I set off early the next morning for Seward. The first hour was a bit slow, with only one lift a few miles further along the road, and it was also raining which is always bad for hitching. Then someone stopped and said he was going 70 miles down the road, except he said for a small detour to collect some hay. We got into a conversation about music, the 60s, revolution, and the internet amongst other things - I’d forgotten how interesting hitch-hiking could be! After stopping to fill his pick-up truck with hay we carried on towards Seldotna, where I was dropped at a large supermarket. Out of the blue a man came up to me and shook my hand and said how much he’d enjoyed watching me perform at Seldovia folk festival a few days earlier.
I tried my luck again hitching from the car park of the supermarket and watched an endless stream of 4 by 4s go past before someone finally stopped and took me from Seldotna to the junction to Seward. Five minutes later a lady called Blanche stopped and said she would be glad to give me a lift as she had started feeling drowsy at the wheel! Amongst other things Blanche had been a teacher in one of the remote northern communities, where normally the local tribes are suspicious of outsiders, especially white people. But Blanche obviously had something special to offer as she was quickly accepted into the community where many teachers are rejected and leave within months of arriving. She’d also raised 6 children from tough backgrounds as well as bringing up her own children - what an amazing lady!
By the time I checked into my hostel I was worn out after a long day of hitching and lugging my backpack, suitcase and guitar in and out of cars. Seward is a spectacular place, but I found myself feeling a bit down in the dumps and missing home. From my hostel I could see Mount Marathon, a 3,500 feet peak that every 4th July people from around Alaska come to race up and down. I decided that what I needed to lift my spirits was to climb a mountain, so I woke early the next morning, made a packed lunch and set off on the trail. As I climbed higher the views became more and more spectacular, and there were lovely summer flowers and gauze. There's nothing like nature to put things back in perspective, and by the time I returned from my climb I felt rejuvinated again.
I managed to organise an impromptu gig in the afternoon, and it was nice to see Blanche again, who’d asked me to phone her if I was playing. I was just settling down for my supper back at the hostel when I got a panicked phone call from my dad back in England. He told me that he'd been unable to sleep and was listening to the international news, and that there was a tsunami warning off the Gulf of Alaska - which is exactly where Seward is!
"You've got to get out of there now!" said my dad, who worries bless him!
When I asked around at the hostel if anyone knew anything about it no one seemed to take much notice until a loud siren went off with a public announcement saying:
“This is a tsunami warning, please listen to your local radio station immediately”.
At this point, a lady who had said “don’t panic”, started shouting “Oh my God! Oh, my God!" and running around like a headless chicken! I went down to check with the family who owned the hostel, and to my surprise found a scene of domestic tranquility, the daughter playing her fiddle while the rest of the family calmly ate their supper. It was apparent that they were used to such warnings, and said there was nothing to worry about. Still, the rest of us who had never experienced anything like this before spent an anxious couple of hours waiting for more news, until finally a siren announced that the danger had passed.
The next morning I'd arranged with someone from the hostel to go walking up a local glacier. Everyone always says how amazing glaciers are, but when I got there I found myself feel slightly disappointed. It looked silty and grubby from the bottom, but the higher you go, the more spectacular they become, and I soon started to see what all the fuss was about.
I had a nice musical evening later on, playing at the Sea Bean Café in Seward. Quite a few of the people staying at the hostel came along to watch, and one of them, Bill, had the bright idea of giving my hat to a young boy to go around collecting tip money for me. It worked a treat, and I took my ill-gotten gains to the Yukon Bar down the road afterwards to watch a touring band from Fairbanks play. Ukulele Russ and his band were fantastic, playing mostly covers, but Russ could do things with a ukulele that I thought were barely possible! I finally got to bed about 2am, but was up bright and early the next day as I was hoping to hitch from Seward to Denali National Park, about 250 miles away.
Denali National Park
Yarrow was a free spirit travelling the world and spending her summers in Alaska saving for her next trip abroad. When she stopped and said I had to go to Talkeetna with her as there was a band playing that night, I couldn’t refuse - she had lovely blue eyes and long auburn hair, and I felt myself falling for her. The first thing we had to do was to make room in the car, as she had a cage filled with chicks on the front seat! We still had quite a long way to go to Talkeetna, and soon got chatting about where we'd grown up and what we'd been doing with our lives. Yarrow was born in South Africa, and moved to the US due to her father's job. She was spending the summer in Homer waitressing, and had seen me putting a poster up in the cafe she worked at.
