construction. Tough winters and permafrost pretty much guarantee employment for road workers.

Road Construction along Alaska Highway

And here we go again, making our way through yet another construction project. Chipped windshields and damaged tires are common. We experienced both. We saw a bear somewhere in here. It may be the black spot on the left (or not).

Dall sheep ram on Alaska Highway

We also found this handsome fellow, another Stone Mountain sheep. What really got us excited, however…

Bison warning sign on Alaska Highway

Was this sign. We had entered the territory of the wood bison, also know as wood or mountain buffalo— as opposed to their cousins, the plains buffalo.

Woodland Bison and wallow in BC

And they begin to appear shortly afterwards. This one has made himself a convenient wallow, that he will wallow around in to get rid of bugs.

Woodland bison bull

These guys are big, with massive shoulders. They can weigh up to 2000 pounds (900 kilos), which make them the biggest land mammals in North America.

Herd of wood bison along Alaska Highway

We saw them both alone and in herds. They seem to like the edge of the highway for both its grazing opportunity and ease of travel.

Woodland bison calves

A pair of youngsters…

Welcome to the Yukon sign

Here’s a sign to thrill the heart of the most jaded of travelers. Canada’s Yukon Territory is almost synonymous with remote and wild. I grew up listening to daring tales of Sargent Preston of the Yukon and his faithful dog King. “On King! On you huskies, on!”

Watson Lake sign forest 5

Not far up the road from the Yukon border we came to Watson Lake with its Sign Forest of 77,000 signs from all over the world. If you wander around long enough, you might very well find a sign that was liberated from your hometown and placed here by someone traveling up the Alaska Highway.

Watson Lake sign forest

The tradition was started during the building of the Alaska Highway in 1942 when a soldier, Carl K. Lindley was asked by his commanding officer to erect directional signposts. While at the job, he added a sign for his own town of Danville, Illinois. The rest is history!

Watson Lake sign forest 4

The signs go on and on…

Peggy Mekemson at Watson Lake Sign Forest

I’ll close today’s post with a photo of Peggy to provide perspective on the height of the Sign Forest.

FRIDAY’S POST: A chapter from The Bush Devil Ate Sam, my book about my Peace Corps experience in the jungles of West Africa.

MONDAY’S POST: We continue our journey down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

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From Dawson Creek to Toad River… The Alaska Highway Series: Part II

British Columbia view along Alaska Highway

There is a much natural beauty along the Alaska Highway and a lot of wilderness— millions of square miles, as far as the eye can see.

The Alaska Highway, or the Alcan highway as it was known at the time, was a hurry up project, rarely if ever matched as an engineering feat. World War II was raging. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and were threatening to invade Alaska, which they did in 1942, landing on the outer most islands of the Aleutian Chain. The only way to counter the threat was to travel by ship through the North Pacific or fly in by air. The US and Canada came to a quick agreement: a 1700-mile road (2700 K) would be built between Dawson Creek BC and Delta Junction, Alaska. It was a colossal project.

Sub-zero freezing temperatures ruled during the winter and suffocating heat dominated in the summer. Along with the heat came hordes of mosquitos, black flies, no-see-ems and other biting, blood-sucking insects. Temperatures were so cold in the winter that fires would be lit under equipment to warm it up enough to operate. Muskeg sucked the same equipment down into the mud in the summer, sometimes swallowing it whole.

Team sinking in mud when building Alaska Highway

Whoa! Working conditions along the Alaska Highway were not optimal. (grin) (Museums along the Alaska Highway feature numerous photos reflecting the difficulties encountered in building the road.)

Bulldozer buried in mud while building the Alaska Highway

This is a ‘what do we do now,’ pose. (Museum photo.)

Building log bridge on the Alaska Highway

Bridges were made from logs. (Museum photo.)

Recruitment notice for workers on building the Alaska Highway

While not as clear as I would like, this recruitment notice is worth reading. They should have won a prize for ‘truth in advertising.’ (Museum photo.)

WW II army truck on Alaska Highway

Lots of old equipment is also displayed along the highway.

Tow truck used on the Alaska Highway

Steam shovel used to build the Alaska Highway

Curt Mekemson standing on bulldozer used to build Alaska Highway

Here I am standing on one of the old bulldozers.

With the threat of an imminent invasion, there was no time to consider the usual niceties of road building. Some 11,000 soldiers and engineers, 16,000 civilians, and 7000 pieces of equipment were thrown at the epic undertaking. Airplanes flew out daily to help plan routes, ‘on the fly’ so to speak, while the men struggled under almost impossible conditions. Starting on March 2nd, 1942, the project was completed on September 24th, some eight months later.

It was rough, oh yes it was rough— steep, muddy roads, log bridges, trees laid down across muskeg 15-feet deep— but it was usable. At $140 million, it was the most expensive construction project of World War II.

