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
DO NOT TRAVEL TO ALASKA, if…
1) You don’t like dealing with unpredictable weather.
2) You hate it when your GPS signal sometimes gets lost because you’re so far north.
3) You don’t like people who work at a more leisurely pace than you’re used to.
4) You get aggravated when a Bear or Moose walk near the road you’re driving on.
5) You don’t like being in areas away from supermarkets or an internet connection.
6) You can’t stand to drive a dirty car.
7) You don’t like to fish, hunt or spend a lot of time outdoors.
8) You hate it when other drivers wave Hello at you all the time.
9) You think up to 20 hours of sunlight per day during the summer is a bad thing.
10) You get tired of eating the Best salmon and halibut in the world all the time.
But, if like us you think these are just some of the “minor inconveniences” that make Alaska an interesting and charming place, YOU MUST TRAVEL TO ALASKA for one of the best experiences of your life!
When we were planning our Alaska adventure early this year we learned that the classic itinerary from the Western states is to drive the Alaska Highway one-way and take the Alaska Marine Highway the other way, or vice versa or backtrack the same way again. Also, the mantra for any Alaska-bound traveler is to be in Alaska by Memorial Day and out of there by Labor Day. With that knowledge we chose to drive the Alaska highway going in and take the ferry outbound from Haines, AK to Prince Rupert, BC. We made our reservations for the outbound ferry portion early in January, with a departure date of Sept 6.
We learned from Birdie, the lady we met several times in our journey, that she saved about $300 dollars by separating the motorhome from her tow vehicle for the trip on the ferry. When we initially made the reservation back in January we were asked the total length of our motorhome with the tow hooked up and that was how we were charged. So at check in we told the agent that we had unhooked the tow from the motorhome and our total length was shorter . In doing so we received a refund of over $200. Yay!
Although we already had a bit of experience on the ferry as we were city/town hopping in Southeast Alaska a few days before, there was a little bit of apprehension as on the day we departed the tides were low. We thought we might have trouble getting Betsy on the ferry. But we were impressed with the crew as several of them guided Steve as he was driving into the ferry and squeezed Betsy into parking to her designated spot.
We departed Haines with stops at Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan (Southeast Alaska), finally arriving at Prince Rupert, BC. As our vessel glided through the waters of the Inside Passage the captain called out when whales ambled around. The ferry also passed along the Alaska’s rugged coastlines allowing us to see small fishing villages and bustling maritime activities in addition to birds, sea otters and sea lions. We explored the town of Wrangell for an hour and Ketchikan for a couple of hours, given the short layovers allowed. We did not go out when at Juneau for we already visited it separately. We were fast asleep when the boat stopped at Petersburg for only a half hour in the middle of the night.
We arrived at Prince Rupert at 2:30am local time and for the seventh time crossed a border, this time into Canada. After a few questions, we hooked up and off we went and rested at Smithers, British Columbia.
And so that ends our Alaskan Adventure, an exciting, memorable, awe inspiring journey to the last frontier. We made it in one piece. Betsy and our tow has no cracks, no dings, no mishaps despite the torture that both went through. We had a FANTASTIC time !
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.
Going into our next leg was something we weren’t excited about and can not to be taken lightly. Driving back over the Alaska Highway and particularly on the long stretch from Tok was jarring, tortuous and induced crankiness and a few expletives due to the many remaining un-repaired frost heaves. (Frost heaves are still an unresolved problem.) We learned from the first time driving here in June that going 6 long hours and 226 miles of rough road in one way was not a great idea for us and Betsy. So we sliced this stretch into three manageable segments.
Sure enough, after two months the highway had improved very little. It was quite funny that right after crossing the border into Canada, the road deteriorated very quickly. Our average driving was 15 mph for the gravel road and 30-35 between the frost heaves, dips, rough pavement and potholes. We were really slooooow, and that is the key thing to preserve Betsy from any damage. We heard from other adventurers that a few RV ‘s encounter issues along this stretch. We dont want this to happen to Betsy now that we are winding down our trip. A note to other adventurers – don’t let us scare you – a 40 ft RV towing a car will get tossed around much more (and possibly damaged) by frost heaves than a smaller, more nimble class-C motorhome or a trailer. Most people can drive this stretch of the road more easily and faster than we could.
The only thing that remained unchanged on this stretch was the beauty of the scenery which Steve unfortunately could not really enjoy as he focused on the road. Fall colors on the mountains and flowers along the highway are now starting to emerge.
The second time around brought us back into the history of the Alaska Highway and these are areas we missed the first time in June.
