Our Alaska adventure parting thoughts and stats

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Above is Our Alaska Adventure Route, the red pins on our way in and the purple ones on our way out.

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.

The road to Alaska via British Columbia and the Yukon Territory in Canada can not be taken lightly.  No matter how many long hours and hundreds of miles of driving, you will never get tired of the endless views of incredible scenery.  Coupled with the scenic drive are unavoidable road hazards; unending road repairs with lovely female road workers waving at you, frost heaves, dips, gravel breaks and so on.  These hazards were realities that we were prepared for and dealt with as part of the experience.

As much as we tried to cover most of Alaska, it is just not possible.  Alaska is immense and super-sized;  we covered only a fourth of it.  Mountains are higher (Mt. Mckinley aka Denali) and parks larger (Wrangell-Elias National Park).  Check these stats: Alaska is 2.3 times larger than Texas and the size of Texas, California and Montana combined.  It’s home to the biggest this, the highest that and the most of these – with less than a million residents (about 700,000) enjoying all of it.

And the fishing – oh yeah!  To all my fishermen/women friends, this is the place to be excited about the fish.  I don’t fish, but I hooked a Halibut here.  As long as you know how to navigate the complicated fishing regulations,  you’re in for the tastiest and freshest Salmon and Halibut you’ve ever had.  Fishing is well managed here, and its monitored to support subsistence living for Alaskan residents.

Glaciers, glaciers everywhere!  There are approximately 100,000 glaciers here, with only about 600 named.  We never got tired of gawking at them, hiking to them (Portage and Exit Glaciers), driving to them (Mendenhall Glacier), flying over them (Kennicott, Root GlaciersGrewingk Glacier), landing on them (Mt. Mckinley) and sailing to them (KnikAialik, Holgate, Meares glaciers).  Many time we just drove by them while enjoying their beauty (Matanuska Glacier).  They were always unbelievably pristine and beautiful.

Wildlife, yes.  Alaska is where the wild things are!  Wildflowers adorned highways, mountains and homes, wild animals roamed around and across roads.  Birds chirped and/or just hung around, tart but tasty wild berries grew everywhere.  We never got tired of enjoying all of these things in their natural habitats.

Hiking and biking trails galore.  They were all there for the taking, with scenic views and often some wild animals along the route.

Alaskans live in a different frame of mind.  They are relaxed, hardworking, resourceful and rugged.  They are surrounded by such beauty, yet they thrive in the harsh nature of their environment.  We hung out with two couples – Wilma/Randy and Gemma/Steve – who had lived there for two decades.  Amazing people! Are we planning to go back to Alaska?  We can’t wait!

                                                                                                                             

Our trip stats:

Arrival in Canada, start of trip  =  5/30/12

Departure from Canada, end of trip  =  9/17/12

Miles traveled (including 410 on inland passage ferry)  =  5,722

Miles driven in Alaska  =  1949

Miles driven in Canada  =  3773

Days of trip  =  110

Days in Alaska  =  73

Days in Canada  =  37

Gallons of diesel burned  =  648

Border crossings between U.S. and Canada  =  8

Campgrounds/RV parks visited  =  37

Animals squashed while driving  = 1 squirrel and 2 birds of unknown species (obviously not fast enough flyers).  We had some close road encounters with moose, deer and a couple of bears, but fortunately they didn’t get together with Betsy.

                                                                                                                       

For those planning a driving adventure into Alaska, here are some must-haves:

  1. Milepost – it beats a GPS hands-down.  Order one in March for the latest version.
  2. Passports- you are going in and out of Canada, whether by ferry or driving.

  3. Be prepared for sticker shock; e.g. Halibut and Chips $16-$21 (but worth it), lemons $1.79 each.

  4. For RV’rs, the campground /RV parks are just that, nothing fancy – live with it.

  5. A spirit of adventure and plenty of patience.  You don’t want to rush this trip!

 

A word of advice and caution to be given those intending to visit Alaska…If you are old, go by all means, but if you are young, wait. The scenery of Alaska is much grander than anything else of its kind in the world, and it is not wise to dull one’s capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first. –Henry Gannet, Harriman Alaska Expedition 1899.

 

 



Bald Eagles, Bears and Totem Poles- Haines

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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.

