The Story So Far...


Saturday, 24 July, 2010
     Ellie's parents, Boley & Linda, threw us a backyard barbeque party on their land in Foreston the night before our departure; it was also Linda's birthday. Spending a mild summer night with relatives and a few close friends was the perfect sendoff. We had a great time around the campfire until well after dark. Ellie and I slept out there in a tent, as did friends Aby and Josh. After they retired for the night, I don't know if they saw me and Ellie dancing in a dewy patch of moonlight.

Sunday, 25 July, 2010
     Strange as it may sound, we had booked a motel room that night for our two cats, Prince & Thriller. The reasons were three-fold: they'd never been to the Ramsons', we knew there'd be dogs around, and we wanted to avoid the terrible delay of searching for lost cats. The hotel manager checked in the cats and insisted that his sons would play with them in the lobby that night. He assured Ellie with pride that his sons were Eagle Scouts. He called Ellie in the morning, leaving a message. Please read with an Indian accent.
     "Hello, Miss Ellie. Both your cats are missing... (pause for Ellie to panic)... you." Whew! We both had a good, relieved laugh over that one.
     As I loaded up the cats, the manager refused any payment for the room from Ellie on account of his friendship with Linda. Right from the start, our long journey was blessed.
     Like pioneers heading west, our covered wagon was a U-haul packed with everything we own, including Prince & Thriller, snuggling in a kennel on the seat between us up front. After several long Minnesota goodbyes, and making sure everything was securely tied down in back, we didn't make it out of the St. Cloud area until noon. As we crossed a bridge high over the Mississippi, we said goodbye to the mighty river whose banks we'd lived along for two years, whose churning waters gave birth to Minneapolis. I crossed the Mississippi almost every day of my life, usually twice. We don't know how long it will be until we see her again.
     Our destination that night was the border town of Portal, North Dakota, where we had a pet-friendly motel booked. We figured on crossing through customs in the morning, in case it would take a long time. We had no idea how often people drove U-hauls into Canada with cats. Our biggest fear was if they had to search the whole truck, which had taken us hours to pack just right. It seemed logical that they might; we could have been smuggling anything in there. And they would probably not repack it for us.
     Our route through North Dakota took us on several lonely two-lane highways and up through Minot. The truck was equipped with only a radio, and we were able to shift between classic hard rock, old country, and new country music, depending on our mood. We also shared that inevitable phenomenon with everyone driving westward all day: the sun always warming your face. I tried three different puddings with dinner at a roadside restaurant, and we kept on trucking. The full moon was low on the horizon, big and orange behind us, and we could see it in the rear-view mirrors.
      It was about ten o'clock and dark when we got to Portal. Besides the tall gates of the border crossing, we saw about three other buildings. One was a convenience store, and one a motel, but not the Americana Inn we had booked. Ellie went into the store to inquire, and it turned out to also serve as the motel's office. Although the sign said otherwise, this was indeed the Americana. When given Ellie's name, the clerk said that, although we had a reservation, the place was all booked up. The maid had had the weekend off, so our room was not useable. This was interesting.
     She said our best bet was to cross the border right away, because the officers were about to change shifts, they were tired and wouldn't want any extra hassle. The first town in Canada, Estevan, was thirty minutes away, and there were several motels there for oil workers. By the shady looks of this place in Portal, this sounded like a good plan.
     We had planned on looking our best going through customs, but here we were, all haggard after ten hours on the road. The officer, a man in his fifties, looked at our passports, glanced at the vaccination papers for the cats, and asked us the basic questions of what we were doing. "What do you have in the truck, household items?" We nodded. Then he asked us to park and step inside the immigration office.
     As soon as we stepped out of the cab, we saw a garter snake slithering in some landscaping pebbles. I took this as a good omen, as the first animal we saw in Canada; because their whole bodies are always in contact with the earth, they are ancient symbols of wisdom.
     Inside the office, a young blonde woman in a bulletproof vest took our passports and looked into our eyes across the desk as she grilled us most thoroughly. She questioned everything: our origins, our addresses, our bank account contents, Ellie's school start date, and more. She then disappeared with our papers for a few minutes before returning, asking us some more questions, and eventually stamping our passports and releasing us from her gaze. In this now-casual air, we asked about Estevan, and she gave us some specific directions to a Motel 6. They didn't even peek inside the truck.
     Exiting the immigration office, we saw the snake again, and after we passed, we looked back and saw it writhing up against the office door... trying to get in?
     We spent a pleasant evening at Motel 6 in Estevan, Saskatchewan, watching the TV show Mythbusters. When checking in, the motel clerk's Canadian accent had been apparent immediately.

Monday, 26 July, 2010
     The morning brought us to the recommended diner, Husky, which is also a gas station chain across Saskatchewan and Alberta. There we found the first of many road breakfasts: ham for Jacob and eggs over easy. Ellie's bacon extra crispy please, eggs over medium. With hashbrowns. In Canada they ask, "white or brown toast?" That makes sense. Why call it "wheat" when all bread is made from wheat?
     In every Canadian diner, one of the divisions in the little rack of jam packets contains peanut butter. Of this I heartily approve.
     Beginning immediately over the border, the candy bars suddenly changed. BIG TURK is chocolate-coated gummy cherry; MR.BIG is chocolate-covered wafers, caramel, and rice crisps; EAT-MORE is soft chocolate taffy with crushed peanuts in it. They do have SNICKERS, of course, and KIT-KAT, but the latter are somehow different. Of pop, which Ellie and I don't drink, yes they call it pop, and I noticed that what we call "high fructose corn syrup" they refer to as "glucose/fructose." Sneaky devils.
     We were now driving in kilometers per hour, and gas cost 99¢ a liter. With four liters in a gallon, and getting only eight miles per gallon, we initially panicked, but the projected cost was still within our fuel budget. US and Canadian currencies were on par, and both were freely accepted most places. We picked up some Canadian cash, which looks pretty neat. The bills are very colorful; the smallest bill, the five, has kids playing hockey on it. The one-dollar coin depicts a loon, and is known as a "loonie." The two-dollar coin is larger, with a golden center and a silver outer ring.
     The part of Estevan we were in was all dirt roads, dusty and treeless like a frontier town, with motels, gas stations, and auto shops at every corner where excavators weren't digging up new lots. Big rigs thundered by in all directions, and the air smelled of petrol. In the middle of this, I was surprised to see a well-designed sign reading Estevan Art Gallery. On our way out of town, we passed Main Street with the brick buildings and quaint old shops every small town should have. It was a relief to see.
     Our goal today was to drive completely across Saskatchewan, and spend the night in Lloydminster, the most Englishly-named town in North America, which straddles the border with Alberta. Our route would take us through Saskatoon, the biggest city in the province that is basically the Nebraska of Canada.
     I love looking out the window at whatever is out there, and am completely entertained in doing so. Ellie is too, and she also spent some time as passenger crocheting us a dishcloth. Our route across Saskatchewan was flat farmland. The utter flatness, the clear summer skies, and the high grade of the road allowed us to see incredible distances. Many of these fields were colored the most brilliant chartreuse, almost fluorescent like highway workers' vests. They were fields of mustard seed, I later learned. Saskatchewan produces half the world's mustard. We saw no cornfields.
