7.23.2012

Alaska Road Trip: Day 19

There were lots of things left on my list of things to do in Fairbanks: canoe down the Chena River, go swimming at Chena Hot Springs, see the reindeer at Running Reindeer Ranch, take a tour of The Aurora Ice Museum, pan for gold at Gold Dredge No. 8, go to the Alyeska Pipeline Visitor Center, and ride bikes to the Birch Hill Recreation Area. But since Fairbanks had the most expensive hotels in all of Alaska, we kept our stay short.

We left Fairbanks and drove fifteen miles to North Pole. Yes, there is a city in Alaska named North Pole, and the story of how that came to be is actually quite interesting. They hoped that a toy manufacturer would want to build a plant in their city so the toys could be advertised as being "made in North Pole." To the dismay of nearby communities, the name change was approved and North Pole became an incorporated city in 1953. The "made in North Pole" endeavor hasn't panned out yet, but North Pole has become a bit of a tourist attraction. The town receives thousands of letters addressed to Santa Claus each year, and many people mail their holiday cards from the town so they can be postmarked "North Pole". 

The town's streets were named to go along with the Christmas theme: Santa Claus Lane, Kris Kringle, Mistletoe, Holiday Road, Saint Nicholas Drive, North Star Drive, Blitzen, Donnor, and Snowman Lane. The fire trucks and ambulances are all red; the police cars are green. Street lights are decorated as candy canes. And so is the McDonald's sign: 


But the real attraction at the North Pole is the Santa Claus House:


We had been given negative review of the Santa Claus House, so I stayed in the car with the kids and sent Steve inside to check things out. He came out with the biggest grin on his face. "They've got Christmas music playing in there! It's worth going in just for that!"

Yes, the Santa Claus House was filled with more Christmas trinkets than you've ever seen in your life. Yes, it is all a little hokey. And yes, I might have gone crazy with four kids in there by myself. But something about seeing Steve get excited about the Christmas music made the whole thing really funny to me. 


The kids were sad to see that Santa's chair was empty. But then we looked across the store and saw him!


He invited the kids to sit on his lap. They unintentionally separated themselves into two groups. The believers:


And the unbeliever:


That Santa Claus was as real as could be. He knew all about Ogden and said that he had been to Temple Square forty times. If you happen to be interested, you can order an official, personalized letter from Santa Claus to be sent to your child from the North Pole. (And just so you know why the kids look so disshelved because we were prepared to drive all day and through the night, not get pictures taken with Santa.) 

The girls bought postcards so they could send something to their friends from the North Pole. 


Steve took the little kids outside to sit in Santa's sleigh: 


And to see Santa's reindeer: 


But the reindeer were all looking pretty sleepy: 


This is the group of people who went in and saw Santa after us. Every single one of them lined up to sit on Santa's lap. 


After our fun stop, we bid farewell to the largest fiberglass statue of Santa Claus in the world. All 42 feet tall and 900 lbs. of him.  tall, 900 pound, three-dimensional 


And Steve went right to work drafting off of the garbage truck in front of us. Yep, he got us up to thirty miles per gallon. 


We stopped at Delta Junction so we could see the end of the Alaska Highway. (On our drive into Alaska, we headed west towards Anchorage before reaching the end of the Alaska Highway.)


If you can't read the words on the sign, it says that at the peak of construction 77 contractors employed 15,000 men and 11,000 pieces of road building equipment. The total construction cost for 1422 miles was $115,000,000. 


We also saw how large the Alyeska Pipeline is compared to other pipelines: 

 

Lucy got bit by a humongous mosquito: 


And then we went to a gas station. I pulled up to the pump, got out, and saw the sign "Card reader broken. Please pay inside." I pulled up to the next pump, "Card reader broken. Please pay inside." I swung around to a third pump on the other side. My card wouldn't work, so I sent Steve inside to pay. While he was in the gas station, Steve just happened to glance over and see the newspaper headline: Alaska Highway closed in two places

Ummm, what?!? 

"The highway is all washed out from a mudslide. . . nobody is getting through," the gas station attendant told him. We were sent over to the visitor center to get more information. 

Steve and I left the kids in the car and went in together; we could hardly believe what we were told. All roads leading to Alaska from the Yukon Territory were blocked. Abnormal flooding had caused multiple road closures. Huge road closures that were 150 miles long. 

We asked if this was normal. (No.) We asked if there were any possible road detours. (No.) We asked how long something like this would take to open. (They weren't supposed to give official estimates, but they were hoping to get it opened up in four or five days, depending on the weather. Work crews were waiting for the water to recede before they could even begin repairing the road.) What?!?

We were faced with a decision. We could either drive to Whitehorse, the last city before the road closure, and wait things out there. (With the hundreds of other people waiting to get through.) Except that when we drove through Whitehorse on our way to Alaska, we weren't too impressed with their expensive McDonald's. And we didn't really want to spend our time waiting things out in Canada, where we were limited with our cell phone and internet usage. 

Or we could drive through Canada and back into the southeastern corner of Alaska, down to Haines, and try to get onto the ferry, completely bypassing the Alaska Highway altogether. 

We didn't have much time to decide because the border crossing station to get back into the United States closed at midnight and we had a twelve hour drive ahead of us. With the uncertainty of the road conditions, we were going to be cutting things close. 

We had originally considered taking the ferry (the Alaska Marine Highway System) home, but decided that it was too expensive to get a cabin (which had been sold out for months) and sleeping on the boat's deck with four kids. . . our four kids. . . sounded nerve-wracking, disturbing, and slightly dangerous. 

But getting stuck in Canada sounded maddening. And expensive. 

We decided to drive to Haines, where we would look into riding the ferry to Washington. If we couldn't get on or didn't feel good about it, we would wait for the road to be opened, ride the ferry up through Skagway, and drive home. That seemed like a better plan than going to Whitehorse. 

We drove fast, like the deer: 


Back into Canada:


And through some beautiful scenery. It was absolutely stunning, and there weren't any other people around. But we were in such a hurry that we didn't even stop to take a picture. I took this from the passenger window:


We made a quick pitstop for dinner (and a road condition update) at The Village Bakery in Haines Junction, Yukon. And then we kept driving. This is the third porcupine we saw (the first that we finally caught on camera):


Later, Steve needed to get out of the car and wanted play in the snow. But the kids were quietly watching a movie and I had no interest in disturbing them (or getting cold). So Steve went out and walked around by himself.


We spotted this bear on the side of the road right before we pulled up to the border crossing station to get back into the United States: 


When we got to Haines, it was darkish. But we could still get a sense of the splendor of tiny town, which is located just east over the mountains from Glacier Bay National Park. We drove around to check out all of the lodging options that I had searched from my phone. I got out and looked at one cabin, but it didn't really have a good feel to it. The kids were all asleep in the car, and I tried to talk Steve into sleeping in the car for the night. (Nope.) We circled the town over and over  and over again, trying to decide where to stay. There weren't very many options and nothing seemed quite right for our family of six. (When did we get so many kids and when did we become so high maintenance?) By then, it was past midnight. so when we called to check for available rooms, we were waking people up. 

The family cabin at the Bear Creek Cabins was already reserved, but we went to go check it out anyway. They had private cabins that were open, but that meant we would be using communal bathrooms (not my favorite thing to do). We were out of options, so we paid the $68, unloaded our luggage, and went to bed for the night. 

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