Our first stop was White River RV park in the Yukon Territory situated next to an airstrip and we stayed for two nights. Bob and Amanda are both great park owners and made us comfortable while we were there. In fact Bob, who is a history buff and collects antiques and artifacts, gave us a free private tour . He rounded up a few guests and off we went on his 1942 Dodge group hauler – which was originally used during the Alaska highway construction. This guy is quite a character and drove his truck literally over shrubs and small trees! He pointed out the remains of equipment and tools used during the highway contraction, which were literally just left behind when the project was completed. He took us to the White River and showed us the original Alaska highway as it was in 1942. As you may recall from our previous blog, the Alaska highway was built and completed in just under 10 months for military purposes. But it wasn’t the road we drive on now, it was basically just a bulldozed single lane road built over the top of timbers and gravel. It is amazing to learn about how tough those people were who completed such a massive project.
Our second 2-night stop was at the Cottonwood RV Park, situated along fabulous Kluane Lake. The park afforded us with stunning views of the lake, which is the longest in the Yukon at 43 miles long. Forget Tahoe, these lakes are huge! Five miles from the park is Soldier’s Summit at Mile 1053, where the highway was officially dedicated and opened on Nov 20, 1942, on a brisk -35 degree day. Did I say these people were tough? While we were there, a convoy of historic military vehicles pulled into the parking lot. We learned that they are currently celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Alaska Highway by driving it in original military convoys. Very cool!
Now the topper for Steve – we saw the Northern Lights!!! Bob at the White River Park mentioned that the Aurora Borealis lights are now visible as it is getting darker in August. We were so upset that we had missed them, so we set our alarm clock for 1:00am the next night to see for ourselves. Unfortunately the clouds were moving in so it was not to be. We tried again the following night but there was a storm moving through. Then on our first night at Cottonwood, Steve got up at 2:00am and there they were! Fantastic glowing flames of green dancing light shooting across the sky. We were prepared to come all the way back to Fairbanks this winter just to see the lights, but got extremely lucky on the 23rd and it was a good show. Check that one off the bucket list!
The last stop on this segment was the provincial campground at Million Dollar Falls, where we dry-camped for two days. Here we met two women, Nancy(Birdie) and Liz driving their own RV’s alone. We first talked to them at Kenny Lake then met again at Cottonwood RV Park and then here at the campground. We think they are quite adventurous and brave to be driving alone even if they were a part of a bigger group of women(Womenrv.com/fprum).
Our next and final stop here will be Haines, our jump off point to explore Southeast Alaska.
We are playing catch up, we did not have internet connectivity for almost a week as we traveled back through Yukon Territory, Canada. So here’s our next little tale to be told: From Kenny Lake we headed back to Tok, the community that we first visited when we arrived in Alaska.
On this second stop in Tok, we decided to take a (long) day trip to the very cool town of Chicken and drive the Top of the World Highway. Some people take the Klondike Highway through Dawson City, Top of the World and Chicken on their way into Alaska. We decided not to subject our Betsy to almost 100 miles of gravel roads in bad condition, especially in June before many highway repairs had been completed. Instead, we drove our car from Tok to Chicken and then on across the Top of the World Highway. Since it is 185 miles one-way from Tok to Dawson City, we had planned to spend the night there and then come back the next morning. However, it was not to be, as all hotels were filled due to the Discovery Days celebration that was underway. So, off we went at 7:00am to see how far we could get in one day and on a tank of gas.
The trip from Tok to Chicken on the Taylor highway took about an hour and 45 minutes, with the road varying from good to fair (had to slow to 25 mph in some gravel sections). Chicken is a very cool funky little town, if you can call it. It is a living museum of gold-rush and Alaskan frontier history. As the story goes, the miners wanted to name the town Ptarmigan after the bird that is common in the area. But folks had too much trouble spelling the unusual name so they settled on Chicken and the name stuck. The town has a permanent population of around 35 people.
The downtown is a series of small buildings shoved together with a walkway through all of them so one person can run the cafe, liquor store, saloon and gift shop. Susan Wiren the proprietress and owner of downtown Chicken runs this operation. She is also a fantastic baker and made some of the best blueberry muffins and pies we have every tasted. The gift store had some really cool unique “Chicken” gifts too, not the cheap corny stuff you see most of the time. It’s worth the drive from Tok just to check this place out. The other businesses here also offer their own unique attraction and as you can imagine this town is the place to find all manner of trinkets with a Chicken theme.
Moving on, we immediately hit the all-gravel road which varied from fair to poor condition. There were many tight bends and steep hills along the way. It was reported that several motorhomes had fallen off the edge of the road while pulling over to let people pass. You see, the edge of the road is really nothing more than uncompressed gravel that was pushed there by a grader. We hate it when our RV rolls down a mountainside, so really glad we took the car. We climbed to the top of the Top of the World highway, which is about where you encounter the U.S. – Canada border. After entering Canada we stopped for lunch at a beautiful overlook. The vistas along this 50-mile section of the road were immense – mountain ranges and massive valleys as far as the eye can see – WOW!
