When we left Montana on May 30, the summer seemed to stretch endlessly before us and we thought that 2 1/2 months would be more than enough time to get our fill of Alaska. As I write this post on August 7, more than half of our planned trip is over and we feel time closing in on us. There is also a hint of fall in the air already: leaves are beginning to turn and the fireweed, which has been a constant since day 1 in Alaska, is reaching the end of its blooming cycle and is going to seed.
“Termination dust” (as the first snow is called) usually falls in the first week of September and signals the official end of summer here. Since I’m in a reflective mood, I thought I’d take a few moments to write about our travel experience itself: what’s been helpful, what hasn’t, and what the roads are really like.
We’ll tackle roads first since they seem to be the biggest concern for Alaska-bound travelers. As a reminder, we travel in a 29′ Class A (gas) motorhome and tow a Jeep Liberty. Your travel experience may be considerably different if you’re traveling in a larger motorhome or towing a trailer. We crossed into Canada from Montana, traveled the Icefield Parkway route to the start of the Alaska Highway, but then detoured up to Dawson City and crossed into Alaska via the Top of the World Highway and Chicken. We also took a Jeep day trip up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle and a bit beyond. And I would have to say that the horror stories about roads have so far not proven to be true. [A quick disclaimer: we have not yet traveled the section of the Alaska Highway between here & the Cassiar Highway but have heard lots of cursing aimed in its general direction, so it may be the worst of the roads on the trip. We’ll update this post after we’ve driven it on our trip back south.] No, they’re not the best you’ll ever travel, but they’ve been better than our experience with I-65 through Indiana or parts of I-10 through Louisiana. Here’s the secret to travel through Canada & Alaska: take your time. Yes, there are potholes and frost-heaves, but they have usually been marked by the road departments with orange flags or cones which usually give you plenty of time to slow down and, unlike driving on the Interstate, traffic isn’t as heavy and other people are slowing down as well. Besides slowing down in general, here are a few things you can do to reduce your chances of vehicle damage:
- Before leaving the Lower 48, we installed a rock guard on the motorhome; however, it doesn’t provide 100% protection and certainly can’t protect your towed or your motorhome windshield from rocks thrown up by other vehicles. For extra protection, we purchased a cheap camping foam sleeping pad and cut it to shape for the towed windshield, securing it to the mirrors and luggage rack with paracord. We have also seen yoga mats, uncut, draped across windshields with the ends shut in the car doors to keep them in place. I would wonder about rain and water getting inside the vehicle with this method though, so use your own judgement.
- You may also consider adding a guard for your towed that will protect the headlights and radiator. There are all manner of these commercially available, and we’ve seen some home-made plywood versions in Alaska too.
- When meeting another vehicle on a dirt road, remember that your closing speed directly affects the speed of the rock that might hit you. If you’re meeting a vehicle and both of you are traveling at 45 MPH, a thrown rock will be traveling at 90 MPH (not 45) when it hits a windshield. So if you’re on a rocky road you can reduce your chances of windshield damage by moving as far toward the shoulder as is safe & practical and reducing your speed when you’re meeting another vehicle. This could save you from a break entirely, or might reduce what would have been a bad break down to a small chip. This was an especially useful tactic on the Dalton Highway where we were meeting loaded semis barreling at top speed down the gravel road. Although some of our friends haven’t been as lucky, we are so far (knocking wood!) chip free.
- Rocks aren’t the only hazard on the road: we’ve heard of a couple of people who picked up either screws or nails in their tires. If you’re comfortable with a little DIY, you should consider carrying a patch kit, but make sure to get the appropriate kit for your tires (a passenger car patch kit is not sufficient to plug the truck tires found on larger motorhomes). Even if you don’t feel comfortable plugging a tire yourself, you might still consider carrying the kit in case a good Samaritan comes along who can do it for you. A compressor (again, appropriate for your tire size) will also come in handy. If you have a blow-out, DIY repair is obviously out and most motorhomes don’t carry spares (because the tires are large & heavy and the vehicles are also too large & heavy for portable jacks to handle). Traveling with a full-size ( a space saver spare does not count ) spare tire and wheel for both your motorhome or trailer and tow- or towed vehicle is advisable: a wrecker service to change the tire might be just a few miles away, but finding a tire of appropriate size for your vehicle might require a couple of hours of driving time which could be avoided by having the spare. We purchased and installed a hitch-mounted spare prior to leaving the Lower 48 ( though there were complications – story coming soon ) and it has really given us peace of mind. And while it might look a little bit like the Beverly Hillbillies, we have seen quite a number of passenger vehicles with Alaska plates that have their full-sized spares secured to their roof racks, especially in northern Alaska. Getting home is better than looking cool!
