In the smartphone era, going off-grid has become a popular travel style. It seems that some people’s worst fears have become other people’s bliss. Take Alaska for example. Would you enjoy hiking where there is no path, crossing rivers that could easily drag you along if you don’t pay attention? Oh, and don’t forget the fact that there are Grizzly bears around. This is the story of my Alaska adventures, where I hitchhiked 2.500km, visited a Native American Powwow, panned for gold and did the crazy hike that I just mentioned.
Getting to Alaska (over land)
I had big plans back in 2011. I was going to travel from the North Pole to the South Pole, mostly over land. Soon I realized that traveling to the actual North Pole was a bit ambitious (well, mostly just out of my budget), so I decided to travel to the little village called North Pole in Alaska.
As I had a Greyhound bus Discovery pass, I was able to enjoy unlimited travel on Greyhound buses in USA, Canada and Mexico (sadly, the pass has been discontinued a year later). I decided to take the bus as far north as I could, which was Whitehorse in Canada.
Views of turquoise lakes and picture-perfect green and grey mountains emerged after every bend
The road through northern British Columbia and the Yukon was nothing short of spectacular; views of turquoise lakes and picture-perfect green and grey mountains emerged after every bend. The greatest attraction was on the strip of road between Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson, where it almost seemed like our Greyhound bus was part of a safari tour. Every few minutes, our bus would have to stop to allow wildlife to cross: there would be bison, bears of the black, brown and Grizzly variety, and mountain goats. It was a sight I won’t forget soon.
In Whitehorse you get a small taste of the great outdoors that will await you in Alaska; there are forests all around the town, the locals on the bus share stories about Grizzly attacks, and the local Walmart has a sign that allows visitors to camp on their parking lot.
After spending a few days in this lovely little town, I decided to find a ride north. I found a spot next to a relatively busy road with a place to pull over and stuck out my thumb for the first time ever. Yup. I had traveled a lot but never bothered to hitchhike.
It didn’t take too long before I got my first ride. An elderly Native American couple pulled over and told me that they couldn’t take me all the way to Fairbanks (a 625-mile ride, so fair enough) but they could get me as far as Burwash landing. It was a 3-hour ride with not a lot of talking, but plenty of scenery to take in.
Finding my second ride was harder. There was hardly any traffic, and it took me a good few hours (I want to say 5, but I might be exaggerating) standing next to the road in the heat. There weren’t really any other options, so I tried hard to perform my best 3-second-first-impression while sticking out my thumb.
Finally, a red pick-up truck pulled over. Yusss!! It turned out to be a girl named Leah with a dog named Winnie. She was on their way to a traffic engineers convention in Anchorage and rather than flying there from Idaho, she decided to make a road trip out of it. She didn’t really have a route planned and she had a few days to spare before she had to be at the convention, so she decided to take me all the way to the first milestone of my epic trip: North Pole, Alaska. It was a long trip, with a lot of nothingness and signs for places like “Chicken”, “Little Gold” and “Jack Wade”.
At times, it seemed almost too much of a coincidence that she decided to swoop me up from the side of the road: when the evening fell (it was a 650 km or 404 miles drive from Burwash Landing to North Pole) we found a campsite and she provided me with a spare tent and sleeping bag which she happened to have laying around in her truck.
It was a long trip, with a lot of nothingness and signs for places like “Chicken”, “Little Gold” and “Jack Wade”.
A place called North Pole in Alaska
What do you imagine a city called “North Pole” to be like? Deserted, remote, and covered in permafrost? Well, not exactly. Sure, the place can get lows of -40º Celsius (-40º Fahrenheit) in the winter months, but when I visited in July, it was 25º Celsius (77º Fahrenheit) with a cool breeze.
There wasn’t really much going on in North Pole. Personally, I had never heard of the place and didn’t really know what to expect. Leah, however, spoke with great enthusiasm about the Santa Claus House, a shop selling everything Christmas all year long. She dragged me to check it out.
