Thursday, November 17, 2016

Home in the Teton Valley

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Idaho is very dear to our hearts, specifically our corner of heaven in the little town of Tetonia. A decade ago we fell in love with the valley and the spectacular 4-peak Teton view. We bought a 3 -1/4 acre piece of property (affectionately known as "Lot 5") with the intention of eventually building what Linda likes to call a “lobin”, half lodge, half cabin. In any case, a dwelling of some sort. Right now, it's looking like it will be the place where we finally settle down when we come off the road. Whenever we can, we come "home" for a visit. Among the many lots in the development, there has only been one house built. We'll eventually break ground but not for now.

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We are lucky indeed to have a little slice of heaven right here in the Teton Valley.

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An aerial view of Lot 5 in Tetonia.

We stayed at a campground in Tetonia last year and really enjoyed its proximity to our property and its closeness to Yellowstone, Teton National Park and Jackson Hole. We lucked out at that time because we got a great deal just before peak season began. Not so this year. The price had risen to $65 per night and was out of our budget range so we looked around for alternatives.

Linda found a boondocking spot called the Big Eddy. It's just a few minutes drive from neighboring Driggs, right on the banks of the Teton River with a to-die-for view of the mountain peaks. We had read it was a little tricky to get to - the roads in the area are unpaved so we'd have to take it pretty slow through the dust, dirt and loose gravel.

Driving in Scoopy felt like we were rolling over washboard upon washboard. We got rattled more than we did during our entire Alaska trip. At one point, the driver’s side electric front window shade became unhinged, fell and nearly clocked Linda in the head. Thankfully we arrived without injury. More negotiating through potholes was necessary to finally land at our campsite. There were only a few other people camping and some left over the next couple of days. It felt like we had the place to ourselves and the best part...it was free! Did I tell you we love this life??

The sun rose from behind the Tetons each morning with lots of cloud drama. Sandhill Cranes filled the sky and we had a visit from some moose from time to time. One day, I looked out of our front window and saw a bull moose, complete with big rack, trotting right past Scoopy. I pointed outside to Linda and couldn't even speak the words "moose" because I was so excited....it was a very cool sight to see :)

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The light on the Teton peaks was forever changing…always dramatic!

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A bald eagle flies across the Tetons.

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Hot to trot – a bull moose from Scoopy’s window and a Great Horned owl wants you to heed the signs.

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A mother moose and her two young whippersnappers have breakfast together just outside our window.

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This photo by Linda looks like a painting. So serene by the Teton River.

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We saw Sandhill cranes in a nearby field most mornings.

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Scoopy was pretty comfortable with this view.

We had vowed upon arrival to start walking about 10,000 steps a day in preparation for our upcoming Amazon gig. There were lots of trails and roads to walk and the sprawling yellow and gold surrounding farmland made for a beautiful backdrop. This walking thing wasn't too bad we thought. We also made a concerted effort to begin a more healthy diet. The Amazon job was going to be like a daily workout at the gym so we decided we wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity to lose a few pounds in the process.

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Our walking trails were always interesting with plenty of eye candy.

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We finally got a Selfie Stick but only for emergencies and weird Tiny Planet shots like this one.

There is a ten-day limit at the Big Eddy which is rigorously enforced, so we stayed nine. Our plan was to move on to another favorite campground of ours in West Yellowstone called Bakers Hole. We set off one day on a reconnaissance mission to check out the campground and also visit our beloved Yellowstone. We stopped by Henry's Lake State Park on the way and, with a wonderful view of the lake and its relatively close proximity to Yellowstone, we decided we would stay there instead. Besides, it had full hookups and we needed to get laundry done and just not worry about finding a place to dump, etc. Between all the boondocking we had done in Alaska and now at the Big Eddy (and a mouse problem we’ll get into in the next post), we deserved a little time with all the amenities.

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An aerial view of Scoopy in the Big Eddy!

All in all, our visit to Tetonia was productive and relaxing. It's always good to check out what's happening at our property plus we got a lot of walking in and saw plenty of wildlife. What else is there??

