Friday, June 01, 2007


First Day

Day 1 (Sunday, May 27)

Well, actually it’s “Day 1 ½”; we left half a day early. We were all packed and ready, so why sit around? That’s a trait we apparently inherited from Y’s father.

That first night on the road we spent in the high alpine meadows, at a roadside pullout about 100 miles north of Anchorage. It was foggy and drizzling all night, and we woke to light snow falling. Within a few miles it was back to drizzle again.

Well, the roads so far have been a challenge. The world’s best and brightest road engineers have not been able to solve the problem of building a road on top of permafrost. In central and northern Alaska and northern Canada the ground freezes, well, permanently. Even in the height of summer, where temperatures in Fairbanks, for example, reach the mid 90s during in July and part of August, it is not enough to thaw winter’s freeze more than a few feet down. Enough, maybe, to grow gardens and stuff, but not enough to be able to install decent foundations for buildings and roads.

So when they do try to build roads, they start by excavating the all the topsoils above the frost level and then backfill with tons of rocks, gravel and sand. Then they do their normal roadbuilding stuff on top of that before paving with asphalt. These nice smooth roads only last one or two winters before the inevitable frost heaves begin. Why do frost heaves happen? Water in the soil freezes on contact with the permafrost (and from above in the winter months). As the water freezes it expands, pushing up the soil above it with a force strong enough to push up the asphalt three to 12 inches. Anywhere there is permafrost, there will be frost heaves. Even when there is no permafrost, like where we live in southcentral Alaska, we still get minor frost heaves in the winter, which usually subside as the frozen ground thaws. I’ve driven on these interior Alaskan roads for more than 30 years and have seen all sorts of test patches and experimental designs installed. Nothing has worked.

Imagine driving along at 65 mph or so, and then coming around a bend to see a little red flag planted on the side of the road. Better hit the brakes fast, because those flags mean there’s either a dip or a heave RIGHT NOW! Dang, too late, BANG! BANG! BANG! The spring/shock absorber suspensions systems on most small to midsize cars will handle these heaves with a noticeable but tolerable bump. But the larger rigs, with their longer wheelbases and greater weights, do not do so well on these things. Often the recoil from the front wheels hitting comes just as the back wheels hit the bump, causing the whole rig to slam against its stops, jarring everyone and everything inside. Today, all our drawers were open and contents tossed by the time we arrived at our campground.

Alaska’s interior roads are bad enough, but the first 150 miles inside Canada’s border heading south are the worst I’ve ever seen. What’s sad is that they just rebuilt much of this three or four years ago. It took us nearly 5 hours to drive 150 miles. We’d inch our way through a few miles of these heaves and ruts, and then the road would clear up, enticing us to pick up speed again. Then another corner, and another field of those dreaded red flags. Ah well, the worst, they say, should be behind us now.

Just a short while ago I was sitting on one corner of the bed in the back of our motorhome, the endpin of my electric cello on the floor against the wall, with just enough elbow room to use the bow without hitting any walls. Looking out the window as I played: the sun is out, the trees are pale green as they begin to bud, and the craggy mountain peaks just a few hundred yards across the highway are almost clear of snow. We are camped at one of my favorite places along the entire 1,300 mile long Alcan highway, Cottonwood RV Park, near the southeast corner of Kluane Lake, Yukon Territories. This lake is quite large and long, sitting between two mountain ranges. This year it is still frozen and the trees around us are just budding. In another week summer will be in full bloom, though. The campground owner warned of some bears in the vicinity, and not to leave the dog leashed outside. They only opened the place two days ago and no one else is here, yet.

No room for the music stand, so I just spent an hour running through my new scales into fourth position, and then through all the memorized pieces in the first two Suzuki books. After a long day’s driving - those @$%^&#* frost heaves - I found it quite relaxing and calming.

Overnighting along the road north of Anchorage.

Switching over to metric is always a bit intimidating.

The highway near Haines Junction, Yukon Territory.

The cat doesn’t seem to mind traveling.

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