      Only once on our entire journey did we need to stop and deal with a kitty-accident in their kennel. Prince, of course, who was still recovering from his illness, had a reaction to a can of Whiskas (the feline equivalent of Taco Bell), and proved the uselessness of the puppy diapers we had on him. We pulled off this rural, low traffic highway in Saskatchewan to clean him up. Ellie took charge of this, taking Prince out onto the mown grass next to the truck, and opposite the highway. As she cleaned him, Ellie felt more motherly than she ever had in her life. In many ways, Prince had been reduced to a baby state, and he needed lots of extra care. After helping get things in and out of the back of the truck, I stood and stared out over this mustard farm and inhaled deeply. All I smelled was the air.
     Each farm had meticulously maintained barns and buildings of matching paint jobs in dynamic colors like white and red, or orange and yellow. Like in the American Midwest, most farms also had ancient, collapsing, wooden barns, kept as historic showpieces. Also familiar were the ditches lining the highway that-judging by the tiny road signs hidden in the grass-doubled as snowmobile trails in the winter. When one of these trails ended, a large wordless sign was posted: a square, turned to be a diamond, painted with a yellow and black checkerboard, flanked on both sides by a narrow, horizontal rectangle, one fluorescent pink, one white, both with black diagonal stripes. I had never seen such a sign. It was very striking.

Artist's rendition.
     This highway we were on was the Louis Riel Memorial Trail. He is a Canadian folk hero, who led resistance movements against the Canadian government in the mid-19th century, fighting for the civil rights of the mixed indigenous and European population known as the Métis. (Read the excellent graphic novel biography of him by Chester Brown.) We stopped by an iron sculpture of Riel and an oxless ox cart, which is his symbol. We had seen a berry stand and a burger stand called Twisted Sisters, and stopped for a little of both. We tried a Saskatoon berry, an inferior cousin of the blueberry, and opted for a bag of cherries. I later learned the Saskatoon berry is just another name for the Juneberry or serviceberry, which I have had in northern Minnesota, and they are delicious. These must have just been out in the sun too long.
     One long stretch of our drive crossed an area of gorgeous and unique geological features. While still not rising up, the land was carved deeply by glaciers or ancient rivers to form hills and canyons. Some of these were rocky, and others fuzzily wooded. We had never seen a place like this, and it is very hard to describe. I would like to learn more about it. Eventually we passed this area, and the land suddenly flattened out. Somewhere in Saskatchewan we saw a bison sitting on the other side of a fence separating the highway from wooded parkland.
     The sun was low on the horizon when we reached Lloydminster, and we followed our directions to the EconoLodge motel, a mid-century building with a nice façade of dark wood, nestled in among other old buildings along the railroad tracks. It was comforting to see, as opposed to one of those newly constructed suburban motels with nothing around but other motels. On the ground floor were a bar and a restaurant, one on either side of the motel. Inside, the busty manager, Tammy, met us with kindness and generosity. The motel did not allow pets, but since we had been told it did, she brushed off our worry and said the cats were welcome to stay. She also offered to let us use her computer and internet. As we got up to our room, Tammy ran up to us, saying we probably wanted a non-smoking room, the one she had given us was smoking, and she told us to take instead this other, bigger room at no extra charge, and she'd go get us the right key cards.
     After letting the cats out of their cage and feeding them, Ellie and I went out to get a bite ourselves, and to check out Lloydminster before dark. We strolled around the old town, where everything was closed except along the highway. Many of the buildings had worn Art Deco façades. The 110th meridian west longitude line (also the Alberta/Saskatchewan border) cuts right through town a block from our motel (we were on the Alberta side), and was gaily marked. Saskatchewan's symbol (on the left) is three bundles of wheat. Also, in Canada, the 110th Meridian is called the 4th.
     Nothing appealed to us on the highway, so we returned to find our hotel restaurant closed. We hadn't realized it was getting on ten o'clock since it was still just dusk. We had truly arrived in the North. Into the saloon we walked, which had many empty booths like a restaurant, a sunken dancefloor, and a bar with a brightly lit white wall behind it and no visible bottles. There were a couple neon beer signs tacked to the wall, but no beer list. It looked more like the back kitchen of a restaurant than a public bar. The gruff, wiry workman pouring drinks answered "nope" to our inquiry into the availability of food.
     Through a door back into the motel, Tammy was surprised to hear that the restaurant was closed. She said the cook is probably still there, and usually makes "appies" for bar patrons until midnight. The bartender "doesn't care enough" to know this or to offer this information, she added. We didn't need much by this point, and I ordered the poutine. Oh, Canada!
     We went back and sat at the bar for our first drink in Canada. Ellie ordered a whisky and soda. The bartender looked doubtfully around at the floor and into the walk-in cooler. No club soda. "What whiskies do you have?" He picked up the bottle in front of him, a bottom-shelf Canadian blend. She asked for some on the rocks. I was surprised they had ice. Instead of asking for their beer selection, seeing a Molson clock on the wall, I took a chance and ordered a Molson. An ice-cold bottle was quickly delivered.
     Tammy brought our food in herself, although she was due to finish her 16-hour shift. She said they were out of bacon bits, so she charged us a dollar or two less than it cost. We told her to keep the change anyway. We moved to the dim light of a booth. Karaoke had begun, hosted by a charismatic man and woman of country music persuasion. They were the only singers thus far, doing a couple Johnny Cash tunes among others. One song made our ears perk up, one we'd never heard before. Even if we had, the lyrics would not have struck us any less forcibly:
Way up north, North To Alaska
They're goin' North, the rush is on
     Ellie and I looked at each other. We were suddenly reminded of the spirit guiding us. We knew we were in exactly the right place in this world.
     Maybe ten other people were in the place, including an unimpressed older couple drinking Diet Coke. Ellie was ready to jump onstage while I finished off my first ever plate of poutine, a distinctly Canadian dish which is basically French fries covered with gravy and cheese.
     A couple of other patrons performed before Ellie went up to do a tremendous rendition of a Patsy Cline tune. As entertaining as karaoke in general and these folks in particular promised to be, we wanted to play with the cats and hit the hay. I bought another Molson off-sale, and we went back up to the room for the night. Mythbusters was on again.
Tuesday, 27 July, 2010
     Today's province was Alberta. We would pass through Edmonton on our way to Grande Prairie on the western edge. After our usual breakfast at the hotel restaurant, we hit the road. We continued our discussion that began when we learned the price of gas: could we possibly go camping with cats? This would save us $100 a night in lodging. But would the cats run off into the woods? Would they attract bears? Would they cry at night and annoy the neighboring campers? We looked at the Alberta map and saw a few provincial park campgrounds near the highway just before Grande Prairie. As we traveled, we kept thinking and talking about it. We both wanted it to work, so we figured it was worth giving a try. The cats would probably stick around our site and come running when called, just like in our old backyard.
     In Edmonton, we stopped at a supermarket for camping provisions. The cashier somehow knew we were outsiders, and when we mentioned Minneapolis, he said, "That's where Prince is from." He also said we'll never make it to Grande Prairie today, which was odd. It was then early afternoon, and Grande Prairie was only five hours away.