Original Alcan Highway

A view of the old road on its completion. (Museum photo.)

Alaska Highway in British Columbia

And how much of it looks today.

The highway can still be a bit of a challenge, but not so much that 30-40 foot RVs aren’t seen in substantial numbers travelling north on it. For the most part, the road is paved except for construction work, which can seem to go on forever. And it is shorter, by some 300 miles!

Today, I will take you over the first 400 miles from Dawson Creek to the uniquely named Toad River. The thing about the scenery along the Alaska Highway is that it is all impressive, and the farther north you go the more impressive it becomes!

Green forests along Alaska Highway

Mountains and forests rule along the highway…

Blue mountains along the Alaska Highway in British Columbia

Mountains stretching off into the distance.

Rock Face along Alaska Highway

An impressive cliff face.

View along Alaska Highway in British Columbia

Between ranges the road follows rivers, all of which had to be crossed when building the highway.

River along Alaska Highway

Sikanni Chief River

This is the Sikanni Chief River.

Sign for Sikanni Chief River

As was noted by this totem pole sign.

Stone Mountain on Alaska Highway

We were excited to see Stone Mountain, not only for its beauty but because there was a good chance we would see Stone Mountain Sheep.

Stone Mountain sheep on Alaska Highway

We were not disappointed. The sheep had come down the mountain to eat the salt that had been washed off the road from the previous winter.

Being checked out by Stone Mountain sheep on Alaska Highway

They weren’t worried when we stopped, but they did check us out. Note the kids peeking out.

Stone sheep kid

To say that they were cute…

Stone sheep kid at Stone Mountain along the Alaska Highway

Is a considerable understatement.

Toad River Lodge on Alaska Highway

Not far up the road, we came to the Toad River Lodge, which is named after the Toad River. Roadhouses were common in the early days of the Alaska Highway and even up to the time when I first drove the road in 1986. It was hard to travel over more than a hundred miles a day on rough, unpaved roads. Many lodges are closed now, no longer needed.

Baseball caps at Toad River Lodge on Alaska Highway

The lodge was quite proud of its cap collection, some 7000 from all over the world. The name, so we were told, had derived from towed, not the warty frog. Before the Canadians and Americans had completed a bridge across the river in 1942, they had to be towed across it. So they named it the Towed River. Toad is much more creative.

Toat River Lodge Toad

This fellow was staring at us when we ate at the lodge.

Beaver dam near the Toad River along the Alaska Highway

We spent the night at lodge’s RV campground. This was the view from our campsite. It was obvious that beavers had been at work on building their own lodge.

Beaver dam and beaver along Alaska Highway

And we soon saw one of the lodge’s residents. Lower left. He/she was busy building a beaver dam to assure that their lodge continued to be prime, waterfront property.

Beaver Lodges and dam next to Toad River Lodge on Alaska Highway

A view of the dam, which was literally outside our door. The builders had certainly been ‘as busy as beavers.’

Beaver working on beaver dam

Beavers often work at night, so we were excited about having these chisel-toothed mammals continue their activity as we watched from a bench next to their lake.

Beaver pushing limb to Beaver Dam near Toad River Lodge

While they worked, for the most part, bringing limbs in from across the lake…

Beaver chewing on wood chip along Toad River

This didn’t stop them from stopping for an occasional snack from their dam building material! That’s it for the day… Next Wednesday, we will continue our journey up the Alaska Highway.

FRIDAY’S POST: MisAdventures finds me playing in the woods when I was growing up, a quick ten-minute walk from my home. While it may not have been wilderness, it was wilderness to me.

MONDAY’S POST: Peggy and I continue our journey down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

WEDNESDAY’S POST: We continue on our journey up the fabled Alaska Highway through Canada, reaching the Yukon Territory. A strikingly beautiful lake, big bison, and a sign forest of 70,000 signs are featured.

 

 

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Dogs and Dragons in British Columbia… The Alaska Highway Series

Fraser River at Hope, BC

The small town of Hope in southern British Columbia features this view of the Fraser River.

Adventure travel and the 1400-mile Alaska Highway go together like biscuits and gravy. I’ve driven it five times, once by myself in 1986 when I left Alaska to return to California and two round trips with Peggy since. The last time we traveled with our friends Bob and Linda Bray. Peggy and I were on our way up to visit our son and his family on Kodiak Island where Tony was working as a helicopter pilot flying rescue missions for the Coast Guard. Bob and Linda were going to join a nephew fishing for halibut.

Bob Bray

Bob Bray and I have been friends since he looked like this…

While driving the highway isn’t the challenge  that it once was, it still gives  travelers a taste of the Far North. Over the next few weeks I’ll take you over the highway from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Anchorage Alaska as part of my Wednesday photo essays. Today, however, we have to get to Dawson Creek. There are various ways to reach the starting point but out last trip took us from Hope, British Columbia up through Prince George, which is the route we will follow today.

