Sunday, August 21, 2016

South America in a Nut Shell

I'm finally writing another post! I know, I know, I should do it more often. One sucky thing about the trip is that we only get decent wifi about once every four days... hence, the lack of posts. Anyway, we officially arrived in Columbia, South America on July 31st. Since we had to ship our vehicle from Panama to Columbia, we spent our first four days in South America just figuring out how to get our vehicle back (I'll do a separate post about that headache later). Since then we have been making south bound progress daily and we have made it to Santiago, Chile in 22 days! Each country is different than the next, but nonetheless, each has been a wonderful experience. So now I will do my best to put our South American experience into one post!

When we flew into Medellin, Columbia, we only spent one night in a hostel before taking an overnight bus to Cartagena. From what we were able to see, Medellin was a super nice city. It was located in a valley between mountains, so driving down into the city offers excellent views of the whole place. After arriving in Cartagena at 7:00am, we had to take a taxi directly to the company, Enlace Caribe, who helped us take our vehicle off the ship. This company was a life saver, and without them, we probably wouldn't have been able to do the work ourselves. Like I said earlier, this whole process took four days, but required very little of our help. The only thing we had to do was show up everyday, and depending on what was going on with the unloading of the ship, Seth got to run around the city with one of the workers signing documents to get our Jeep back. In the mean time we got to walk around Old Town Cartagena. 

Now, Old Town Cartagena was cool. It was a whole walled in city right up along the coast that used to defend the city within the walls. Within the walls there are tons of vendors (who aren't as annoying as the ones outside old town), shops, and restaurants. The old town was just a five minute walk from our Hotel (Casa Mary B&B) and we ended up visiting it three times to check out restaurants. The city seemed safe, with all sorts of people out late at night. As usual, we just didn't put ourselves in bad situations. 

On the fourth day at noon we got the Jeep back, and started our journey south. We decided to take the mountain road, but it was slow moving. The road was Columbia's version of an interstate winding through the mountains, except there was only one lane going each direction and lots of semi trucks along the route (when building the road they didn't think to have two lanes going uphill). This led to many trucks getting stacked up behind each other going up the hills, and cars passing them on the winding roads. We were surprised we didn't see any serious accidents on the roads. We decided maybe this is because all the drivers have to be constantly alert as to what is going on around them. Also, in Columbia they have a large portion of their motorists who drive motorcycles. In a country that already has very loose driving laws, we could count on the motorcycles not to follow any rules at all. They would lane weave, speed, pass, and carry four people on one cycle whenever they pleased. Columbia wasn't a great country to drive through, but the mountains offered breathtaking views from above the clouds.

From Columbia we crossed the border into Ecuador. This was a relatively painless crossing, because both sides of the borders had organized buildings to pass from immigration to the aduana easily. Nobody bothered us at any time, and only gave us genuine help. When we got into Ecuador there were immediate changes in the infrastructure of the country. The roads were better kept, there wasn't as much trash on the sides of the roads and throughout cities, drivers followed the traffic laws, and there were signs nearby construction sites that said how they were improving Ecuador. The people were very friendly, and three times we had strangers tell us 'Welcome to Ecuador!' while driving down the road. It was easy to purchase things and understand the value of items, because they use the U.S. Dollar. Although they use the USD, things are still cheaper there than in the states. We took the mountain road again and saw some of the most beautiful sights, as well as many many many volcanoes! Our GPS app listed the names and heights of all of the ones over 1,000 meters tall. Although we only spent two days in Ecuador, we all decided we liked the country and would love to spend more time there.

On August 11th (the day after our anniversary!) we crossed into Peru. The crossing was a bit more confusing, because at immigration we had to to up to the only window with a worker (who was trying to enter/exit everyone) and ask for the necessary paperwork to fill out while in line, then get to the window to get our passport stamped. Once we got out of Ecuador, we had to do the same thing on the Peru side. The lines were very slow moving and it was only made worse by having the worker interrupted by others every time they needed paperwork to enter the country. Luckily, a very nice official came up and started doing our vehicle entry paperwork for us before we were finished with immigration. For some reason he let Seth skip to the head of the line! We surely weren't going to complain or ask questions... Once finished with immigration, I sat outside while Seth and Mat finished with the aduana. While I was sitting, there was a wonderful family waiting for the aduana to get into Peru as well. Although I don't speak spanish very well, and their grandmother didn't speak english, we somehow had a conversation about where we were from and where we were going-- she even asked me if I had breakfast that day and offered me food! When Seth and Mat came out of the office, she was excited to meet them and gave a round of hugs before heading out. 

Once in Peru we decided to take the coastal road instead of the the mountain road. This may or may not have been a mistake. Although the roads were pretty straight, meaning we could drive faster, it was also a complete desert. The smaller cities looked like time had claimed them long ago, and only the large cities looked anything close to functioning. Plus, there are loads of rubble and garbage on the sides of the road, and whole cities of buildings abandoned in the middle of construction. It is odd to drive through knowing at one time there were people here, and now its completely abandoned. Peru was different in the fact that it was apparent there was a lot of political issues going on. There were many advertisements for people running for president or congress painted on buildings everywhere. Yes, you read correctly, painted. No billboards, no posters, no yard signs, the campaign runner name and slogan was hand painted onto the sides of buildings. Now, don't get me wrong, they were very well done and included a whole design for the nominee's 'branding', but the plans were executed very differently from what we are used to in the U.S. 

