Coming into the country

IMG_0579I realize I’ve not posted a blog in several weeks. Sorry about that. I have been overwhelmed with things to do, as one might imagine.
We last left off at the beginning of the Alaska-Canada highway. I first drove to Dawson Creek so we could be at the official start of the route, which also came with a great visitor’s center and an hour-long film on the building of the AlCan. What a miserable job that was in 1942 for the poor guys assigned to it. Especially the roads cut into sheer cliffs – aaeeii – turns out later the Canadians rebuilt or re-routed large portions of the highway to make it less dangerous. We stayed the first night in Ft. St. John, a smallish town about 30 miles to the north where we found a great indoor water park for Veeka to jump in that evening. The next day, we were off towards Fort Nelson, an easy drive to an outpost that was a city of about 6,000 people where the housing is expensive because lots of oil and road workers are there. There’s tons of oil drilling and fracking to the north, I was told and the roads were under quite a bit of construction. Fort Nelson actually had several creature comforts, like the Organic Vegetarian Café and Coffee Bar, a really cool boutique that sold stuff I would have thought you could only get in Vancouver. Like many touristy towns in Canada, the visitor’s center there was exquisite and they served free coffee.

Just some of the gorgeous views in the mountains west of Ft. Nelson

Just some of the gorgeous views in the mountains west of Ft. Nelson

Thus fortified, we headed west towards some vast real estate known as the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area that had the loveliest mountains such as Steamboat Mountain, Indian Head, Mt. St. George and more. Where these peaks differed from their cousins in the southern Rockies were how much lower the tree lines were and how rocky the summits were. I know summits usually are rocky, but most mountains in the southern Rockies have trees well up to the summit. These were different. Some of the road was rather precarious and I’d read somewhere this was the toughest part of the AlCan to build. But it was beautiful and we ended up that night at Toad River Lodge, a simple place next to a lake.
The next day, we drove past Folding Mountain (which looked like an accordion with all its layers compressed), deposited our stuff at Northern Rockies Lodge, then drove 34 miles up the road to Laird River Hot Springs. This was a true delight; splashing about in this rocky quarry surrounded by tropical plants and chatting with folks from around the world. We returned to the lodge, which was perched on Muncho Lake, a real beauty of a lake surrounded by mountains. The lodge also charged top prices for various things, such as $1.79/liter (for guests; non-guests had to pay $1.99), which was $6.77 a gallon, I later found out. Talked with some of the workers, who had come from various countries. Got the impression from some of my conversations that they felt overworked plus there’s not a whole lot of places to go on one’s off time other than hiking nearby.

Veeka at Muncho Lake

Veeka at Muncho Lake

And I could understand that, as it took us three hours to get to the nearest town: Watson Lake, the next day. I never saw the ‘lake’ part of this town, but it had a nice planetarium, the Northern Lights Centre, where Veeka and I watched shows on the aurora borealis and black holes. It also had an amazing ‘forest’ by the visitors center of license plates and directional signs from around the world. Had the weather been better, we would have lingered more, but it was raining and we had to be in Whitehorse by nightfall. That was our longest day of driving; more than 400 miles. The weather improved by the time we reached Teslin, a Tlingit (pronounced kling-it) village. But once we crossed from British Columbia to Yukon, the roads got worse and the temperatures dropped 10 degrees. In BC, it was summer temperatures but Yukon was colder.

The 'sign forest' at the Watson Lake visitor center.

The ‘sign forest’ at the Watson Lake visitor center.

Finally we got to Whitehorse, a really progressive little place considering it was truly in the middle of nowhere in the Yukon province. There were at least two Starbucks there, all sorts of car dealerships, chain restaurants, museums, a riverside walk and a great view of nearby mountains. The Best Western there was pretty nice and so was the Burnt Toast restaurant we visited the next morning for breakfast. But the situation there was like so many places in this part of the world; the waitress is also the cashier, which means that there’s only one person tending the customers. We have run into this at more places; restaurants are so understaffed and so few people seem to work there. The next day, a Monday, was some kind of provincial holiday so, we got in free to a really cool Beringia Museum that talked about the boreal forest and how this part of the Yukon never got covered with glaciers and that it’s where people from Russia ended up when they used the land bridge to Alaska during the last ice age. We also visited the Old Log Church Museum, which had all sorts of exhibits about Anglican missionaries to the Yukon. Even today the area is a hardship post; I cannot imagine leaving Wycliffe College at Oxford – as one missionary did – to travel to western Canada a century ago.