Alexandra Suspension Bridge across Fraser River

We followed Canada’s Highway 1/97 out of Hope following the Fraser River. One of our first stops was to admire the old Alexandra Suspension Bridge across the river. It’s a beauty that is no longer used.

Alexandra Suspension Bridge, BC

Another perspective on the Alexandra Bridge.

Grates on Alexzandra Bridge, BC

Looking down through the grates at the Fraser River!

World's largest cross country skis, 100 mile house, BC

The Visitor Information Center at the 100-mile house featured the world’s largest cross-country skis! Communities throughout Canada use such fun gimmicks to capture the attention of tourists.

William's Lake Visitor's Center, BC

I am a fan of tourist information centers in British Columbia. In addition to being chock-full of information and friendly people, they are often beautifully done, like this example in William’s Lake.

William's Lake Visitors Center

This car in the William’s Lake Visitor Center was a spoof on how much stuff tourists load on top of their cars.

Hanging basket petunias closeup, BC

Hanging baskets of petunias were featured outside. While such baskets are common now, I first became familiar with them on a trip to British Columbia in the late 60s.

Peggy kayaking on Dragon Lake, Quesnel, BC

We stopped at an attractive campground on Dragon Lake in Quesnel where Peggy went kayaking to celebrate her birthday.

Peggy Mekemson Kayaking in Quesnel

A closer look.

Ducklings on Dragon Lake near Quesnel, BC

Peggy’s Birthday Parade

Weaving dog agility trials in Quesnel, BC

The next morning, we found the campground had gone to the dogs. We were in the middle of dog agility competition. This little fellow was weaving between posts.

Dog agility trials, jumping in Quesnel, BC

Size didn’t matter in the trials. These bars were lowered for the little fellow shown above.

Dog agility trials in Quesnel, BC tunnel

Dogs are required to maneuver through a number of different obstacles including tunnels. The clock is ticking.

Dog agility trials, across bridge in Quesnel, BC

Watching the owners was as fun as watching the dogs. The woman in pink is urging her dog along. The man running along behind is the judge.

Fraser River Valley

The country changes as you move into the interior of British Columbia, becoming drier.

Train tracks along Fraser River

Rivers have always served as access to the interior, first for river travel and then for building railroads and roads along.

Wood carving of Praying Mantis at Chetwyn, BC

We were in for a real treat when we came to the town of Chetwynd, which is close to Dawson Creek. Wood carvers had been at work in an international competition. This praying mantis had taken first prize but it had a lot of competition!

Pumpkin scarecrow wood carving at Chetwynd

Such as this scary pumpkin head scare crow…

Drangon carving at Chetwyn, BC

And this dragon with an attitude. Or…

Dragon slayer Chetwynd woodcarving

…a bas-relief of St. George slaying a dragon.

Carving at Chetwynd, BC

Or this old gold miner apparently telling you to stay out of his claim.

Scary carving at Chetwynd

I am not sure what this fellow is up to but I wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night— or in the middle of the day.

Mile zero of the Alaska Highway

And then we made it to Dawson Creek and mile 0 of the Alaska Highway. Bob, Linda and Sister.

Sign at Beginning of Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek

Peggy and I. Next Wednesday, we begin our trip up the Alaska Highway.

 

FRIDAY’S POST: Another in the MisAdventures series. I abandon the Graveyard for the Pond.

MONDAY’S POST: Rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

WEDNESDAY’S POST: We begin our journey up the Alaska Highway.

 

 

 

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Roadhouses: A Dying Breed… North to Alaska

One fun thing about roadhouses is that they have different personalities. This mountain goat with sunglasses greeted us a King Mountain Lodge on the Glenallen Highway in Alaska.

A fun thing about roadhouses is that they have different personalities. This mountain goat with sunglasses greeted us a King Mountain Lodge on the Glenallen Highway in Alaska.

Peggy and I are off in Alaska as you read this blog. Since I won’t have time for blogging or reading blogs, I decided to repost a few blogs from the trip we made to Alaska three years ago. If you have been following me for a while, you will have read these blogs previously. I will try to respond to comments. –Curt

There was a time when roadhouses meant survival on the lonely highway to Alaska. You would find one every several miles. The amenities were simple but many: basic food, a place to sleep, enough auto repair to get you down the road, a place to hang out in a storm, advice on the next section of highway, and a friendly face. Beyond the basics, however, each roadhouse was slightly different. It reflected the personality of the owner. And people who chose to live and survive in the far north, tended to have strong personalities. There was no McDonalds’ mentality.

This dining set at the King Mountain Lodge was definitely reminiscent of those found in 50's diners, but what was with the Harley parked in the dining room?

This dining set at the King Mountain Lodge was definitely reminiscent of those found in 50’s diners, but what was with the Harley parked in the dining room?

