Newsletter Volume 6

 June 1996


In 1995, Jeff and Cyndie set aside their careers to pursue personal interests: travel, flyfishing and adventure. They lived in a 5th wheel trailer that had been converted into a fishing cabin on wheels. Their Ford F350 pickup and custom designed inflatable boat took them to places where dreams are made. Rowdy, their Golden Retriever, came along for the adventure.

This newsletter was produced 6 times a year to chronicle and share the adventures. It was distributed to family, friends, business associates and folks they met along the way.


Alaska!
   It's been 12 days and we've covered over 3,000 miles since we left you in our last issue at Moab, Utah.  On June 1 we reached our goal and crossed into Alaska.  Today, June 2, finds us in Anchorage, Alaska, our first stop of our summer adventure in Alaska.  Just getting here as been an adventure itself and we plan to share some of the experience with you in this months newsletter.

River Skills II  Before we started our long trek to Alaska we had one last stop to make in Utah.  In April we attended the Canyonlands Field Institute (CFI) River Skills I training in Moab.  This course was designed to teach basic whitewater rafting and safety skills.  We really enjoyed this course and at its completion we felt like we had been well-trained to be a safe whitewater rafting passengers.  But, we planned to operate our own raft and do our own outfitting in Alaska.  We wanted more training than just this introductory course had provided.

River Skills II was a course designed to train trip leaders and river rafting guides.  It focused on boating skills in more technical water,  as well as higher level river safety and river rescue skills.  We felt we needed this kind of training before be began to self-outfit ourselves in back country rafting situations.

The crew for this course consisted of about 20 students and 6 instructors.  Many of the students were participants in the River Skills I course, so this was a reunion of friends we had made last month.  Since many of us already new each other, a spirit of teamwork and kinship developed very quickly.

River Skills II began at the CFI training facility in Moab under the direction of Michele Reaume.  A morning classroom session  covered trip planning, checklists and river safety orientations.  After lunch, we began to put together our raft trip.  We headed out to the CFI equipment buildings and began to load rafts, equipment and food onto the trucks and trailers.  All of the work to outfit this 3 day, 2 night float trip was done by the participants under the supervision of the course instructors.  The participative nature of these courses is what makes them such a powerful learning experience.

By early afternoon the gear was loaded and we started a 120 mile drive from Moab to the Delores River in southwest Colorado.  By evening we had all arrived and pitched.  While Michele drilled us on the knot tying skills she taught us in River Skills I, several of us helped the Trip Cook make a spaghetti dinner that we were all ready for after a long day.

Saturday morning we headed to our put-in on the Delores.  Six rafts were rigged and we divided ourselves into crews.  Each boat carried 3 or 4 participants and an instructor.  The river was narrow and swift, presenting us with some Class 2 and 3 level rapids.  We each got a chance to take the oars and run the rafts in this challenging water.  Cyndie and I have both been running our raft in water at this level for about a year, but this was the first time we had done so under the watchful eye of experienced boatmen.  It was an invaluable learning experience.

Saturday afternoon was to be filled with a lot of activities.  Since this course was highly focused on river safety and rescue techniques, it involved a lot of time in the water.  By, in the water I mean, in the water.  Just you, in your wetsuit and life jacket, swimming in the rapids.

The first thing we learned about river rescue is to prioritize our efforts.  Your first priority is to rescue yourself.  We practiced swimming both defensively and aggressively in rapidly flowing water and swimming over boulders and logs.  Once you are safe, your next priority is to rescue others who need your help.  We practiced tandem rescue swimming in rapids and throwing ropes to swimmers to develop these skills. 

Your last priority in a river rescue situation is your equipment.  While it is at the bottom of the priority ladder, being able to get your raft unwrapped from a large rock in fast water can be pretty important if you are miles from civilization at the bottom of some canyon.  It can have a lot to do with your personal safety.  You quickly learn that the power of even a small amount of river current can create tremendous force on a wrapped boat.  We were taught how to rig pulleys and ropes so as to create a mechanical advantage haul system to pull free a stuck raft.

Saturday was a tough, physical day on the river.  We were all ready for a good dinner when we went back to camp.  This was our fourth night camping on the river with many of these folks.  Other evenings had been spent around a campfire with the instructors giving us seminars on river ecology subjects or trading stories and experiences amongst guides and participants.  But tonight, many participants were beat and just wanted to crash. 