     Across the parking lot from the supermarket was its liquor store, and I was interested to see how much beer cost in Canada, and what brands they offer. The first surprise was that there were no coolers. All the cases were just sitting there in stacks. Secondly, the prices shocked me. Beers like Coors or Bud, which I'm used to being cheap, cost something like $25 for a twelve-pack! Canadian beers like Molson were the same. In Canada, in addition to the pack sizes we know, 15-packs are common. We chose to get a couple tall cans of Pilsner Urquell and Löwenbräu for the cooler, and a small bottle of Crown Royal to make our next few nights truly Canadian. The clerk didn't card us; the drinking age there is eighteen!
     Onward we drove out of Edmonton, and a pity we couldn't spare any time there. We wanted to get as close to the city of Grande Prairie as possible before finding a campground, so that we could stay on our itinerary. We canceled our motel reservation on the way, and ended up pulling into Williamson Provincial Park, five hours from Edmonton, and an hour or so before Grande Prairie.
     Tall pines sheltered the campsites and the beach on Sturgeon Lake. After some difficulty backing the U-Haul into a vacant site, a burly, mustachioed British Columbian walked by, who informed us that the rangers were supposed to have brought in firewood for everyone, but hadn't, and would not until Thursday. Since my camp stove was packed way back in the U-Haul, we were banking on firewood to cook our foil dinners, and the sun was setting, which would hinder my ability to gather any. He said, in an accent both Canadian and slightly British, "B.C. versus Alberta Provincial Parks are like night and day. In B.C. you get firewood, showers..." He also pointed to some sites a few yards ahead with nice grassy clearings for tents; the site we'd parked in had no place for one. We were hungry and confused, but we pressed on.
     Just ahead we found a much better site, and Ellie spotted a family with a motor home and a giant pile of cut firewood. She asked them if we could buy a bundle, and they said we could just help ourselves. They were just sitting down to eat, and we had our own things to set up, so we went back to our site. Before the tent was even out of the bag, up came a man, his wife, and two little girls, all carrying pieces of firewood in their arms for us. More unbelievable generosity from strangers.
     Meanwhile, we let Prince and Thriller out of the cab and set up their litter box and food dishes on the gravel outside. This was the moment of truth. While I chopped wood and Ellie chopped vegetables, we watched the cats prowl around the campsite. Prince, still recovering from kitty meningitis, mostly stayed nearby, but Thriller wandered a few times. Under the bearproof dumpster, over to a neighboring site, into the raspberry bushes, after a tiny pine squirrel, but he came when called or when chased after. We savored the sight of them out in nature, a rare event for house cats. It felt really good to share the outdoors with them; we often remark how we would like to take them places, like you can with dogs. That idea seems much less absurd now.
     After so much driving and two nights in motels, and after so much debate as to whether or not we could camp with cats, Ellie and I felt great. We inhaled the smell of pines on a perfectly mild night. It was just getting dark when we ate supper, and it was probably quite late, as we were now over ten degrees of latitude farther north than Minneapolis. We had already put the cats into the U-Haul cab for the night, with a litter box and a dish of water on the floor, and with the windows cracked. Even if they did cry during the night, no one was camped immediately around us to hear them. We felt bad locking them up, but it was better than the kennel they were locked up in all day. It would be nice if they could sleep with us in the tent, but of course that would be impossible. Every claw mark would cut and snag the tent; by morning it would be shredded. Besides, they're mostly nocturnal. Being cooped up all day works because they sleep through most of it. We had to lock them up to keep them safe from predators.
     After our supper of pork and vegetables, Ellie gasped when she saw a big orange moon through the pines to the east. We walked down to the beach to see the moon reflected on the water. It was waning, but still quite large. We turned around and made our way back to the campsite for some well-deserved rest.

Wednesday, 28 July, 2010
     We took off in the morning with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, granola bars, and cold instant coffee. I usually drove in the morning, and for as long as I could stand it in the afternoon. After my neck or butt or mind would wear out, Ellie would take over and get us to our destination. It was another perfect summer day. We breezed through Grande Prairie in a blink, and accidentally strayed from 43, the main highway, onto a smaller northbound one. If we turned west up ahead, that road would bring us back to 43. The difference in distance was negligible, and instead of going back, we kept going. Ellie went to sleep. The land was wide open, and the road climbed up and down large, rolling hills. Suddenly, I saw a herd of bison in one of the surrounding ranches. We wouldn't have seen that if we hadn't made a made a "wrong" turn!
     I turned onto the smaller, two-lane highway heading straight west. We kept rolling up and down these hills. The ranches and farmland on either side were beautiful, and all the mature trees made them seem old. On the summits of the hills, the view was vast and astounding. I could only glance, since I was driving, and the U-Haul tended to go to the right. Ellie may have had a restless night, so I let her sleep, although she did wake up at intervals to squint out the window and smile. I saw more bison. Some of the little towns I passed had the title of hamlet, and one name I'll never forget was the Hamlet of Valhalla Centre.
     Soon we entered British Columbia, and we were excited for the next city, Dawson Creek, because there the Alaska Highway begins. A little background:
The United States wanted to set up military bases in Alaska during World War II, especially after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At that time, there was no road through the mountains to Alaska. In April of 1942, over 10,000 US soldiers, some beginning in Alaska, and some in British Columbia, worked steadily toward each other to build 1,500 miles of road before winter. They worked quickly: native guides led surveyors ten miles ahead of the bulldozers. It was a very rough, unpaved road, useable only by military vehicles until after the war. Now it is all paved, and goes up through the Yukon, all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska. However, like all American pioneering efforts, the tragedy came when native populations, who in the 1940s had still had no contact with whites other than fur traders, were exposed to soldiers' diseases. Many fell to illness, and many of the younger generation left behind traditional ways after the highway came through.
Even after all I'd read about Alaska, I was still amazed to learn how recently this highway had been built. It's a remarkable story that you should read about, or rent the PBS special Building the Alaska Highway.
     With no relation to Dawson's Creek, the teen drama set in Massachusetts, Dawson Creek, BC is a small city, in the middle of which is a roundabout (the first I'd ever driven in), with a big sign in the center marking the beginning of the Alaska Highway. We stopped nearby for more provisions. Now that we knew camping was doable, we stocked up for a couple days. I also bought a six-pack of a Canadian beer with the brand name Pilsner, which has some of the best graphic design on an extant product that I have ever beheld.
     Once our tires hit the Alaska Highway, we felt like he had reached a major milestone. We looked at the map and picked a campground that lay about how far we wanted to drive that day. It was called Buckinghorse River, and there were no other provincial park campgrounds within a day's drive. Soon the Rocky Mountains began. They were rocky in name only; in this part of BC, the mountains were green with trees and relatively low. A lot of the climbs were steep, however, and especially rigorous going up in a loaded U-Haul. Descending was no problem; we saved fuel, and I rarely had to downshift. We both got the hang of mountain driving eventually, and we knew not to ride the brake while descending.
     The views were incredible, the most epic being around Pink Mountain. There we encountered our first of several one-lane road construction stops. During construction, a worker was posted at the bottom of each side of the mountain. In Canada, every one of these workers were (honest to God) teenage girls, and most of them were also sexy, and wore helmets and mirrored aviator sunglasses. Their job was just directing traffic, but the dangers from trucks and truckers was real, and we thought this demographic consistency was very odd.