It has a funny history: in 1952, the fur merchants Con and Nellie Miller decided to build an outpost in an area newly dubbed “North Pole”. As Con had a side-gig every winter where he would wear an old Santa suit, the children of the village saw him as the Santa. So, as he was building the outpost, one of the kids asked him: “Santa, are you building a new house?”. That’s where it clicked; the shop would eventually go on and become North Pole’s first post office and sell Christmas paraphernalia. They have even been sending personalized letters to children all around the world in the name of Santa!
In July 2011, when I visited the shop, neither the weather nor the state of the reindeer’s fur got me in the true Christmas spirit. So, I got myself a postcard, a quick pic with a Santa hat on and a pic with the North Pole sign. Then, it was on to Fairbanks.
Fairbanks, the second biggest city in Alaska after Anchorage, is a great base for all of the local outdoor activities. As on most of my trip, I had found a place to stay in Fairbanks through Couchsurfing. As fellow traveler Leah didn’t have a place to stay, I checked with my Couchsurfing host Sam if he had any extra space. Luckily, his family friend’s beautiful wooden cabin had plenty of space for both of us.
It was at this place that I got a good feeling of the daily life in a remote place surrounded by nature. There was always something to do; chopping firewood, hunting for game, organizing an annual trip fishing for sockeye salmon, hiking, flying propeller planes. Frankly, it made me feel like a lazy city boy.
One day, Sam decided to take Leah and me on a hike. We took his car and drove south along the Parks Highway, just past Cantwell. Leah followed us at close distance in her own car, as she would carry on to Anchorage after the hike. With the Denali National Park on our right, Sam stopped his car and parked next to the highway. It wasn’t a designated parking space, and there weren’t any signs for well-kept hiking paths. This was the real Alaska and we were about to get a taste of it.
Sam pointed at a random mountain and suggested to hike up it as far as we could. And so we did. It involved a lot of bushwhacking (a word I first heard in Alaska) through vast green vegetation, watching out for swampy areas, and crossing a small river that gave us quite a hard time.
“Armed” with a small air horn to scare off grizzly bears, we slowly made progress in our mission to reach the mountain slope. Sam taught us to make noise by clapping your hands every 10 minutes or so, to scare off any bears in the neighborhood. He said that bears are quite shy animals; you simply don’t want to surprise one (especially a mother with cubs) as their instinct takes over… and there will be consequences.
At this point Leah decides to head back to the car, to make it in time for the convention in Anchorage; Sam and I continue the hike. The clear bear paw print in the mud doesn’t leave any illusions: there are bears around. Lucky for us, we didn’t come across any, and with a bit of rock climbing, we made it to a treeless slope where we finally made some quick progress up the actual mountain. The perfect, sunny weather gave us views that I won’t forget anywhere soon.
In the distance, I see the vast peak of Mount Denali, which is the highest one in North America with an elevation of 20.310 ft (6.190 m) above sea level. That’s an adventure for next time, I tell myself…
We make it safe and sound back to the car, and the head back to Sam’s family friend’s forest cabin. We had spaghetti and moose balls (meatballs from moose meat, what did you expect?!) for dinner and I got myself ready to head back to North Pole again, where my next couchsurfer lived.
Just as with Sam’s family, my couchsurfing host in North Pole, Ericka, was very friendly and welcoming. Soon we had made plans for the few days I would stay at her place: we would go panning for gold in a river nearby, visit the Chena Hot Springs and the Ice Museum, and attend a Native Indian gathering (a so-called Powwow). Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?
Our first stop was the Gold Dredge 8 area where we found a mini trailer park. It seemed that some people were still obsessed with finding gold. During the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 19th century, more than a 100.000 prospectors migrated to the Klondike river area, roughly on the border between the Yukon (Canada) and Alaska. As the amount of gold that was found decreased over time, the prospectors moved to other places in Canada and Alaska. Even now, gold (although in very small amounts) can be found all over Alaska.