While in Peru we stopped for two nights at Frogs Hostel in Huanchaco. Huanchaco is located on the coast right next to Trujillo, a large city. At first we only planned on staying one night, but after going out to dinner with a whole bunch of Americans and Germans, we got talked into going salsa dancing. It was a 15 minute walk to get to the bar, called Jan Pix, and there was a one hour salsa lesson starting at 11:00pm. I will admit, I am horrible at it... along with half of the hostel who had come along to the bar! The next day we woke up and immediately knew we needed to stay another night. Mainly because our hangovers didn't allow us to wake up until 11:00am, and partly because we had finally stumbled across an awesome bunch of people at our hostel. 

Later that day, Mat and I decided to go try surfing lessons with a German couple we had gotten to know. The owner of the business, Tito, picked us up at noon and took us over to Onechako, Escuela de Surf. After somehow getting a wetsuit on (those things are so tricky!) and a half hour indoor lesson, we found ourselves with surfboards in our hands, walking down to the beach. Now let me tell you, the hardest thing of all, was paddling out. My arms were dying immediately. After getting acquainted with where we were supposed to position our feet on the board when we attempted to stand up, it was go time. Adriana (our German friend) and I were the first to paddle out, with Mat and Martin following a few minutes later. Tito and his assistant got us into place and once the right wave started coming, they pushed us off and started telling us to paddle with the wave. Once they yelled "up!" we had to do the four-step maneuver to stand up on the board. Surprise, surprise, the first time was a complete failure. Getting my left leg up in front was the single hardest part of it all. The silver lining was when I got up on my third try! And I didn't just get up, I rode it out too! Then I didn't know when to stop! The shore was coming closer! So, I just kind of flopped into the water after awhile just incase I was about to go too far. Out of the roughly 10 tries I had, I got up twice! Not bad!
Onechako Escuela de Surf

The next days after Frogs Hostel were a whirl-wind of finding places to camp for the night on our way to Chile. 
Frogs 'Chill House' Hostel VW bus

Exiting Peru, and entering Chile was the easiest border crossing we have ever had. There was just a simple form the fill out to have the vehicle leave the country, a few stamps on the paper and in our passports, and bam! we were out! However, entering Chile is a bit more labor intensive. We had to park in a line of cars, go get our passport stamped, then fill out a claims form, then have our bags scanned, while Seth was getting the Jeep inspected, and then meeting him on the other side in order to get the Jeep permissions at the aduana. All in all, it took us only a half hour! It was so easy and well run, that we immediately knew Chile was a great country. 

Although Chile only has one road going south throughout the country, it is very well maintained, and some parts are under construction to allow more traffic flow. There have been many signs along the side of the road saying 'Chile Mejor', declaring a better Chile. We have been camping on beaches for the most of Chile, with only stopping at two hostels along the way. At our first hostel, we went out in search of a restaurant late at night since we hadn't eaten yet. Thats when we met the Kangreburger. The best burgers we have ever had. Not simply because we were hungry, but because they were just hands down amazing. Our first impressions told us Kangreburger was just a corner store advertising cheap food, so we went for it. Little did we know we were about to eat like kings. We ordered three burgers that had a burger patty, slice of ham, tomato, lettuce, and cheese, while mat had one that added fries and egg onto it too. Then we ordered two sides of plain fries, and one that had meat, onion, and egg on top. The goodness was too much to bear. Everything was home made down the hand peeled potatoes for fries, mayo dished up from a serving bowl, and patties squished and cooked right in front of us. So many food safety violations, so worth it. 
Chilean Desert

From there we have been camping our way down to Santiago where we found our current hostel. Things are pricier here, and a hostel costs about $75USD instead of the average $45, and there isn't much we can do about our necessity for restaurants, but we have found some winners among this cool city. It is very clean, just like cities in the U.S. and there are super cool complexes for shops and restaurants to group together within a city block. The weather has been similar to fall in Wisconsin (after all, this is Chilean winter time). We have some errands to run here, and then on Monday (8/22) we will be on our way south again into Argentina!
Hand of the Desert, Chile
Hand of the Desert, Chile

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Border Crossings and More Border Crossings

For the first leg of our trip down to the bottom of South America we are trying to get there as fast as possible. From there, our plan is to slow down and take in the sights on our return trip. So far we have travelled six countries in 13 days! We started in Mexico, moved on to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and now Panama. In the smaller countries we were able to pass through in a day! It has been quite the culture shock in Central America and quite interesting with the language barrier. The phrase "Mi español es muy malo" has become a staple in our conversations with locals. 

