Exploring Alaska on our first year of full-timing was considered ambitious and brave by some of our friends. But we’re so glad we did it! The experience taught us so much in a very short time. We learned to navigate tight spaces, deal with rough roads, make due with minimal utilities and live in remote campgrounds with like-minded adventurers. We have synchronized to perfection our tasks of moving in and out of tight sites and hooking and unhooking the tow. We feel more than ready to live on the road full time from now on. Continue reading
Our final stop in Alaska was Haines, and also our base camp as we explored Southeast Alaska. From Tok we had to meander through the Yukon Territory and a little bit of British Columbia in Canada (and of course U.S. Customs) before getting back to Alaska again.
Haines has been tagged as the Valley of the Eagles due to the congregation of about 3,500 Bald Eagles starting in November when they feast on the late run of Chum salmon. A 48,000 acre sanctuary has been formed by the state for the national bird. But we did not have to wait until November, as we saw the baldies perching on trees by the dozens and just hanging out on the beach. It was quite an awesome sight for the gathering of the white heads.
We were told that Bears hang out at the salmon weir by Chilkoot river. So off we went early in the morning to watch bears catch salmon. We were not disappointed for the three times that we went there, they were there feeding on the running chum salmon.
Walking and driving around Haines we noticed several Totem poles. They signify Alaska’s native legacy. They were carved to perpetuate Tlingit (pronounced Kling-it) cultural practices.
There were lots of hiking and biking opportunities at Haines, but man, the wind and the rain were unrelenting once again. Instead we just checked out museums and historic sites. First we went to Fort William H Seward which was established 106 years ago as a symbol of US Army strength. The fort was decommissioned and is now a historic landmark. Most of the building are now privately owned and local businesses reside there.
We watched the feeding of a Bald Eagle at the American Bald Eagle Foundation. There were also more than 200 specimen of local fish and wildlife. The founder gave an engaging and interesting presentation of wildlife stories.
Next stop was the Sheldon Museum, which houses collections of Native art, gold rush mementos and a display of the answer to the question “Whose Border is it?”
Next stop was the Hammer Museum where an impressive display of 1,800 pounding implements is showcased. Now that’s a lot of hammers!
Due to its quintessential Alaskan look, Haines has also been a favorite of filmmakers. The 1991 Disney movie “White Fang” was filmed in Dalton City as is “Gold Rush Alaska” at Porcupine Creek.
We could tell that the season is winding down as the RV park we stayed in, Haines Hitch up RV park was pretty sparse. We liked it for we had the west section to ourselves. It was a level grass site with full hook ups. We liked it here even if the laundry cost $3.50 per load. What can we say, everything in Alaska is expensive.
We prepped Betsy, and the Honda for our departure from Alaska on a three-day ferry trip through the inside passage to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada.
Upnext: Leaving Alaska
We left Million Dollar Falls campground and headed back into Alaska. Alas, we had to go through another border crossing into America. For the first time, we were asked to pull over and step out of the motorhome after our passports were checked and we answered some questions. The lady officer checked Betsy, opening several cupboards/cabinets and the refrigerator. We were asked if we had any fur, feathers, wild animal souvenirs and so on. After 15 minutes of inspection we were cleared to go. Whew!
We set camp at Haines, which is the terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway, a state-run ferry system operating passenger and vehicle ferries between cities. Access to towns and cities in Southeast Alaska is either by float plane or via Alaska Marine Highway ferry for there are a few roads through this region. We booked our ferry rides for Skagway, Juneau and Hoonah as soon as we arrived.
We first took the 45-minute fast ferry to Skagway one rainy day for a day of exploring. When we arrived there four (4) cruise ships were already docked pouring hundreds of tourist into the little town. We took a stroll around town viewing false-fronted buildings of the gold rush-era, now converted into various stores. This town is known as the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898 and its colorful history is still evident with the preserved buildings. Next we hiked 4 miles round trip to the historic Gold Rush Cemetery and Reid Falls. This is a famous cemetery where the infamous characters such as “Soapy Smith” from the gold rush days were buried.
The following day we took ourselves and the car on another ferry for a beautiful 4 1/2 hour ride to Juneau. As you probably know, the only capital in the US not accessible by road is Juneau and it claims to be America’s most scenic state capital. We agree with that claim as we have seen its beauty first hand. This city has a different feel compared to the other two big cities – Anchorage and Fairbanks. It has its own charm, and being an active port city with an inspiring wilderness setting it is also a port of call for cruise ships. There is a lot to do but we did what we could during our limited stay. It is here that we tasted the freshest and sweetest Alaskan King Crab ever! We took time to visit the Alaska State Museum which has excellent displays talking about the native Alaskan people and their culture. There is also a description of the political history of the state and the various claims of ownership. It was well done. Finally, we rode the Mt. Roberts Tram up to the 1800 ft, platform where we did some hiking and enjoyed the fantastic view of the airport and city.