It was interesting to see how much some of the locals were into it. They had set up multiple automatic panning units that would sieve through the rocks flowing down the stream. We had a nicely foldable metal funnel-like unit, where you would pour water onto. It would then catch any small rocks, which you can then manually pan later on to find bits of gold. Too bad for us, our two hours worth of work didn’t pay off; we left the site empty-handed. After a visit to a local pub, we headed home for a good night’s sleep.
Chena Hot Springs
Part of my mission on my Pole to Pole trip was to document green initiatives all around America. I had heard that the Chena Hot Springs generated electricity from geothermal resources. Basically, just from the water pressure coming out from the ground. What made this project extra special is that they used the lowest water temperature that someone has ever generated electricity with. The installation of the geothermal plant has already reduced the gallons of fuel purchased in Chena by 50%, so it proved to be a great alternative source of energy.
Apart from the scientific side of things, the Hot Springs site has many different functions. There is a campsite with Yurts which you can book, there are cabins, meeting rooms, a restaurant, and the place is even a registered wedding venue.
The geothermal source is great for generating energy, but let’s not forget that it’s equally good for bathing! There is a nice little rock pool next to the main building, where you can enjoy nature’s version of a hot tub. Because of the different minerals that are present in natural hot springs, it’s even super healthy for your skin!
To top off a visit to the Chena Hot Springs, you should definitely check out the Aurora Ice Museum, which can also be found on the same premises. It’s the world’s largest year-round ice environment, and it holds many ice sculptures created by 16-time world champion ice carver Steve Brice.
The Midnight Sun Intertribal Powwow
The most interesting travel experiences are mostly the ones that you didn’t plan up front. This was certainly the case when I visited the Midnight Sun Intertribal Powwow with my host Ericka. This annual gathering of Alaska Natives, American Indians, and First Nations People of Canada is set up in Powwow style (a social setting where Native Americans meet, dance, sing, socialize, and honor their cultures). The event has been held in Fairbanks since 2001 and includes a dancing competition with many different types of traditional dances, music, and regalia, and a lottery where you can win a car.
Attending the event was amazing, and I truly felt the respect for one another and the strong community feeling: young and old people joined in the mesmerizing traditional dancing and drum rhythm. Their outfits were very colorful and you could see the differences in “fashion” styles between the tribes.
Learn more about the Powwow in this 30-minute documentary that was produced by KUAC-TV, a Public Service Station of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
The way back from my Alaska adventures
After saying goodbye to both Sam and Ericka, it was time for the next leg of my trip: Anchorage. I wasn’t particularly hard to get a ride from Fairbanks to the state’s capital; there is only one highway that connects the two cities, and after standing next to the road with my “God Bless America” sign, I got a ride from a US Army soldier. He could only take me about half-way, but luckily I just as easily found a second ride with an older gentleman, who later invited me to his home where I stayed the night, drank a glass of fine Scotch and had some dark chocolate. Yup, this is traveling at its finest.
After standing next to the road with my “God Bless America” sign, I got a ride from a US Army soldier.
I had kept in touch with Leah via Facebook and surely enough, we met up the next day. She was heading to the traffic conference: her original goal and the reason for her epic road trip. She invited me to join (a.k.a was going to try to sneak me in) and I gladly accepted.
The conference was quirky, with lots of inside jokes, crazy duct-tape inspired outfits (did you know that Alaska was the duct tape capital of America?) and funny powerpoint presentations. The food was delicious too (score!).
After the presentation, Winnie and I got in Leah’s big, red pick-up truck, and without too many stops, we headed back to Whitehorse. From there I took the Greyhound bus to Toronto, a 5.500-kilometer (3.400-mile) journey, but that’s a tale for another time.
I guess the moral of the story could be: taking the plane gets you somewhere quick, but hitchhiking there can make the whole trip an amazing adventure.