Current news – As we explained in our last Blog we have had to call it a day for now as Kev’s mum is in a bad way. We also informed you we had a bit of a hiccup at the border where we had to wait for over a week (partly due to Easter as all the departments were closed) before we could we could get our I94 problem sorted out. We finally crossed the USA border fairly smoothly a few days ago. We are now in Los Angeles and the bike is with the shipper waiting to clear US customs. Once we are sure it’s on its way we will fly home. For all you this is by no means the end, we are over eight months behind in our blogs and we will try hard to keep posting until we are up to date. That means we should be able to give an update in a few months time of how things have progressed and how we have adapted to life out of the saddle.
We do not know what our future holds at this time, we are returning home to look after Kev’s mum for as long as is necessary, we obviously will need to restart our careers and our lives at home during this time. Finishing our blog is a good way to record our adventures and say thank you to the many people who have helped us along the way. We would also like to write a book when time permits and fill in some of the pictures on the earlier blogs which were lost when postorous closed down. Keep watching there is lots more good stuff yet to come.
Here we head back to Alaska for our next instalment in Kenai.
Blog 297 Kenai 29th July 2013
Our bike was now wearing its new Homer sticker which someone gave us as we were leaving the township, we added it to our Chicken sticker on the front box, it has made many people smile since.
We were headed towards Kenai, this whole area is called the Kenai Peninsula but there is also a town called Kenai. Our ultimate goal for the night was a campsite at Cook inlet right at the end of the road but on the way we spotted Kenai’s visitor centre and stopped there en-route.
When we returned to the bike there was a car parked next to it and the window went down as we walked over. Inside was Sonny, his wife Diane and a buddy of his John who was visiting. Kev had met Sonny in Homer a week or two earlier when the bike was parked outside Deans shop. Then Sonny had almost done a handbrake turn when he saw the bike, he wanted to take a look at how we had built our roof as he wanted to put one on his three wheeler. Kev and Sonny had chatted for a while whilst Kev showed him how it worked and Sonny took a couple of pictures.
Sonny had mentioned in passing that he had a place somewhere near Kenai and now we met again, “yall better come back and stay” he said in his Texan drawl. It also happened to be his birthday so we all got cake as well.
We followed him back and got a chance to look at his three wheeler he had been trying to describe earlier. It is built by a company called Thoroughbred and this model was called a Stallion. We had never heard of them before but they are a US company who make trike kits and complete trikes based mostly on Honda Goldwings and Harleys. Kev has built and extensively ridden two trikes and so has an interest in them. Conventional trikes with two wheels at the back and one at the front can be quite heavy to steer, they can be made to handle quite well but they require a lot of rider input as there is generally no mechanical aid like a steering rack in a car to gear the steering effort down.
The Stallion was a bit of a trike / car hybrid in that it had a steering wheel and modified steering rack from a car, it also had a Ford 4 cylinder car engine and automatic gearbox. The body on Sonny’s was fibreglass but later ones are GRP plastic.
Sonny took Karen for a ride in it first and then let us both loose with it. We took turns and both had a go at the the wheel. What’s it like? well it’s weird initially but good fun once you get used to it. It goes like the clappers and handles well thanks to the big tyres (sorry tires we are in America now) and beefy leading link front suspension. It was extremely easy to drive or should that be ride?, we both found the hardest thing to get used to was the brakes which are servo’d and thus sharp and operated with your left foot as your feet straddle the auto transmission tunnel. The go pedal is operated by the right foot and the stop with the left. With practice it would be fine but we both found it hard to apply graduated pressure with our left foot resulting in a few pogo like stops. It’s probably also because we are both used to manual cars where the left foot is for the clutch only.
After riding it for a while we could understand why Sonny was keen to make a roof for it. Despite the extensive bodywork it was very windy especially in the back, it would also be no fun in the rain. A roof would not be that hard to build on the trike and would make all the difference so long as it was integrated with the screen. Sonny bought the three wheeler as a surprise for Diane hoping that she would like it and go out riding with him on his Harley. Sadly she still prefers her smart car and hasn’t taken to it so I guess Sonny will have some fun with it and then sell it on.
Sonny and Diane like many other people up here are what they call snowbirds, that is they live in Alaska in the summer and head south for the winter. It sounds like a great lifestyle to us.