The following day we caught yet another ferry for another 3 hr trip to Hoonah, which has a population of 868 and is also a cruise ship port. Aside from tourism, fishing and logging are the main industries there. We visited my high school classmate Wilma and her husband Randy. They are really Alaskans for they have lived here for 20 years! They are both commercial fishermen aside from teaching. In seven hours they fed us Wilma’s killer Halibut Chowder and grilled King Salmon, gave us a tour where we saw two whales near the harbor, two bears just a few minutes from their house and most exciting of all we went blueberry picking. One of the summer pastimes of Alaskans in August is berry picking and we picked blueberries from the roadside. In an hour we managed to picked two galloons of wild tart Alaskan blueberries. Steve and Randy watched for bears, since blueberries are one of their favorites and we didn’t want them to see us stealing their food!
After four days of city/town hopping we boarded our car and us via MV Malaspina back to Haines.
Leaving Glennallen, our adventure to Valdez (pronounced Val-DEEZ) began on the Richardson Highway. We crawled along at a slow pace, negotiating 17 pavement breaks (yes I counted them) with abrupt edges, dips and frost heaves. That meant Steve had to slow way down for every encounter so we wouldn’t empty our cabinets of their contents as Betsy displayed some serious hip action.
We climbed to the 2,800 ft. summit of Thompson Pass, where we encountered rain and fog. Visibility was so bad that we decided to pull off and take a break for lunch at the top. Thompson Pass received 26 feet of snow during January 2012, and there was still plenty on the mountain during our August visit.
Our drive continued over Lowe River (Steve smiled), four beautiful waterfalls and through Keystone Canyon where we saw some gorgeous 5,000 ft. peaks.
As we entered the town of Valdez, the lush Chugach mountains and shimmering clear water were just breathtaking. The sun was shining during our four-day stay here, allowing us to hike, bike and take a walk around the quaint town to learn a why it is called the “Switzerland of Alaska.”
It was also here that we enjoyed the amazing sight of salmon running at Solomon Gulch. I’ll give more details about that fascinating experience in my next blog.
Valdez is rich in history that helped shaped this community. In 1898, it was all about the gold stampede and railroad industry. Then on March 27, 1964 a 4-minute, 9.2 earthquake triggered an underwater landslide which created a tsunami. The tremendous waves washed away the entire Valdez waterfront. Due to the fact that the town had been built on unstable soil, it was abandoned and a whole new town was built 4 miles to the east.
The 800-mile long Trans-Alaska oil pipeline was completed between Prudhoe Bay in the north and Valdez to the south in 1977. And the town became a household name in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez tanker ship ran aground, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Although the town was not direcly impacted by the oil spill, thousands of people arrived in response to the crisis.
We visited two museums while here. Both the Valdez Historical Museum and the Old Town Valdez Museum were excellent and a great learning experience.
We loved this town and the surrounding area so much that I couldn’t capture it all in a single blog. To read about the rest of our adventure here, check out Valdez pt. 2!
From Steve –
The editor-in-chief (Mona Liza) advised me that I am to write something about our first month on the road, and it is due today. I will try to keep it from being boring, but if it is boring please let her know and then maybe she won’t make me do it again.
One month ago today we pulled out of French Camp, California to begin our multi-year journey of all the continental states (we’ll go through many of them repeatedly). We will likely concentrate more time on the western states, since that is where we plan to settle next – whenever that is. We are currently sitting at Lake Sawyer, Washington, about 45 minutes south-east of Seattle. And to my dismay, it’s raining here!
To the topic at hand, this full-timing thing is incredible. I must admit that I’m going through periods of disbelief that it’s actually happening, considering our life style just a few months ago. I usually don’t know what day of the week it is, only on our “travel days” when I need to hook up the car and drive to the next destination. We are finally falling into a pattern of planning only the next stop and making reservations there, then occasionally looking at the calendar to see if we are close to our plan of entering Alaska around July 1st. Of course, we also spend time planning what we want to see and do at the next destination. But most of the time my biggest decisions are what I need to get at the store for dinner, and the most daunting task at the end of each day – which bottle of wine to have with dinner!
We still have a lot to learn, but we’re getting better in our planning and more coordinated in what each of us needs to do to help the other. So far it’s an amazing experience that I wouldn’t miss for the world.
From MonaLiza –
Amazingly after our first month of living in a very small place Steve and I are getting along mighty well. For those of you who knew us during our working days, we had different working hours so much so that we only saw each other on weekends. Now we are hanging out together 24/7 ! Steve spends his alone time tinkering around the motorhome or doing maintenance stuff or going to the store. For me doing laundry is my alone time and reading a book. Other than that, we play scrabble, read books and continue to learn about the ART of DOING NOTHING.
Steve the Handy man, my all around fixer !
Having a diverse and ever changing backyard every time we move is part of the excitement. It ranges from living on a golf course, by the river, an ocean view, a forest, a goat marsh or beautiful mountains – or having no view at all. The wildlife that we see and hear is very relaxing and makes you happy. Be it the chirping birds, a frog choral concert, geese honking or simply the peace and quiet.
Living on the road for the past month is just the beginning of more fun and amazement ahead. With God watching over us, we will continue to travel safely and in good health.