Location of Haines, AK

Location of Haines, AK

Haines, Alaska

Beautiful mountain side along Haines highway.

Chilkoot Inlet, Haines Alaska

Haines viewed from Chilkoot Inlet

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.

Haines, Alaska

More Bald Eagles on the beach

Bald Eagle

This is an injured Bald Eagle and the foundation is permitted to take care of it.

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.

Grizzly Bear, Alaska

Hi, I’m BJ, so we were told

Grizzly Bear, Alaska

He smelled us, so it looked straight up and we drove away.

Grizzly Bear, Alaska

Aha, there you are or he could be pooing.

Grizzly Bear, Alaska

Bear catching salmon for breakfast

Grizzly Bear, Alaska

This is how tourists get attacked by a Bear

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.

Friendship Pole, Haines alaska

Friendship Pole

Eagle Family Totem Pole, Haines Alaska

Eagle Family

A private pole by Chilkoot river, Haines Alaska

A private pole by Chilkoot river honoring a family there.

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.

Fort W.H. Seward, Haines Alaska

Fort Wh Seward, a National Historic Sight

Soapsuds Alley, Haines Alaska

Soapsuds Alley, used to house non-commissioned officers, now houses stores and shops

Officers Row, Haines Alaska

Officers row before now privately owned

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.

Haines Alaska

Porcupine and Mountain Goat one of the many displays

Haines Alaska

A captive Red Tail Hawk

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?”

Haines Alaska

Answer to the question “Why isn’t Southeast Alaska part of Canada ?”

Next stop was the Hammer Museum where an impressive  display of 1,800 pounding implements is showcased.  Now that’s a lot of hammers!

The only place where you can see over 1800 hammers

Haines Alaska

It was quite a collection of different kinds of hammers

Haines Alaska

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.

White Fang set Haines Alaska

Movie set of “White Fang” now used as small stores and for state fairs

Haines Alaska

At the movie set, Steve got his growler at Haines Brewery

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.

Haines Alaska

Harbor decorated with flowers

Haines Alaska

Outrageous gas prices

Haines Alaska

Almost empty RV park

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

The second time around – Alaska Highway, Yukon

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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.

Protection from frost heaves, Alaska highway

Crude and inexpensive way of protecting our car. It will be re-purposed into a regular tarp at the end of this trip.

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.

Canada Border

We are in Canada again.

Frost heaves

Frost heaves decorated with blooming fall wildflowers.

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.

1942 Troop Hauler.

A private tour with Bob aboard his 1942 Troop Hauler.

original Alaska highway

Posing on top of bridge remnants from the original Alaska highway (Yukon portion)

How the original Alaska highway was built

How the original Alaska highway was built in 1942 and what remained of it 70 years later as shown on the previous picture.

White River

Hiking at White River

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!

Soldiers Summit, Kluane lake

Stunning vista of Kluane lake viewed from Soldier’s Summit

Soldier's Summit

Dedication plaque at Soldier’s Summit

Alaska Highway Convoy

Convoy of historic military vehicles

Kluane Mountains

Kluane Mountains

Kluane Lake

Beautiful Kluane Lake looking north

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans along the highway

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).

Frost Heaves

Unchanged beautiful scenery

Yukon Territory

Non stop viewing of spectacular sceneries

Million Dollar Falls

Million Dollar Falls

Million Dollar Falls

Double Rainbow put up a show at the campground

Our next and final stop here  will be Haines, our jump off point to explore Southeast Alaska.

Top of the World – Yukon, Canada

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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 our way back to Tok

On our way back to Tok

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.

Top of the world highway, Yukon Territory, Canada

Early Fall colors adorned the mountains, residents told us that around August 15th is considered the unofficial beginning of Fall.

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. Taylor Highway, Alaska wpid25702-2012-08-17-NC-1050511.jpg 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! USA-Canada Border wpid25692-2012-08-17-NC-1120369.jpg wpid25694-2012-08-17-NC-1120375.jpg Top of the World Highway, Alaska

Top of the Workd Highway, Yukon Territory, Canada

How would you like to drive on this scenic highway, unpaved and gravel and all!