The Milepost has served as the Bible for those traveling the Alaska Highway since 1949. I used it religiously on my five trips over the highway. You could always depend on it to list the next roadhouse and the services provided. Sadly, even though the legendary travel guide is revised annually, it can no longer keep up with the number of roadhouses being closed. Roadhouses, like family diners, have become a victim of the times. Modern, paved highways and fast travelling vehicles mean that travellers can easily get from one major community to the next, from one fast food joint to the next, and from one motel chain to the next. No longer do dirt roads in poor repair with car-eating potholes and hubcap deep mud force travellers to make frequent stops at roadhouses. We made an effort to patronize roadhouses on this trip, when we could find them. One in particular stood out as a representative of the dying breed, the King Mountain Lodge on the Glenallen Highway between Tok and Anchorage.

A hand printed sign at the King Mountain Lodge announced that food was available and we were hungry. In this photo, Darlene, the cook and owner's wife heads back inside after waving goodbye to us.

A hand printed sign at the King Mountain Lodge announced that food was available and we were hungry. In this photo, Darlene, the cook and owner’s wife, heads back inside after waving goodbye to us.

The breakfast menu at the lodge.

The breakfast menu at the lodge. The owner, his wife, and a friend immediately entered into a lively conversation with us on what we wanted for lunch. The owner, Mike, and his wife then disappeared into the kitchen while the friend Claire gave us a tour.

Darlene and Claire share a laugh with us over Claire's T-Shirt.

Darlene and Claire share a laugh with us over Claire’s T-Shirt.

Our tour included the bar. Check out the bar stools. Each is hand made and different. A number of signs were found over the bar and throughout the room.

Our tour included the bar. Check out the bar stools. Each is hand-made and different. A number of signs were found over the bar and throughout the room.

This sign was typical.

This sign was typical.

There was even a location for people who wanted to snivel.

There was even a location for people who wanted to snivel.

This photo caught my attention. In 1985, Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod, Alaska's famous sled dog race. Shortly afterwards she did a photo shoot for Vogue Magazine. I picked her up at the Anchorage airport on her return to Alaska and escorted her around town for a couple of days. She had volunteered to do publicity for the non-profit where I served as Executive Director.

This photo on the wall caught my attention. In 1985, Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod, Alaska’s famous sled dog race. Shortly afterwards she did a photo shoot for Vogue Magazine, which is where this photo was taken. I picked her up at the Anchorage airport on her return to Alaska and escorted her around town to various media outlets for a couple of days. I had called Libby shortly after she won the race and talked her into doing publicity for the non-profit where I served as Executive Director.

The bar also had a glass case that included this M&M collector's piece. Turns out that the Brays, who were traveling with us, have a thing for M&M s. Linda talked the owner into selling her the M&M baseball player for five dollars.

The bar also had a glass case that included this M&M collector’s piece. Turns out that the Bob and Linda Bray, who were traveling with us, have a serious collection of M&M dispensers. Linda talked the owner into selling her the M&M baseball player for five dollars.

Meanwhile, Peggy had decided she had to try the Harley out for size.

Meanwhile, Peggy had decided she had to try the Harley out for size.

Mike the owner of King Mountain Lodge, and the motorcycle, immediately showed up and insisted that if Peggy was going to sit on the Harley, she had to go for a ride. Out they went for a quick spin around the parking lot and the highway.

Mike the owner of King Mountain Lodge, and the motorcycle, immediately showed up and insisted that if Peggy was going to sit on the Harley, she had to go for a ride. Out they went for a quick spin around the parking lot and the highway.

Needless to say, we all had a great time at the roadhouse. BTW, the food was quite good. Doreen and Claire came out to rescue Peggy from the motorcycle and send us on our way.

 

Escape from Alaska… Part II: The Friday Essay

Woodland buffalo have become fairly common when driving through portions of the Yukon Territory. As noted in my last Escape from Alaska blog, Peggy and I took these photos two years ago when we drove the Alaska Highway in the summer.

Woodland buffalo like this guy have become fairly common when driving through portions of the Yukon Territory. As noted in my last Alaska blog, Peggy and I took these photos two years ago when we drove the Alaska Highway in the summer.

The next day after my encounter with the Trooper (see here), I zipped down the Alaska Highway through the Yukon Territory to White Horse. With the exception of gigantic trucks on their way to the North Slope, I saw few other vehicles. Snow still covered the surrounding wilderness and the road was frozen solid. The annual migration of tourists traveling north was months away.

That night I chose to stay in a campground, preferring not to repeat my previous night’s experience. I also avoided wasting away in Margaritaville— instead I broke out the brownies.

As a going away present, some friends had given me a gallon Zip Lock bag of Alaska’s finest pot. At first sight, it might seem that they were involved in a criminal activity, but marijuana was legal in Alaska. You could grow your own and somebody had obviously grown a lot. Giving me the grass had been the Alaskan equivalent of sending me off with a bottle of 25-year-old single malt Scotch whiskey, or several bottles.

