Fairbanks – Up North

Despite the fact that Alaska seems to be a haven for social outcasts, people are extremely helpful and friendly. Jenny (From The Motel) had a hand in everything: from choosing the car on Craiglist to providing a cheap roof-mounted storage box for our Suzuki. Before we left Anchorage, she made sure we were 100% ready. The rest of the motel and a local trooper came over to say goodbye and off we went.

Goodbye from Jenny - Anchorage
Goodbye from Jenny – Anchorage

Talkeetna, a small-ish tourist town a few hours south of Fairbanks was our first stop. Each corner of the winding road into town offered a different view of the Alaska Range, Mt. Denali included. All that natural beauty came, unfortunately, with a steep price. Places to sleep are abundant in Anchorage, but once you leave the city beds are scarce and prices high, especially in wintertime. Bummer! However, a nice hostel popped up and two affordable bunk beds sounded better than a cold car.

The upside of staying in a remote village is its isolated location. After a few nights of disappointing aurora-hunting (every place near Anchorage seems either perpetually hazy or is bathing in an orange sodium lamp glow), the clear skies above Talkeetna lit up during an unexpected G2-class geomagnetic storm. Three hours in -15°C? Worth it! Did we leave our dark-sky-out-of-town-spot minutes before an enormous auroral corona? Yep :(

Northern lights above Talkeetna - Mt. Denali in the background
Northern lights above Talkeetna – Mt. Denali in the background

The next day started with bad news: my inquiry about a suitable place to spend the night in Fairbanks returned zero hits. The whole city (we still thought of Fairbanks as a reasonably sized, buzzing northern city) was full. Full of 1500 scientists who couldn’t wait to attend the Arctic Science Fair. With hundreds of kilometres to go and daylight fading we scanned every little town for a cheap B&B. Cheap near Alaska’s most popular tourist destination means 110 euro per night, be warned! Those 110 euro did provide us with clean clothes and waffles for breakfast. Yay!

Between Talkeetna and “The Golden Heart City” lies legendary Denali National Park. The Park Road was open (and much longer than we expected). Spectacular views of snowy mountains and the highest peak of northern America made us forget time. Although the bears are up and running (according to the locals), none where spotted. Helaas. One can only imagine the buzz on the park roads during summer time while admiring this icy winter landscape. Quietly.

Mt. Denali - 6190 asl
Mt. Denali – 6190m asl

Just outside Denali national park lies the little town of Healy. Not worth mentioning if it wasn’t for one must see attraction: the start of the Stampede Trail, made world famous through the stories of Christopher McCandless. Hiking to see the “Magic Bus” would take over two days and two river crossing on each leg. Not willing to end up like Mr. Supertramp, we decided to look up the movie replica located at the 49th State Brewing Company (now famous in Belgium thanks to Tom Waes). A dangerously high fence was conquered (everything is closed here in winter, remember?) and the obligatory photos were made.

Into the Wild!
Into the Wild!

After a surprisingly snow-free drive of 180km we arrived in Fairbanks, The Golden Heart City. Let me stop right here. It’s not a city, and I certainly did not find its golden heart. Fairbanks seems to be a mess of houses and utility buildings. The three bars and two restaurants were closed on Saturday evening (and now that I think of it, they were closed on Sunday as well). Ah well, cheap Indian pizza it is then. What Fairbanks did offer was a Walmart and Home Depot. Time to “engineer” our sleeping platform. A 5-minute napkin drawing (and one very annoyed Home Depot employee) later, a carefully cut MDF platform was hauled into Suzi. A perfect fit. Walmart provided a comfy spring-loaded mattress, two warm duvets and some bed sheets. Time for a test run! Result? -15°C is cold, but bearable. Besides a few strange looks from the locals and 20 minutes of scraping off a thick layer of ice formed on the inside of the windows the next morning, all went well. I have to find something against this condensation issue, though.

Next stop: Canada!

Preparation

Let me start of with a tip: do not travel to Turkey before flying to the US. Being “randomly” checked once is fine, but when it happens multiple times on each leg of a long flight is not funny. The reason? A flight to Istanbul two weeks earlier.

A one-day layover in Seattle gave us just enough time to stroll through the city. At first it looked like a rather grey, dreary place full of weirdos, but a visit to downtown proved me wrong. Seattle is *very* hipstery and full, literally full, of Startbuckses and their clones. Expensive as hell though. I might have mis-budgeted the US.

Pike Place Market
Pike Place Market

Complete change of atmospheric conditions upon our arrival in Anchorage: steel blue skies and a warm bright sun. The descent over the Kenai peninsula towards Ted Stevens (Who? A former US senator who fought for Alaskan statehood) airport was one of the most spectacular I’ve ever witnessed. Incredibly sharp, snowy mountain peaks, frozen rivers and one single road. This is Alaska and this is a place we have to visit.