Top of the world highway, Yukon Canada

Driving on Top of the world was awesome

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! Poker Creek, Alaska 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 😦 Welcome sign, AlaskaOn 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

Whitehorse, the wilderness city

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Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon Territory, the Land of the Midnight Sun. Whitehorse is tagged as the city ten minutes drive from nowhere for it is just minutes away from a vast and pristine backcountry.

We had a long drive  today from Watson Lake to Whitehorse which took us  6 hours and covered 269 miles. We travelled thru lush river valleys and crossed low mountain passes in the Yukon Territory. We drove slowly not because of wildlife (which were not present on this drive) but because we were  warned of  several areas where there are frost heaves and gravel breaks. We experienced three things on this stretch, Frost heaves ; dry camping and the midnight sun.

Its hard to wrap our minds around the fact that we are driving over permanently frozen ground. The Yukon portion of the  highway is built on top of the layers and the freezing and thawing of the frost underneath creates the frost heaves. That is just our little description of  it, nevertheless we heed the cautionary signs and slowed down. We also passed the washed out highway, which caused the Alaska highway to be closed for three days and caused us to stay longer at Dawson Creek. The drive is still scenic and the Yukon has its own character.

We arrived at our chosen RV park  at the Hi Country RV park without a reservation. Oh well, the only spot available is unserviced, meaning no power,  no water and no sewer. We took it and experience our first dry camping (boondocking) in an RV park. As Betsy is self contained , we can generate our own power (generator) had enough water in the tank to last us a few days and we just recently dumped at the last stop. The site is only available for a day, so instead of going through the trouble of moving to another site the next day, we packed up and moved on.  We saw several sights around Whitehorse and feel we’re ready to move on to the next milestone – Alaska is only a couple of days away!

The midnight night sun is truly fascinating. Since we arrived in Canada we have had long days, but today happens to be the Summer Solstice. There were a lot of events in Whitehorse to celebrate it. For us we stayed outside and read  to experience the sun at midnight. Then the next day  after only four hours the sun shone again at  430AM. Wow!

Since we only have a day here we took a stroll at the downtown area and a quick hike at Miles Canyon. We checked out the SS Klondike, a national historic site  but was not able to climb aboard as it was past closing time. SS Klondike is the largest sternwheeler to ply the Yukon river  bringing in freight and supplies to remote areas before construction of the highways.

We took a quick short hike at Miles Canyon originally called “Grand Canyon.” The canyon was an imposing challenged for the  gold stampeders or miners on their way up the Yukon to the gold fields due to its narrow channel followed by the whitehorse grand rapids. The image on the canyon was taken around 7PM a very bright sun was still up there.

Hot Springs, Wildlife, and a milestone

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This next leg of our journey took us to a hot spring, wildlife on the highway and our second milestone.

We did not want to leave Muncho Lake but the unpredictable wind, rain and sun got to us. The lake is just spectacular but we have to move on. Our first stop was the Liard Hot Springs, a very popular stop for Alaska Highway travelers. This is on Mile 496 of the highway and used to be the site of a major camp during construction. These natural hot springs are a piece of paradise, from warm to hot to hotter depending on the spot you select. We soaked our tired muscles for half an hour and on our way out we saw a Moose.

As we moved along the highway, wildlife was the center piece. We were the only ones on the highway this early morning so we expected lots of animals on the road. We were not disappointed. We encountered Stone Sheep checking us out, a Moose that scampered away as we approached, grazing Bison and Bears munching away without caring about the tourists gawking at them. This was a slow drive due to some deterioration of road conditions and the increasing amount of wildlife along the way.  However, we have been surprised that the roads overall have been in fairly good shape.  We’ll see if that holds true as we continue.

Arriving at Watson Lake, Mile 635 is the second milestone in our Alaska Adventure.   We are now in the Yukon Territory, the final Canadian province to traverse before arriving in Alaska. This community  is a favorite stop over as it is home to a famous attraction, The Signpost Forest. It was started in 1942 by a homesick GI by erecting a sign pointing to his hometown of Danville, Il. Today, the collection of signs constantly grows due to visitors who wish to promote their own communities. We took a stroll and were amazed at how far the signs have traveled and their number, which has grown to over 70,000.

We stayed overnight at Tags RV Campground right across the Signpost Forest. Big rig friendly, quiet and okay for overnight stop.