Alaska Highway, January 2014

Our Ninja Bat Mobile sat at Chena Hot Springs for three days.  When I went to start it on Saturday morning for the drive to the ferry at Haines I had no faith that it would start without assistance.  The thermometer at the Activities Building read minus 30.  At best it would take a jump start.  If that didn’t work the resort could bring out a propane heater to warm up the car before the jump start.  I got in the car, turned the key, it coughed, sputtered, sparked and started.  The next morning in Tok it was minus 40 and she turned over on the first try.  I think we bought a good car.

Driving south this early in January is like driving into a perpetual sunrise.  The sun is never high in the sky, always along the horizon, so you have the color of a sunrise/sunset with you for the whole 5 hours the sun is up.   The low sun reflects off of ice crystals forming “Sun Dogs.”  We “followed” them on the drive south for over an hour.

I’m sure the Alaska Highway is beautiful all year but in the winter, particularly, with the clean snow, frost on the trees and the quality of the winter light and shadow, it is particularly fetching.

We drove short days because – well — the days are short, and we like seeing the scenery, especially driving along the north side of the Wrangell, St. Elias Park.  It was a good winter for caribou sightings.  They can cross under the pipeline because it is up on stilts to allow for their migrations.

On our drive south we crossed from tagia, over the tundra of the Chilkat pass, into the lush rainforest reaching up from tidewater at Haines.  The Chilkat River is fed by hot springs and has the last salmon run of the season.  It was over but there were some lingering bald eagles in the trees along the river.

From Haines we rode the MV Malispina to Sitka.  This ship was launched in 1962.  It has been sailing salt water for 52 years.  My grandfather, who had been a merchant seaman, would not have approved of a steel ship running in salt water for that long.  The ship has special livery for the 50th anniversary.  The ferries were originally very Spartan but over the years they have been refitted.  The Malispina was lengthened by 50 feet in 1972.  At that time the ferry system added some very bad wildlife art.  Modern refits of other ships feature work by noted Alaskan artists, including many native artists.  The art on the “Mal” is just dumb, kind of like Elvis on velvet, except that Elvis is a moose.  The worst picture, however, is a pair of wolves standing in the snow.  No one knows how they got there.  There are no footprints.

The ferry was full for this time of year, full of legislators and their aids glad handing their way through the cafeteria heading for the impending legislative session in Juneau.  I wondered if I should wish them a smooth trip so they think well of the ferry system or if I should wish for some problem that they will feel a need to fix.  In the end I wished us all a smooth trip, after all I was on the boat and if something went wrong the Anchorage legislators would blame Juneau and want to move the capital.

I slept well with the motion of the ship, slept right through the stop in Juneau, tucked into my birth in a small cabin.  When we got up in the morning there were many fewer people on the ship.  We sailed in the rain through Peril Strait to Sitka.

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