When we arrived in Talkeetna, Yarrow Dropped me at a hostel in town, and we arranged to meet later that night where the band was playing. My accommodation turned out to be a converted VW camper parked in the woods belonging to the hostel. After getting settled in, I went down to the pub to meet Yarrow, who was coming along later with some friends. I enjoyed listening to the band who were from Seattle, and had a fantastic pedal-steel guitar player. When Yarrow finally arrived it turned out that she knew virtually everyone in the pub (including the band!), and I found myself awkwardly waiting my turn to speak to her. After a while, I made my excuses, and went back to the campervan feeling disappointed.
It took me almost two hours to get a lift from Talkeetna the following morning, and all in all I was pretty dejected - my back hurt from lugging all my music gear about, I was getting sick of the sight of 4 by 4s driving past, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Yarrow and what might have been! Touring can be an exhausting experience, especially the way I was doing it, but one thing I found on my trip was that it in times of need it was never long before a small act of kindness would come along and restore my faith in what I was doing
A pick-up truck eventually stopped and I rode in the back for about 20 miles, as the guy was on a fishing trip and didn’t have any room in the front. Having not really even spoken to each other, when I got out and said I was going to Denali National Park the man asked if there was anything I needed, and then gave me a bottle of mosquito repellent. I’ve found this kind of generosity everywhere I’ve been in Alaska, and maybe it’s something that is born out of a sense of strong community in such a remote and often harsh environment. Modern life removes the need for communication between neighbours, but out here it's still a necessity.
My next lift took me all the way to my destination, a lovely hostel nestled in a creek near the entrance of Denali National Park.The lift was a slightly strange experience - on the one hand looking in awe at my surroundings, and on the other wondering if I would still be alive in an hour’s time as the guy seemed to be on a mission to overtake everything in site regardless of bends in the road and on-coming traffic. I wasn’t exactly put at ease when he told me that he’d done several 360 degree skids in the road along this stretch in the winter, but we eventually made it to the hostel and I breathed a big sigh of relief.
The next day was spent exploring Denali National Park, where I was lucky enough to see the grandeur of Mount Denali (also known as Mt McKinley), which is North America’s highest peak. Most days the summit is surrounded by cloud, but on several occasions the clouds lifted to reveal its majestic icy peaks. There is only one road into the park, and special shuttle busses take visitors along the gravel track that winds for almost 100 miles through the tundra. It was the most fascinating and unusual bus journey I've ever been on, with the bus stopping every now and then to watch bears and eagles, and the driver explaining the geology of the place.
At the end of the track I had the opportunity to climb to the top of a ridge, and the final part involved a really steep scramble up scree, but the view when I got there was spectacular. Beyond Mt Denali a wide glacial river wound for miles and miles into the distance, through acres of wilderness filled with summer flowers and khaki hills. It felt timeless, ancient and unspoiled, and I experienced a deep sense of connection to the earth. I wished I had my guitar with me so that I could have written a song, but I doubt I could have really captured or done justice to the sacred nature of that moment.
When I got back to my hostel, some of my friends had arrived from the hostel I'd been staying at in Seward, and we cooked some food together and exchanged travel stories. After doing some washing and catching up on my blog, I got an early night ready for the next day's hitching to Fairbanks.
Ericka and Daemon lived in a town called North Pole, about 15 miles outside of Fairbanks. For obvious reasons the town has modelled itself on a Christmas theme, and our first stop was to go Christmas shopping in June! Ericka and Daemon were really welcoming hosts, and we had a relaxed evening with some of their friends, watching more movies on a giant home-cinema screen.
On Wednesday I was dropped off in Fairbanks to go and look round town for the day while Ericka and Daemon worked. Fairbanks is a strange city - even in the summer it has a feeling of somehow being deserted and wind-swept, but I liked the place immediately. The people are friendly, and I was immediately offered a cup of coffee by the owner of a shop who by coincidence had visited my home city of Norwich in England.