Although we did not complete the drive into Dawson City, we accomplished our goal of seeing and driving the Top of the World Highway and finally turned around for the long drive back home. It was a 12-hour drive that allowed us to view some fantastic parts of the US. and Canada that few see. And hey, it was kind of cool to drive out and have lunch in Canada! We turned around and headed back to Alaska, crossing back into the U.S. Since I had forgotten to eat my orange that I bought in Alaska and brought with me into Canada, I had to turn it in to the U.S. Customs folks. No fruits or vegetables can be brought in across this border 😦 On our way home we spotted only two wild animals. Steve was excited to spot a badger along the road, and several ptarmigans.
Back at our campground in Tok, we spent 4 nights this time through, so we could prepare our vehicles for the drive back down the tortuous roads of the Yukon. We’re hoping some road repairs have occurred since our trip through in June. We were very glad to have another sunny day so we could take a long bike ride and sit outside to do our blogging. We met Jerry, who built the Tok RV Village park that we stayed in. He talked about life in Alaska and how challenging it was to create a business here. It is definitely the best RV park in town – check it out when you come through!
Next up: Getting Ready to head back down the Alaska Highway
Our trip into the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was a real eye-opener. We thought Yellowstone was big – this park is 6 times larger! It’s America’s largest National Park at 13.2 million acres, and it holds 9 of the 16 highest mountain peaks in the U.S. Vast is the correct term for this park, and yet it is one of the least-visited in the country.
There are no designated campgrounds here, and most “accommodations” are simple wilderness camping with no permits required. However, folks are required to use the provided National Park approved bear-resistant food containers.
Due to its massive size there is no realistic way to experience all or even most of this park within a reasonable amount of time. There are only 2 primitive gravel roads into the park, and it takes several hours on either one of them before you come to a place where you can even begin to explore.
The only way to enjoy a short trip here is to fly in for your adventure. Did someone say fly? We’re up for that! We took a 30-minute flight into the heart of the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains, to the remote town of McCarthy.
During the flight we were awed with the park’s vastness, and astonishing views of the highest peaks, massive glaciers and pure wilderness.
We skirted around the major peaks of Mt. Sanford (16,237 ft), Mt. Drum (12,010ft), Mt. Wrangell (14,163ft) and Mt. Blackburn (16,390ft).
We flew over Root Glacier, Stairway Icefall and Kennicott Glacier, and along the wide rocky moraine. Even from the plane we saw only a tiny section of this park. Incredible!
Flying into the park allowed us to spend most of the day exploring the remote towns of McCarthy and Kennecott. Kennecott originated with the establishment of the Kennecott Mines Company in the early 1900’s. During those years, nearby McCarthy grew as a town that provided illicit products and services such as alcohol and prostitution, which were forbidden in the mining town.
Today, McCarthy’s population consists of only 51 brave permanent residents. Kennecott and McCarthy have no central water, sewer or electrical systems. Generators provide power, and water is pumped from wells or hauled by hand. The remoteness, historical buildings and magnificent scenery are what continue to draw most visitors to this place.
There was a very interesting copper processing mill in Kennicott which is the most popular attraction here. Built in 1907, the mill is a complex of wooden barn-red buildings. Today, many of them are unstable and in the process of being re-vamped by the Park Service, but several are open for the public to check out.
The film at the Visitor’s Center was a great place to start, as we learned how the very high-content copper ore was discovered, followed by the massive effort it took to construct a mill in the wilderness. A 200-mile railroad to the nearest port in Cordova was also built at the time.
The area’s copper-rich history is celebrated as a National Historic Landmark and is part of the the National Park Service system.
We followed a trail out to Root Glacier, which along with Kennicott Glacier has dumped massive dirt and gravel flows through the nearby valley. It was incredible to stand near the flows and listen to the cracking ice and dirt in front of us as far as the eye could see. This mass of material is continually melting and moving very slowly down the valley.
We think flying in and out of the park was a good decision, since it gave us fantastic views of 16,000-foot peaks, massive glaciers and icefalls. We talked to a man and his daughter who had backpacked in the park for a week, and they told us they were only able to see a tiny fraction of it. Did I mention this place is VAST?
Our base camp for this stop was at Kenney Lake RV and Mercantile park.
This was a wonderful stop that we’re glad we made. The cost of the flight was well worth it, as we were able to see so much beauty from the air. And the relaxing day in these remote towns really got us to thinking about what a life out here might be like. We highly recommend this trip!