It has been years since we stretched our legs and journeyed out of town and across the border into Canada and beyond. Reminiscent of great memories of road trips in what has become known as “the before times” (pre-pandemic) I set aside a few weeks in September to “stretch” and roll down the road and visit the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. Through a not-so-amusing comedy of errors we ended up at Chena Hot Springs.
Not that engaging in “staycations” has caused any compromise of quality. Au contrair, for the last two years I have adopted the mantel of stewardship and assumed the role of camp host at one of our local parks. I have camped on the edge of a lake that would otherwise be a national park in the lower 48 states and enjoyed fishing, kayaking, bicycling, and communing with the local critters (both two-legged and four-legged).
Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge
Regardless, it is time to stretch. Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge is part of the world’s largest contiguous conservation unit, sharing a border with Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and Kluane National Park in Canada. The boundaries of Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge encompass 932,000 acres; however, some of these acres are owned by the state of Alaska or private citizens, leaving 682,604 acres managed by Tetlin Refuge that include snowcapped mountains and glacier-fed rivers, forests, and treeless tundra and an abundance of wetlands. There are two free campgrounds to nestle Homer (home sweet Homer, deliverer of odysseys) located at Deadman Lake and Yarger (Lakeview Campground) Lake. Deadman Lake offers canoes for free public use.
On the road
I have conferred with the personnel at the main office of the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge to (hopefully) determine the best time to view the avian migration through the preserve. Mid-September sounds good. I have our Klepper kayak all bagged up and ready to bring along, since canoes are not available at Lakeview and I anticipate camping at both locations during our visit. Along the way toward our departure, at the last minute I decide that the three bags containing the Klepper are more than I need to deal with and it is unlikely that we will spend too much time at Lakeview. Let’s make life and packing a little simpler.
Our destination of Deadman Lake at Tetlin is roughly 380 miles up the Haines Highway to the Alaskan Highway and over two border crossings. An easy two-day trip with a fuel up at Haines Junction and a night on the banks of Kluane Lake. It is a blessing to climb the pass and leave the relentless rain of Haines behind. Dall sheep are in abundance on the flanks of Sheep Mountain near our camp. (A different adventure in the Blog Logs from yesteryear: In Search of Sheep). Heading to Tetlin the next day we are delighted at the continual show of full peak foliage and continued good weather. Looking forward to a burger in Beaver Creek at Buckshot Betty’s. The disappointment at arriving ten minutes too late for lunch and two hours too early for the reopening for dinners is a portent of many things to come.
Crossing the border back into Alaska promises smooth sailing though promises are never contractual and are often disappointments. The Alaskan Highway (known back in the day as the Alcan Highway) was built in 1942 in less than a year. The US Army engineers managed the carve a single track over permafrost that soon turned into a sea of mud. The powers that be have been working on fixing it ever since. The road still rises and falls through swells and heaves where permafrost continues to buckle. Powerline poles have relinquished their orderly discipline and point barely skyward in random directions. Aside from the expected slow progress against the unexpected whoop-de-doos (these asphalt storms seem to rise up out of nowhere if you are trying to make too much progress through velocity) we encounter further delays at road construction aimed at resolving American’s perceived indignation at a real adventure along the highways. I get why we want to elevate the road well above the permafrost that will likely disappear due to climate change before the highway is completely overhauled … BUT … I do not quite understand why we are widening the road to an extent that seems like it might accommodate 4 to 6 lanes. Honestly folks, the Alaskan Highway is not all that busy. (A discussion of the political and economic necessity of highway and road work is not a topic of consideration in the present blog). Whatever … we will get there when we get there, and a good traveler has no fixed schedule and is not intent upon arriving (-Lao Tse).
Arriving at the edge of the Tetlin Wildlife Refuge there is a lovely little visitor center overlooking the vast sweep of wilderness that promises wonderment and wildlife. The steward of the center is a first nations lady who apparently dropped out of the ambassador training program. In fairness, I can understand why our indigenous folks take reticence as an art form. We do manage to come to understand that we are weeks late for any migration. (I do recall that years earlier up the Dempster Highway in Inuvik a First Nations lady at the Aurora Center told me we were too early for the northern lights, and then I enjoyed a wonderful display that night from our camp, so who knows?) Off we go (behind any number of pilot vehicles) to our destination of Deadman Lake where we will at the very least enjoy exploring the shores in our canoe. Fortunately, our favorite camp site is vacant and we pull in full of anticipation. Unfortunately it turns out all of the canoes have been removed three days earlier for the season. I am nothing but hard on myself for having left our kayak behind.