Blissful Liard Hot Springs

Blissful Laird Hot Springs

I also learned that Monday that my Aunt Dottie Hammer had died at the age of 89 and I was so sad. I had not seen her in years, actually. I think 2006 was the last year I saw her, as I adopted Veeka the following year and I never took Veeka to see her, as she’d moved into a retirement place and then one day she fell. After that, she really didn’t know anyone, even my mom, the Hammer sister closest to her in age. There were six girls born to my grandparents Birchall and Olive Hammer and now only the youngest two: my mother and her youngest sister, Lee, are left. She was the only one of my aunts who never married and I took some comfort from that.
That Tuesday, we drove through Haines Junction, which was a gorgeous intersection of two mountain ranges, then drove north along another range towards the US border. After a night in Beaver Creek in a less-than-stellar hotel, we finally crossed into Alaska and pulled into Fairbanks late that afternoon. The AlCan is technically 1,488 miles long and we’d made it in 1,507 miles. Added to the 870 miles it took us to drive from Seattle to Dawson Creek, we drove 2,377 miles that week. My entire trip from Tennessee was 5,777 miles, give or take a few. Amazingly, my car did not break down although it seems to be using up more oil than it used to. It’s at 140,000 miles at this point. I want to say at this point that the AlCan is extremely doable but it is spendy.

What my car looked like near the end of the AlCan - unbelievably dusty due to road construction

What my car looked like at our last lodging near the end of the AlCan – unbelievably dusty due to road construction

The university put us up in a B&B that night, but the next day I was able to move in and collect the 19 boxes of clothing and various kitchen things I had shipped up. Typing this two weeks later, there are lots of things I wish I had brought up with me and some things I wish I had not! Like the coffee pot here is awful; the warming plate has worn out, I am afraid, and had I known that, I’d have shipped up my own coffee pot. There’s no can opener or bottle opener or salt/pepper shakers; simple things I could have mailed but…oh well. I did mail up my spices, as they are expensive.
The next few days were beyond crazy. Veeka had to be enrolled in her new school, which she very much likes. She’s decided to try out the nickname “Ollie” there to see how she likes that. We’re only there a year, so she can switch to ‘Veeka’ the next school she’s at, if she wants. The Common Core curriculum for third grade math is pretty difficult for her, however. We landed in a place where the skies stay light until 11, it’s 60 degrees in August (although by September it was hovering in the 40s), there are no free ATMs (my credit union here charges me $3.50 per transaction!), all the parking lots come with electric sockets so you can plug in your car to keep it warm and there are tons of Subarus here as it supposedly is the best car to weather winter roads. I had my car winterized a week into my stay here (electric cord, heated oil pan and some other stuff they did for my engine) although I have it good here; my garage is heated, so at least my car won’t be impossible to start in the winter. Down sides: It takes more than a month to get WiFi in my apartment, so I have to lug my laptop to campus constantly. And once Veeka is home from school, it’s too difficult to use my computer with her wandering about so essentially I’m without the Internet most evenings.

Ollie/Veeka on her first day of school.

Ollie/Veeka on her first day of school.

The biggest trauma our first week was the loss of my 22-year-old tortoiseshell cat, whom I’d dragged all the way from Tennessee. She’d slept most of the distance and I’d make the mistake of letting her wander about our new yard, then taking my eyes off of her for too long. She ended up getting disoriented and wandered off. I called the pound and the campus police and gave her up for gone when a week later, a woman down the street called me to say they’d found someone like Serenity. They had thought she was near death, so they spent $800 on her at a vet, they said, to give her fluids, shave off her matted fur, etc. And sure enough, looking like a large rat, was my kitty in their garage. I think she wanted to stay there as she looked rather put out at having to return to us.
Early on, I got to see my new office, which is an easy walking distance from our apartment. There were some flowers to greet me when I got there and my first few days were taken up with getting my computer working and hooked up to the campus mainframe, getting a photo ID, PO Box and other things plus unpacking. Our first weekend here, I took Veeka to Chena Hot Springs about 50 miles NE of town, which is a resort with a bunch of really nice, hot pools. There was also a tour of an ice palace, where they served martinis (apple-tinis they called them) in iced martini glasses (that is, the glasses were made ALL of ice and they quickly melted once outside) and where there were ice sculptures. Veeka was beyond miserable in there and screeched until I finally told her to go outside and wait for me. Hmmm….if she’s cold NOW….We also went to a park known as a nesting place for sand cranes while they migrate south. What is beyond weird here is to see all the Canadian geese, swans, cranes, etc., heading south away from us. I’ve always lived in places where these fowl spent the winter. Now I’m so far north, I am in a place where these birds originate.

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