A small group of us that had been together for both courses ended up around a picnic table and soon some hair was let down, so to speak.  Michele admitted that not only does she subscribe to Mens Journal Magazine, but that she had brought one with her in camp for late night reading.  Aerie, a fellow participant and former hand model, volunteered that she could find deeper meanings and sexual innuendo in most any men's magazine advertisement, no matter how benign it might seem.  What resulted was a gut splitting evening around a camp lantern that none of us will soon forget.  If we had all not sworn off any alcohol as a matter of trip safety, we could have blamed this on too much drinking.  But no, this event really happened when we were all sober.

By Sunday morning it was back to the business of learning to keep ourselves alive and safe on the river.  Rafts were rigged and on the water early and soon we were floating the Delores again.  Today's schedule would be highlighted by a mock river rescue scenario.  At lunch the situation was staged.  A raft was wrapped around a rock in the middle of the rapids.  Michele played the part of a raft passenger who was stranded on a rock.  The 20 students were to work amongst themselves to set up a system of command, plot a rescue strategy and then effect the rescue.  As we began the rescue, the victim panicked and fell into the water and had to be rescued with ropes and then treated for hypothermia.  Our rope system provided the needed force to free the raft but at the last minute it broke loose and floated on downstream, causing us to have to formulate an alternate rescue strategy.  In the end, the victim and equipment were rescued and no rescuers were hurt or placed in danger.  It was a very effective learning experience.

The CFI River Skills courses have been very enjoyable and valuable experiences for us.  We have learned new skills, some of which will be used every time we are on the water and some that we hope we will never have to use.  The classed have raised our level of confidence in our boating skills and our ability to take care of ourselves.  At the same time, our respect for the power of these rivers and our awareness of our own limitations has increased.  And the best part is we have made new friends.  Some that we hope to see again and some that we have only known in passing, but all will be remembered and cherished. 

We're hoping for a River Skills III reunion next year.  Let us know what you come up with Michele.

Cruising the Alaska Highway (or, I can't believe I drove the whole thing)  You just can't really appreciate what Alaska is all about until you have driven here.  We've been a lot of places in the western Lower 48 that we thought were remote.  But, there is something about knowing what it means to be almost 5,000 miles from home because you drove every mile that you can't fully understand if you just take an 8 hour flight to Anchorage.

Driving the Alaska Highway is an multi-faceted experience.  As you traverse the hundreds, and then thousands, of miles, the terrain is constantly evolving around you.  Then there are the roads.  Some as bad as you have heard. Some worse.  And then those that are not so bad, but just go on and on and on, over one hill and then another, winding and bumping across miles of vast wilderness.  Along the way there may be, if your lucky, various interesting distractions to help the miles flow by.

We want to attempt to share with you just a glimpse of the experience.  We approached this drive as a series of smaller drives, each with its own character.  Each day, at the completion of the drive, we made notes in our journals.  What follows are excerpts from these notes.

Moab, Utah, to Idaho Falls, Idaho (475 miles in 10 hours)  We pull out of this landscape of wind carved sandstone and headed northwest across the arid desert plateau towards the mountains that flank Salt Lake City.  As we left these peaks behind, we entered the rolling hills of the potato farmlands in Idaho.  The day ends as we come into the Snake River valley in Idaho Falls.

Roads out of Moab are 2 lane, in pretty good shape and lightly traveled.  In Salt Lake we pick up Interstate 15, which will take us north into Canada.  Good 4 lane roads mean we make good time and driving is easy.

Idaho Falls to Great Falls, Montana (375 miles, 11 hours) As we head into Montana, we crossed a series of mountain passes.  Over each pass is a fertile, green, farmland valley and distant horizons of Big Sky country.  Leaving Butte we pass thru the Gates of the Mountains and into the Missouri River valley.

Road conditions are very good but the weather in the mountains is miserable.  Traveling in the mountains means some steep ascents and descents.  At the top of each mountain we face first rain, then snow and hail, which slow us down bit.

We end up spending 2 "down days" in Great Falls.  Cold rain in the lower elevations and up to 6" of snow on the mountain peaks make for driving conditions we were not comfortable with.