Sometimes the best way to explore a new place is to ignore the guide books and follow your nose. When I found myself in the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre Company’s theatre (yes it really does exist!) tucked away in the corner of a shopping mall, I thought I'd entered some kind of parallel universe! They were rehearsing for a production of A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, and I watched for a little while not sure whether I should there or not. Presently I got chatting to the artistic director, a guy called Bruce Rogers, who asked if I would like to go and see the set they were building in the woods at Fairbanks University, where their summer production would be taking place.
Always ready for a new adventure I drove out with Bruce to the University, and we got chatting about music and theatre, and Bruce asked if I’d be interested in spending a summer season with the theatre company and writing some music for them. I was very flattered by his offer, and this is something I might well consider in the future. Bruce dropped me back in Fairbanks where I was due to be meeting Ruth and Wes, the couchsurfers I'd met in Anchorage. We had a nice time eating tea and cakes (very British!), and comparing the various places we’d been in Alaska.
Ericka picked me up again after work and as it was still raining we had another night in watching movies on their big-screen. Daemon was a keen photographer, and he showed me some speed-image videos he'd done of the Northern Lights set to music, and they were absolutley stunning. It was hard to imagine how different this place must be in the winter, when it is dark 24 hours a day, except for the moon and Northern Lights. Fairbanks is one of the best places in North America to see the Northern Lights, but of course in summer you can't see them because it is light all the time.
The following morning I was dropped back at the University where I was due to be doing an interview for the University Radio station. They were a great bunch of students working at the station, who were also musicians themselves and were running the place in a relaxed but very professional way. Ruth, who interviewed me, asked if I’d also be interested in doing a video, so we took my amp and guitar onto the roof and filmed me Beatles-style playing a couple of songs.
Ruth kindly dropped me off a bit later at the College Coffee House where I was playing a gig that night. I still had a few hours until I started so I wandered around some book shops and grabbed a bite to eat before playing for the evening. It was nice of Ruth to come back to watch me play, and Ericka also turned up with a friend. I was tired out from a long day by the time we got back to Ericka and Daemon’s but we stayed up for a while chatting, and I did some packing ready for an early start hitching to Tok the following day.
Mark dropped me off in a God-forsaken place called Sawmill Creek, and the traffic had thinned out to a bare trickle. The highlight was seeing a moose casually strolling across the road about 20 yards from me, where it stopped and watched me for a while before disappearing into the woods. Not long after that a van came swerving along, and almost hit me. I don't know if it was deliberate, but Erica had warned me that as it was a bank holiday there might be drunks on the road. After an hour a car screeched to a halt and then slammed into reverse and the driver waved at me to get in over loudly blaring music.
“Where are you going?” I yelled.
“Tok” he yelled back, “Do you want an f-ing lift or not?”
I refused the lift, and suddenly felt very vulnerable. I was in the middle of nowhere, and could easliy have been attacked by a bear, or even worse a red-neck and nobody would even know! My guardian angel must have been watching over, because just as I started to panic, a woman in a pick-up truck stopped and said she could take me all the way to Tok. I had to sit in the back because the front was full, but I made a comfortable seat by leaning back on my suitcase and sitting on my rucksack. The mountains on the way to Tok were beautiful, and the 100 mile ride seemed to go in no time at all. The lady kindly dropped me off at Aliza and Greg’s house, where I would be performing a house concert to the local community on Saturday.
Tok is a transit town en route to Canada - not many people stop here except to fill up with gas, but the small town was friendly, and I met some nice people there. Aliza and Greg were both writers, and they lived in a big house set back in woodland with their 5 year-old daughter. I'd been in contact with Aliza when I was planning my tour as she was a local music promoter and had worked with some big bands in her former life running a PR agency. Greg was brought up in Montana and was a keen hunter, and my room was filled with stuffed animals heads. I had a strange moment waking in the night, not knowing where I was, and wondering why there were a herd of wild beasts staring at me!