The biggest learning curve was when we crossed the Mexico-Guatemalan border. With our only previous experience coming from the borders at Canada and Mexico (which were painless in comparison) this was, to quote Aladdin, a whole new world. But not a very good one... The Mexican side was pretty straight forward. At the border into Guatemala we needed to cancel out Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TVIP) and cancel our Tourist Cards. It all happened at one office with a woman who spoke some english and there was very little confusion. Then, we went to the Guatemala side. The immigration office was in a poorly labelled shack with no actual office to walk into, just windows to walk up to. After filling out a little form with our basic info, we got our passport stamped. From there we had to find the Aduana to get a new TVIP and insurance for the vehicle. This was a trick. We found it, then found out we had to find a different establishment to make copies of various documents for their records (vehicle title, registration, passport, license, etc). Then go back to the Aduana to finish the paperwork. Oh but wait! Its lunch time! Meaning that all of the offices close for a full hour. After waiting for them to open again, we were finally able to get everything done and we could be on our way. All of this took four hours from start to finish. 

It doesn't seem to bad... But mind you that this whole time we are being hassled by people walking up the the cars selling things, busy roads, language barriers, and the scammers trying to 'help' us cross, and try to make a buck off us. First of all, the scammers are in no way affiliated with the actual border officials and they even go as far as making fake name tags in plastic holders slung around their necks to try to convince you. But, we noticed they were obviously printed at home, and everyone has a different design on each tag. They spotted our car pulling up to the border and immediately jumped into action. They rushed us into the immigration office and try to tell us the steps of how to do everything. Don't be fooled, they tried to scam us four times. The first time it was for entry into Guatemala, they said we had to pay $5 to just get past the cones they put in the road. We did end up paying that one, but it was a small loss in the grand scheme of things to get things moving. The next was that we had to park in a certain lot for $20 USD while we did our paperwork. This lot was made to look like it was being used and that people actually paid to park there, but it was all broken down cars when we looked closer. And they required our license plate number for some reason? Needless to say, we skipped that, and opted to have to move the vehicle every time a shop owner told us we were in the way of his storefront (like four times). A small price to pay, really.

After stopping at immigration so that we were allowed into the country, Seth had to venture out to try to get the Guatamalan TVIP. No doubt the scammers were hot on his heels the whole way. Although we tried many times to have them back off, they were persistent. Too persistent. At one point while Seth was at a booth working with an official, one guy took him to the side and said he had to pay $300 USD in cash so he could go onto the next step of the 'paperwork'. Good thing Seth also noted that the man had taken him to a place outside of the security cameras, wanted cash, and the guys' story was that Seth had to specifically hand the money off to him (not an official) for more 'paperwork' that didn't exist. Um, no. Nice try. 

Eventually after hours of trying to figure out where to go, who to talk to, and dodging two more scams, we finally were on our way! That border left a bad taste in our mouths, but it was a good learning experience. Since then, all of the border crossings have been much more successful and much less stressful. There haven't been as many scammers at the rest of the crossings we have done, and the sure as hell aren't as persistent as in Guatemala. It was probably for the best that we had that experience right off the bat. Now we are better prepared to handle scammers and notice the tricks they will try to play. 

Some of the border crossings are pretty easy (such as going into Honduras), some are more complex (like going into Panama), and some are just down right hectic (like going into Guatemala). It all depends on how well the crossing has been set up. Some crossings require us to go to five different locations and talk to many different people, while some only require two buildings where we can go from immigration to the aduana all in one stop. All of them are different, so there is no way of knowing what to expect other than our one reference- ioverlander. Ioverlander is an app where people have marked waypoints for hotels, gas stations, food, good places to go and places to avoid, and info about boarders. It like a google maps review page with everything you'd want to stop at nearby. It is seriously amazing, and we aren't quite sure what we would do without it! It has saved our butts on a few occasions. 

The crossings sound impossible, but with a whole bunch of perseverance and energy, it all works out. From here we are shipping our vehicle from Colón, Panama, to Cartagena, Columbia! Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Driving and Killing Time

Since returning from the Dalton Highway we knew we needed to head in the general direction of south. After running into some hiccups along the way including seth losing his wallet and me and Mat's bank freezing our debit cards every transaction, we found ourselves needing a few 'adulting' days. While figuring all of this out, we realized we would have to take our sweet time getting to Los Angeles, CA to wait for new cards and Seth's new ID to show up at a relatives house. 

On the way down we decided to take the Cassiar Highway as our route south in Canada. This road was honestly kind of disappointing. It was described as being wonderfully scenic with narrow windy roads. The winding hilly roads got annoying after awhile, and the scenery was just like driving the ALCAN. Some people told us it was dangerous because of the turns and road conditions, but after driving the Dalton, it was a cake walk. We can't even take 'Bump' signs seriously now after experiencing how bad they were on the Dalton. It took two days to finish the Cassiar Highway since we were able to drive long distances at a time. After the Cassiar, we decided to drive on a Canadian interstate.

After a couple hundred miles, we decided to take a scenic byway just to get off of the monotonous view of the Canadian interstate. It was a had a really awesome view of mountains and then deep canyons alongside the road. We made camp for the night alongside a river. In the morning we decided to take a 120km long 4x4 trail equivalent to being the scenic byway of the scenic byway we had already been on. The trail started out great! It followed along another river with many waterfalls joining into it with spectacular views of the mountains. About half way through the trail started splitting off into a whole bunch of different routes. Yikes. We were originally trying to find some hot springs we had heard of from a local, but we never did find them. Along the way we found out that there was a huge logging industry here and the road we were taking went right through some the places they stacked the wood. 

