The Stampeders

Our 9-week, 7,500+ mile sojourn into the Great White North and beyond (Alaska) was an epic adventure! We headed out July 20 in our pickup truck, pulling a cargo trailer with dirt bikes, kayaks, fishing poles, rockhounding gear, extra gasoline, spare tire(s) and a bucket toilet (in case we couldn’t find a bathroom along the way). Our truck bed contained a mattress (in case we couldn’t find a motel along the way).

For much of the time we traced the routes of the Alaskan Highway and/or the Yukon Klondike Gold Rush stampeders of the late 1800’s. As we braved the northern wilderness, we often felt like stampeders ourselves! Only, unlike the painting above, the main treasures WE sought were FAMILY and FISH. Another difference . . . Karen was an eager participant, unlike the woman pictured above. Jeff continued his work while we traveled, with sometimes sketchy phone and Internet connectivity. In the end, even 9 weeks weren’t enough. There were more things we wanted to see and do.

We took it slow on the way north . . . 4-6 hours of driving a day, a few multi-night stops, and 3 weeks in a Soldotna, AK Airbnb. We returned much quicker.
The ride was actually quite comfortable

Our first day included a stop at Elkhorn Hot Springs (very rustic) and the next day rock hounding at Crystal Park near Polaris, Montana. Digging for crystals is not quite as easy as some of the YouTubers make it look! After about 6 hours of hiking, searching, digging and sifting, we came away with a couple of fanny packs of little crystals and clusters that we will add to our growing “treasure” collection. It is fascinatingly intoxicating to discover mother nature-formed crystals of varied shapes, sizes and colors. 

Jeff in his “stampeding” getup
We found a honey hole with lots of little crystals
Surveying the Montana valleys

Our second day was spent exploring dirt biking trails at Wolf Creek, Montana. After that, we headed north to cross the Canadian border.

From online appointment options up to 8:00 pm, we had chosen a 6:00 pm slot at the crossing near Glacier and Waterton national parks. It was close to 6:00 when we thought we’d take just a few minutes to view a lake on the US side. As we were approaching the border guard station, they pulled the barricades across RIGHT IN FRONT OF US. It was 6:02 and apparently we were too late. We understood they’d be open until well after 8:00 pm. SO CLOSE and yet so far away! A 4-hour backtrack later, we crossed into Canada at a 24-hour station further east, and finally reached our hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park.

We weren’t feeling particularly welcome after our border mixup

In Waterton we spent 4 days enjoying the laid back town and exquisite scenery, and hiking A LOT. Karen collected digital wildflowers as we walked . . . they were too pretty and varied to pass by! Our most ambitious hike of the whole trip was Crypt Lake, one of the top-rated hikes in the Canadian Rockies. This 12-mile route involves a boat ride to the trailhead, several waterfalls, a ladder up an exposed cliff, a natural tunnel to squeeze through, and a cable traverse on a narrow ledge, with a pristine lake as the destination. Can’t beat that! There were plenty of animal sightings in the park too (can you say 10 bears plus more?). It was a tiny taste of the expansive beauty and wildlife we’d witness over the next 2 months. 

Wonderful Wildflowers
Karen on the Crypt Lake trail ladder
Jeff at Crypt Lake in Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada

On this Service Nomads trek, we knew we’d be moving around a lot, which makes embedding in a community and coordinating with local service agencies difficult. So we decided to spread some love along the way, by giving out HEART ROCKS to unsuspecting individuals. We acquired 70 rocks from a local nonprofit called Take Heart Creative Studio (click for link). Since we’d be on the road for 70 days, we thought that’d be a good number. Our first recipients were some folks on a challenging hike in Waterton . . . a dad carrying a daughter on his shoulders, a young boy leading his family up the steep trail, and a senior citizen tourist with a huge camera lens, struggling with each step.

A meaningful message for everyone

These heart rocks gave our days added purpose, as we were always on the lookout for people who might benefit from some encouragement to “rock on.” We gave some rocks WITH the cards and some with just a smile and a “Thanks, you’re awesome.” A few especially memorable heart rock recipients were: 

  • A young First Nations brother and sister duo in our hotel with their foster parents, on their way to take part in a tribal celebration
  • Residents of a homeless shelter in Nikiski, Alaska, who we cooked dinner for, visited and ate with one evening
  • Karen’s rainy day fishing buddy John who gave her—not the shirt off his back—but something more important to a fisherman . . . the leader off his line (including weight and hook) . . . to make sure she was successful
  • Friendly mechanic Adrian and his wife in Whitehorse, Yukon (originally from Bern, Switzerland) who saved us in a pinch by repairing our failing trailer wheel hubs

One major goal of our trip to Alaska—up through Alberta and down through British Columbia— was to see members of Karen’s family and birth family, some of whom we’d never met before. We had many loving reunions and fun first-time meetings. Mission accomplished!