     The girl would stop all the vehicles, which formed a line. For our first time doing this, we got to be in the lead. Since our direction of travel was stopped, that meant the other side was coming over the mountain while we sat there. It was a long enough stop(fifteen or twenty minutes) that people got out and stretched. The girl communicated via walkie-talkie, stood around with her STOP sign dangling at her side, and sent some text messages. It was getting surreal. Since she had put down her STOP sign, did that mean we were no longer supposed to be stopped? Eventually we saw the line of cars coming toward us from over the rise, lead by an official Alberta pickup truck with a lit-up sign on it reading PILOT CAR, which pulled off by our girl to let all the vehicles behind it pass. The pilot, another teenage girl, chatted with ours for a while, until all the oncoming cars had passed. The girls got the go-ahead, and soon we were moving. Finally! We got to follow the pilot car over Pink Mountain.
     All the workers in the bulldozers on the mountain were adults, most of them men, and everything began to make sense again.
     Around lunchtime, Ellie said she needed a hot meal. We pulled off the highway at a sign that said RESTAURANT, beneath which was a row of pre-fab trailer-type buildings. We parked by the diesel tank in the gravel parking lot, and walked over to the main building. We climbed some steps onto a wooden deck, and began to wonder if this was a restaurant after all. It appeared to be a camp for miners or oil well workers. Inside was white and brightly lit like a church cafeteria. Right inside the door was a long row of coat hooks and benches, with a sign commanding that work shoes be removed. No one could be seen. In the next room were a dozen or so tables set with arrays of condiments, and a white-board with the menu written on it. A lady behind a cash register stood talking on a cordless phone. Ellie went to the ladies' room. I stood, alone, and out of place.
     Soon, the woman came and asked if we would like some food. "Can we?" I asked. Ellie came back, and we were seated in the middle of the room. The tables and floor were immaculate. We ordered coffee, cups of soup, and a plate of chicken fingers and fries to share. We asked her about the place, and learned that it was indeed a workmans' camp cafeteria, but the owners had just recently allowed her to open it up to the public. It seemed like it could be lucrative, since there were no other oases anywhere nearby. When we left we bought a wrapped slice of pineapple upside-down cake to go. Back outside we watched a tiny kangaroo rat bounce around in the dust under the truck before we drove on.
     In the late afternoon, we pulled off the highway and onto a gravel road leading a few hundred yards to the Buckinghorse River Provincial Park campground. And that's pretty much what the campground was: a gravel road. There were twenty or so sites: a picnic table, fire ring, and flattened square of crushed gravel lay every few feet in a row along the road. Behind each site was wooded, and behind the trees flowed the river. They were basically RV parking areas. In the first site I examined, the only area apparently intended for a tent was covered in both pebbles and tree roots. We considered paying for a site and then setting up our tent in an adjacent grassy area across the road, but it was a bit too wild there for the cats. We considered leaving. There were no other official campgrounds nearby, but the British Columbian we had spoken with in Alberta had said we could make camp anywhere in BC without penalty, as long as we didn't build a fire. That was something we needed, unless PB-&-Js were to be our supper. It would also be really hard to go off-road with the truck and the cats.
     I examined another site, with some property back in the woods, and found that we really could pitch a tent there and be comfortable. We would stay.  There were RVs parked at several other sites up and down this gravel road, across which was a steep, wooded hill. I climbed up it to go scout out some firewood. Once in the trees the air was suddenly hushed. All around me grew tall, narrow pines covered in lichen. Rust-red logs and needles in the shadows contrasted with the bright green patches in the open. The mossy ground was springy beneath my feet. I was in the northern muskeg. Down the hill a tiny creek flowed through a clearing of green plants. I jangled the keys on my belt as I walked, so I didn't surprise any bears or moose. I gathered an armful of lichen-covered dry branches and headed back to camp, after which I made a couple more trips until we had an ample woodpile.
     Ellie had gone to the latrine, while I had a snack, and after she had been gone for some time, I began to worry. I walked over in that direction, and found her engaged in conversation with an elderly couple from New York, "Dutch" and Phyllis. They had driven their RV with some friends all the way to Alaska, and were on their way back. They had made this trip one or more times before, but Phyllis said she probably couldn't handle it again. This was one of several instances on our trip when Ellie was told how great a teacher she is going to be, and how much we were going to love Juneau. Dutch and Phyllis were very sweet, and their words left us feeling warm inside.
     Back at camp, we donned our baseball mitts and played catch for some long-needed exercise. Supper was leftovers from the night before, reheated in foil over the fire. At dusk, with the cats and everything put away, Ellie and I took a little hike. We walked back where I had gathered wood, and a little farther, into an open area of tiny, crunchy muskeg plants and scattered young pines.
     It was getting spooky out there, and this was definitely bear country. Ellie had learned that bears had been spotted that week at a workman's trailer camp where we had turned off the highway. We walked back to camp and then through the woods to the river, where each of us had already visited earlier. The twilight was still bright enough to see everything. The Buckinghorse is a small, shallow river flowing over round stones, the kind you'd find in western Montana. Above it, the pine-covered hills were becoming silhouette, and peeking out behind was the still-round moon.
Thursday, 29 July, 2010
     In the morning, we went to the Buckinghorse Lodge for breakfast on our way out of camp. This was a small log cabin-style diner out on the highway, with rooms for rent in back. We had our pick of tables, and after sitting down, we asked the waitress if we could plug our dead cell phones into one of the vacant outlets. She was fine with it, and Ellie also managed to charge some camera batteries before we left. While we waited for our food (I opted for a ham and cheese omelet this time), a trucker sat down at another table and soon began addressing us with wisecracking banter. "I don't get out much," he explained. This delightful fellow was from Vancouver, and was on his way back from the Yukon after a haul. He joked with everyone, including the waitress, who asked if he wanted some more coffee. "No," he said, ironically, and then had to stop her from walking away. The menu including some history on the place, and a list of frequently asked, stupid questions from tourists.
     "When do the northern lights come on?"
     "Do you serve food here?"
     "Are you open?" (after walking through the door).
     "What time do the moose cross the road?"
That poor menu-writer had really had it. I felt sheepish reading this because I could see myself asking every one of these questions, though maybe worded differently.
     We had long been looking forward to tonight's destination, the Liard Hot Springs, which was also a provincial park campground. The day's drive was shorter than our usual ten-hour ones, so we'd have lots of time to relax in the hot springs. On our way, we found ourselves in line for another single lane escort over a mountain. Ahead of us was a car with Alberta plates, and after a little while, everyone got out to stand around. It was another sunny day. The road was cut into the hillside above a sparkling creek with a huge beaver dam spanning it. All around were steep, pine-covered mountains.
     As we stood and looked around, an older couple from the car in front of us came over and we chatted. Our U-Haul always sparked a conversation. The man had worked for Schwann's ice cream his whole life, and so he'd spent a lot of time at their headquarters in Minnesota. He had been their supreme leader in sales. Talking about people's different attitudes in different regions, he informed us that people in Saskatchewan are socialists. We were not aware of that.