We think Sonny was quite keen for Karen to ride/drive the Stallion down to their Texas home for him. Initially Kev encouraged her too saying it would be a nice chance for her to ride for a change. She seriously thought about it for a while but in the end decided it was too much responsibility. It was probably a wise decision given some of the roads we ended up riding later on but at the time it seemed a shame. Sonny and Diane were quite keen for us to stay for a few days but unusually we had to be somewhere next day, we had booked a day cruise out on Prince William Sound out of Whittier so we could only stay one night.
Beyond the town is Cook Inlet named after Captain James Cook who mapped these waters in 1778. As we mentioned before Cook was sent by England in 1776 with two ships to investigate rumours of Russian Activities, explore and map the area and search for the fabled north west passage to the Atlantic. He didn’t know it at the time but it was to be his third and final voyage. After discovering Hawaii he charted the waters on the north west coast of America then Alaska up to the Aleutian islands before heading north again through the Bering Strait as far as icy cape where he encountered impenetrable ice. With winter on his tail he then sailed back down to Hawaii where he was fatally stabbed in an unexpected confrontation with the natives. Next morning we rode right to the end of the point and visited Cook Inlet where we had planned to camp previously. It was actually a little disappointing, we hoped there would be a Cook statue and some interpretive signs about his voyage but there was just a beach at the end and that was about it. Cook explored and comprehensively mapped Prince William Sound the body of water off of Whittier in 1778.
On the way back we stopped in old Kenai town for a quick look around as we had not had the chance when we met Sonny. We stopped by another Russian Church or more precisely two Russian churches. One looked like it was still functioning and was open. We went for a look inside and were pleased to discover that it was okay to take pictures inside.
The bigger of the two was called Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary church.
It was a Russian Orthodox church that dated to 1841 when the Russians first came to the area, since that time it also served as a school, judicial centre, social centre and provided the regions first access to public health with the introduction of the smallpox vaccine after the local population was decimated in the first epidemic of 1835. Apparently the church is a classic design of Pskov vessel or ship pattern and is one of the oldest standing Russian churches in Alaska, it still holds regular services today.
The other smaller chapel nearby was St Nicholas Memorial chapel and was built and consecrated in 1906 over the graves of Igumen (abbot) Nicholai (1810-1867) the first missionary in the Kenai area and responsible with his two assistants for bringing in the smallpox vaccine to the area, Makarv Ivanov (1835-1878) and others.
This building below is one of Kenai’s few remaining historical homesteads built from hand-hewn logs by the farmer John Oskolkof. In 1945 it became the Dolchok home but is now home home to Veronica’s coffee house.
Also in Kenai not far away we saw this extraordinary sight.
It was the start of the salmon run season and all these people were there to catch some salmon from the mass exodus into the mouth of the Kenai river to spawn. No fishing rods here this is the direct approach using a 3 foot diameter round net on the end of a 20 foot aluminium pole (or aluminum if you are American). The locals stock their freezers up while the run is on as it only lasts a few weeks and then they all die (the fish not the humans). In the last picture look on the far bank it’s also full of people.
On the way out we stopped briefly in Soldotna for supplies as it had a big supermarket and gas station. We saw this guy filling up with his dog in the box on the back of the bike. When we walked back to the bike we found Steve waiting for us. He was the guy with the puncture who we stopped for on the Dalton a few weeks previously. He stopped to say hi and thank you as we were the only people that had stopped to see if he was okay.
Steve was a nice guy and it was good to be able to catch up and compare notes about our experiences of Alaska and some of the places we had been since we last met. We chatted for about 20minutes and swapped details promising to keep in touch. We didn’t know it then but our paths would soon cross again anyhow.
It had been an interesting and sociable day but we had not got very far and we had a boat to catch next morning. We had to get fairly close to Whittier so that we were in the right place for the morning. We stopped briefly to view the locals fly fishing in the river.
Passing the end of Tern Lake again we stopped to take photos of the distant pass, the light good on the water. It’s not that often we got the opportunity to take a picture with both of us in it but a guy on a Harley stopped for a chat and took some shots for us.
Over the valley we could see the fireweed almost at the top which meant we didn’t have much longer in Alaska before summer ended.
We had heard lots of stories about the road into Whittier.
To get to the town you have to drive through a tunnel under Maynard mountain (part of the Chugach Mountain Range) the tunnel is 13’300feet (4100metres) long.
Not only that it is a combined one lane road/ rail tunnel, the gap between the standard gauge railway tracks has been filled with concrete panels and you have to ride your motorcycle within the rail tracks for two and a half miles in the dark !