Turnagain arm from the Seward Highway
Turnagain arm from the Seward Highway

And so we did. Before even thinking about locating and buying a car or arranging insurance documents, we took a miniature rental vehicle (people were literally laughing at us, I kid you not!) and raced towards the Seward Highway. Lather, rinse, repeat (x3).

In the meantime we scouted the Almighty Craigslist, weeded out the scammers, freaks and other bad guys (yes, always guys) and contacted two potential car sellers. The first one, I will call him “The Dude”, offered us a Jeep Grand Cherokee. A nice car, but the rather questionable DIY repairs and non-existing license plates were a no-no. He was also more interested in promoting his music career then selling anything. C’mon baby, step on it! Didem did not like the car :) A second Craigslister, the “UPS Guy”, wanted to sell his Suzuki XL7. No strange repairs and a ginormous US flag sticking out of his house. A trustful person. One hour later (yes, Belgium, one hour) and the car was offically ours. Woooot! A quick trip to the Progressive insurance agent (tip: Geicko and State Farm do not insure foreigners).

Mushing the Iditarod
Mushing the Iditarod

In the meantime we witnessed 1000+ dogs, mushers and spectators go wild during the start of the 2016 edition of the Iditarod race. Look at those huge tongues!

Didem overlooking Whittier
Didem overlooking Whittier

A test-drive, this time to whittier finally offered an opportunity for a short hike. Travelling by car is comfy, but that’s about it. A narrow squeeze through the Whittier tunnel (seriously, look it up) gave access to the like-named village and, more importantly, to Portage glacier. Last tip for today: shouting DOES cause avalanches. Witnessed in person when I told Didem to pose for a picture.

Anywayz, the car is good to start its great journey. Next stop: Fairbanks, The Golden Heart City.

Icy sunset over the Turnagain arm
Icy sunset over the Turnagain arm

Packing

Monday evening, a few minutes before midnight. It’s quiet. Things are packed, we are ready to go. The last few days have been rather hectic: a friend is going to take care of the flat during our travels (thanks, Murat!). To make him feel a little bit at home everything had to go. Tons of clothes, electronic gadgets and other junk were packed and transported for storage (Thank you, David!). The flat got a major cleaning session and the empty floor space was filled with must-haves on the trip. What did we pack, you ask? Well, not that much to be honest. A summary below.

Hers

0001

  • *Warm* hiking booths
  • Thick, non-cotton socks
  • Thermal under and upper wear
  • A complete ski suit
  • Hat, gloves and ear warmers (notice a pattern here?)
  • Polyfill sleeping bag and therm-a-rest mattress
  • Rain/wind jacket
  • Some shorts and shirts
  • Bikini and mini-towel
  • A notebook (the paper version)
  • A notebook (the digital one)
  • Navigational aids (yes, she IS driving!)
  • Cooking utensils (hehehe)

0002

  • Canon 1100D
  • Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8
  • Samyang 8mm f/3.5 fisheye
  • A lightweight “Nipple…or was it Nimble?” alu travel tripod
  • Circular polariser, ND1000 and IR filters
  • GoPro Hero3 Black Edition
  • Backup aids
  • 10 x 42 waterproof binoculars
  • Samsung I8190
  • The obligatory selfie-stick

His

003

  • 2-person stormproof tent (tested and approved)
  • Polyfill sleeping bag and unpictured therm-a-rest
  • Hiking boots – the not-too-stiff variety
  • 7 pairs of underwear, 7 pairs of socks, 2 cotton pants and one pair of shorts
  • 3 T-shirts
  • Thermal underwear
  • A ski outfit
  • Gloves, a warm hat and a hat for sun protection
  • Rain/wind jacket
  • Nexus 7 2013
  • Samsung I9300
  • Suaoki 20W foldable solar panel
  • Polarised aviators
  • A first aid kit
  • Duck tape!

004

  • Sony Alpha 7R II
  • Metabones EF to E-mount T-IV adapter
  • Canon 16-35mm f/4 L IS
  • Canon 50mm f/1.8
  • Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro
  • Canon 300mm f/4 L IS
  • Kenko 1.4x teleconverter
  • Zomei circular polariser and ND1000 filters
  • Metz 58 AF flash
  • Aputure Amaran halo ring flash
  • Rode VideoMicro microphone
  • QZSD Q-666 carbon fibre travel tripod
  • GoPro Hero3 Black Edition
  • Nitecore D4 charger
  • Anker PowerCore 20100 USB battery pack
  • Aukey 40W USB charger

That’s all for now, folks! Next stop: Seattle, the US of A.