Great Falls to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (525 miles, 11 hours)  The road leaves the mountain passes behind.  The mountains of first Glacier Nat'l Park and then Banff, flank us to our west.  As we enter into Canada we cross miles and miles of deep, fertile, soil.  Lush farmed fields fill the landscape.

We lose the four lane divided highway when we enter Canada.  But, the two lane roads are in good conditions and the flatland driving is easy.

Edmonton to Dawson Creek, British Columbia (350 miles, 8.5 hours)  We now turn west and the flat farmland becomes rolling hills, densely forested with spruce.  Aspens and poplars mix with the spruce, but they are just beginning to bud out as spring is just coming to this area.  Some farms dot the areas that are cleared of trees. 

The farms become more scarce as the land starts to become more wet.  First there are many small streams.  Then lakes and ponds dot the landscape.  Before long water is standing amongst the trees and grasses and we see a true wetlands environment. 

We see the first signs of deteriorating road conditions today.  All roads are two lane and paved but some sections have damaged surfaces and are bumpy.  We must slow to 50 mph.

Dawson Creek is "Mile 0" of the Alaska Highway.  Many people take this opportunity to do last minute repairs and preparations for the real drive, which is about to start.  We took a "down day" here to install mud flaps, gravel guards on our radiator and headlight protection.

We can begin to see the effect of how far north we are in the length of the day.  It stays light until close to midnight.

Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson, BC (300 miles, 7 hours)  The terrain becomes more hilly as we leave Dawson Creek.  We soon cross the Peace River, a huge drainage across British Columbia.  The 2,000 foot bridge across this river was one of the greatest challenges of building the Alaska Highway.  Seeing this mighty river and its deep and wide canyon makes it clear why.

Fort Nelson to Watson Lake, Yukon Territory (320 miles, 10 hours)  The terrain stays hilly and the ground is becoming more and more wet.  Patches of snow, yet to melt, feed the marshes.  They call the ground here muskeg, a mat of grasses that covers a peat like soil.  This ground gets more water than it can drain and is very unstable.  Keeping a roadbed stable on muskeg is almost impossible.

We see snow covered mountains in the distance.  The rivers we see are colored and silted.  They have glacial beginnings.  Wildlife sightings become more regular.  We see bear, moose, caribou, porcupine and rock sheep on this section of the drive.

Road conditions deteriorate substantially.  Paved sections are full of potholes and frost heave.  There are several sections of grated gravel road.  One particularly hairy section involved a mile mud road base under construction on which we drove while huge highway construction machinery whizzed around us.  By the end of this days drive, Jeff was whooped.  

Watson Lake to Whitehorse, Yukon (250 miles, 5.5 hours)  The terrain on this section is rolling hills.  The highway followed several rivers up to their headwaters, across a pass and then picked up another river,  following it down a valley to its confluence with a bigger drainage.  All of these rivers run into the Arctic Ocean.

Then we cross the continental divide.  All rivers now flow into the Yukon, which dumps into the Bering Sea.  The river banks are lined with snow.  The lakes are just beginning to ice out.  Huge, snow covered peaks appear in the distance.

Road conditions are better on this section, a welcomed break.  Most are paved two lane, in fairly good repair.  Only a couple of sections of grated gravel and road construction are encountered.  We make better time and are rested enough to go into Whitehorse to look around at the end of the day.

There is almost no darkness this night.  When the sun does finally leave the horizon well after midnight, it is replaced by a green glow that lights the sky until the sun returns several hours later.

Whitehorse to Beaver Creek, Yukon (250 miles, 8 hours)  Today's drive takes us towards yet another more dramatic range of mountains.  The upper valleys are filled with ice-fields, which are large enough to be named.  Road conditions on this stretch were very challenging.  Where they are paved they are narrow and have no shoulders.  Several sections are under construction and are nothing but packed mud.  Thank goodness it didn't rain.

Beaver Creek to Glenallen, Alaska (300 miles, 9 hours)  It is June 1 and the 9th day of our drive.  By midday we reach a milestone.  We cross into Alaska. 