Mountains on 4x4 trail in Canada
Waterfall on 4x4 trail in Canada
Waterfall on 4x4 trail in Canada

This is about when things started getting hairy... We had driven about half way through when it was no longer discernible which way we would take. All paths looked equally wrong. One route was a dirt path only wide enough for a skinny vehicle with four foot tall plants growing in a field into the woods, the other route ended at a dam, and another route went up a big hill, only to end abruptly after less than half a mile. So, we gambled and took the dirt path thinking we were probably going to have to turn back. Apparently it was right! We kept looking for kilometer marker signs, and after missing them for about 10km, we finally found one! Although it was written on a styrofoam plate and stapled to a tree, we then knew it was the right path. This happened three more times where the trail would  split and become quite interpretive. In all it took us about 6 hours to drive only 120km. The views and scenery made it worth it. That night we drove into Vancouver and rested at a hotel. :)

Bridge into Vancouver
After crossing the Canadian boarder the next day, we drove into Seattle. Here we stopped for food and went to the Chihuly Garden and Glass. It was my heaven. Unfortunately, I can't post the pictures of his work, but it was amazing. Breathtaking. Inspiring. The way he used bright color and shape to create pieces inspired by the sea or gardens was pure genius. From there we went to the Space Needle only a few hundred yards away. 

Since then we visited Portland, OR and went to a really cool outdoor craft market, the worlds largest bookstore, ate wonderful Italian food, and then outside of the city we hiked a short distance to a waterfall. The next morning we went to Haystack Rock on Canon Beach, WA. The rock formations along the beach were incredible and we had fun searching the tide pools for creatures of the deep. Later  we drove to Medford, OR to meet up with a friend of Seth's. We met up at a cool Irish bar called The Four Daughters, then went back to his house for drinks. After leaving Medford in the morning, we decided to drive through the Redwood Forest. The Avenue of the Giants takes you through some of the most lush green forest with the tallest and widest trees you can imagine. There are many places to stop, look, and hike to these huge trees. We posted some pictures of us standing in or beside the trees on our Facebook page already. 
Haystack Rock (right)
Rock formation at Canon Beach
Star fish in a tide pool.

From there we kept driving on Highway 1 along the California coast. This has beautiful views of the ocean below, and stops through any small towns with cute gift shops and restaurants. On the 29th we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, but as usual, it was too foggy to see more than 50 feet up in the air. We decided to stop for food at the Golden Gate Grill and Tap. This was located on the third floor of the building, with a tap room on the second floor. It had hundreds of different beers, a few games, and delicious food. We decided we would definitely go again. 

After this we went on to Pismo Beach. Pismo is a city where people can drive out onto the beach and camp. It was only $10 to camp for the night with no specific time to be out the next day. Since the holiday weekend was coming up, it was rather busy, and we had to drive miles down the beach to camp. More inland were dunes where many dune buggies, and ATVs could go have fun. 

Once in LA, we found out we had more days to waste before our things would arrive in the mail. Mat got to tour Icon Collective (the school he's going to in January). It was located in a building that used to be a real production studio 15 or more years ago. The previous studio did recordings for artists like Beyonce, Nine Inch Nails, Earth Wind and Fire, and Marvin Gaye. We spent one day walking the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and then bought tickets for the Wax Museum, World Record Museum, and Ripley's Believe it or Not! for only a $30 bundle price per person. Why not? We saw some cool stuff! The next day was spent at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Thank you to Chris for the season passes so Mat and I got in for free! We only had to pay for Seth to get in! We went on a whole bunch of rollercoasters, but our favorite was called Full Throttle. I can't ruin it for you, but it's so fun. Later that night we went to an EDM show at a club called The Exchange. On the 4th we drove to Laguna Niguel to visit family and get our important mail. A big shout out to Uncle Jerry and Auntie Rene for letting us use their address! Thank you! It was pleasant getting to see them for the first time since middle school. It was a nice relaxing meal with good company. 

That night we decided that we needed to go to Colorado to get the title for the Jeep. Earlier in the week we had found out that we would need the title for boarder crossings and shipping the vehicle across the Darien Gap. We made it to Las Vegas and stayed in a gas station parking lot. Never in our lives have we seen so many fireworks going off in all directions for the Fourth of July. From there we crossed into Arizona and Utah to get to Colorado.