Coming up next: Henry’s Lake.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Taking on Amazon – Uncomfortably Numb

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I’ve decided to give my take on our experience in Amazon so far and give Linda the day off.

Starting a new job can be an unsettling experience. We all hate that feeling of being newbies and it usually takes a few weeks to settle into the routine of a job once all the training is done. Now that we've been at Amazon for a little while, I can safely say I am getting a good feel for what I like and what I don't like.

Training at Amazon for the job of "picking" (our job) is minimal. It's one of those things where you learn more effectively while actually doing it. Most of what you “learn” in the classroom beforehand is overwhelming and hard to process without context.

Basically, our job entails grabbing a cart, loading it up with plastic containers called totes and then looking at a scanner display that instructs you where to go in a huge grid of sectioned areas called Mods. When you get to your bin, you find the item you are looking for, scan that sucker and put it in the tote. Once the tote is full, you put it on a conveyor belt and continue with an empty one. Sounds like fun, right?

For the first week or so it was and then it wasn't. What went wrong? Familiarity and boredom snuck into the equation. We are essentially spending ten hours a day doing the exact same thing, over and over and over. The actual job is easy but the walking miles at a time is hard on our bodies.

I figured it would be physically hard and I've already lost some unneeded weight.  I'm happy about that but it's my mind that is having the most difficulty. By the third quarter of our daily shift, I'm beginning to lose my sense of direction. Now granted, I'm already directionally challenged but this is different. Because of the repetitiveness of the job, my mind goes completely numb.

Consider this analogy of the four quarters of our daily shift. I liken it to a sightseeing helicopter ride to the Sahara Desert. Let's break it down by quarter:

1st Quarter: 6:30am - 9:00am

We are excited to get on the helicopter. We have lots of energy and are alert.

2nd Quarter: 9:45am - 11:25am

Things are going well until the captain says they are experiencing engine difficulty and just before the end of the quarter the helicopter crashes.

3rd Quarter: 11:55am - 2:30pm

I am the only survivor of the crash. I'm in the middle of the desert and not sure what direction to go. I decide to start walking in the direction of the sun. My spirits are down but I go on. After days of walking, I have lost complete sense of my direction and myself. I am a babbling mess unable to perform basic tasks.

4th Quarter: 2:45pm - 5:00pm

Although my mind is completely wasted, I sense that rescue is coming. It keeps me going a little bit more. I have occasional flashes of functionality and awareness until finally a plane spots me and I'm saved.

This may seem really convoluted but it's the image I have in my head during our shift every day. The morning is the best because I'm rested. During the second quarter I'm already beginning to feel fatigue and some mind numbing. By third quarter, I have checked out mentally and it's the most excruciating segment of the day to get through. Quarter four gives me hope again because I'm on the home stretch.

By the end of the day I and everyone in I-Shift look like extras from the Walking Dead. What went from a peppy "Good morning!" greeting in the morning, deteriorates to a head nod and a grunt at midday and deteriorates ever further into a vacuous stare by day's end.

During the day both Linda and I see some interesting things that are worthy of conversation. We are sure we'll remember what it is but we never do. We both look at each other like zombies when we try to recollect. Hundreds of items pass by our eyes all day every day so it's really not all that surprising that we can't remember anything.

We are on a 4-day schedule at the moment but soon the week of Black Friday will arrive and, with it, an extra 10-hour shift of mandatory overtime. That will continue until December 23rd - our release date.

Every day so far there have been volunteer time off (VTO) opportunities. We had been resisting them although our little hearts quickened each time the text messages came in. Last night, when another VTO was announced for today, we jumped on it. It will mean losing a day's pay but we had to do it for sanity’s and before peak season begins.

On the positive side, we have met some really great people and that's one of the big perks everyone talks about. It’ll be interesting to see how we deal with the upcoming 50-hour work week. I’m considering wiring myself with some kind of device that shocks me when my mind starts to wander. Hmm, wonder do they have that at Amazon? :)

Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Taking on Amazon – Week #2

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We are two and a half weeks in (but who's counting...) and on Monday we finished our fourth 10-hour day in the Amazon fulfillment center. This was our first set of four tens in a row and yes, it was as horrific as it sounds.

