Alaska -- Closed Till Break-up
April, 2002

We came to Alaska early to help Cheryl's sister move to her homestead 50 miles from the nearest town, road, or store.  With that done, we thought we would go see the rest of Alaska.  What we discovered was that all of Alaska was still frozen and everything was closed.  During April and half of May we traveled from Fairbanks, past Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park, to Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, back through Anchorage, to Valdez, then back up through Delta Junction to Fairbanks.  That covers almost every highway in Alaska.
In these two pictures Mitch and Max are climbing up a frozen river.   It's solid ice, fairly steep and climbing is difficult. It was really cool to see rivers and waterfalls of solid ice.  None of the RV parks, tourist attractions or tours were open or operating, so we made our own fun.
On our way to the Kenai Peninsula we stopped at the top of Turnagain Pass to watch some guys on snow machines driving straight up the side of the mountains.

This school bus was returning to the city of Kenai after a trip to Anchorage. They stopped to use the restroom, loaded back up and started to drive away.  Suddenly the bus came to a very abrupt stop. The bus had fallen through the ice on the parking lot.

The pull off at the summit was covered with 16 inches of compact snow and ice.  When a car pulls off for a restroom stop, the warmth from the tires melts a quarter-inch of the ice.  Now, for my scientific theory -- after hours of contemplation, (yes, I have some extra time on the hands) -- though still cool, during the warmer afternoons the thin layer of melted water absorbs the sun's heat instead of reflecting it like the white compact snow.  The small puddle from the car's tires continues to melt all the way to the pavement, 16 inches deep.  At night the top three inches of the puddle freezes over.  The bus drove over two of these puddles with each front tire, broke through the 3 inch ice, and was stuck.

I got out a pick and shovel, some boards and chains and hooked up to a truck with 4 wheel drive.  Along with the high school staff and students, we pushed, we pulled and finally,  . . . . we called a tow truck and all went sledding.  Finally, a big DOT truck filled with a load of sand pulled up.  He tried several times to pull the bus out and finally was able to do the job.   While there, we discovered it was difficult to walk across the lot without falling through these puddles. There were weak spots in the ice everywhere and we saw several cars pop either a front or rear tire through the ice as well.  We said our good-byes to the high school kids and staff and felt lucky to drive out without getting stuck ourselves.

We drove down the other side of the pass and started up a hill.  As we approached the halfway mark of the hill, we saw the bus again.  This time it was coasting backwards down the hill.  We slowed as we passed them and heard the bus driver yell out his window that the clutch had gone out.  The bus backed down to the bottom of the hill and around a corner, so we pulled over with them.  By now a couple of hours had passed since our first meeting and the kids were getting hungry and thirsty.  We got out our big jug of water and some snacks. The boys got out their footballs and baseballs as we all played and waited another two hours for a second bus to show up.

A few days later we stopped by the high school and joined them for lunch and played a video we had made entitled, "The Day the Bus Stood Still".  They really liked the part when their principal was sledding down a big hill getting snow in his face and catching a lot of air.  It looked like a real rough ride, but the kids loved it.  The local newspaper, the Kenai Peninsula Clarion, stopped by and wrote an article about us and our time with them.  Click here if you'd like to see an online version of the Clarion's article, (but you might want to do so after you're finished reading this so you don't have to reload this page.)
 
We have hundreds of the usual vacation-type pictures, so I'll only stick in the more unusual ones.  This picture is a frame from our video camera of three eagles battling for a fish.  The two lower eagles have their talons on the fish and are tumbling and struggling for it as they drop 500 - 800 feet.  The third eagle has pulled in his wings to lose lift and is dropping as fast as the tumbling eagles, probably in case they both drop the fish.  They tumbled with one on the top one second and the other the next, until they were 50 feet from the ground.  Finally, one pulls out and the other flies off with the fish with 4 other eagles in pursuit.  I managed to catch the whole flight on video.
Other than the Marine Life Aquarium in Seward, everything else was still closed.  But the weather was getting warmer and spots were starting to thaw out.  Here, we unfortunately found one of them.  When the frozen dirt thaws it thaws from the top down.  First the snow melts and the water has nowhere to go because the ground underneath is frozen solid.  Then the top few inches melt and turn to mud.  As the top two feet melt, the top layer of dirt lifts and it feels like you're walking on foam rubber.
One of the most beautiful towns we visited was Valdez.  By the time we arrived there, some of the RV parks were starting to open.  Most parks would clear the snow from five or six spaces for the early-bird travelers.  We could plug into power.  Water and sewer?  Still frozen! 