We found a free pitch in one of the campsites on the Kenai side of the tunnel. We were reluctant to go through that night knowing that there was no campsite in Whittier and we would have to pay for what would probably be an expensive hotel. Although it is officially designated as a city it’s really just a small town of a dozen or so streets. There are only a couple of hotels in town and you cannot go anywhere else once you are through the tunnel. The next stop is the Aleutian Islands.
In the morning the alarm woke us and we packed as quickly as we could knowing that we HAD to catch the 9.30 tunnel crossing. The tunnel is only one lane wide so they let traffic in for 15 minutes then allow 15 minutes for it to get through and then reverse the flow. So there is only one opportunity an hour to get through and if we missed the 9.30am slot we would miss our boat. We got there a little early and had to wait a while. After paying our $12 toll it was our turn to ride through but only after all the cars had gone through, they make motorcycles go last. Presumably if you fall you are less likely to get run over that way ?
The opening to the tunnel is a innocuous looking A frame, as you get closer to the entrance you have to cut across the first railway track to get in between the rails. Just before we entered the tunnel we were warned to beware of the exhaust fans which blow crossways in some of the safety zones. Great, anything else I thought!
It wasn’t actually too bad in the end although once you have been in there a while it’s hard not to get fixated by the light at the end which looks a very long way off for a long time. The warning about the fans was a good call because it was more like a jet engine than a fan and it did push us around quite a bit when we got level with it. Staying within the tracks wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be and at least the surface was fairly smooth.
At last the light at the end of the tunnel got bigger and brighter and bing we were back in the daylight. What a bizarre experience and a good preparation for the rest of Whittier. It’s a strange little town, we had left sunshine on the other side of the tunnel but this side was shrouded in thick fog adding to the spooky atmosphere. There is a local saying about the weather here that someone told us which is that “it’s always shittier in Whittier”.
We were still a bit early for the boat so we did a lap around the town to take some pictures and have a look at it. It now predominantly relies on fishing and tourism, its position facing the sea with its back to a mountain means it gets some insane weather, 20 to 30 feet of snow is not uncommon in winter here. That is a serious amount of snow ! to put that into perspective if you were living in a regular two story house here it would be completely buried, you would not be able to see out of any of the windows including upstairs !
This and the lack of level land explains why we did not see many regular houses in Whittier, almost every resident here lives in the Begich Towers building otherwise known as the beehive. It dominates the skyline in the town and was built by the army in 1956 as a family housing structure originally called the Hodge Building. The older concrete 7 storey building is called the Buckner Building, it is an abandoned US army base which was the army barracks for 2500 men before they left in 1960. In its heyday it was called the city under one roof. It had its own sporting facilities and even an indoor rifle range. At one time both of these buildings were the largest in Alaska. Long since abandoned the Buckner building looked like some buildings we had seen in Siberia, in fact the whole of Whittier had the look and feel of a remote Russian town about it.
Like us you are probably wondering why anyone would go to the effort of carving a 2 1/2 mile long tunnel through solid rock to get to this place.
The reason was primarily defence like most of the infrastructure in Alaska, the railroad was built during the second world war to access the deep water port and supply the war effort. The route was surveyed as early as 1914 but it took the second world war and the invasion by the Japanese of two of the Aleutian islands to make it happen. The army built the railroad and tunnel into Whittier between 1941 and 1944 as it cut 52 miles off the route to Seward and eliminated the steep rail road incline to the existing deep water port there. It was also considered to be vulnerable to attack. The army took over the running of the Alaskan railroad in 1943 due to WW2.
The road into Whittier was not finished until 2000, as part of that project the tunnel was converted for joint vehicle and train traffic. Previous to this the only way to get a vehicle into Whittier was to put it on the back of a flatcar on the Alaskan railroad. Whittier has always been an important transport hub and the road tunnel was the last piece of the jigsaw. Despite its diminutive size it now has a gravel (summer only) airport, a deep water port, road links to the Seward and Alcan Highways, and is a terminus of the Alaska railroad. It is also a port of call for cruise ships and the Alaska marine highway ferry roro service.
We parked up and boarded our boat the mist was still fairly thick as we looked back on the township. We hoped things would improve as we had splashed out on this day cruise to try to see some wild life and glaciers and all we could see was fog when we left.
Next up – Whittier cruise