In honor of lung health, I promised not to smoke it. I practiced my baking techniques on my last night at my friend’s house. The cat, the two dogs and I tested the results. It was a mellow evening and the whole menagerie was allowed to sleep on the bed. We purred, wagged our tails, and had wild dreams.

Here’s some advice to the uninitiated that Alice B. Toklas didn’t provide: go easy on brownies. They have a way of sneaking up on you. The problem is physiological. Long before your body has done its job and processed the herb, you are thinking, ‘this stuff has absolutely zero impact, I should have stuck with wine.’ So you eat another brownie, and then another. By the time you realize the error of your ways, it’s too late and you are wacko.

Luckily, I had already been there, done that. I ate a small piece and waited patiently. Then I broke out an ounce of Swiss cheese. I was all moderation. Marijuana enhances flavor and encourages gluttony. I once watched a woman down a quart of ice cream in one sitting and demand more.

A friend had slipped me a fat letter to read on the way. I opened it as an option to eating the other 15 ounces of cheese. She had offered to pinch hit if my other Alaska relationship didn’t work out.

“We can run off to Mexico and open an orphanage for homeless children, Curt,” she had suggested. She was serious about the orphanage. It was a dream of hers. It made the suggestion of my staying home, writing, and raising one or two kids look like a ride on a merry-go-round. I had declined her generous proposal. The gist of the letter was that the offer was still open.

Sights along the the Alaska Highway include towering mountains...

Sights along the Alaska Highway include towering mountains…

Wild rivers...

Wild rivers…

Reflecting lakes...

Reflecting lakes…

And Dall Sheep...

And Dall Sheep…

Including this ram...

Including this ram…

And this curious kid.

And this curious kid.

Five days later I drove into Sacramento. The grass was green and flowers were blooming even though a major flood had threatened the region in February. I planned on spending a few days visiting my father and some friends before taking off for the woods. As part of my itinerary I stopped by to see Jane Hagedorn at the Sacramento Lung Association. Jane is a fierce friend. Every time I had tried to escape, she had reeled me back in, frustrating my desire to become a happy wanderer by making me offers I couldn’t refuse.

I found my green grass in Sacramento.

I found my green grass in Sacramento.

And California Poppies, plus two job offers.

And California Poppies— plus two job offers.

“You will come back to Sacramento and work for Lung when you are done playing,” she informed me and then dangled the Trek Program in front of me for bait. As I usually do, I tentatively agreed. It’s not wise to cross Jane. As I was leaving the Lung Building, I ran into Jerry Meral, the Executive Director of the Planning and Conservation League of California. Along with the Sierra Club, PCL is the main lobbying group for environmental groups in California.

“Curt,” Jerry said with his always-high level of enthusiasm, “I have a job for you.”

“I’m not looking for a job, Jerry,” had been my reply. “I am going backpacking for six months.”

Jerry, who is even worse than Jane at taking no for an answer, continued on, “But this job is perfect for you. I want you to work on raising California’s tobacco tax by five cents so we can use the money for buying parks.” I knew that Jerry and his crew at PCL had successfully done more at raising money for parks than anyone else in California and probably the world. If Jerry was behind the concept, it was legitimate.

“Interesting Jerry, but I am going backpacking.” I figured that took care of it.

“OK and have fun,” said Jerry, “but see me as soon as you get back.”

I half nodded my head in agreement. So here I was, desperate to free myself from any major commitments, and already agreeing to think about taking on two significant tasks— one that was monumental. But they could wait. The next day, I was on my way to the Grand Canyon. And who knew what I would be doing in six months.

NEXT BLOG: The wilderness cure begins. It’s off to backpack the Grand Canyon via Death Valley and Las Vegas.

 

Escape from Alaska… Part I

I was drawn to Alaska by its incredible wilderness. Lisa Murkowski, one of Alaska's Senators, recently introduced legislation to sell off all of America's public lands including national forests, wilderness areas, national historic sites and national seashores (everything except National Parks) to private developer so they can make money off of the lands.

The Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. I was drawn to Alaska by its incredible wilderness. It may not be there for our children. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) recently introduced a non-binding budget amendment to the US Senate that would allow states to sell off all of America’s public lands including national forests, wilderness areas, national historic sites, etc. (everything except National Parks) to private interests so they could turn our national heritage into profit.

The story of my involvement with California’s Proposition 99 tobacco tax campaign began on my 43rd birthday when I escaped from Alaska— and escape is the appropriate term.

My three years in Alaska had been a great adventure. I had explored the state’s magnificent wilderness areas and accomplished a fair amount in my role as Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association. The organization had a great board and staff. We had taken a sleepy organization and turned it into a powerhouse on air quality and tobacco issues. I had led backpack, bike, and cross-country ski trek fundraisers, substantially increasing the organization’s income, not to mention giving myself an excuse to play in the woods. (As if I needed an excuse.)