     It was another mountainous day of driving, epic and challenging. Descending one hill, Ellie pointed out a black bear crossing the road up ahead, and it ran into the woods before we got anywhere near. We had seen lots of moose-crossing signs throughout Canada, but no moose. I was fine with this, thinking of the damage one could do to us, but I would still like to someday see one from a distance. Now we saw bison-crossing signs. I couldn't imagine seeing bison herds in the thick forests of northern British Columbia; I always thought of them as plains animals. I later learned that wood bison are a subspecies onto themselves, and are somewhat heavier than their plains cousins, making them the largest land animal on the continent.

       The most memorable sight of this day's drive was Muncho Lake, where we pulled over for a few minutes to soak it in. The lake is jade green and huge, covering miles and miles beneath jagged mountain peaks. The road winds along its edge, carved out of the mountainside.  The sun hung above the peaks to the west and reflected brightly on the water. Our hearts swelled with awe at the epic beauty before us. We had somehow stepped into a postcard.
     Muncho Lake was a provincial park, and there were several campgrounds along the road, all with signs reading FULL. We crossed our fingers that we would not see one of those at Liard River.
     Unfortunately, we did see such a sign at our destination, but both of our instincts told us to drive in anyway. When the ranger approached my window, I said, "So, the campground's full, eh?" She said yes, but we could go ahead and camp in the day-use area. We even got our own picnic table and fire ring! We got in there just in time to secure a spot, as even the day-use spots were filling up. The hot springs were a popular attraction for vacationers and locals, and they were open all night. The gates of the park closed at 10:00 pm.
     We had to pitch our tent on gravelly dirt, but I picked up all the jagged little rocks that could poke into our backs. I didn't think to follow the Boy Scout method of digging out holes for your hips and shoulders, but we ended up sleeping just fine.
     When we paid for our site, we also bought a bundle of firewood, which was soon delivered to our site by a wiry old man driving a red park-ranger golf cart. Beside him sat a young woman, whose job seemed to be to wear a huge smile and laugh at the old man's jokes. "The hot springs are open all night, and after dark I think clothing is optional," he cackled excitedly. The woman laughed.
     Ellie joked, "You pipe some romantic music back there?" Some quips were made about binoculars and hidden cameras, and the man and woman both laughed heartily as they drove off.
     After pitching the tent, I set to work chopping wood. Prince and Thriller strolled around our site. We pulled out the jug of rhubarb wine Ellie's grandma had made and given us for our trip. We each had a glass, and Ellie poured one for a nice old man from Montana who sat on a nearby bench waiting for his granddaughter to finish at the hot spring. He appreciated it a lot, and he and Ellie had a good talk. He had made his living gold mining in Alaska, as his son now does, and he described a jar full of gold nuggets his son owns.
     "There's your retirement fund," said Ellie. The man laughed.
     Meanwhile, a trio of BMW touring motorcycles pulled up next to our U-Haul, and beneath the riders' helmets emerged three men in their forties. Their bikes each had loaded saddlebags and compartments; they were obviously on a camping trip. Soon we learned their names, Steve, David, and Michael. The cats introduced themselves too; even Prince kept wandering under their bikes. They seemed like nice dudes, and we chatted with them about hanging out around the fire later on.
     The three men headed down to the hot spring as we set up camp. It was also a hot day, and we wanted the air or our bodies to cool down somewhat before this hot bath. I kept sniffing around our site because I detected a sulfurous odor, and was afraid the cats had dropped something around there. We donned our swimsuits, grabbed towels, and headed down the path to the hot spring. The path was a boardwalk across a lush, mossy bog. Trees towered over us at intervals, in between which lay small pools of water and rolling mounds of mossy peat. Mountains framed the horizon all around. It was a breathtaking walk.
     As we approached the large, steamy pool, I realized the origin of the eggy smell. It was not a very pleasant one, but tolerable, especially traded for the sensual pleasure we were about to experience. The pool consisted of two sections separated by a three-foot drop. A wooden deck bordered it on one side, and thick forest surrounded it in all directions. There were changing rooms, but we were ready to go. At the farthest end of the higher pool was the hottest water, where it flowed from the earth. People were in it all the way over there, but it was hotter than any normal bathwater, and intolerable to most.
     Ellie and I found our perfect temperatures in the middle of the hotter pool, and let this natural mineral bath take us over. Since the water constantly flowed out of a spring and away down a creek, it was constantly refreshed, unlike the human bouillon of a hot tub. People of all ages and shapes were enjoying this natural wonder. One lady told us that there were seven such hot springs in the area, but this was the only one developed for public recreation.
     After we had had enough, we dried off and walked back in a trance of complete fulfillment. Our state of relaxation was utterly pervasive. Walking through the sublime beauty of this forest bog, we felt incredibly thankful.
     The men and their bikes were gone when we returned, which seemed a little odd, but all of our stuff was still there. We fell asleep in the tent for a while before preparing supper. Our meal was excellent: we grilled chicken breasts on sheet of aluminum foil on the grill of the fire ring, and steamed fresh broccoli in a pouch fashioned from more foil.
     After the sun had set, the bikers returned; they had just gone on a beer and snack run. They knew we didn't have any extra beer, and they really wanted to take us up on our offer of hanging out. They were on a road trip, had spent the last few nights in motels, and so were excited to camp with some folks they deemed to be interesting. Their beer run turned out to be fortuitous; when they returned the gate was locked, but with their motorcycles, after taking the saddlebags off, they were able to get around it, and therefore not have to pay the camping fees. They were obviously not hurting for money, but they enjoyed the naughtiness of it.
     After we cleaned up and I was building up the fire, a man approached us who had arrived in camp after the firewood delivery had ended. He asked if he could buy some of ours to cook dinner for his children. We were more than happy to give him some, especially to return the kindness we had been shown in Alberta. Soon, Ellie, the three bikers, and I gathered around in camping chairs or on cycle saddle-boxes.
     Mike, David, and Steve were from Vancouver. There had been another dude in their party, but the day before, they had all crashed trying to navigate some loose gravel, and the other guy broke his leg. They all wore calm smiles recounting this story, as defense against the grisliness of it, because they were used to crashing (they had all done a lot of cycle racing), and they had survived. We heard stories of several other trips like this they'd gone on, one in northern Africa. On that trip, their fourth buddy went delusional on a sand dune and had to bail out. Other stories confirmed the fact that Mike, Steve, and David were the solid core of this group; they were always left standing at the end of their adventures.
     They all had kids and wives, and we thought how cool it was to take these vacations with your buddies, as long as it wasn't a symptom of dysfunction at home. They kept a journal on their adventures, and along the way they bade people they met to add something to it. I thought that added a richness to these guys' trips; they weren't just pleasure-cruising. Adding to this feeling, our conversation most often turned to living life fully, which people in their forties demonstrate so much more strongly than those in their twenties and thirties. The older you get, the less you take to heart others' opinions; you just do what you want to do, and you have a much more realistic grasp of what you're capable of. David, a former pastor, gave an adamant monologue on this subject. As long as you are living for love, he said, you can and should explore everything possible in life. We were deeply affected and inspired by his well-traveled wisdom.
     Now that night had fallen, it was time to visit the hot springs again. The air was quite chilly; the bath would warm us before retiring to the tent. The moon lit our way through the bog forest, and illuminated the mountains beyond. The mysterious beauty of this place was sublime. In the cold air of night, the hot pools steamed even more. There were only a couple of other people in there now.