Steven and I are on I-Shift, which means we work days, Friday through Monday, 6:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. During that time we are little robots, walking from one "pick mod" to another picking item after item off a shelf and putting it into our little bins on our trolleys. During those hours we get two 15-minute breaks (on the clock) and one 30-minute lunch for which we clock out.

First thing in the morning, and again following lunch, we all meet for a "stand-up" and our supervisor of the day (SOD...JK! I made that up!) makes announcements while we do stretches. It's kind of boring and difficult for me to just stand still - I'd much rather be moving.

One day both Steven and I completely forgot about the stand-up meeting and we just logged into our scanners, grabbed a trolley and hit the isles to start picking. It was weird, though, because the warehouse lights in our section, which had turned off during lunch, would only pop on again when one of us entered the area. We were both thinking, where is everyone? It didn't even occur to us that they were all at the stand-up. :) Fortunately, we are not punished for that.

Punished? Is there such a thing? Well, kinda. If you are late for whatever reason, you are assigned points, depending on how late you are. You only get a bank of six points every 90 days (by which time we will be long gone, so really, we only get six) and I think I earned one my first day. I was six minutes late for LUNCH and that got put on my permanent record. Right? You thought those day were over? Me, too!

Because we are still relatively new, we have only been assigned to pick in about 40 percent of the mods. Each one is endless, with row after row, isle after isle of STUFF. Honestly, seeing all that crap makes us all appreciate how lean we live. I want to shout to the world -- STOP  BUYING SO MUCH CRAP! -- but hey, if they did, we wouldn't have this job, amiiright?

Anyway, tomorrow we are back to work. Another four-in-a-row, 10-hour days. Last week, when we were still innocent, we longed for the day when we would be allowed to pick in all the other mods. Then one day we had to walk back to the office in HR through all the other mods and we realized they are identical to the ones we are already in. It was like finding out the Wizard is a fraud. Arghhhh!

I know I probably make this gig sound terrible, but hey, we just got here, so I can't say for sure. I mean, we’ve been retired for nearly 2-1/2 years, so any job is bound to suck in the beginning. But, I can tell you two good things have happened. First, I found a Chiropractor and have been seeing her every week (twice so far...). She's a miracle worker. I should have done this in my 30s, but I didn't. Second, we've met some great people. And that makes this job so much more tolerable.

Week #2 Stats

Steps Miles
Linda 92,084 39.72
Steven 108,241 51.10

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Taking on Amazon

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I know I've got a couple of blogs to go to get caught up with our travels - we're working on them - but I'm going to jump ahead here and get right into the whole Amazon thing. I think it's important to document our experience in a timely manner so I can reread this next year in case we're tempted to return. :)  Jk. 

There are a number of Amazon fulfillment centers around the country, three of which hire RVers for seasonal work in the 3-4 months leading up to Christmas. The program is called CamperForce. Each of these centers are really gigantic warehouses and the kinds of jobs hired for include picking, stowing, receiving and packing. We have lots of RV friends who have done it so we decided to give it a try ourselves. We originally applied to work in Haslet, Texas, but they had already hired to capacity, so we decided on the fulfillment center in Campbellsville, Kentucky. 

We arrived in Campbellsville two weeks ago, giving ourselves a few days to get settled in and learn our way around before starting work. Our first week at Amazon consisted of a day-long orientation and safety school, then four half-days of learning the ropes and "hardening" our bodies for the ten-hour days ahead.

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Our fulfillment center in Campbellsville.

Both Steven and I are pickers and that means just what it sounds like. We literally pick items off a shelf, or from a drawer, so that an order can be fulfilled and shipped. We carry a hand-held scanner which tells us what items to pick, and we basically do that for hours on end. 

In the first week we learned how to navigate the huge warehouse, or part of it, as we're still being held to buildings A, B & C. There are apparently many more, but we won't see them for about another week or so. That's probably a good thing, because us newbies can really wreak havoc with our scanners. Before we learned how to properly search for or "reject" an item, we learned how to send an ANDON. That's basically sending out a message to management that there's a problem much more serious than "I can't find that red bowtie." In our first days, Steven and I sent about six ANDON messages. LOL. They should probably not teach us ANDONs on the first day.