This is the office of the RV park where we stayed.  An extreme snow machine film producer was in town to make a sequel to his video from the previous year.  All the locals showed up to have a barbecue and kegger on the roof and watch the action.

Here's a picture of one of the jumps.  As you can see, it would be difficult to back our trailer into this part of the RV park. 

At night these guys would build a huge bonfire between the base of the ramps and jump over the flames and sparks. 

Guess what happens if you don't get your hands back on the handle bars in time -- they usually ended up with their chin on the handle bars.  A few stitches later they would be back at it again.

Break-up was near, so we thought we'd go see the Nenana Ice Classic.  Every year since 1917 Alaskans have placed $2 bets on the day, hour and minute that the river ice will break.  This is an extremely popular contest in Alaska and is promoted statewide.  Teams of people join together and form pools to cover the most common times -- the winning pot is about $300,000.

A rope from this tower is attached to a clock and then strung out to a large tripod.  The tripod is anchored 2 feet into the ice of the Tanana River at the confluence with the Nenana River at the town of Nenana.  Cheryl and Mitch are standing in front of the guard house which is staffed around the clock during the last few weeks before break-up.

You can barely see the tripod in this picture above Max's head near the bridge.  This is just after the ice broke.  As the river filled with the spring melt water it lifted the frozen ice about five feet.  The two edges along shore broke apart and slightly re-froze.  After another ten days the river cut the ice away on the edges leaving a very large slab in the center of the river. 
At 9:27:02 p.m. on May 7th the large slab broke free and floated 100 meters down river where is came to rest again.  We were watching the only channel on TV when we heard the siren from the watch tower.  As soon as the siren went off most of the town's 400 residents came running down to the river.

A log book has all the ticket holders listed by date and time. Our times had already passed several days earlier.  Six winning names were underlined in red. 

When we arrived, a small crowd was already there.  Everybody was huddled around the window looking at the book.

Right behind us I heard someone say, "what time did it break?"  "9:28" replied another.  "No, wait, ah 9:27."  "9:27?  No way, I  have 9:27", said the fellow behind me.  He pushed through to see the book.  He looked and said, "Leonard Anderson" as he read his own name.  His wife gasped and held her face with both hands so her chin would keep from hitting the ground.  Leonard said several times, "Does that say Leonard Anderson?  Read it, what does it say? "You won Leonard!" said another.  We were standing shoulder to shoulder, I turned and said, "$300,000 split 6 ways -- you just won $50,000!"  His wife was still holding her breath.

This was the first time a local Nenana resident had won in 10 years and only the third to win in 20 years.  What great news for a guy that had just gotten out of the hospital 2 days earlier and hadn't worked in 6 months.  He had also just won a battle against cancer.
 
We had been in Nenana for a week waiting for the ice to break.  We met several of the local residents and helped a fellow named Floyd put a large sign in front of his motel back up after a spring windstorm had blown it down.

The ice wasn't the only thing thawing out.  When we arrived, this 4 x 4 block of wood was on top of the ground.  Each morning I would crank the front legs of the trailer down a little further to re-level the trailer.  As you can see here the 4 x 4 sank about 7 inches during the week.

Back in Fairbanks the following week we happened upon another spectacular ice flow.  An ice jam 20 miles up the China river had been causing flooding, but it finally broke loose.  It took about 4 hours to flow through downtown Fairbanks. 

Some of the ice was 30 by 30 feet across and 18 inches thick, wieghing .  You can see one thick piece as it pushes up on another to the right side of this picture.

The ice is moving about 4 or 5 miles per hour as it scoured the shore line of small trees.  We found a location where a steel foot bridge crossed the river.  The bridge rang out as the ice smashed against the steel posts holding the bridge. Some years the ice slowly melts, becomes soggy and slowly washes away.  This year was a classic -- tons of ice smashing through town crushing anything in its path.

 
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