     We enjoyed this mystical bath with our new friends, and after a while, we left them there, and walked steaming in the moonlight, back to our little tent.

Friday, 30 July, 2010
     Yukon ho! After saying our farewells to the three amigos, and writing a message in their journal, we set off to continue our journey on the Alaska Highway. All the Canadians we had encountered, especially these vibrant fellows, filled us with a renewed sense of purpose to fulfill our destinies and to explore this great land. Almost right away Ellie spotted a herd of wood bison up ahead. I slowed completely, and the few actually in the road casually walked back to the grass with the others before we got near.
     Tonight we were going to try to get as close to Alaska as possible. We could probably have made it all the way to Skagway, the first town in Alaska, where we were scheduled to catch the ferry to Juneau. However, we wanted to arrive in Juneau on August 1st; our ferry ticket was for that day, and we had already arranged our meeting with our new caretaker to get our keys. We were enjoying camping so much, that we didn't think twice about doing so in the Yukon, rather than paying for two nights in the hotel in Skagway.
     As soon as we entered the Yukon, the rolling green mountains looked foggy, but from the smell of the air, we could tell it was woodsmoke. We saw no forest fires, but the air stayed smoky for a few hours. We stopped in Watson Lake to send some postcards, and to check out the famed Signpost Forest. We did not get out and walk around in it; we could have spent hours doing so, but we had to get on the road. Just getting an eyeful to comprehend the vast scale of it was enough for me. As far as roadside attractions go, the Signpost Forest is quite impressive, with over 40,000 signposts brought from all over the world.
     In late afternoon we were near several provincial park campgrounds. Teslin Lake caught our eye, as the campground was down near the water of this beautiful lake, really a widening of the Teslin River. We saw a sign saying CAMPGROUND 1 KM, which is a blink of an eye going 100 kmh, but we never saw any turnoffs, nor convenient places to turn around, so we kept driving. Stopping a loaded U-Haul traveling that fast is not an easy thing to do. We opted for the next campground, Squanga Lake, which ended up more than quenching our thirst for beauty.
     We stopped for gas before we got there, and spotted a car at one of the pumps, with Minnesota plates and pulling a U-Haul trailer. A stout young man in a sweatshirt that read ALASKA GROWN was pumping while his mother sat in the passenger seat. Ellie excitedly greeted him, "We're moving to Alaska too!" Whether he was road-weary or because he was actually Alaskan and had only lived in Minneapolis a year or two, he did not express any enthusiasm in reaching out to us. Oh well.
     We had our pick of campsites at Squanga Lake, and chose one situated beneath scattered pines, on top of a steep hill overlooking the water. It was gorgeous. Near every few sites was a covered cinder-block shed full of unsplit firewood, mostly cut logs two feet in diameter, but much of it in more manageable pieces. Three magpies greeted us from above, each one on the next highest branch of the same tree. Perhaps the cats, now roaming freely, caused the birds concern. Some neighbors were camped fifty feet away in three or four RVs, and the women were seated around in camp chairs.
       Prince and Thriller had a grand time prowling around on the carpet of dried pine needles; Thriller even ventured out into the bush a few times. As the sun slowly lowered, opportunities for pretty photos multiplied greatly. This far north the photographer's "magic hour" lasted several.

     Besides taking snapshots, we spent time splitting wood, preparing supper, and chatting with neighbors. Our meal, steamed in a foil pouch, consisted of beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and broccoli, seasoned with salt and pepper. Along with it we ate Club crackers, and it was delightful.
     It may have been 9:00 pm when we ate, but the sun had not yet set, so it did not seem late. With the camera, we recorded the dramatic changes in the sky over the lake, and eventually the rising moon. We retired at about 11:30 or midnight, and it was still twilight. We did not even need a flashlight. This aspect of the northern latitude seemed magical to us, and I found it strange that, as long as the sun still shone, my body did not feel tired. The light would have been even more dramatic around the summer solstice; it would have probably never gotten dark entirely. Otherwise, aside from the mountains and a few different plants, this part of the Yukon was a lot like northern Minnesota. We will definitely return.
Saturday, 31 July, 2010
     Today we would enter Alaska! A scenic drive promising the prettiest views on our whole route, and another border crossing lay ahead of us. After picking up hot coffee and a scone in nearby Johnson's Crossing, we left the Alaska Highway for the Klondike Highway, which would lead us eventually to Skagway, Alaska. With every revolution of our wheels we came nearer to the coastal rainforest and fjords of our new home. As a reminder of this, we soon saw the first rain sprinkles of our whole trip on the windshield.
     We tooled through the historic little town of Carcross looking for a gas station, but there was none. This was no longer the relative thoroughfare of the Alaska Highway, so travelers had to be prepared. The little cabin-like houses and old-time railway in Carcross were charming. We had just enough gas to get us to Skagway, and we committed to move forward.
     This drive was indeed gorgeous. We drove up and down and wound around several mountains, and in the distance saw snow-covered rocky peaks. In quick succession on a narrow mountain road, we saw a young caribou and a family of bighorn sheep. A small brown bear ran across the road. We stopped briefly at an outlook, and stared up in awe through the mist at the foggy forest. The views were as epic as anything we'd ever seen.
     The south Klondike Highway threads in and out of the Yukon and British Columbia, and the US ultimately borders BC. Just before reaching customs, which was not in any town, the road suddenly cut through what I can only describe as an alien landscape. The ground was low, rough, and entirely rocky, covered in white lichen, and hardly any vegetation. Every so often a depression was filled with turquoise water. This sudden shift in color and expanded field of vision from the thick forest was very striking. It was like this for a mile or so, confined on both sides of the road by steep green mountains disappearing into the mist above. What an eerie landscape. I had never seen anything like it before. It truly looked like the surface of a moon or another planet. We must have been anxious to get to customs, especially since we really had no idea how soon we'd reach it, because we have no photos of this area.
     There was a short line of cars at the border crossing. The officer asked for our passports, and I volunteered the cat papers. She just asked a few questions, and let us through without even opening the back of the U-Haul. We made it to Alaska!
     Now came the most gripping leg of our drive. It was raining in Alaska. The border was on a mountaintop, and we were inside of the cloud. We could see very little in the fog, but luckily the speed limit (in mph once again) was 40. It was downhill all the way to Skagway. The road hugged the mountain on the left, and to the right was a sheer drop into white nothingness. It was so steep and winding, I had to shift all the way down to first. Oncoming headlights passed every so often, but traffic was blessedly light. My eyes were glued open and keenly alert for crossing wildlife, though none ever appeared. It was quite exciting.
     After descending over 3,000 feet, we emerged from the cloud into the sea-level Gold Rush town of Skagway. A half-mile down the main street, we could see the foggy harbor. There was a light drizzle, something we were going to get used to. We got gas at the town's single station, and parked the U-Haul near our hotel. It was about 1:00 pm; we had a couple of hours to kill before check-in time. We walked around with the scores of other tourists. Skagway is a popular stop for cruise ships, and a ferry stop on the Alaska Marine Highway. The town retains a frontier flavor, its buildings with false wooden fronts and plank sidewalks.
