Friday, August 19, 2011
A Few More Thoughts on Alaska
We’re still hanging out around the motor home. It’s a sure sign we’re ready to get out and about again when we drag out the maps and tour guides. Over breakfast we discussed all the things we want to do while in Winnipeg. We’ll get started on that Friday. In the meantime here are a few more of our thoughts concerning the trip to Alaska.
When planning for the 2004 trip as well as this one, we noticed that most people included one or more what we call megabuck trips either on small planes or boats. Often these excursions are remembered as the highlights of the Alaska trip. In 2004 we did a few of these trips and even though I might not say they were all the highlights of our trip they were all very good and we definitely recommend them. Although this might not be considered a “megabuck” trip, we really liked the Riverboat Discovery cruise in Fairbanks. In Seward we did a dinner cruise around Kenai Fjords which was excellent. For the marine wildlife, I’d say this was the highlight of the 2004 trip. This year we did the glacier dinner cruise out of Whitier. The glacier was much more impressive, but it was lean on wildlife. We were very lucky to have seen the humpback whale.
In 2004, we took the Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Haines to Skagway. Not only did that save us many miles of driving around, but it also offered us the different perspective by being on the water. We had looked forward to that, but as it turned out the ferry was many hours late and it was dark at the time of our crossing and we saw nothing at all.
We also took a cruise from Skagway to Juneau along with a bus tour of Juneau. That was also a worthwhile trip.
While we’re discussing the coastal towns, I might as well throw in a few tidbits about the inside passage. This is something we have not done and it remains on our list of things to do. We know many people who have done the big cruise ship thing and they all, without exception, rave about the scenery along the inside passage. A cheaper alternative to the cruise is to take the Alaska ferry system. Many RVers do this either coming or going and drive the other way. The ferry charges by the foot, so size does matter, after all. Travelers are not allowed to stay in their RVs onboard ship, but pets can. There are scheduled times when owners may go down and tend to pets. You may stop for as long as you want at any port city and continue your journey when ready. We probably will do this someday. Since we’ve already been to Haines, Skagway, and Juneau, we would just visit the southern ports.
Our friends, Tony and Diana, came to mainland Alaska by way of the inside passage on the Ferry. They were planning to drive home via the Cassiar Highway, but loved the voyage so much they are returning home by ferry. I’m anxious for them to get back to Washington so I can find out if they preferred the scenery of early June or late August. I’ll pass that information along.
When mentioning a trip to Alaska to those who’ve never been, almost without fail something is said about road conditions, flat tires, or the inability to find fuel. This fear and trembling is unnecessary. What used to be an issue is just no longer a problem. For the most part, the Alaska Highway is in good condition. It’s a paved road like any in the lower 48. I-40 through Oklahoma was worse.
On this trip we noticed a lot of the wayside businesses (those with campgrounds, rooms for rent, restaurants, and fuel) along the Alaska Highway were closed. Still, we didn’t have any trouble finding fuel or campgrounds along the way.
The road has some rough spots; there’s no question about that. The secret is to pay close attention for frost heaves and drive slowly. Many times, a rough area is marked with a red or orange flag. We did not encounter as many areas of construction as we did in 2004. In construction zones, you may have to wait for the pilot car and your rig is probably gonna get dirty, but they usually don’t last for very many miles. We have heard of a flat tire in a construction zone. Cool Judy and Luke had a flat on their toad as they were driving through the construction on Tok cut-off.
The dirt highways are a whole different matter, of course. There are several around, but our experience is with the Dempster and Top of the World. The Dempster Highway is the road that runs between Dawson City, Yukon and Inuvik, NWT. It’s 400 miles of dirt and gravel. Flat tires here are common and we had one. They put stuff down to cut down on the dust. That stuff makes your car filthy and it’s not good for the paint. It is what it is and if you want to go down that road, that’s what you get.