But I am not cut out for the Executive Director business— or any other long-term, high stress job, for that matter. I only know one speed: fast forward. In time, the job starts to feel like I am locked in a steel cage, which just happens to be dangling from a frayed rope, hanging over a dark abyss. If that sounds to you like an imaginative description of depression, you are right. It is something of a curse on my mother’s side of the family, or to be more scientific, call it a genetic disposition.

Unfortunately, I am a slow learner. I had been executive director of several environmental and health nonprofits, done my job, and moved on. It seemed like a natural fit; so I persisted. But each time, it was like I was flirting with the dark side of my mind. I had learned I made a better ‘consultant,’ where I created the jobs I would work on. For example, I developed the wilderness trek program as a fundraiser and then became the American Lung Association’s national trek consultant. The consulting work was intense, but it had a definite beginning and a definite end. Afterwards, I would go play.

Alaska had sounded really good, however. And it was. There was all of that great outdoors (over 50% of America’s wilderness area), important issues to address on the environmental and tobacco front, and a relationship in Sacramento that needed a serious time-out. So I had taken the bait when Alaska had called— hook, line and sinker.

"It's time to pack your bags, Curt." (Peggy and I took the photos of Alaska and the Alaska Highway two years ago when we visited the state.)

“It’s time to pack your bags, Curt.” Alaskan Brown Bear. (Peggy and I took the photos of Alaska and the Alaska Highway found on today and next week’s post two years ago when we visited the state.)

By the end of the first year, I was climbing the walls. It was time to leave. Except I had made a commitment to myself, and to the organization that I would stay for three years. I struggled my way through the second year, barely keeping my head above the water. But we accomplished some good things— like forcing Tesoro to clean up the air pollution from its oil refinery, creating one of the first state-wide non-smoking laws in the nation, leading an effort to double the state tobacco tax with money going toward prevention, and bringing automobile inspection and maintenance to Alaska. But I was coming to the end of my tether. It was a short rope.

The stress at the back of my head was palpable. Even now, as I write about the experience, I can feel it gathering. It influenced my decision-making. Instead of coasting and turning more work over to my staff, I jumped feet first into the fire. It wasn’t necessary; my board and staff were good folks. They would have been eager to help. But asking for help assumes a rational mind. Mine wasn’t. I started making mistakes— and I started increasing my nightly consumption of alcohol, from two, to four, to six cans of beer. Alcohol was singing its seductive song.

Had I learned to be laid back like this moose, there never would have been a problem.

Had I learned to be laid back like this moose, there never would have been a problem.

Over Christmas, I took a break by myself and drove down to Homer on the Kenai Peninsula. There’s a motel that sits out at the end of the Homer Spit providing panoramic views of Kachemak Bay. I got a room and spent hours staring out at the water and distant mountains. And I made a decision. I would return to Anchorage and give a three-month notice that I was leaving. When the time was up, I would disappear into the woods for several months of backpacking. I would take the wilderness cure.

I spent my last day packing the things I wanted to take: a few books and camping gear. I would leave Alaska like I had arrived, with what I could fit in the back of my pickup. I spent the night at a friend’s home, but she wasn’t there. She had disappeared into the lower 48 states so she wouldn’t see me drive away. I had passed on her offer to get married, stay home, write, and raise kids. Her two dogs and cat kept me company.

The views along the highway between anchorage and the lower 48 states are incredible— not that I paid much attention is my mad dash for the border.

The views along the highway between Anchorage and the lower 48 states are incredible— not that I paid much attention in my mad dash for the border. This is the Matanuska Glacier.

These mountains were near the Matanuska Glacier, easy driving distance from Anchorage.

These mountains were near the Matanuska Glacier, easy driving distance from Anchorage. 30 minutes from my house, I could be hiking in similar terrain.

Another view of the Wrangell-St.Elias Mountains that I would have passed.

Another view of the Wrangell-St.Elias Mountains shown in the top photo.

I flew down the Alaska Highway the next morning, exhausting myself, searching for green grass and flowers. I almost made the Canadian border the first night. Too tired to move on, I pulled into a closed truck inspection point and crawled into the back of my pickup.

Once I had arranged my sleeping bag on top of my few possessions, I broke out some liquid refreshment to scare off the banshees that were nipping at my heels. My truck was packed with more guilt than goods, a lot more. Some old friends from California— Tom Lovering, Jean Snuggs and a new friend of Tom’s, an irrepressible minister by the name of Jeanie Shaw, had put together a South of the Border Care Package to ease my way toward California. It consisted of several ripe avocados, salsa, chips and a gallon of pre-made margaritas, heavy on the tequila. I held a little party with my staff before leaving. We did serious damage to the guacamole but hardly touched the margaritas.