     We got a bite to eat, including our first bowls of fresh clam chowder since our honeymoon on the Oregon coast over a year before. We also tried our first pints of beer from the Alaskan Brewery of Juneau, which we would soon get to know well. I had their Amber, which (for you beer connoisseurs) is an Alt-style. Ellie had their White. In the men's room, I saw some "612" graffiti, denoting the Minneapolis area code, indicating a Minnesotan had been here recently. At the next pub we stopped in, some Minnesota Twins graffiti was scribbled on the bathroom wall. It was strange to see, funny, maybe a little welcoming, but mostly we felt shame; a kinsman was out there cultivating a reputation as a petty vandal.
     During this time, we also stopped by the library. A librarian met us at the door and greeted us with, "Here to use the internet?" We were officially tourists. Indeed, Ellie did some business online and I checked some newspapers for news of the Twins. We had to find some cat food, and the natural food market was closed for the day, so we ended up with some cat treats we thought would get us to Juneau. It was a decision no decent parent would have made, but we could not bear the outcome of more Whiskas. It was our foolishness to not have packed more of their good food. (Pictured is a Gold Rush-era "billboard" on a cliff over town.)
     We enjoyed walking around Skagway before checking in to the historic Westmark hotel (on right, the view from our window). It turned out the hotel manager was a real cat lover. She bade us let Prince and Thriller out of their cage behind the desk, so she could meet them. She was quite impressed. The room was nice. After showering off four days of camping, we watched a little more Mythbusters before dressing for supper. It seemed to be always on for us.
     We ate a lovely meal in the hotel restaurant; the night's special of steak au poivre and apple pie. As we finished (taking the pie to go, for the morning) we overheard an older couple chatting with the Greek waitress. Actually, the man was grilling her, but they were nice folks. Our interest was piqued when he mentioned he was from Juneau. As we walked out, Ellie greeted them, and we talked for a few minutes about our move, and they answered our questions about all things Juneau. The man was a former pastor, and now drove a tour bus. They would be on the same ferry tomorrow, and they advised us to go get our boarding pass tonight. We had a ticket already, but this would allow us to drive right up into the correct lane in the morning and not have to do any extra waiting. We thanked them, dropped off our slices of pie, and hit the town again.
     We walked down to the harbor through the drizzle; we were excited to see the water. While technically a fjord, and not the Pacific Ocean, this was salt water, and we had arrived. The fog was thick. We could not even see the end of the dock.

     Getting the boarding pass was painless, and we walked the 500 feet back to town, and into the first saloon we saw, The Red Onion. Business was slow, which suited us fine. The wall above the bar was adorned with painted portraits of harlots, and high on the opposite wall hung a vast gallery of chamber pots. In 1898, this had been a brothel, and upstairs was now a museum in its honor, closed for the night. We chatted with the young bartender from South Dakota, who pointed out the well-muscled cook in the Twins cap: a Minnesotan. I tried the Alaskan oatmeal stout. After one drink, we departed.
     I was especially looking forward to our next stop, the Skagway Brewing Company, a brewpub. I had noticed their spruce-tip ale on our earlier walk through town. The place was pretty bumping, but we soon scored two stools at the bar. The fellow who bequeathed them walked to one side of the room and picked up a guitar. He soon began playing and singing folky blues into a microphone. I enjoyed trying several of the house brews. The spruce-tip ale was excellent. The singer played a lot of covers, including one which gave us pause: Prince's "Purple Rain," the unofficial anthem of Minneapolis. He did a decent job, and it definitely stirred emotion in us.
     We chatted with a few locals our age, most notably a long-bearded kayak guide who told us we should move to Skagway instead of Juneau. It was a nice little pub, although overrun with tourists (who often have such confused looks on their faces). It made me think about what Skagway must be like after the last cruise ship shoves off. This would prove to be an oft-revisited thought concerning our new home. One more detail of note, enthusiasm for which only select readers will share: a huge Patrick Swayze Roadhouse poster hung in the kitchen.

Sunday, 1 August, 2010
     Rising early, we found ourselves parked in line at the ferry dock, in one of several painted lanes, by 6:00 am. Dozens of vehicles waited to board the ferry. Officials walked around to warn everyone about propane tanks: whether the large ones on RVs or small ones for camp stoves, they must be claimed and somehow sealed by these officials. Suddenly, my gut tightened and I was washed over by the flush of panic. My mind began to race. Did we have a propane tank? I remembered seeing one when packing our house one month before. I was pretty sure I packed one in a box somewhere, since it was brand new. The camp stove was back there for sure. However, if I did pack a propane tank, fifteen feet of floor-to-ceiling stacks of boxes and furniture separated it from the U-Haul door, and I had absolutely no idea what box it was in or where the box was. If I told them I had one, it would take hours to find it, and we would therefore be sacrificing our passage for that day.
     What would happen if they didn't seal a tank? Was there extreme pressure on the cargo deck that would cause it to leak, or worse: explode? That kind of danger seemed strange, because pets were required to remain in the vehicles. What if my poor judgment caused not only some or all of our belongings and our rented truck to get ruined, but maybe the death of someone's beloved pet, or our own? What if the whole ship went down? I dared not ask how serious this propane thing was.
     I began to rationalize. In the whole history of these vessels, surely now and again someone forgot they had a propane tank. We would have heard about a ship sinking because of it. There were no posted signs warning of the urgency of this. I calmed myself, figuring the worst case was that the tank would leak, not explode, and maybe there'd be few fumes down there. Plus, our truck was so full of stuff, maybe it was kind of sealed off already. How disappointing it would be to delay our arrival in Juneau. I kept my mouth shut. I prayed this wouldn't be a costly mistake.
     Our turn quickly came, and men signaled us to drive slowly down a ramp, around a corner... and onto the ship! A man deftly motioned how exactly to turn the wheel as he guided us into a parking space against a wall. We grabbed what we needed, said goodbye to Prince and Thriller, and walked up the stairs to the passenger decks. We entered the first lounge we came to, the aft lounge, a very plain room full of tables and chairs. We figured we should stake out a spot while we could, since we were some of the first people aboard. Ellie parked herself on a soft bench at a table. She was ready to fall back asleep, and didn't mind if I walked around a bit.
     I had never really been on a large seagoing vessel before, and this one really impressed me. Her name was the Malaspina; like the rest of the fleet, named after an Alaska glacier and built in the early 1960s. The hallways were low, with windows all along, and the passengers were free to walk about, inside or out, as much as they pleased. I found one lounge that looked more like a first-class airplane cabin, and much more suitable for sleeping, with rows of soft, reclining, bolted-down chairs all facing forward, except for some which were intimately arranged around tables. There were windows only on two sides. I was going to go tell Ellie, when I came upon another room, the observation lounge. It had windows on three sides, and the forward-facing rows of seats were smaller, not reclining, and looked out over the bow of the ship. On the starboard side, at the back of the room was a desk with maps and brochures, where a US Forest Service ranger would be stationed to give talks. This is where we had to claim a spot.
     On the way back to Ellie, I saw nice, large wildlife paintings on many of the walls, a cafeteria, and a gift shop. The metal doors to many rooms within the ship were painted aqua, and all the steel outside was white.
     I took the long way back, going out on one of the decks and around. With Ellie, we retraced this little tour, and found seats on the port side in the observation lounge, right next to the window, and near the front. Somewhat surprisingly, our seats were right behind the old Juneau couple from the restaurant!