Our opinion is this--The Dempster is not worth the difficulty and risks of the road unless you have a great desire to go to the Arctic Circle. The first hundred miles are the most scenic. If you go to Dawson City anyway, I would recommend driving the Dempster to Tombstone Territorial Park Interpretative Center. The Center is nice, but the scenery is also beautiful around there. If you have your heart set on going to the Arctic Circle, but don’t want to drive, there are bus tours from Fairbanks which go up the Dalton Highway.
The other dirt road, Top of the World Highway, from Dawson City to Chicken, Alaska then to reconnect with the Alaska Highway, is worse than the Dempster. That statement probably needs some clarification. Top of the World is not all dirt. The Canadian side was once paved. The pavement is now past its prime and literally falling apart. Generally, there are flags to mark where pavement turns to gravel. On the US side between the border and Chicken, the road is dirt. We drove it in rain and it was a mess. From Chicken to the Alaska Highway is paved, with a few rough spots, but a real sweet ride compared to the rest of the road. A real hazard on Top of the World Highway are the shoulders. They’re too soft to support an RV and we have heard numerous tales of drivers pulling too far onto the shoulder and toppling over.
This is how we feel now about the Top of the World Highway. Dawson City is worth a visit. Considering the price of fuel, the distance involved (about 300 miles from Whitehorse), and the drive over Top of the World Highway, we wouldn’t do it. Chicken is an easy day trip from Tok. We’d just drive up there in the car, have lunch, and drive back to our rig in Tok, all on paved road.
This would, of course, only be possible if you had a car. Well, should you take a car or not. We researched this some before we left although it really didn’t matter much. We were going to be gone so long we wanted our car. The opinions we found were split. Those who had their cars were glad; those who didn’t were glad. Gene found on one of the caravan websites a question and answer thread. The caravan director made this statement--”those who take their cars are glad and those who don’t wish they had.” Only you know what’s best for you and your style of travel.
We were very glad to have our car in places like Banff National Park, Denali National Park, Whitehorse, Dawson City, Fairbanks, Wasilla, and Homer. Basically, that’s any place where we stayed for several days. Of course, there were times when we didn’t unhitch the car for several days in a row. The fact that we’ve put over 3,000 miles on the car this trip obviously says we’ve used it.
Most of the towns are small enough that walking is an easy way to get around and nearly everywhere there are bike lanes. It would be possible to get along just fine without a car.
Phone and internet. Isn’t it amazing how dependent we are on these things that didn’t even exist just a few years ago. We have Verizon for both our phone and air card (MiFi). We extended our phone coverage to include Canada, but not the air card coverage. It seems like it was easier to find campgrounds with WiFi along the Alaska highway than it has been along Highway 16 since we left Edmonton. Of course, anytime we boondocked in Canada we were without internet. Our phone coverage in Canada has been great except for the Yukon. Only in Whitehorse were we able to get phone service there. We didn’t have complete service in Alaska, but we did more than we didn’t. The worst place was at Denali National Park. We had service at Riley Campground, but just barely. We didn’t have any coverage while in the backcountry or anywhere away from the main Visitor Center. The rest of Alaska was pretty good, especially in all the little towns.
Well, this has gone on and on again, but I think that wraps it up. We’re continuing to keep data on campground fees, fuel prices, and milage. When we get back to Nashville, we’ll have a final accounting on those things. These thoughts have been primarily about Alaska. I do have a few thoughts about Canada. I’ll get to those in a few days. Boy, do I have a border crossing tale to tell that I heard this morning. Although I try to make it sound like everything has run smoothly and according to plan, it hasn’t. I’ll get to all those things that went wrong in the next few weeks.
When I read over this summary, I feel like I’m leaving a negative impression. I don’t mean to do that. We had a wonderful trip and, like I have mentioned previously our primary interest, not just in Alaska, but anywhere we travel is the area’s natural beauty and wildlife. Few places in North America are as rich in wildlife and natural beauty as Alaska.
So, there you have it for today. Thanks for tagging along.