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This is what the apparel sections typically look like. Each aisle has an ID that appears on the scanner.
(photo borrowed from Business Insider)

As each half-day passed we started feeling a bit more confident, both in our navigation of the building and picking. We had only one day off before jumping right in to ten-hour days. The first day I walked over 24,000 steps while Steven did over 26,000. That's a lot of walking! Of course, we knew pickers really racked up the miles, and that's why we requested the position. I would much rather walk all day than stand in one spot.

The Campbellsville FC (fulfillment center) is about 75% clothes and 25% other stuff. My least favorite thing to pick is clothes, naturally.  At the start of each shift and following our lunch break we have a stand-up meeting with other pickers and our area manager. He barks out announcements while we all do stretching exercises. Then we fire up our scanners to see where the computer is sending us to begin our picking. At first, both Steven and I would find a trolley and get ourselves set up with everything we carry around with us - water, box cutter, gloves, etc. But sure as we had our trolleys completely kitted out, the computer would send us to another floor. We are not allowed to take our carts from floor to floor, so we have to abandon it and go find another one on the floor to which we’ve been assigned.  We tend to get attached to our scanners and trolleys, and it took us a while to realize that we had to use several different ones throughout the day. That's hard for us OCDers. :) Thank goodness there are a zillion containers of handi-wipes laying around.

In the weeks to come I'll write more about the kinds of stuff we pick, but suffice it to say there are a lot of crotchless, backless, rubbery, thong-y kinds of things. Hey, I don't judge, but I am learning. I did not know there was such a thing as a Man's Padded Dance Thong (Prime eligible!). I guess I just never thought about it before. It will be interesting to see if we're still picking Adult Onsies after Halloween. And speaking of Halloween, now we know where those scary clowns are getting their stuff!

As for our accommodations, there are several campgrounds in the area, with Heartland being the closest. In fact, it's right across the street, which means we walk to and from work most days. As of now we are enjoying the last of our three days off. Tomorrow is the first of four ten-hour days. They say we'll get used to it. I think "they" are lying.

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All tucked away in our campsite at Heartland with the obligatory Seahawks flag.

UP NEXT: I don't even know!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Repositioning - Eugene to Teton Valley

Now, where did I leave off prior to posting our two Alaska recaps? Oh, yes. Our route from Eugene to the Teton Valley and the five - count 'em - five Elk Lodges we settled into over just three days.

In an effort to avoid Bend and the mind-numbing drive across Oregon on Highway 20, at Sisters we diverted to Highway 26 to Prineville and the first of our Elks Lodge stays. This route is somewhat north of 20, but the drive might as well be on a different planet. At least, it seemed so to me. I thoroughly enjoyed the drive into Prineville, home of Les Schwab Tires.

The word in my mind while descending into Prineville was "oasis". It was beautifully green, blooming and manicured. Prineville is the epitome of small town America with the Elks lodge located just a couple of blocks from downtown. We headed that way and parked in one of the designated spots. Because we didn't use the electric outlet provided, the bartender told us "no charge". How awesome is that?

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Our “campground” at the Prineville Elks Lodge.

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Morning lattes at the Hub Coffee Shop, owned by Kara, the sister of our Portland friend Chris.

After a coffee run the next morning we continued our drive on Highway 26 toward John Day. Our intent was to visit the Painted Hills, but things didn't quite work out that way. As we were driving, I asked Steven if he was sure the Painted Hills were near John Day, the actual town, and he assured me they were. He was wrong. By the time we had set up at the Elks Lodge in town, Steven sat down to map our outing only to find out that we had passed the Painted Hills 32 miles earlier and the better place to stop would have been Dayville, which we had driven through about 40 minutes prior.

I don't like to backtrack and Steven mostly doesn't like to photograph landscapes at high noon on a cloudless day, so we were in agreement that we'd just close up and head on down the road to the Caldwell, ID Elks Lodge, number three in a 24-hour period. The Painted Hills would have to wait for another trip, hopefully with better planning and a few more clouds in the sky.