Our day spent in Colorado was mainly just to get the title and figure out what we might need for the upcoming cross into Mexico. After running errands and eating, we made our way toward the Alpine Loop outside Lake City, CO. The Alpine Loop is a 4x4 off road trail that warns against any vehicle without a lift kit and 4WD. We drove up Cinnamon Pass at 12,600 ft elevation and then up Engineer Pass at 12,800 ft elevation. It was a 40 mile trail usually only wide enough for one car, and in many places there was a cliff on the other side. We also had to navigate over large rock formations in the trail and drive through small river crossings. It was a fun time and great experience. I drive a short distance at the beginning, climbing a few rocks and crossing a river until it was Mat's turn. Mat drove a long way up steep hills, passing other vehicles on precarious ledges, and navigating around tight switchbacks. Seth took over for the last leg and finished out Engineer Pass. Along the way we saw abandoned mines and ghost towns from when the mining industry failed in those areas. It was Seth's third time doing the Alpine Loop, and our first. 
Alpine Loop trail
Summit of Cinnamon Pass

Summit of Engineer Pass
From there we made a mad dash south to El Paso, TX where we plan on crossing the boarder into Mexico. We decided to get a hotel for the two days prior to do more research and planning for what is to come. Our cell phones will not work outside the U.S., so we will only be able to update our Facebook and this blog when we have wifi. We will get a Trac phone to make short calls, but we will not be able to use it much. We will update when we are in Mexico!

Driving the Dalton

The main part of our Alaskan journey is along the Dalton Highway. This road takes us from Livegood, Alaska, to Deadhorse, Alaska and follows along the Alaska Pipeline for a majority of the way. It is known for being one of the most dangerous roads because it is mostly gravel with only small sections that are paved-- and when they are, the road is littered with potholes anywhere from five to ten inches deep spanning across it's width for hundreds of yards at a time. The road is mainly used for truckers, but there were other vehicles and motorcycles along the way. It is recommended that travelers bring a full spare tire, an emergency kit, and warned that the windshield will probably come out with a chip or crack. Since the road is mainly gravel and semi's are the most common, rocks are often caught in the tires, and subsequently flung through the air as the trucks get to higher speeds. We finished the trip with four chips in the windshield that had turned into cracks by the end of the journey. Although Deadhorse is the farthest a civilian can drive, we paid to take a tour to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. Many who drive the Pan-American Highway consider this a must-see location to officially start or end their journey.
Unofficial sign at the beginning of the Dalton Highway. 

Although leaving Seward was bitter sweet, there was also the thrill of being on our way to the first major landmark on our trip. While on our way north we decided to stop by Denali National Park to check out the bus tours. Unfortunately, we were too late to take a tour that day, but there were still openings for the next morning. Just outside the park we ate at a wonderful place called The Salmon Bake. Honestly, the food was great, the atmosphere was relaxed, and it was also the most crooked building we've ever seen. Honestly, I'm not even sure how it is still standing considering when we walked into the restaurant the floor was most obviously slanted so that the double doors had at least a three inch difference in the gap at the bottom.

The next morning we drove back into Denali, and in the interest of getting the most bang for our buck (and not die of a 12-13 hour bus ride) we decided to go to mile 66 of the park (about half way). Along the route we saw a whole bunch of wildlife including bears, caribou, big horn sheep, ground squirrels, and more. The roads in the park that the busses drive on are precarious at best. In some places the busses pass each other with mere inches between with a couple hundred foot cliff to the other side. Needless to say, we just didn't look out the window in these parts. Once the seven hour bus was over, we started right back up again and began our trip on the Dalton Highway. This night we drove until 2am and found camp. This had to be the most interesting section of road we've ever seen. It started out great-- nicely paved and great scenery, until we got a bit further in. To describe it as a roller coaster would be the most accurate description. Along the side of the road there would be 'Rough Road' or 'Bump' signs, which usually doesn't mean much-- maybe slow down a few miles per hour and call it good. Nope. There were times when our refrigerator went airborne, and all the duffle bags ended up in Mat's lap in the back seat. So what did we do? Turned on Don't Stop Me Now by Queen and laughed our way along what we dubbed the "wup-wups".
Official sign the the beginning of the Dalton Highway.

The next day we left our camp headed north and crossed into the Arctic Circle! We stopped at a place called Coldfoot Camp. This is one of the few places to fuel up, eat, and access internet (the whole Dalton highway there was no cell service at all). This is just a hodge-podge of building put together with a gas station, restaurant, motel, and mini store for the basics. From here we drove to Galbraith Camp in the middle of nowhere. There was a river near by, so we went exploring. We crossed where the rocks poked up higher than the river, and walked roughly two miles around the shore. The most amazing part was a 30 foot deep canyon the river went into. Crawling onto the rocks in this canyon where the river was rushing past was amazing if not a bit scary knowing it would be awful to fall in. Being up that far north called for cold nights when we had to cook dinner out the back of the Jeep or sleep in the unheated RTT.
Mountains along a rare section of smooth road.

The usual weather and road conditions on the Dalton Highway. 
The Alaska Pipeline following the road to the left. 
The big day was here, we were going to Deadhorse Camp! It was a short day of driving, only 115 miles, so we could have time to find a place to sleep. When we got there it was strange. Very strange. In Deadhorse there are no houses or buildings like seen in a city. All buildings look like giant shipping containers put together or like over sized trailer homes, but without the homey feel. Almost all of the building are on stilts to allow for the insane amounts of snow, and almost all of them can be moved if need be. Mind you there are only four permanent residents of Deadhorse. All of the work there is seasonal on the oil fields, with a huge influx of workers in the spring and then they all leave in the fall. Everywhere you look there are trucks, machinery, and construction equipment. It is very easy to feel out of place when there are 'Private Property' signs everywhere declaring the property owned by specific oil companies.