- The Milepost (more on it below) provides lots of information on road conditions and should be a part of your trip planning toolbox!
THE DIRTY PART
Your vehicles are going to get dirty if you drive to Alaska. No if’s, and’s or but’s. WILL! Even if you plan your trip to avoid all dirt roads, remember that there are 2 seasons in Alaska: winter, and road construction. Winter is hard on paved roads: moisture can cause freezing and buckling (frost heaves), snowplows can cause physical damage, and the chemicals can’t be good for pavement either so repaving & repair during the short summer is a given. A large number of campgrounds also have dirt roads and dirt sites. If you like to keep your rig and towed vehicle spotless, you’re not going to enjoy the trip. If dirt roads are dry, dust will get into unexpected places. After traveling the 60 miles of the dusty Top of the World Highway, we opened our wet bay to find everything coated in dust. The sealed storage bays were fine, but if there is even the tiniest opening for a dust particle to enter, count on it being there. The road departments of both Canada and Alaska spray various chemicals on dirt roads to keep the dust down. I can’t vouch for their effectiveness in dry conditions, but in wet conditions they tend to turn mud into an incredibly viscous substance. The day of our Jeep trip up the Dalton Highway was a rainy one, and since the rear wiper couldn’t remove all the mud we thought it would be prudent to wipe the mud off the brake lights and rear windows. Imagine our surprise when the mud turned out to be more like a hard shell coating! We had to spray it with glass cleaner, give it a few minutes to soak in, and then wipe it off (We kept glass cleaner and a roll of paper towels in the Jeep at all times). A good car wash is in order after one of these trips!
THE MILEPOST AND PLANNING
The Milepost Travel Planner is published every year and is a must-have for anyone driving to or through Alaska! Using highway mileposts, it literally gives you the location of every wayside, rest area, gas station, etc. along the way. Really! It’s how we find a lot of our great free camping sites. For an example of what a page entry looks like click here. The Milepost is also a wealth of information on the history of an area and on the natural features you’re passing. For instance, on our drive out of Whitehorse we passed Five Fingers Falls and the Tintina Trench. The Tintina Trench is kinda cool for a geology buff: it is being formed where tectonic plates are pulling apart and is the largest fault in North America. The rivers and lakes in the valley make it a major migratory route and it is rich in wildlife. Five Fingers Falls is a bit of gold rush history: before the Alaska (or any other!) highway, miners traveled by paddle wheel steamer up and down the Yukon River. Five Fingers is one of the sites with rapids too large for paddle wheelers to navigate under their own steam, and the largest island in the rapids had a steel cable attached to it that they would use to winch themselves upriver. Fun stops for stretching your legs, but without the Milepost we’d have driven by without knowing what we were seeing. The Milepost is also available to purchasers of the print version as both a digital version ( .pdf – it’s a large file, 1GB or so ) and as an app for both Apple and Android. The app allows downloads of the latest information for individual routes or highway segments that include feedback from travelers that have already done that route and updates from the publisher that didn’t make into the deadline for the print version. Even if I lived in Alaska full-time I’d still have one of these in my car. Invaluable!
For general planning purposes the website Alaska.org also has a wealth of information!
WHERE TO STAY
As mentioned above, the Milepost has proven invaluable for many reasons, including finding places to stop over for the night. In both Canada and Alaska, unless a highway wayside or turnout has a sign specifically prohibiting camping you are allowed to overnight and will not be hassled for doing so. Through large parts of Canada we were just trying to put miles behind us and so would drive until we were starting to get tired. At that point we’d pull out the trusty Milepost and start looking for suitable turnouts where we might stay for the night. A few of these had pretty spectacular views and every single one of them was free. Another must-have for camping is Mike & Terri Church’s Traveler’s Guide to Alaskan Camping. Church’s guide provides regional maps showing campground locations and also lists amenities and a general description of services (including cell phone coverage). As you can see, our Milepost is dog-eared and both books are bristling with bookmarks and Post-It flags!