Time to come up with Plan B. Sitting at my campfire that evening I realize sitting in camp for days is not going to pass for acceptable. The camp host at the lake has told us the best they can offer is a row boat up at Hidden Lake. It is only ten miles up the highway (back the way we came) through the road work and down a one-mile boardwalk, but the boat has broken oar locks. I half consider using my e-bike for an adventure, and then think better of the idea, since I am still recovering from bronchitis and can hardly make it up and down stairs, forget a 22-mile bike ride, even if it is an e-bike. Additionally, I have always wanted to visit Chena Hot Springs. It’s only another 250 miles up the highway, and fuel is actually less than $5/gallon (can you hear the sarcasm circling the argument?). By the next morning I have convinced myself that Plan B is a go-ahead, and off we go, again.
Up the highway the view is splendid. We have hit good weather and the autumn is in full party mode. I realize I am going to spend most of my vacation driving. I rationalize that this is not much different than sitting at home on my couch watching reality TV. The big important difference is that I am less likely to fall asleep.
Chena Hot Springs
Chena Hot Springs is properly known as Chena Hot Springs Resort. Let there be no question about it, this IS a resort. As resorts go, it aint bad. An hour up a lonely road from Fairbanks it hosts a hotel, pool and tub facilities, an airstrip, a railroad connection, and a modest campground well suited for anything coming down the road.
Chena Hot Springs were first discovered in 1905 by Robert and Thomas Swan, gold mining brothers who were is search of relieve from their rheumatism. They had learned that a U.S. Geological Survey crew, in 1904, had seen steam rising from a valley somewhere on the upper Chena River. They neglected to file any claim and three years later George Wilson staked a homestead and led the way to the development of a resort. By 1911 the property boasted a stable, bathhouse, fourteen cabins for visitors, a two-story hotel and a general store. (Two of the original hand-hewn cabins are still in use!).
Bernie and Connie Parks-Karl purchased Chena Hot Springs Resort from the State of Alaska in 1998. Bernie is a brilliant visionary of the first order. Bernie’s vision for the resort, in addition to his other passion of recycling, was to make the resort more environmentally friendly and use geothermal technology to power it. Today that vision not only provides heat and electricity for the resort, but also keeps the Aurora Ice Museum a cool 25 degrees Fahrenheit inside year-round. (During our visit, the museum was down for repairs). The geothermal heated greenhouses produce lettuce and tomatoes for the resort’s restaurant and over 45 employees on a year-round basis, with a few different types of fruit grown for good measure. On top of all that, as of 2016, Chena Hot Springs Resort is now 100% employee owned!
We enjoyed several days of soaking, hiking, and exploring before heading back down the road to home. A collection of photos from around the resort is reserved at the end of this blog.
On the road again
While it took over six hours to drive from Tetlin to Chena on the way north, I have decided to a more leisurely return to the south. Heading through Fairbanks we visited the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. To quote their page: the museum is home to over 95 pre-World War II automobiles, with 65 to 75 stunningly lit and staged rare automobiles at all times. This expansive collection encompasses horseless carriages, steamers, electric cars, speedsters, cyclecars, midget racers and 30s classics. Alongside the automotive displays are beautifully preserved and staged men’s and women’s outfits from that auto’s place in time. The museum also has a wing devoted to Alaska’s rich and colorful auto and transportation history.
“When it comes to extremely rare finds, the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is the only place where you can see a Compound, an Argonne, an Argo Limousine, a Columbia Mark XIX or a McFarlan Type 125, all of which are the last of their kind in the world. (The) Sheldon, Heine-Velox Victoria automobile and Hay Motor Vehicle are the only models of their kind ever built. Several of Alaska’s earliest cars are also on display, including the Territory’s very first automobile. It was hand built in 1905 by a man who had never seen a car before!”
All but three of vehicles on display are operable and are taken out of the road (or a spin around the parking lot) annually. There were several docent volunteers on hand who actively work on the restoration and maintenance of this collection, and prove to be a wealth of interesting information of any question you might have. An interesting question I heard someone raise was, “Did they look this good when they were new?”
After two hours enjoying this must-see display we were fairly well satiated, so back on the road again. Taking the time for this visit was time well spent, as the journey south was a slog through the rain. Our run of good weather is definitely spent. A short run down to Delta and I am happy to pull off the road at a local campground which is otherwise closed for the season. So wonderful to have a cozy and comfy Homer motorhomer to enjoy the delightful while everything outside is frightful.