I knocked off a water-sized glass of the latter. It put me well on the way to oblivion but it wasn’t enough to let me sleep through the horrendous racket of someone trying to break into my camper shell. I sat up with a start and yelled, banging my head against the top. A flashlight with enough candlepower to light up Las Vegas was shining directly into my eyes.

The Troopers flash light had about the same intensity as the sun on this lake that is located close to the Alaska-Canada Border.

The flashlight had about the same intensity as the sun on this lake that is located close to the Alaska-Canada Border.

“You in the truck, what are you doing here?” It was the voice of Authority. An Alaskan State Trooper had been banging on my camper shell with his baton. I thought it was quite obvious what I was doing but wisely decided to refrain from the obscene comment that was perched on the tip of my tongue. I chose a mildly sarcastic response.

“Uh, sleeping?” I hazarded a guess.

“You are not supposed to sleep here,” the disembodied voice behind the flashlight responded. “Why didn’t you go to a motel?” I was obviously a suspicious character, having chosen not to support the Alaskan economy. I was also being interrogated with the bright light of the law shining in my eyes. It was time to think fast.

“I fell asleep behind the wheel,” I exaggerated slightly. “I was afraid I might do serious damage to myself or someone else on the highway.”

That put a serious crimp in his nightstick. I could tell he was pondering my answer by the slowness of his response. He was torn between his job to roust out suspected vagrants and his responsibility to save lives. His good sense won.

“Go back to sleep,” the voice said. It was a lot easier for him to say than it was for me to do.

NEXT FRIDAY’s ESSAY: I reject an offer to run off to Mexico and open an orphanage for homeless children, decide what I should do with a gallon bag of pot I was given as a going away present, and finish my journey to Sacramento— where I am immediately asked to put together a statewide campaign to increase California’s tobacco tax. Instead, I go backpacking.

Watson Lake: A Forest of 70,000 Signs… North to Alaska

If you look closely, you just might find your hometown among the 70,000 signs of Watson Lake.

If you look closely, you just might find your hometown among the 70,000 signs of Watson Lake.

When you are driving north to Alaska and enter the Yukon Territory, the first major town you come across is Watson Lake. The community has a strange claim to fame: a forest of signs from 70,000 communities around the world. People travelling the road have been leaving them behind for 70 years; they represent towns, cities, businesses, individuals and organizations.

According to legend, it all started in 1942 when a homesick GI who was helping build the Alaska Highway put up a sign that pointed toward his home and listed the miles. Ever since people have continued the tradition of saying “I was here.”

Peggy and I, along with our friends Bob and Linda Bray, wandered through the sign forest looking for our hometowns (no luck). It was like entering a maze. The following photos provide some perspective on what it is like, but you truly have to be there to get the whole effect.

Watson Lake sign forest

This close up provides an idea of how closely the signs are packed together and how far people have come to place them here. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

My friend Bob Bray, provides a perspective on how high the "trees" in the forest are.

My friend Bob Bray, provides a perspective on how high the “trees” in the forest are. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

Watson Lake sign forest in Yukon Territory.

Just about anything can be turned into a sign, as this toilet seat demonstrates. Also note the skull. How about “Parking for Estonians Only.”

I wonder how many street signs from around the world have been ripped off to make their way to the Yukon Territory?

I wonder how many of these street and town signs from around the world were stolen before making their way to the Yukon Territory?

The Watson Lake Sign Forest also features equipment used in making the Alaska Highway. In this case, Peggy serves as my model. Later I will do a blog on the building of the Alaska Highway in 1942.

The Watson Lake Sign Forest also features equipment used in making the Alaska Highway. In this case, Peggy serves as my model. Later I will do a blog on the building of the Alaska Highway, which took place in 1942 under the threat of Japanese invasion.

Speaking of the Alaska Highway, it was also featured in the forest.

Speaking of the Alaska Highway, it was also featured in the forest. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

Just outside of the sign forest, we stopped at the corner of 9th Street and the Alaska Highway. It was time to continue our journey.

The Watson Lake Sign Forest provided an interesting stop on our way north to Alaska.  But it was time to hit the road. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

NEXT BLOG: In 1980 Mt. St. Helen, located in the state of Washington, blew its top and became one of the world’s most famous volcanoes. Peggy and I stopped by for a visit on our way home from Alaska. (I am presently at Burning Man and will return next week to begin the Burning Man 2013 series.)

Living in 120 Square Feet… North to Alaska in Quivera the Van

Quivera at Great Basin National Park in Nevada.

Quivera, and her older sister, Xanadu, have travelled two hundred thousand miles exploring North America. This photo was taken  at Great Basin National Park.

As I write this blog, Peggy and I are preparing for a trip to Alaska. (Actually, when you read this we will be on our way.) Our itinerary includes driving north through Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory to Anchorage and back, a road trip of some 7600 miles that includes the Alaska Highway and travels through some of the world’s more remote and beautiful wilderness settings.