     Once we shoved off, I could not stay in my seat for very long. I took many exploratory excursions outside and around the Malaspina. Ellie came with me on several occasions, and others she spent reading in the lounge. It was a seven-hour journey, with one hour stopped at Haines to drop off and pick up passengers, and we enjoyed it immensely. The interior of the ship had not only a very nautical quality, but the well-worn and comforting character of modern 1960s architecture. The vistas we saw from the deck were otherworldly. Sky blue glaciers, teal-colored water, mist-enshrouded mountains with trickling waterfalls, waves reflecting silver clouds. The wind blew cold out there, but in a few hours the sun came out.
     At 9:00 we landed at Haines for an hour, and Ellie and I had some breakfast in the cafeteria, which is always fun, choosing all the foods you want for ridiculously cheap. Everyone stood in line and ordered right from the cooks. Watching them cook omelets on the huge steel griddle was very educational. During his stop, we were allowed to go visit our pets in the cargo deck, and we did so. I also opened the back of the truck. No propane fumes!
     In the observation lounge a young, female Forest Service ranger began regaling us with historical and natural information about what we were seeing, and when she settled back behind her desk, she would announce when whales or other marine mammals had been sighted, and where to look. I spotted a couple spouts of water from blowholes, and Ellie centered the binoculars clearly around the tail of a humpback whale. Back inside the observation lounge, Ellie read the final words of the book The Fledgling with tears running down her face. As she closed the book, the captain's voice came over the loudspeaker announcing that a pod of orcas were near! Ellie got to see them, but I missed it.
     Later, I was all alone on the deck when I saw a pod of Dall's porpoises right below in the water, swimming along with the ship. I could clearly see their black and white markings just beneath the surface of the water. I stayed at the bow with the cold wind in my face as I began to see more and more houses along shore. The Malaspina was approaching Juneau. I could not see Ellie in our seats through the window, so (for the first time since leaving Minneapolis) I used my cell phone to contact her. She joined me with some other passengers as we rounded Shelter Island and saw the bright blue Mendenhall Glacier blanketing the valley like a flooding river frozen mid-flow. The green mountains of Douglas Island towered above us as the ship turned toward the harbor at Auke Bay.
     From here we could not see downtown Juneau, where our apartment waited for us. The ferry docked at the harbor, we got into the truck, and soon pulled out onto the road. We made it to Juneau! Downtown is about ten miles from the ferry terminal and airport. Once we got there, we saw that it begins at sea-level, where the cruise ships dock, and continues up the hillside toward Mount Juneau. Our new apartment is in a high-rise called the Mendenhall Tower, built where the hill starts getting steep.
     The streets are pretty narrow, but the cars seemed to get by our U-Haul just fine. We made some quick friends coming out of the building, who helped us with a few loads. Everyone knows the struggles of moving, and I won't recount it all here. One thing I now know is that we did not have any propane tanks with us in the U-Haul. Luckily the building has an elevator; we're on the fifth floor. Our apartment is small, but we have lots of closets and storage space. We brought enough things to furnish a larger apartment and an art studio, and once we're on our feet here, we will find a more suitable place for us and the cats. For now, we have everything cozily in place, except my drawing table and lots of extra kitchen stuff. This is a nice apartment to start out. Our view of the mountain is incredible, with waterfalls trickling down and fog drifting across. Here are some shots of our apartment:
     We have had a lot of clear sunny days like this. We look up at Mt. Juneau from our dining table. The other shot shows how steep the hill is, and it gets even steeper farther up. The streets and sidewalks are all very narrow, and one must often walk in the street to pass tourists, who have a habit of stopping suddenly. There is so little traffic, that this does not pose any danger.
     To give you an idea of the lay of the land... The ferries dock at Auke Bay, home of the University of Alaska Southeast, which is separated from Mendenhall Valley by a peninsula. "The Valley," where most of Juneau's population lives, is spread out like a suburb, and features the big stores and malls, and the airport. Here lies the glacier itself, causing the area's temperature to be significantly cooler. Downtown Juneau is ten miles down the road from the airport. This is the historic Gold Rush town and state capital, built at the foot of Mount Juneau, where the cruise ships dock, unloading thousands of tourists a day to shop for jewelry.
     So the two main areas of Juneau are ten miles apart, which is familiar to a Twin Cities boy. The locals do refer to each area by their respective monikers, but they are both officially Juneau. It's a relatively small town of 30,000 (about 95 times smaller than the Twin Cities metro). There are no roads in or out of here, just one forty-mile road (Glacier Highway) that stops at each end. The stretch between the Valley and downtown is a newly-built expressway over a wetlands. Along much of Glacier Highway runs a wide bike lane or off-street bike trails, and hiking trails branch off into the mountains all over the place. One big bridge spans the Gastineau Channel to Douglas Island and the much smaller but similarly stretched out town of Douglas. They boast Eaglecrest ski area, a convenience store, gas station, library, two pubs, and a café.
     Just stepping outside and looking around, mountains loom in every direction, mostly covered in green pines. From higher standpoints, snow-capped peaks are visible in the distance. On cloudy days, fog drifts in and marches across the hills, obscuring them from view. We were fortunate to arrive on a clear day, so that we could see everything surrounding our new home. Juneau definitely feels coastal, although several large and mountainous islands block our view of the Pacific. To see open ocean would involve an eight-hour ferry ride to Sitka, and even that lies deep in a sound. We do plan on making the trip at some point; we've heard nice things about Sitka.
     We have made several friends at Ellie's school, including the Special Education Director, the man who interviewed Ellie at the job fair and is basically responsible for us moving here. One Saturday, he drove us all around Douglas Island and all the way "out the road," as they say. We saw some gorgeous places that we'll be better able to enjoy once we have a car. One day in the elevator I talked to a guy (I must have been wearing my Twins cap) who also just moved here from Minneapolis. He and his girlfriend lived five or six blocks from us in Northeast! And now they live on our floor! Crazy world. We have a standing double date with them every Wednesday at a local bar's trivia night.
     Just outside Juneau in all directions is wilderness, unadulterated forests, clean creeks, challenging mountain trails, and beyond that, the great Juneau Icefield, which feeds over forty large glaciers and 100 smaller ones.
More observations of Juneau, Alaska
      We saw this posted in the hotel room in Skagway, but the same is true here: the city drinking water comes from mountain streams, and it is so cold, the toilet tank sweats, as does any glass filled with cold water. It tastes great, and has no added fluoride.
     Moss is very pervasive here, and grows on rooftops and in gutters.
Below: Yes, a sphere house!
Below: photos of our cruise around Douglas Island with new friends Robert and Captain Rich.
Below: scenes of Gold Creek, which runs a few blocks from our apartment and provides Juneau's drinking water.
Below: full moon shots of our neighborhood with Mt. Roberts towering behind.
Below: Trail and ruins of Last Chance Mine, a short walk from our apartment.
Below: Mendenhall Glacier and red spawning salmon near there. The cold air coming off the glacier is true natural air conditioning.
Below: Views from the Mt. Roberts tramway.

Just under an hour's walk from our front door is the Perseverance Trail, the first road built by Whitey McWhiteman in Alaska. I thought Juneau was one of the most beautiful places I'd ever been, and I hadn't even been on the Perseverance yet! See some photos below. Unreal!