Road conditions make the Alaska crossing anti-climatic.  The border is preceded on the Canada side with 60 miles of narrow gravel road, most of it grated.  Once we cross into Alaska, a sign informs us that we will be driving 40 more miles of the same.  But, Alaska didn't bother to grate most of this road.  And when we hit pavement, it was actually worse.  Another long hard day on the road is completed when Jeff is just too tired to go on in Glenallen.

Glenallen to Anchorage, Alaska (180 miles, 5 hours)  We have reached our first major stop in Alaska.  Anchorage.  Finally.

The scenery today provided a fitting climax to this incredible journey.  The final wave of mountains is the most majestic yet.  Steep peaks rise from near sea level up to 18,000 feet.  Not only the tops are covered in snow, but deep blankets of snow and ice cover almost the entire slopes.  Glaciers flow out of the valleys between the mountains and rivers flow from the glaciers. 

These roads are mostly paved but in bad repair, narrow, steep and winding.  We travel slowly until about 50 miles outside Anchorage, where we see our first good highway.  As Jeff runs the rig up to 55 mph, we realize how fast it feels compared to the speeds we have driven the past couple of days.

We have done it.  We've crossed the lower 48 states, from south to north driven westward across half of Canada and made it to the coastline of Alaska.  Our equipment has withstood the journey and we are relieved.  Whether we make it home or not from here is irrelevant.  We are in Alaska.  Our dream of being here is fulfilled and a whole summer of experiencing it is in front of us.

The days here are almost endless.  As I write in my journal at almost midnight, I can still see the sun, a burning fireball low on the horizon.  It provides a majestic back light to the mountains that line the city on one side, while the sea defines the other.  There will not be much darkness tonight or for the next couple of months, only twilight.  It is easy to lose track of time and stay up way too late.  After all, look what we've been through to get here.  We sure don't want to waste any time sleeping.

No Matter Where We Go, Here We Are  is something that I heard comedian Steven Wright say one time.  He must have been traveling in an RV.

It has been almost a year since we moved out of our house in Austin, Texas and hit the road in our 35 foot fifth wheel trailer.  We've found ourselves quite comfortable in the trailer.  It is our custom fishing cabin on wheels.  It has all of the necessities of life, plus a few of the luxuries.  It has definitely become our "home".

"Home" is taking on a new perspective these days.  Home is where we chose to be.  Much of the time we chose to be active in the outdoors.  But, every evening when we go back to the trailer, no matter where it's parked, it is always the same place and always feels the same.  When we draw our curtains at night, we become rather oblivious to what surrounds our campsite and what is going on around us.  In fact, when we wake up some mornings, make a pot of coffee and let the morning fog clear from our brains, we have to stop and think for just a minute before we throw open the door and step outside.  We could be parked in our backyard in Austin, but we might be in Alaska.  Or was it Utah?   Back in Austin there's not much chance that there's a bear sniffing around outside.  You never know what might be out there here, where ever here is today.

We re-establish our bearings and open up the trailer windows.  We're still at home.  What appears in the windows are like posters on the wall.  And somebody just changed the artwork.  Last week it was vistas of the Grand Tetons and now it's colors of the Grand Canyon walls.  Life is good.

We all have a safe haven we call home.  An environment that is familiar and predictable.  Ours used to be located at an address in Austin, Texas.  Who knows where it will be next, but now matter where we are, we're "home".

In the Driving Zone Driving to Alaska become as much a psychological experience as it is a physical experience.  If you've ever spent 10 hours behind the wheel to drive some place you know it can be both physically and mentally exhausting.  Well, just try to imagine doing that 10 days in a row.  Then, add the stress of a 50 foot long, 20,000 pound rig and you've got a driving challenge.

There are actually two kinds of psychological challenges to the drive to Alaska.  Early in the trip, I was faced with hundreds of miles of driving on mostly good highways.  While I had to maintain a high state of awareness of everything going on around me, I also find that I must get into a state of mental numbness that passes miles tens and hundreds at a time, not just one at a time.  This helps time pass quickly and helps me not become bored with driving.

Later in the trip, the driving requires high concentration.  Road conditions are such that you have to watch every detail of the road.  The scenery in these sections is always the most magnificent but you can't look.  Ten hours of this kind of driving will just flat wear you out.