A key part of our preparation is making sure our van, Quivera, is ready to hit the road. She has already been to the doctor and had her check up followed by on a shake down cruise to the Redwoods. (When you return from a trip to the hospital, it’s important to make sure all of your organs are still working.) Next up she gets stuffed– oh, I mean packed. We have lists. Peggy handles the majority of this task. Each and everything has its place and she likes to know where each and everything is. Being the ever forgetful husband, I like her to know where each and everything is.

Our van, Quivera, has her own pad on the upper part of our property in Oregon.

At home in Oregon, Quivera has her own pad on the upper portion of our five acres. The ‘porch’ provides a great place to write. (The yellow lift helps level the van.)

White oaks in southern Oregon.

The view from the porch looking down toward our home through the white oaks. I often see the neighborhood fox that lives on our property working the hillside for gophers and other rodents. 

Black Tail buck in Southern Oregon just starting to regrow his antlers.

There are other distractions. Black Tail deer stop by frequently to make sure I am working. The buck in front was just starting to regrow his antlers when I took this photo in April.

Peggy loves the van– and that’s a good thing. Having a happy Peggy is very important, especially when you live in a 120 square foot house. I can stand in my office and do dishes. The bathroom and stove are two steps away. The living room, dining room, and bedroom are a distant four steps. (Speaking of Peggy, today, July 5th is her birthday. A proper celebration is required. She is required to make animal noises, which happens to be a family tradition from her side of the family. But more on that later…)

The view from my office toward Peggy's domain, four steps away.

The view from my office toward Peggy’s domain, four steps away. There is plenty of room to work on projects or lie back and read. The area also serves as our dining room and, at night, morphs into a king size bed. The kitchen is on the left, the bathroom on the right.

Looking toward my office from Peggy's perspective.

Looking toward my office from Peggy’s perspective. The passenger chair swivels around and is quite comfortable. Our TV/entertainment center is on the far right.

The kitchen: a two burner stove, the sink, and a refrigerator. What more do you need?  (grin)

The kitchen: a two burner stove, the sink, and a refrigerator. What more do you need? (grin)

Our grandsons call our home on wheels a Transformer. They are experts on the subject. For proof, they point out the button that turns the couch into a bed. It’s an innovation Peggy insisted on having and the kids insist on using. Up and down, up and down, up and down. Grandma has placed limits.

Pleasure Way, out of Saskatoon Canada, is the manufacturer of our 22 foot long RV. Twelve years ago we visited the plant and were given a tour by Mrs. Pleasure Way. She also gave us a jar of her homemade jam. The folks in Saskatoon are friendly; they also create a quality product. This is the second RV we have bought from the company.

We called the first van Xanadu and the second one Quivera. Both names reflect our wandering ways. Between the two RVs, we have explored 200,000 miles of North America’s highways and byways. Our total road time includes four years of dedicated travel and nine years of shorter trips.

“How do you live in such small space?” people often ask in wonder.

“You have to like each other, a lot,” I respond with a grin. And it’s true.

But there is much more. For one, wandering around North America is a grand adventure… a glorious road trip that most people only dream about. Our travels have taken us from Fairbanks,Alaska to Key West, Florida and almost everywhere in between. The journey has also enabled us to visit our far-flung kids and grandkids on a regular basis. For a while, before the Coast Guard transferred our son Tony from San Diego to Alaska, we had developed a 2000-mile commute route between southern California and Hendersonville, Tennessee.

Quivera and Eeyore  share a moment at Yosemite National Park.

Quivera and Eeyore  share a moment at Yosemite National Park.

Camping at Burning Man

Quivera and  horses hang out at Burning Man in the Nevada desert. The challenge at Burning Man is that white Playa dust gets in everything. Months later we are still cleaning it out of the van. Note: The horses have a hitching post. They also share the look that most of us have after seven days..

If things get too tight inside, we have the outdoors. Warm days mean we can spend as much time outside as we do in the van. Even on stormy days, we can amuse ourselves on the porch. Plus there are always bookstores, museums and restaurants to visit.

And it isn’t like we suffer. Quivera comes equipped with a microwave/confection oven, two burner stove, heater, air conditioner, TV and DVD, refrigerator, bathroom, two sinks, two tables, nine storage cabinets, a closet, five drawers, couch, recliner chair and a king size bed. There is even a shower if you are willing to sit on the toilet while you bathe. Peggy and I opt out for campground showers. The van operates off of electricity, battery, generator and propane. Two laptops, a Verizon phone and an Internet connection keep us in touch with the world.

Not all is rosy. Space is at a premium. Stopping to camp means shifting boxes from the back to the front. And there simply isn’t room for everything we want to take. Sacrifices have to be made. Some toys have to be left behind. At least with the advent of Kindles, we no longer have to carry a 100-book library.

NEXT BLOG: A tall tale where we do a shake down cruise to the beautiful Redwood National Forest of Northern California.