Monday, August 27, 2012

Off Road Driving in Alaska: The Life Time Adventure

Where Off Road Driving is the Norm
You’ll never find more four wheel drive vehicles per capita in any other state beside Alaska. There are two basic reasons for this. One reason is our incredibly harsh, unforgiving winters. Snow remains in some areas nine months out of the year. Changing weather conditions are accompanied by icy storms, torrential late summer rains, black ice and white-out blizzard conditions. Not only do driveways and off-roads become impassable, so does the main highway.

The other reason for this is that Alaska has only four main highway systems; The Richardson, The Glenn Highway, The Parks and the Seward Highway. There are more miles of unpaved roads than there are paved ones. Many of these unpaved roads are not kept up by the Department of Transportation, or are given low priority for snow plowing, sanding and clearing, yet half the population of Alaska lives on an off-road or has a difficult to access driveway. One out of every four vehicles you find on an Alaskan road is a truck. Two-thirds of the families in Alaska own a four-wheel drive, whether it’s a mini-van, truck or a big boss four- door Wrangler Rubicon. A four-wheel drive is a complete necessity for commuters driving forty to sixty miles back and forth to work on a daily basis.

Beyond necessity, there is another reason Alaskans love their Jeeps. There are very few Alaskans who find contentment with urban life styles. They are consumed with their love for fishing. They go out of their way to find remote camping spots. They have a passion for gold panning and mountain climbing. Many Alaskans subsistence hunt. All of these activities require driving on roads that are sometimes no more than tire tracks crossing bare ground.

Matching it out in the Matanuska Valley
You’re just getting your feet wet when you step off the plane in Anchorage, Alaska. While there are plenty of restaurants, night life, museums and shopping malls, it’s hardly an off-road experience, even if you can find a few bumps. If you’re a Jeep enthusiast, the first thing you’ll want to do is buy or rent a Jeep and buzz out to the Valley; the Matanuska Valley that is.

The Matanuska Valley is the heart of Alaska’s farmland. It sits in a crown, with the ominous Talkeetna Mountains crunching in between the Chugach and the Alaska Range. While two main highways, the Parks and the New Glenn, inter-connect in the valley, the rest of its myriad roads are unpaved. If you’re a fishing enthusiast, no greater thrill can be found than bouncing down a rock strewn track, following the banks of the Little Susitna River, where the salmon rush in during the summer months, and the rivers stay alive with trout.

The Matanuska Valley area is honey-combed with rivers, lakes, creeks and streams. The access roads are generally gravel, but to get down to a prime fishing spot is a bit more challenging. Valley soil is a thick, black silt, created by the passage of the glaciers. Underneath that silt are unmovable boulders that let their presence be known only when you hit them. It’s also famous for its pot holes. Since it’s a valley, it’s more of a mud bogger’s treat than it is a rock climber’s, but if it’s climbing you want, point your vehicle at Sutton.

Sutton is the first town you’ll come to after laboring up the Old Glenn at the far corner of Palmer; Alaska’s one and only, genuine farm town. At Sutton, you make a left for the Jonesboro Road. It seems sedate at first, but the pavement abruptly ends, and then you’re on just a little bit of everything. The Jonesboro Road climbs for miles up into the sides of the Chugach, and a mountain full of coal deposits. There are many branch-offs, none of them marked, so unless you’re very good with directions, you might not arrive at the same place twice. At least, however, all trails lead back to the bottom.

Much of the Jonesboro Road is gravel until you start climbing. Then you are on glacier silt, red iron clay and submerged boulders. The area is riveted with numerous wash-outs that were never graded, and occasional creek beds that sometimes hold water and sometimes don’t. Once you reach the top though, you’re in a rock climber’s paradise. Some of the locations are absolutely insane. Giant cliffs that twist one way, while others heave forward from the opposite end, making it hard to decide whether you’re up, down or sideways. Jagged boulders, belching canyons, tumbling hills with nestling ponds, all make up the topography. To top it off, not only is it great for climbers, it’s great for rock hounds. If you know what to look for, you can find petrified wood, fossils, ambers and agates.

Forever Mud Bogging
Southeastern and South Central Alaska is rain forest country. Apart from the thick, glacier soil, the terrain is layered with the top soil of decomposed trees, and underneath it all, gray clay; also known as bootlegger clay. The bootlegger clay is firm when dry, silty and treacherous when wet. It can hold a lot of water, making you think you’re on a solid surface until you bog down. This clay, most prevalent along the Cook Inlet, is directly affected by the tides. On an off road, the biggest thing you’ll notice is that what you thought was a dry trail, is suddenly seeped with water, due to the tidal effect on the clay. On the inlet, it’s a whole different story.

During low tides, there are miles and miles of mud flats to play on; in fact, they cover the entire 180 mile length of the inlet. Mud bogging isn’t just a pastime; it’s a tradition. There is no greater feeling than being out there on the mudflats, practicing wheelies and jumping creeks. A favorite place to go is Knik River, where its headwaters flow into the inlet. Trail blazers follow the river up to the Knik glacier, cutting in and out of the river banks, while mud boggers cross over on low tide mud flat bridges. Your day on the tidal flats is not complete until you have mud splattered up to your windshield.