Back to Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge
The Tetlin Wildlife Refuge sports two campgrounds. On the way up the road we stayed at Deadman Lake, and now heading down the road I have decided to enjoy a stopover at the Lakeview Campground. Lakeview is located on Yarger Lake, and while smaller (Yarger, not larger) than Deadman, it felt friendlier. We arrived early enough to get the best site, right on the lake. The campground sports a great photo blind at the end of a short trail outside of camp, but some swans came to visit us right at our camp, providing a great photo op.
I am a sucker for reflections and I believe this weakness is commonly shared between most nature photographers. Between the reflections and the foliage, I was an easy mark. I am also drawn to images that share both vertical and horizontal components. Tension in a photo is a good thing which leads the eye to roam around an image, rather than a quick static glance.
It’s nice to enjoy a leisurely afternoon with time for sitting around and just watching the world. Cannot sit around quietly for too long, so I broke out the dutch oven and rendered up a peach cobbler to cap off the evening.
Back on the road in the morning with a few planned stops. Let’s take advantage of what opportunities Tetlin will provide, if not what was in the original plan. Remember that bit about the broken row boat at Hidden Lake? Time to check that one out!
The parking lot for Hidden Lake is just 10 miles down the highway from Deadman Lake. It takes a bit of doing to discern it among all the other road construction going on, but find it we do. A lovely hike of a mile along a narrow boardwalk and through a boreal forest. Lots of blueberries to pick along the way.
And along the way we run across a nice young couple who are also heading to the lake, and we leap frog between berry patches. The lake is lovely and we successfully locate the boat somewhat off the beaten path. I am very happy to share the discovery with our fellow hikers, and defer the use of the boat to their enjoyment. Truth be told, getting a photo of them in the boat on the lake was going to be more pleasing to me than taking the boat out myself! (And I am not crazy about needing to paddle a row boat with broken oar locks.)
Next stop is another short stretch of road away, at the visitor center. The Center is now closed for the season, but there is a short trail through autumnal birch to an old trapper’s cabin.
The great thing about short days of driving is more time hiking and exploring, or even just pulling off the road because I want to share through the lens what I see along the way. Hey, it’s what I do.
Another short run the following day finds us in much better weather and we make camp on the shores of Kluane Lake.
In the middle of the night I am woken by the rocking of the coach and the wind wanting to have its way with our awning. Getting up to inspect conditions outside I am graced with the delight and surprise of a wonderous display of the aurora. We often seem to have good fortune with respect to northern lights in Kluane country. Carolyn is happy to be stirred from her innocent bliss. Lights are often beheld in colder than comfortable temperatures yet somehow the awe and wonder transcends any inclination to feel less than content. A good tuque helps.
I have been carrying my e-bike over one thousand miles and I have yet to ride it. Well, enough of that! Pull into the Visitor Center at the base of Sheep Mountain and I am happy to get a short ride in along the relic original Alaskan Highway of 1942. Lot’s of signs warning of bears in search of berries, and a memorial to a departed soul along the way. Beyond the more commonly travelled stretch of the old road I am leery of going too far down the road less travelled all by my lonesome on a bicycle. One happy snap to immortalize the moment and it is time to turn around and resume our last day of travel.
Our plans to make it home today are once again challenged. The wind that awoke during the night is relentless in the morning, and by the time we manage our way to Haines Junction and the turn-off to Haines I am as emotionally challenged as Homer is physically challenged pushing against the gale. A phone call to friends in Haines suggests we will just being driving into it all day, and a check of the local Canadian forecast confirms, while hinting that if we wait another day, things just might ease up a bit. As Lao Tse has pointed out, a good traveler has no fixed schedule and is not intent upon arriving. Pulling into the campground at Dezadeash Lake we soon find everyone else on the Haines Highway is coming to the same conclusion. A long comfortable day of doing next to nothing beyond a good book, we are happy enough to avoid the onslaught. Indeed the following day is easier for travelling and resplendent views and vistas are the reward for our patience.
We eventually land at home base. Turns out the weather has been dismal the entire time we have been on our journey. I love road trips! And the best part of living in Haines, regardless of the weather, I am never sorry to be back home.
Chena Hot Springs Photo Gallery
More shots from Tetlin
Yarger Lake (Lakeview Campground)
And there is always more adventure to be found along the full range of photo galleries through Time & Space at: https://timenspace.net/photo-galleries/