There is a tiny airport for bringing in mail and supplies for the one store called Brooks Range General Store. It is a conglomerate of a Napa Auto Parts store, Post Office, laundry, showers, tiny room of gas station-like goods, and a small clothing store offering souvenir t-shirts, and a lot of Carhartt gear. All of this is strung together through narrow passage ways and odd flights of stairs where you are welcome to explore anywhere you want. Oh, and people live in the upper floors. In this town there are only two gas stations, and by that I mean the dispensers are located in a gravel lot (nothing is paved here) with no humans around. Payment is made electronically at a kiosk nearby.

End of the Dalton Highway sign at the Brooks Range General Store.
After calling a few of the 'hotels' we came to the conclusion that there was only one place to camp out for the night. It was basically a gravel version of a beach 30 yards off of the main road into Deadhorse. This is a place where the winds ripped by us at 30 mph and a decent sized body of water another 30 yards further from the road (we forget the name of the lake). As for the geography and climate of this place, we were too far north for trees to grow, the ground was completely flat, the earth was either half-dead grass or gravel, and while we were there the temperature never got over 39 degrees with a low somewhere around 25. The biggest kicker though, was that the sun never set. Never. It would only dip low in the sky, and then come a bit higher, but never directly above. It just circled around the sky constantly. It was quite hard to sleep, and there was no guessing what time it was without looking at a clock.

The next day was a high of 35 degrees with 25mph winds. Perfect weather to jump into the Arctic Ocean, right?! .....Maybe. We did some adulting (our way of saying being responsible and planning) the few days previous and had set up a tour to go north of Deadhorse into Prudhoe Bay. Only authorized vehicles are allowed to go into Prudhoe Bay, since the majority of the land is owned by big oil companies and for some reason the Dept. of Homeland Security feels the need to regulate who is allowed to go in and out. Seriously. After a small tour of Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay we found ourselves looking out at the Arctic Ocean. As everyone piled out of the tour bus, we noted it was cold, windy, and there were a whole bunch of little ice bergs floating further out in the bay. The three of us walked around for a bit and contemplated our lives and if we were actually going to run in. After saying "F#!K it, we can't come this far, and not jump in" we did it. We had packed our bags with towels, a few extra warm clothes, and a GoPro. Seth went first running wildly into the water holding the GoPro on a selfie stick with a string of explicatives trailing behind him. He ran back and we worked as a team to dry him off and get him dressed so we could help Mat do the same. He ran out yelling, flipped backward and sank into the icy water. Then it was my turn. Ohmygod. Ohmygod. Ohmygod. I ran in. My legs were completely numb. The bottom was sludge-y. It was cold. So Cold. I ducked down real quick yelling "This counts! This counts!", since I technically didn't sink my head underwater. I ran back finding Mat had gone to the tour bus, and Seth laughing so hard that he'd rather take a video of my freak-out reaction than help me dry off and get clothed.
The Jeep coming out victorious after four grueling days on the Dalton.

In the end we got certificates stating we are now a part of the Polar Bear Club, the coldest experience of a lifetime, and Mat recalling an Australian man from the bus saying "Is that sheila gonna do it too?" as the other passengers watched us from the warmth of the bus. Once back in Deadhorse we drove on back to Coldfoot Camp to spend the night and return to normal civilization.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Four Days in Seward

On day eight of our trip we drove into Seward, Alaska to stay with Seth's friend Catie. Her parents were nice enough to let us park our vehicle in their driveway so we didn't have to go searching for camp grounds every night. Since we were at a house it was also very nice to have access to showers and Wifi whenever we wanted. After awhile on the road we really started to appreciate those things that many take for granted. :) Seward is a small town located along the Gulf of Alaska, two hours south of Anchorage. It becomes a draw to tourists during the summer because of the whale watching, chartered fishing, and tours of the Kenai Peninsula. 

Our first day in Seward we went hiking-- or I should say more like mountain climbing. At first we were going to hike up to Exit Glacier and walk on the ice, that is until we found out that Catie's dog Bella couldn't come with. Plan B was to hike to the bowl on Mount Marathon. Now let me tell you some info about this Mountain. Every year in July there is a race where people run up to the top (3,022 ft tall), and then run all the way back down. Catie was telling us that some people can complete the race in about an hour. Yikes. Catie and a few of her brothers actually run the race every year. The race course is different than the route we took to the top (we took the long way) but it totals about 3 miles. Getting to the top on race day takes about 40 minutes and the descent takes about 10 or 15 (obviously give or take a few minutes depending on the person). We however, took a very different route to the top on the other side of the mountain. Originally we were going to go about half way up the mountain the what is called 'The Bowl', but then Mat decided he was going to go all the way to the top, so we all came with. So, after four miles up hill we finally got to the top of the snow-capped mountain. It was a wonderful view of harbor and we could see all the mountains around us that were much much taller. (I couldn't imagine trying to summit one of those!) 