In chronological order of visiting:

Aunt Marilyn (and many cousins not pictured)
Uncle Rob, Aunt Wendy, cousin Andrea with her son Lincoln
Maternal birth half brother Bryce
Maternal birth aunt Sonia
Paternal birth half cousin Lorne and Deanna (and lots of cousins!)
Maternal birth half brother Jim and Charlene
Paternal birth half brother Rod and Rose, joking around
Brother David and Sister-in-Law Karen, trying to fit in the frame

In between jobs, Ethan bought a ticket to join us in our Alaska Airbnb for one week, helping with a “socks for the homeless” project, among other fun activities.

You know you’re cool when your clothes match your stepdad’s
This charity helps the homeless with a shelter and many supporting services. They give away 2,000 pairs of socks every year. We put a small dent in their need. Ethan: “I’ve never seen so many socks.”

Our last 5 days in Alaska before heading south again was spent at a remote fishing lodge on the Togiak River with son Jordan and friends/colleagues Tyler and Mason.

Jordan & Jeff
It was a combined business/pleasure trip

The last week of the lodge fishing season, it was very stormy (our inbound plane barely made the scary landing!), and the river was unrecognizably flooded.

View of Togiak River Lodge from the river
View from our stilt cabin toward the blown out river. Yes, the sidewalks were floating.

When our guides miraculously found where the fish were hiding in the new waterscape, those fish bit HARD. We were able to fill the freezer back home with Silver Salmon.

It’s so fun when the fish bite
Another mission accomplished!

It’s impossible to fully encapsulate our experience in this blog post. Two words come to mind —

. . . but we’ll try to communicate with these additional photos and highlight lists . . .

Mountains, Rivers, Lakes, Trees, Tundra, Fireweed, Wildflowers, Berries, Mushrooms, Lily Pads, Sunsets, Rainbows, Fog, Clouds, Rain, Waterfalls, Hot Springs, Beaches, Rocks, Glacial Silt, Tidal Bores, Icebergs, Glaciers

The vastness and beauty of Denali National Park is breathtakingly unique
Only one percent of visitors have a clear enough day to see Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) in the distance
Lake Louise in Banff
Kayaking on Vermilion Lakes in Banff with Mount Rundle behind
Famous Moraine Lake
We also made a digital collection of all the fantastical mushrooms and fungi we came across
Vivid rainbow from our back porch in Soldotna. A different heavenly wonder that we DID NOT get to see this time was the Aurora Borealis. Every single night that it should have been visible there was thick cloud cover.

Several locals explained that in Alaska the year consists of 9 months of winter, and one month each of spring, summer, and fall. It was summer when we arrived and almost winter when we left.

Glaciers in Prince William Sound
In front the HUGE Harvard tidewater glacier, 1.5 miles across
Icebergs calved off the glacier in Bear Glacier Lagoon, Kenai Fjords National Park

46 Bear (black and grizzly), 24 Moose, Humpback Whales, Dall’s Porpoises, Stellar Sea Lions, Sea Otters, River Otters, Harbor Seals, 1 lone Wolf, Lynx, Deer, Elk, Prairie Bison, Rabbits, Wood Bison, Caribou (Reindeer), 3 Coyote, Red Fox, Dall Sheep, Beavers, Mink, Muskrat, Arctic Ground Squirrels (too cute!), Great Blue Herons, Sandhill Cranes, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Crows, Magpies, Seagulls, Kittiwake Gulls, Ptarmigans, Trumpeter Swans, Hawks, Ducks, all sorts of BIG Insects including Mosquitos

Grizzly sow and 3 cubs, taken with our iPhone from a bridge near Haines, Alaska
A handsome coyote in Denali
Frolicking adolescent grizzlies at Crescent Lake, Alaska
Napping after gorging on salmon
Caribou in Denali

Do you you know the difference between a Caribou and a Reindeer? Same species. Santa’s reindeer are just domesticated (and highly trained and talented!) Caribou.