MANAGE SYSTEMS EARLY AND OFTEN!
Unless you’re staying in paid RV parks in towns, most of the campgrounds are dry camping with no power or water to the sites and many state or provincial parks have no dump stations or water fills at all. [They may have hand pumps to fill buckets, and quite a few of them suggest boiling or sterilizing the water first. Even municipal water sources can be stained.] Our advice is that whenever you find the facilities, dump your holding tanks and fill with fresh! Some gas station chains (notably Tesoro and Sourdough) have both available at most of the stations we’ve seen and they’re free with a fill-up. Some have even had free power-washing available. Some Fred Meyer Stores as well as a few “mom & pop owned” service stations offer these services, and the Milepost will usually note these.
This preparation may serve you well if have a detour, breakdown or if the information on your next dump/fill turns out to be incorrect and they’re not open or even still in business. Such things can be fluid up here and as good as the Milepost is, the information is generally from the previous season due to the necessities of publishing.
Some of the best camping spots in Alaska and Canada have been free pullouts off the road. Because traffic is so light, in many cases nonexistent after 10PM, pullouts are quieter at night than sleeping by the side of the road normally is. A single night stay isn’t a power problem for most RV’s, but in many cases you’ll want to stay for longer, so be prepared to make and manage your own power. Our solar panels have been invaluable, generating most of the power we need, but a couple of cloudy days in a row have had us running the generator for an hour or two a day to keep up. If you’re going to run a generator, a built-in RV generator or a quiet inverter generator is appreciated. If you choose a cheap, loud contractor generator you’ll have unhappy neighbors and in a Park you may be asked to turn it off. Canadian Provincial parks often have specific generator hours more strict than “quiet hours”, typically 9-10:30AM and 5-7PM daily, so plan ahead. And don’t forget to top up your gas cans or the fuel tank of your motorhome in case you need the generator more than you expected. You’ll probably put a fair number of hours on your generator, so I’d suggest changing the oil and filters, along with any other needed service, prior to heading north. At least you won’t be using the lights a lot….
INTERNET AND CELL PHONE COVERAGE
Well, it’s not pretty. If you can’t work or can’t be happy without blazing fast download speeds, Alaska & Canada are not for you. We have phones and hotspots on both AT&T and Verizon because we must work to pay for gas. Coming through Canada Verizon had pretty decent coverage when coverage was available. I added their Mexico and Canada plan which gave me talk, texting, and limited data. Limited data meaning 100MB for the month. I used Wi-Fi when available and managed to just squeak by under the data cap in the 2 weeks it took us to cross Canada. Eric needed far more data than a reasonably-priced AT&T international plan could provide, and in the end it was cheaper for him to sign up for a Canadian provider plan. We know several other people who did this and it was relatively easy. You will need your Passport, and you’ll need to provide a Canadian address. The address was a sticking point for some carriers (they require a legitimate Canadian residential address), but other carriers will allow you to use their store address and the system is fine with it. I’d recommend shopping for plans prior to entering the country so that your shopping experience is easier. After we reached Alaska, T-Mobile began giving its customers the option to add Canada & Mexico to their regular unlimited plans, so this might be a good option for some folks. Whichever plan you choose, be aware that there are a lot of places where it just isn’t going to work because there is no coverage, period. For large chunks of British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska we had either no coverage at all, or we had the ability to make calls but data was not available. Alaska has been busy adding quite a few new cell towers this summer to increase coverage between cities, but they still have a long way to go. Our cell booster hasn’t been as much help as we’d hoped, because cell coverage seems to be either on or off: rarely have we found a weak signal that just needed boosting. Also, be aware that at this time, cell boosters are illegal to use in Canada. As for campground Wi-Fi, when we have seen it offered it is usually a pay-as-you-go system and the quality varies.
- An important note here: if you normally rely on Google or Apple for maps and routing info, remember that they won’t work without cell coverage, and if you’re on a restricted data plan you’ll blow through all your data in no time flat. Look for a GPS or routing software (CoPilot Live is one example) that will cache maps on your device. Make sure your system(s) have all the maps you’ll need downloaded. My copy of CoPilot Live didn’t have Canada or Alaska maps loaded, so I had to fix that at a cafe shortly after crossing the Canadian border.