Trail on Mount Marathon 
Waterfall along the hiking trail
Now for the descent. We decided to take the race course route down since it was much faster than trekking all the way back from where we came from. What we didn't know was how crazy steep it was going to be! For all of my family that has been to Pierce Stocking in MI, imagine going down for over two miles on snow and then loose shale. For those who don't know what this is like, imagine not being able to see even a couple hundred yards in front of you because it is so steep and appears to just drop off. It was intense. (and people run down this!)  However, I can imagine it might have been easier to run if our muscles hadn't been so tired from climbing all the way up. For Mat and I while we were on the mountain, it was tough. It was horrible. Why would anyone do this?! But once we got to the bottom of the trail it all became clear. It was success. We had climbed a mountain and got to see some of the most wonderful views. We had summited a mountain! Now I look back on that day feeling proud of myself, thankful for Catie showing us the way, and being able to say 'I did it!'. 

Mat and I at the top of Mount Marathon

Seth and Catie at the top of Mount Marathon

Day two was a bit more low key. We had one of the best breakfast burritos with sausage gravy at a train car restaurant. The restaurant only has six booths that fit four people each, but it was oh so good. We walked around town and ate at the Seward Brewing Company. Neither Mat or I are beer drinkers, but Seth and Catie enjoyed a tall cold one before we went to check out the tide pools. It was relaxing walking along the black sand beach searching for  little animals left behind and waiting for the tide to come back in. I was disappointed I didn't have my camera with, but we saw starfish, anemones, hermit crabs, and other little creatures of the deep. That night we set out to camp along the road heading into Exit Glacier Park. The campsite we finally decided on was in the river bed of the Exit Glacier River. It was located between two mountains and there were many meandering streams shooting off of the main channel. Here we ate dinner and sat by the warm fire until going to bed in the Jeep.

Day three was spent in town. Around noon we went to lunch at a Greek restaurant and had gyros. They were delicious. Then we walked around many of the small shops and saw more of the touristy souvenirs. We stopped by the Sea Life Center for a few hours, which focuses its' exhibits around the aquatic animals found in Alaska. There was a touch pond where we got to poke at a whole bunch of small sea creatures, as well as watch sea lions, seals, otters, and local birds in the other exhibits. The most fun was watching the male sea lion, Pilot, being fed. He was 1,400 lbs and huge! Apparently he is only a little over half of his full grown size which will be about 2,500 lbs when he gets a few years older. Pilot was swimming, flopping around, and barking while he was getting fed 40 lbs of fish. After this we went into the harbor to see the fish being weighed and filleted by the fishing boats. The biggest one we saw was a 110 lb halibut. 

Eagle on Bear Lake (photo credit to Seth Aasen)
Eagle on Bear Lake (photo credit to Seth Aasen)
The last day of our stay we slept in pretty late and again we decided to go to the train car restaurant and for lunch (it was just so good, we had to go back). Then we went to Adventure60 to rent canoes. We were dropped off at Bear Lake and left to explore until we wanted picked up. While paddling along we saw many birds and Salmon. At one point Mat and I had a loon only three feet away from our canoe! Seth and Catie saw a whole bunch of bald eagles at the mouth of a stream where salmon had congregated together. After getting picked up from two hours of canoeing, we checked out the Weir. Bear Lake was up stream from a Weir that let only a certain amount of salmon through each day (or else they would overtake the lake and ruin the ecosystem). The rest of the fish went to a company that sold them to local restaurants or markets.  It was a man made dam that the salmon had to jump up in order to get to Bear Lake and later on to their spawning grounds. Once they got up the dam, some were let through, and some weren't (due to preserving the lake). We watched the little guys try to make it up the rushing water for quite some time-- it was so entertaining.

The next day was bitter sweet. In the morning Catie had to go to work, and we were going to start our way north to the Dalton Highway. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Driving on the ALCAN

Beginning of the ALCAN
Starting on day four of our journey we found ourselves finally on the Alaska-Canadian Highway (the ALCAN). This road would take us all the way into the Yukon Territory and then drop us off right past the boarder in Alaska. This was a twisty-turny road that took us through some of the most beautiful mountains and valleys we had ever seen. 

Driving the ALCAN is something most people never get to do in life. I now highly recommend it. If you're one that enjoys camping and being in the amazing out doors, this is for you. Along the way we saw many semi-truck drivers, RV's, motorcyclists, and bicyclists, who were all going from one side of the ALCAN to the other. It was amazing watching some of the bicyclists along their journey working their way up the hills. Kudos to them. It looked awful, yet I can imagine the reward of pushing yourself to the limit and being able to say you finished the ALCAN on a bike makes it well worth it. We just kindly drove past and waved-- admiring their will power from afar. 

Welcome to the Yukon on the ALCAN Highway 
The ALCAN transported us form Dawson Creek, BC, to Tok, Alaska. While the road doesn't really end until Delta Junction, Alaska, we will be getting to the end of it later in our trip (this would be a totally 1387 miles long). We turned off of the ALCAN in Tok, Alaska, just a few hundred miles away from Delta Junction. While winding it's way through Canada, the road crosses through the Rocky mountains, offering some of the best views. At the highest point we reached 4,250 feet in elevation at Summit Lake, BC. 