Jeff wrangling a couple of Yukon-sized pests
But in the end they got him

The last type of wildlife we enjoyed, but certainly not the least . . .

. . . the catchable kind . . . Silver/Coho Salmon, Humpy/Pink Salmon, Halibut, Rainbow Trout

Jeff got the first catch, a healthy Silver in the Kenai River
The Kenai also gave up a beautiful Rainbow Trout. But we gave it back . . . Rainbows over 16″ must be released
One day we flew across the Cook Inlet to Crescent Lake. The surroundings were idylic, and we actually saw more Grizzlies than Silver Salmon that day. They were ALL OVER THE PLACE! Our guide was 50% fishing guide and 50% bear whisperer.
Karen managed to reel one in, with a very interested Grizzly nearby
We tried something new—Halibut shore fishing near Ninilchik. Jeff caught a little guy, mmm . . . tasty (once you wash the sand off)!

As well as the Crystals mentioned earlier, we did a little hunting for Jade, Agate, Ammolite, Opal, and Gold (some hunting in nature, and some in rock shops!)

Jeff in Prospector mode with his gold pan and bear spray
Karen gave it the ol’ college try
Alas, we came up empty, but we enjoyed the GOLD of the changing fall colors
We tried a couple more times along the way
If you look VERY closely you’ll see some little gold flakes in Karen’s pan. Tip of the day: Roadside gold panning businesses make sure you don’t leave empty handed. This is a whopping $21’s worth.

Other misc things that we experienced include: frost heaves, sinking power poles, potholes, ice castle, a gazillion boats, trains, tunnels, countless churches AND cannabis dispensaries. Unique service opportunities. Most and best of all . . . friendly people everywhere we went!

On the Lake Agnes Tea House trail, originating from Lake Louise in Banff, we noticed this sign
We are now official Tea House Helpers. Yay 🙂
The Big Beaver in (where else?) the town of Beaverlodge, Alberta
We drove to this spot in Anchor Point, Alaska. There ARE more westerly isolated, small, local road systems, but nothing further west that you can drive to—they are only accessible by boat or plane. Map below.
We learned about Native Alaskan peoples and cultures at the heritage center in Anchorage . . .
. . . and visited Gitanyow (pron. Kitwancool), an historic First Nations village that is home to the oldest-known and largest collection of totem poles in British Columbia.
Well hello there!
The Chena Hot Springs Resort has an ice castle. We DID NOT spend the night.
One of the sled dogs at Chena Hot Springs enjoying a little TLC
We rode a fun trail in Chena River State Recreation Area
Road maintenance along parts of the Alaska highway is a nightmare because of the permafrost heaving. Crews do their best to repair the continual damage. It takes concentration and swerving into the opposite lane to effectively dodge all the pot holes. We were semi-successful.
This was a common sight too. The utility poles sink into the permafrost. Long sections of line had been abandoned.
As we bid farewell to Alaska and the Great White North, one more view from our mini Airbnb in Haines.

Thank you for reading about our northern adventure! Our next (and shorter) post will be soon, since Karen’s journey to Manila, Philippines has already come and gone (she returned one week ago). Please stay tuned for the what’s and why’s and photos of her special pilgrimage…

3 thoughts on “The Stampeders

  1. Ann Taylor

    “No Words” is what I was thinking as I scrolled and read and looked at the breathtaking photos of this incredible post! And then at the end you said it! Wow! What an adventure you two had! So happy you were able to spend time with family too🥰 I can only imagine what it’s like but love seeing it through your eyes. I love rocks, always have and it’s fascinating to me to see how rock hounding is becoming a big thing! So fun!
    Excited to see where you’ll go next???? Praying you’re both healthy and strong 💪 You both look so beautiful and happy☺️What a gift to be able to explore the world and help others along the way. Love, Ann

  2. GL

    Great trip! So thrilled for you to meet so many new family members. What a high point!
    I love all these photos, that each tell a story of their own. I’m sure you could never describe it all. I love that I’m not the only one who takes flower pictures everywhere. (I also appreciate the fungi collection.)
    So many bears! Were you a bit nervous? I’ll bet they were jealous of all the yummy fish you caught.
    I’m happy you had such a great adventure, and met so much family. Excited for the next installment!
    You two are great ambassadors!

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