- Walkie-talkies can be great if you’re caravaning and want to communicate between vehicles.
GETTING SOME REST with the MIDNIGHT SUN
I’ve touched on this in my Fairbanks post, but I can’t emphasize enough how disorienting it can be to your body to spend time in a place where the sun doesn’t set. It can be exhilarating to climb a mountain at 11PM, but in a few short weeks you’ll be exhausted. Our entire body clocks have been thrown off. Your body may be telling you that it’s sleepy, but your Lower 48 “inner sundial” (as I’ve taken to calling it) looks at the position of the sun and declares “Preposterous! It’s only 6 PM!” A glance at your phone or watch will confirm that it’s really late, but your inner sundial still won’t believe it. Seward holds their 4th of July fireworks at 1 AM on the Fourth because it’s the closest thing they get to actual darkness. I was talking to a bartender who mentioned he’d moved to Alaska 4 years ago. When asked, he said that he was still having a little trouble with the sun his second summer here, but has now adjusted. So what can you do if you’re just here for the summer?
- I don’t wear a watch, but wearing one might help to keep the time “in your face” so to speak. Like many people, I rely solely on my phone for the time but swipe my phone so many times a day that I don’t even notice the time if I’m grabbing it for some other purpose.
- Even if you’re parked somewhere with a spectacular view, close all your windows & blinds at least an hour before you want to hit the hay. Lowering the light level usually did the trick for us. [Note: if you’re sitting outside with a bunch of awesome people exchanging travel stories and enjoying adult beverages and maybe a stogie, you’re just doomed. You’ll be up all night and you’ll actually be pretty happy about it!]
- Do what you can to make your bedroom dark. We saw RV’s with aluminum foil taped to the windows, or car windshield sunscreens inside the blinds. We have a vent fan above our bed and have left our cold-weather foam on it for most of the trip. It was fairly hot while we were in Fairbanks and we wanted to use the fan, so Eric folded a piece of cardboard and taped it to the ceiling so that it allowed air to come in on two sides but still blocked most of the light. I wish I’d taken a picture of it because it really saved us!
- If you can’t make your bedroom dark enough, you might consider a travel sleep mask.
- Try to keep your morning schedule for getting up, even if it’s hard!
Even with all that we still struggled and once a week or so we’d just crash and burn, sleeping late and getting a recharge. Thankfully, we’re far enough south now (the Kenai Peninsula) and days are getting short enough that we’re starting to get something resembling nighttime back. We saw stars in the sky last week for the first time since early June, but it was nearly midnight and it still looked like deep twilight.
Yeah, that part is true I’m afraid. We have been told that they haven’t been as bad this year in the northern part of the state because it’s been so dry, but there were times I’d still consider them too unpleasant to be outside without some form of bug spray.
Here are a couple of ways to save money that you may not have thought of.
- Northern Lights Coupon Book: This baby is jam-packed with coupons for restaurants & all sorts of entertainment. Although it costs $55 (2015), most coupons for attractions such as glacier tours, rafting, tram rides, etc. are 2 for 1, and that can add up really fast! A large percentage of restaurant coupons are in the Anchorage area, but based on attractions alone it’s worth the money. They’re available for sale at the Barnes & Noble in Anchorage and at a few other retail outlets. For sale locations and a list of the 2015 participants offering coupons, follow this link.
- Alaska State Parks Annual Day Use Pass: if you’re prone to wandering and often find yourself saying “This looks interesting….” then this pass is for you. Most day use areas (picnic areas, some trail head parking, boat ramps, etc.) owned by Alaska Parks and Rec require a $5 daily parking fee. The annual pass costs $50 (2015), so in just 10 days of wandering it has paid for itself. It seems to only be sold at State Park regional offices but you can order one ahead of time and have it mailed to you. To order online or get a list of regional offices selling the pass, click here. We have certainly gotten our money’s worth out of it!
LAST PROBLEM: YOU’RE GOING TO LOVE IT!
Despite internet withdrawal, expensive gas, bumpy roads, mosquitoes the size of small planes, and lack of sleep this has truly been the trip of a lifetime and we’ll be sad to see it end. Some places get under your skin in a good way, and Alaska most definitely has. I have a feeling we’ll be back.