Monday, March 20, 2017

Road trip

My Canada plans necessitated a quick turnover — drive from Fairbanks to Anchorage, return the rental car, meet up with my friends, and continue to Whitehorse, Yukon the following day. It involved more than a thousand miles on winding, icy, frost-heaved roads over two days. I didn't mind. I love road trips. Especially when I'm solo — I can guzzle gas-station coffee, stop at road pullouts, and take photographs to my heart's content. 

The mountains south of Nenana in the morning.

Sunrise to the east (not south, as is the case at this latitude near the winter solstice.) I loved watching the sun come up at a not-early hour. I am a big fan of Daylight Savings Time — later sunrises, later sunsets, more daylight where it's useful. There's nothing not to like for outdoorsy night owls. People who complain about DST either have small children, are morning people, or must never travel to different time zones, because how can a measly one-hour shift ruin your whole week?

Moonset over the Parks Highway.

Sundog. The car thermometer registered temperatures as low as -37 shortly after sunrise.

The burgeoning metropolis of Healy, Alaska. The thermometer in the background reads -16F, although my car still showed -26. It felt -26, I'll tell you that much.

Besides being nose-hair-freezing cold, the wind was incredible. Spindrift raced across the road, capturing the morning light until it looked like glowing curtains, caught in a vacuum. Through the narrow corridor of the Nenana River valley, the wind was easily blowing 30mph, gusting to something much higher. At one stop, as soon as I opened the driver's-side door, a gust ripped it out of my hand with such force that I thought the entire door would break off its hinges. It did not, but as I stepped out, a equally strong gust pushed me onto my knees, bare hands slapping the icy pavement, windchill flash-freezing my face. There were several screamed swear words as I stood up to face the wind, grinning at its sinister roar. How do people ever survive going outside during the Alaska winter? A few hours in a climate-controlled vehicle is enough to let me forget.

Between plans to meet my friend Jorge in Anchorage for an early dinner (Jorge is a Colorado friend who'd recently dragged a sled 500 miles between Big Lake and Ruby as part of the Iditasport race) and meeting Jill and Morgan to load up the truck, I couldn't dawdle too much. But if the weather was clear, which it was, I'd calculated 2.5 extra hours into my itinerary to take a side trip into Denali National Park. The park road had been cleared to a picnic area ten miles from the entrance. My rental SUV was the only vehicle there for the duration of my visit, judging by tire tracks. 

This wasn't surprising, as it wasn't the nicest day to tour a national park. The temperature was -15, and the wind was still blowing fiercely. I just wanted to take a few photos, so I donned my puffy jacket, mittens, and balaclava, and set out on the Mountain Vista loop trail, which was an unsatisfying one kilometer. Although I was still wearing jeans and only a thin pair of socks in boots, I continued across the road to the Savage Alpine Trail.

The scenery was beautiful, with sparkling mist and impressive plumes of snow streaming off the mountains. In a happy daze I managed to walk two miles before I'd climbed above treeline and felt the full brunt of the wind pummel my body. Suddenly my butt and thighs were on fire. The jeans did nothing. I turned around and started jogging, but the pain only became worse. So I broke into a full run. In this direction the wind was at my face, and my legs were unhappy to say the least. It was exhilarating in its own way, though. How long does it take to frostbite legs?

This is my "I hiked too far through a -30 windchill in jeans" face. My thighs and butt were beet red, and didn't come fully back to life for another two hours. But for the most part, no worse for the wear.

Leaving Denali National Park.

The low-lying pass that allows the Parks Highway to climb over the Alaska Range.

Looking back at the crazy cold wind.

Although my butt was still numb a hundred miles later, I walked a few hundred yards into a closed rest area to catch one last glimpse of Denali.

The following day we made the 700-mile trip between Anchorage and Whitehorse. I spent most of the drive sitting in the back seat of a truck with tinted windows, so didn't take any photos. My friend Jill was towing a long wooden row boat on a trailer, for the purpose of leaving it in Canada for a while. So it was a 14-hour-long drive where we only made a couple of too-quick stops for gas and snacks. Slow and meandering is definitely the preferable way to go with these sorts of trips, even if it does result in frozen butt.


  1. These are great pictures as well as a great post!

  2. I can barely last four hours driving anymore, I am impressed with your thru-driving ability.

  3. Your pictures are great Jill. We are driving up this summer, I'll ride the Kenai 250 then we spend 2 weeks in Denali. I can't wait!

  4. -26º F and 30 mph winds! Whenever I've experienced those kinds of temperatures it's been very still. I can't imagine that cold and wind!

  5. -30 in JEANS! Jill, you are amazing! (at what temp do jeans FREEZE to your legs? Apparently it's something colder than -30). You are utterly fearless! And fantastic pics btw (as always)! And then 14 hours sitting in the back seat of a about a buzzkill!

  6. I just loved joining you on this journey through a winter wonderland that I can not begin to imagine being in.

  7. Glad that you're still doing stupid stuff, Ms. Red Butt!!!

  8. Really nice pictures. Looks so, so cold though. I'm not sure how well I'd be able to handle that!

  9. Thanks for sharing winter in Alaska. Those mountains are majestic.


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