It takes a few days to get into condition for each type of driving.  By the time I was getting pretty good at blindly covering 500 miles a day of 55 mph driving on good highway it was time to get in shape for the slow speed,  pot-hole dodging, frost heaving bouncing, steep climbs and white-knuckle  descents of the back-country roads.  After about 3 days in a row of that kind of driving I was getting good at it.  But, I was so tired of staring at the roads and trying to react to every detail that I was ready to declare myself "there" and stop for summer wherever we were at the time.

Back in the RV Parks in the states we've seen a lot of bumper stickers that read "I Drove the Alaska Highway, Both Ways Damn It".  I'm sure I'm only beginning to understand the true meaning of that bumper sticker.  I do know that I didn't see a single one of those bumper stickers on any rig headed back up here on the Alaska Highway and perhaps there is some significance to that.  I'm sure I'll have more insight on that for you later this fall.  Beam Me Back Scotty.  JS

Searched  When we prepared to cross the Canadian border we didn't figure that it would be much of an event.  After all, everybody had told us that Canadians welcome US tourists and that customs would be a mere formality.  We had nothing to be concerned about.  After all, we didn't fit the profile of a drug smuggler, criminal or illegal immigrant.  Everybody in the RV parks told us they'd just ask us a few questions and wave us thru.

But, we do fit a profile.  We're from Texas.  Add to that a big pickup truck and a hunting dog and we're deeper into the profile.  They think we have a gun.

It seems that Texas gun laws have drawn a lot of attention in Canada.  The way they see it, all us Texans carry our legally permitted, concealed handgun and are prepared to settle any minor dispute we might encounter with a Texas-style gunfight.  Well, Canadians are not near so liberal with their guns and they sure aren't going to have any of us Texans bring ours in with us.

So, our Canadian welcome goes something like this.  We pull up at a small booth that is the Canadian border checkpoint.  Everybody in front of us is asked a couple of questions and waved thru.  We pull up and are asked the same questions, amongst them is whether or not we have any guns to declare.  We don't carry guns with us even when they are permitted, so we answer truthfully; "No".

The border guard looks at our license plates, makes a few coded notes about us on a piece of paper and tells us to report to the customs office next door, Eh. 

We still don't get it.  We walk into the office and hand over our piece of paper.  We're standing there prepared with stacks of papers to prove our citizenship, ownership of our vehicle, the health of our dog and a variety of other things.  They don't want to see any of these.  They believe we're US citizens and that the dog is OK.  What they want to find are the guns.  After all we're Texans and we must have them in there somewhere.

Two armed customs agents escort us back out to our rig.  They ask to go in the trailer and they start going thru everything.  Cabinets are opened and boxes in the cabinets are examined.  They go thru our clothes, get under our bed and dig around in the closets.  This goes on for about 30 minutes when finally one of the agents discovers that we have a steel lock box hidden (and up until that point, I thought hidden pretty well)  in the trailer.

They are sure they've got us now.  You can almost see their trigger fingers twitching as they call us back in the trailer and ask "Could you please unlock this strong box".  They completely lost their enthusiasm when I showed them that it contained nothing more than a few hundred dollars grocery money and a watch.  In fact, the search ended abruptly at that point, in spite of the fact that they still could have disassembled the furniture and slit open the cushions for a complete search.

When we got to the US border in customs we were quite relieved to be asked two questions and wished a good time as they waved us thru.  The Canadians had us worried we fit the profile of some undesirable criminal type.  Now we know we are just being stereotyped as one of them Gun- Totin' Texans.

Cyndie's Wildlife Sightings Report  This column is going to get real interesting over  the next couple of issues.  There probably isn't any place in the world better to go, if you want to write a column about wildlife sightings, than Alaska.  The Alaska Highway provided us with some wildlife sightings to warm us up.

A black-chinned hummingbird flew right into our trailer while we were at Lees Ferry.  Jeff caught it with his hand and after we admired its colors, it was set free.

We saw an elk before we were a mile into Canada.  So what if it was probably farm raised, it was an elk and is was in Canada.

We enjoyed several black bear sightings along the Alaska Highway, most of them in the Yukon Territory.

Caribou were frequent along the road in the Yukon.  First, a couple of individuals, and then some small groups.

We saw the first of many porcupine near the banks of a small, frozen lake on our second day in Alaska.

At first we thought it was a caribou, but a closer look provided us our first moose sighting, once we reached Alaska.