View on the ALCAN
Although we didn't stop for many the attractions, we did stop at a tiny little turn off by Racing River and got to bask in some of the amazing views from outside the vehicle. Taking the Jeep just a couple hundred yards off the highway we pulled off into a clearing overlooking the river. It was bright blue, cold as ice, and had many little channels running alongside the main one. Seth decided to test out the glacial water by jumping in- and then proceeding to quickly run back out. I simply decided that dipping my feet in would suffice. 
View of the Racing River
View of the Racing River
 We also stopped at the Sign Post Forest in Watson Lake. This is a place where people bring signs from anywhere in the world to hand on the hundreds of posts driven into the ground. The signs seemingly never end once you get inside. We had read about it in The Alaskan Milepost book, but never expected to stop (shout out to Jim Meyer for letting us use this amazing book :) ).  When we pulled in for gasoline and it was right next to us, we decided to give it a peek for a few minutes. Right off the bat we noticed a Holmen, WI sign. This is when we knew we had to discover more. We also found Wausau WI, Yuengleng (for the beer lovers in our family), and North Port (it was from Washington, but in our hearts it was from Michigan). There were many others including home made signs from Australia, Holland, Germany, and many more. We were sad we hadn't known about this before, or we would have made a sign marking our little slice of the Pan-American Highway history. 
Sign Post Forest 

Yuengling in Sign Post Forset

Wausau sign in the Sign Post Forest

North Port sign in the Sign Post Forest

Holmen WI sign in the Sign Post Forest

The little camping places we stayed at were free. They offered no amenities other than a pit toilet, but we didn't need anything other than the Jeep anyway. One was called Duhu Lake. This had probably 15 campsites and a small dock the lake. The other camp we made was on a trail off of a rest stop. There were only a handful of sites along the trails, but it was next to another pretty river. However, the mosquitoes were terrible. So far our Wildlife viewing count stands at 7 bears, 1/2 a moose (it was dead), 2 elk, 12 buffalo, 0 caribou, and 7 big horn sheep. 

So far the trip has been great. We have learned some of the kinks in our daily life and now have smoothed them out. We like to find free campsites- and often drive until our required end time, and then start searching for them. If we can't find a site that is free, we try to keep it under $10. All of us drive and we have a rotation of who will be sleeping in either the Jeep platform, or in the RTT. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Logistics..

On a trip like this there are obviously some very specific needs we have, especially since we plan to live out of a Jeep the whole time. We have worked countless hours planning and working on the Jeep to bring it to tip-top shape before we leave. On the road we will be able to fine tune how the Jeep is going to work for us. Since this is more than just camping out every night, we wanted to make sure what modifications we did to the Jeep were of great quality and upmost sensibility/practicality. 

One question we get a lot is how we are going to have three people sleep inside the vehicle every night. Well, for one, we are bringing a one person tent (not that we plan on using it every night).  Other than that, Seth has invested in a roof top tent (RTT) that has actually replaced the roof of the vehicle, with a roof that now includes a tent inside it! It is made by this wonderful company called Ursa Minor. We can pop up this tent in less than a minute from the inside of the Jeep just by pushing up on the ceiling. A panel scoots out of the way and we climb right in! Simply put the panel back in place, swing down a support bar, and BAM! It's ready to sleep in. Two people will sleep up in the RTT, while one person gets to sleep inside the vehicle. We have removed a section of the back seats and replaced it with a wooden platform. This platform is large enough that Mat (who is over six feet tall) can sleep comfortably with a three inch thick sleeping pad and sleeping bag. 

Another aspect of the trip is water storage. On board (part of the sleeping platform) is a built-in water tank which holds 15 gallons of drinking water. On the rear end of the Jeep there is an Aqua bumper. This is a bumper which holds 7.5 gal of water (not meant for drinking). This is also pressurized for spraying off things if they get dirty. 

As for the storage system, it consists of two drawers that pull out the back hatch. One side has a pullout drawer containing a two burner camp stove and a refrigerator. The other side of the unit has a pull out drawer for the mess kit, and other supplies needed for the trip. If you open the back passenger door, there is another drawer unit built around the water storage (which is accessible through this same location, positioned slightly to the left). All of this makes up the sleeping platform! 

There is a retractable awning attached to one side the Jeep as well! It is roughly six feet wide and eight feet long with walls we can add to it if we want. This creates a barrier up against the side of the Jeep so we will have a place to escape bugs, change, and shower with our handy dandy HelioShower

For some of the more mechanical things, we have a dual battery system (so we literally cannot have a dead battery), winch, upgraded sway bars, upgraded shocks, 15 extra gallons of fuel (on a hitch haul), lighting system throughout the Jeep (including two LED lights inside, and two large multi directional lights out the back), a vehicle diagnostics reader (so we know everything happening in the computer of the Jeep at all times) and much much more. Probably message Seth if you have any more questions than that...

All of this really would not have been possible without the help of Seth and Mat building and planning all of it. Many hours have been spent researching on or sifting through reviews/threads about which systems are the best and most practical.