Sunday, December 10, 2017

North To Alaska

Going to Alaska has been on my bucket list for a long time because it's the only state I've never been to. So when this job came up I took advantage of it. However, because I was to travel to Valdez in December I dutifully watched the weather for a solid two weeks before I traveled. Called, texted and emailed in advance to make sure nothing would keep me from completing my 50 state bucket list.

Now in order to reach Valdez it takes two days. Because the flight into Anchorage arrives well after the last flight. Plus, I'm told it cancels all the time it's an easy 300 miles across the most scenic landscape you will find in the world. So driving it is.

I was told, however, because of the very short days, it's best to drive it during the day because of all the moose on the roadways. Now I've been all over Canada and everytime I'm there they tell me seeing a moose is soooo easy because they are all over the place. Which in my case is bullshit because I've never seen any moose in Canada ever! But this is Alaska so my seeing a moose is in the bag.

It takes me close to 17 hours of flight times and layovers to make it on the first Saturday in December. The snow is falling freely, but oddly it's not that cold. I grab a quick bite and then head to the hotel.

The next morning I am up early. I shower, dress and pack, check the road report (more on this later). Outside it's still snowing, but not that cold. Start the car, load the car and scrape the windows. My rental car is an all wheel drive SUV. I note it has 40k miles on it and while it's a little high for a rental I'm not that concerned.

Besides, I'm from South Dakota I got this.

The first 135 miles were easy, the roads were mostly clear, traffic was light and the temperature stayed around 35. Eureka pass was the first real obstacle I encountered and this was mainly due to the tight two lane black top which clings to the side of the mountain. Its a twisty windy road that if it was covered in snow and ice would test the nerves and commitment to life itself. But it wasn't so it was fine. However, it was the first indication I had my 40k rental was in need of service. My brakes weren't as firm and responsive as I would have liked. More like stepping on buttered mashed potatoes.

65 miles out of Valdez the weather and the roads went to pot. The Glenallen highway went from clear to two feet of fresh snow. But as I was the first guy across it, I had no issues. Slowing down I made a slow but steady pace forward. That is until I topped Thompson pass. On one side the snow covered road had plenty of traction. The other side, however, not so much.

As I started down the other side the snow I had counted on for firm traction was transformed into a foot of slush and ice. Keeping my speed down I felt pretty good about it that lasted for about a minute.

The backend of my SUV broke loose from the road and started to slide back and forth. I tried to steer through it only to find myself perpendicular to the highway, the backend starting to come loose again until I was now going backwards down the road. It was about this time I was pretty sure I was going to die. On one side of the road there was a guardrail to keep someone from catapulting over the edge and tumbling several hundred feet to what was sure to be an unpleasant death. On the other side of the road was the mountain. I started to appreciate what a pin ball must feel like.

The rear tires started to dance again, this time turning me 180 degrees. At least I was facing the right direction, I thought. My hands were white knuckled, sweat popped out on my forehead, the steering wheel and rear tires obviously had a mind of its own and just when I thought I was out of danger my car started the whole process all over again. I would do three and half full loop de doos before it was all said and done. When I finally made it to the bottom of the pass I came to a full stop facing in the wrong direction and in the wrong lane.

I sat like that for a long time trying to control my breathing and not to stroke out. I also asked God for forgiveness and made a lot of promises and said a lot of thank you for my life. May or may not have exfoliated my bowels.

The pass closed shortly after I made it to Valdez because a tanker truck jackknifed trying to cross the pass. I was also told a few days prior to my arrival two vehicles had gone over the side killing everyone.

So for anyone driving in the winter months the below could help you out. By the way I never did see a moose.

How to interpret because the guy that updates it has questionable judgement.
I thought it best to break this down to people who live there and those who don't.

Good=snow packed and icy. But covered with sand and gravel. Good to go full speed ahead.

Fair= Snow and ice covered the sand and gravel not necessarily plowed. Good to go full speed ahead.

Difficult= maybe a foot of snow with slush and ice covering sand and gravel. Most likely road crews are thinking about plowing. Because you can just barely make out the sides of the road. Plus there are overhead markers. No worries full speed ahead.

Very Difficult= more than a foot of snow with several inches of slush and ice. Chains and a 4 wheel drive would be good to have but still optional. Overhead markers not useable because you can't see over the hood. Maybe slow down. Plows leaving.

Hazardous= Moose are taking the night off. Definitely, if you're not from you'll die. Plows are out, locals see this as a challenge.

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