A red fox with some small prey in its mouth ran along the highway

We saw a large bird in a tree top along the highway.  As we were trying to identify what it was it spun its head all of the way around and we knew then it was an Great Horned Owl.

Canadian Geese with goslings floated in several of the small ponds in the marshy areas of the highway.

Campground Recap  When we left off in our May  newsletter we were at the Canyonlands Campground In Moab, Utah, about to go out for River Skills II.   Here's where we've stayed since then :

Stoner Creek Campground, Delores, CO - We tent camped at this campground with the River Skills students and instructors.  This put us right across the street from the Delores River.

Canyonlands Campground, Moab, UT - After 2 nights of tent camping on the River, we returned to civilization.  We took a couple of days here to do laundry and get our rig ready to roll to Alaska.

Yellowstone Truck Stop, Idaho Falls, ID - After a long days drive we pulled into a slot at a truck stop and got some sleep.  Got up early the next morning and started driving again, so we really didn't see much of this site.

Dick's RV Park, Great Falls, MT - Bad weather necessitated three nights in this park before we crossed into Canada.  We used the opportunity to do some domestic chores and resupply our cabinets for the long drive ahead.

Glowing Embers Campground, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada - After a long day on the road we pulled in late in the evening and out early the next morning.  We didn't even unhook and hardly went outside, so there isn't much to report on this place.

Northern Lights RV Park, Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada - Located at Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway, Terry Bates, who owns and operates this park, specializes in getting RV's ready for hitting the rough roads ahead.  We spent two nights here getting ready.  A special thanks is due Terry, as he discovered I was about to lose my trailer brakes over a simple smashed wire and charged me next to nothing to fix it.

Husky 5th Wheel RV Park and Truck Stop, Fort Nelson, British Columbia, Canada- Another one of those "one-night stands" where we hardly noticed where we were.  The parks best asset was a good car wash, as our rig was filthy with corrosive Alaksa Highway road grime.  Paid $2.25 per gallon for diesel this day.

Husky Mile 632.5 Campground, Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, Canada - Dazed and confused from days of driving, neither of us can recall anything particularly noteworthy about just another place to park the trailer for the night.  Oh yeah, Diet Cokes were $2.25 a six pack here.  Such a deal.

McKenzie RV Park, Whitehorse, Yukon Territory - We stopped a little early this day and went into see historic Whitehorse, an important center of activity during the Klondike gold rush.

Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory - Located at the end of a section signed "Rough Roads Ahead Next 60 miles" and just before a section signed "Rough Roads Ahead Next 100 miles", this park is a perfect example of the three rules of real estate.  Location, location, location.

Northern Lights Campground, Glenallen, Alaska - This park consisted of piles of gravel placed directly on a mosquito infested swamp.  Way too expensive for what you got.  But, when your the only game in town......

Ships Landing RV Park, Anchorage, Alaska - Located in the heart of downtown Anchorage, this campground served as base camp for our research and supply activities before we hit the backcountry.  We like this campground but the trail runs within about 25 feet of our living room.  Oh well, back to city life.

In Our Next Issue  The plans for  summer in adventures in Alaska are now being firmed up.  Here's what we have scheduled :

  • Early June we'll visit Denali National Park, home of Mount McKinley and some of the most pristine wildlife viewing available in the world.

  • Later in June we embark on our first backcountry adventure.  We're planning a 4-6 day float of the Gulkana River in Central Alaska.  Trout, Salmon and Grayling will be on this agenda for this trip.

  • Early July we plan to explore the Kenai Peninsula and float the world famous Kenai River, home of King Salmon that can weight well over 50 pounds.

  • Mid-July we will drive inside of the Arctic Circle for the first time.  We plan to leave the trailer in Fairbanks and tent camp our way up the 400 mile "Haul-Road", to the Arctic Ocean.

  • Late July is our fly-in, float-out trip into the backcountry of southwest Alaska.

  • And, stay tuned for reports on visits by former business associate Doug Pollock, who will join us on the Kenai, and Bill Choate, who will be subjected to who knows what.  Book a ticket to Anchorage and let us know when to expect you.

Contents :

Alaska Highway

Here We Are

Driven Crazy

Canadian Search Party

Wildlife Sightings

Campground Recap

Previews

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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