Anywhere you go along the Kenai Peninsula is great for mud bogging. The Peninsula is filled with marsh land, giant lakes and a spectacular coastal view of five active volcanoes; Spur, Redoubt, Iliamna, Augustine and Douglas. Anchor Point is one of the best spots for off road mud bogging. You’re truly off the road. It will take a while to get past the motor homes and campers that braved the rugged trail to nestle next to their favorite fishing hole, but that mud flat freedom ride just couldn’t be greater.

There is only one thing to remember. When the tide comes in, it comes in fast. Those fantastic flats you were spinning your heart out in, very quickly fill with water. At the top of the hill that leads down into the flats are giant cranes waiting to pull in the off road adventurers who forgot their vehicles don’t make very good float planes.

Braving the Wilderness
The deeper you go into interior Alaska, the more opportunities there are for off road adventures. If you take the Parks Highway, you’ll find mainly, clearly marked roads and an opportunity to explore Denali Park. The Parks Highway is fine, but unless you turn off for Talkeetna or Jim Creek, it’s more like driving a sedate country road. There is nothing to raise your back hairs except a momentary blip as you cross Hurricane Gulch. The bridge is solid, as fine as any money can buy, but it’s still a long way down to the bottom.

If you choose the New Glenn however, you’re in “old” Alaska, a somewhat forgotten and neglected area. Although the highway is famous for its hairpin curves, it also has some of the most incredible views, and is saturated with off roads and old hunting trails.

The terrain is very rugged, with thin soil, rock cropping, slate piles, old creek beds, and if you choose an off road, plenty of pot holes. By the time you reach Eureka, your elevation is 3,294 feet, on a road that takes sudden dips and twists around cliffs or look down at miles of tundra. If you turn off the main highway, you’re basically on your own. Gas stations and settlements are far apart, so if you choose an interior back road, take along a buddy. Cell phone reception is poor to non-existent, and you are in a land with bears, flash floods, dizzying heights and yawning canyons.

At Glenallen, you can take the junction, either leading you to Clearwater or farther north to Fairbanks. Although it’s paved road, it’s still pretty challenging as it cuts into the Alaska Range, with the typical sharp turns and steep grades of mountain roads. If that still sounds too tame for you, there are many places you can pull off to experiment with a bit of rock busting.

The Glenallen Junction is also the turning point for that big decision of going to the Wrangell Mountains or Valdez. The Wrangell’s have very little public road access, and can only be reached by plane, walking, or four wheel drive. It’s an incredible land, practically untouched by civilization, with meadows and valleys, tall blue mountains, and even an extinct volcano at Nesbesna. During my last trip there, it was raining. My camping buddy and I had arranged for an overnight stay at a cabin; something very easy to do if you call the State Parks management in advance. There is no charge. You simply sign the register so they know it’s in use.

It had stopped raining by morning, so we decided to continue our journey, which involved viewing the extinct volcano and the St Elias gold mine. Little did we know, our adventure, which had already covered two hundred miles, had just begun! The creeks had flooded during the night, and our journey involved crossing three that were raging over the already rather primitive road. At one point, we had water flowing almost to our windows, but there were fresh tracks on the other side, so we just aimed the Jeep toward that promising exit and kept on trucking.

The trip was well worth it. The Wrangell’s are a little piece of heaven. You hear nothing; no traffic, no buzzing electric lines, no clatter of civilization; only the music of the mountains. The St. Elias homestead is the end of the road, but we were content. We spent the whole day hiking up to the mine, gawking at some of the best scenery on earth, notching away in our minds a few good mountain climbing spots we’d noticed, then returned to our Jeep for the trip home. The waters had receded by then, and though it was still a gnarly drive, it seemed a lot tamer than it had that morning.

Valdez has a paved road access. It’s only when you wish to climb the emerald green mountains to have a better view of its incredible waterfalls that you need a rugged vehicle. The view from the top is breath taking, but Valdez is rain forest. The back roads are often slick, with huge cracks and rivets from past flooding, very rocky, with no gravel surface. The locals tend to keep their back roads secret from tourists, so the best way to find out how to get to them is to get a little friendly with the town’s folk. I had gone to Valdez three times, entertaining myself mainly with going around the backside where the salmon come in to spawn, and visiting Worthington Glacier, which is well worth the trip all on its own, before I struck it lucky. The locals finally opened up and told me about the back roads that wind high into the mountains and look down on the waterfalls.

It was, as usual, raining, and the road was neither paved nor graveled. At least the top soil was thin, so there wasn’t a lot of slip. There were a few good sized rock crops, but mainly bumps and holes. Some narrow turns and an occasional glimpse to remind us we were climbing; then presto! There were at the top, with the mountains swooping down like green velvet.

Friendly is the ultimate word in Alaska. If you’re friendly, nearly everyone is eager to tell you where you can go and what you can do to arrive at the ultimate back road driving experience. Nearly everybody has that favorite, secret place they’re just dying to share, but don’t want the world to come flooding in on them. If you’re friendly, you’ll always find someone who will help out if you break down, get stuck or run out of gas. We all understand the desire to enjoy the great outdoors and it’s just a little more enjoyable when you’re friendly.

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