I had a fantastic time playing a house concert the next day in Aliza and Greg’s garden. They'd invited what seemed like the whole community, and were a really appreciative audience. Families were picknicking, and it was great to see the kids getting up and dancing to my songs. I'm a big fan of house concerts as they provide an opportunity for the performer to make a real connection with the audience, and are a good way to make touring viable for artists by providing extra income in between city dates.
I’d arranged an interview the next morning with Jane, an Australian now living in Tok, for a possible article about my journey in Alaskan Life magazine. I enjoyed chatting to Jane, who moved to Alaska after meeting her husband on a ferry trip (they both pitched their tents on deck by using duct tape - and the rest, as they say, was history!) They were in the process of building a cabin, living in one part with their daughter and gradually getting the work done as time and money allowed. Jane had also spent time living in Glastonbury , and we discussed the merits of taking a good pair of wellies along to the festival!
Jane made my day by supplying me with a bag crammed full of PG-Tips, my favourite tea! My bus for Whitehorse, in the Yukon, Canada, was due to leave at 2.30pm,so I bought some last minute supplies for the 8 hour journey, and was dropped at the bus depot by Aliza and Greg. After my experiences hitching from Fairbanks to Tok I’d decided that a bus would be a safer option as there was barely any traffic going towards Canada, and I'd heard stories of hitch-hikers being refused entry at the border.
Whitehorse and Skagway
The journey to Whitehorse took us through some stunning mountain scenery, and along the pristine waters of Kluane Lake. It was still light when we arrived in Whitehorse at 1am, and the owner of my hostel, Kelly, had waited up especially to let me in. I was due to stay in Whitehorse for 3 nights, but the hostel was fully booked the following day, so Kelly kindly lent me a tent which I took the next morning to a lovely campground a mile out of town next to the Yukon River. The Yukon is one of the longest rivers in the world and stretches from Canada through Alaska where it finally ends in the Bering Sea. I spent the rest of the day looking round Whitehorse, which for a small city has a lot going on culturally. There was a First Nation arts festival taking place, and I sat in on some storytelling sessions for a while.
There was a room available in the hostel again the next day, so I un-pitched my tent (one of those pop-up ones that take 2 minutes to assemble and 3 hours to work out how to put away again!) and headed back to the hostel. I was only stopping in Whitehorse before continuing to Skagway in Alaska, which would take me island-hopping on the ferry towards Prince Rupert in Canada. I had a really bad night's sleep as there were 3 snorers in my room, and one of them got so bad that the owner of the hostel had to come and ask him to sleep in a different room!
The bus journey to Skagway revealed more spectacular scenery as we crossed the border from Canada into Alaska again. Something like 80% of Alaska is protected land, and is still a wilderness in the true sense of the word. We drove for miles without any sign of human habitation until we stopped for break at a small town called Carcross, where a Swedish woman got on on board. Sophia had arrived in the middle of the night, dropped by a Greyhound bus at Carcross Junction, a few miles out of town. Not knowing which way to go, she had started walking and then turned back after being chased by dogs, and was finally given a lift by someone to Carcross, where she had been waiting for the last 5 hours. I admired her bravery and adventurous spirit, and it turned out that we were both booked in at the same hostel in Skagway.
Skagway looks a bit like a film set from a Western, and in fact the town sprang up in 1897 as a result of the Klondike Gold Rush. This is a fascinating period of Yukon history in which over 40,000 people from around the world rushed towards Dawson City in Canada where gold had been discovered by two local men. The Chilkoot Trail leads from just outside Skagway to the Yukon River, and was the only way most people could get to Dawson. Many lost their lives during the journey, which took a year from start to finish, through temperatures as low as -50 degrees. By the time the prospectors reached Dawson the hunt for gold was over, as the locals had already staked their claim and most of the men who had come in search of a fortune returned penniless.
I spent a couple of days resting and exploring the town and surrounding trails. Sophia and I quickly became friends, and we decided that we would catch the ferry together to explore some of the islands on the Inside Passage towards Canada, where I had a gig booked at St Rupert's in a week's time. The Alaskan state ferries are quirky, cheap and full of charm, and I almost pitied watching the tourists arriving in Skagway on their plush cruise ships with their tight schedules for 'shop-overs', and wondered how much they ever really learned about a place travelling in this way.