We spent an uneventful night in Caldwell and hit the road early the next morning. Our destination was the Elks Lodge in Pocatello. Just as in Prineville, the lodge was located in the downtown area, but instead of cute, small-town USA, we got busy, loud, kind-of-trashy downtown right-next-to-the-railroad USA. We nonetheless got ourselves squeezed into the parking lot right next to the highway and after an uneasy hour or so, decided this was not the place for us.

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The non-scenic view during our very brief visit to the Pocatello Elks Lodge.

We once again packed up and headed out toward Idaho Falls, where the Elks Lodge looked to be in a more suburban setting. We did not get very far. The first turn I made to get from downtown to I-15 landed us squarely in front of a tunnel with a clearance of 12' 2". Uh, oh.

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12’ 2”, otherwise known as an RV can-opener.

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Waiting for the POPO to arrive.

I don't know about you, but I've been expecting this. At some point in our travels, it was bound to happen. Given that we were already tired and a bit rattled, I'm surprised we handled it as well as we did. Steven unhooked Toadie and moved her out of the way while I called 911 to explain our situation and request assistance. Before long Pocatello's finest showed up and held traffic as I reversed and turned away from the tunnel.

At this point, we decided to just drive separately to Idaho Falls. I jokingly said to Steven, "if I pull over it's because the front door has swung open!" I was doing probably 60-65 on I-15 when the door did just that! I couldn't believe it! It has NEVER happened before! Thankfully, nothing flew out and the force of traveling kept the door somewhat under control, as it didn't swing completely open until I had slowed significantly and was coming to a stop.

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Let’s drive separately, we said. It’ll be an easy trip, we said. And then the door swung open.

Needless to say, after we rolled into the Elks Lodge in Idaho Falls, our fifth one in three days, we enjoyed a well-deserved Happy Hour!

Once again we did a quick overnight and the next morning drove to our destination in the Teton Valley. We have been coming here for more than a decade, ever since we decided to purchase property in the area. There is a great campground in Tetonia, which we have stayed in several times over the years. Unfortunately, this year they raised their rates to over $65 a day and we said "no thanks!" 

We did some investigating and found The Big Eddy, a free boondocking place with public-access to the Teton River. It was just a few miles from our property, so we thought this would be perfect! What we didn't know was the best route to get there. We decided to just follow our non-RV GPS, which took us down five miles of dusty, washboard dirt roads. We got there, but only after shaking so hard the electric shade above my head fell right into my lap! Over the next few days we would search out a less hazardous route, but there was no getting around the deep craters in the road at the campground.

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The light and colors in the Teton Valley are always breathtaking.

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The road leading down to our campsite at the Big Eddy.

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Sandhill cranes greeted us as we arrived at the Big Eddy.

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The four peaks of the Teton mountain range revealed themselves on the first evening of our arrival.

NEXT UP: Our Beloved Teton Valley, Henry's Lake & Yellowstone

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Alaska Recap, Part II – The Nitty-Gritty Details

As the title states, this is Part II of our Alaska wrap-up. Part I summarizes our expenses. Steven helped with this post and his thoughts are indicated with a (S).

WHEN TO GO

We crossed the border at Sumas, WA on May 4th and had lovely weather for most of our trip. Others crossed two or three weeks later and experienced snow in Watson Creek, the start of the Alaska Highway, and rain in Alaska. I was actually surprised to hear others had seen so much rain while we were basking in sunshine in another part of the state, but Alaska is a huge place! By going north in early May, and choosing the route we did, we lucked out with the weather at nearly every stop we made. Overall, I'd say 80-85% of our time was at least partly sunny, many days were full sun and warm. In fact, we ran our air conditioners in Fairbanks and a couple of times on the Kenai as well!

While weather is always going to be a crapshoot, one of the best reasons we found for going north early in the season is to get ahead of the caravans and general "going to Alaska" traffic. We saw only two caravans our entire trip and they were already parked in a campground. We saw none on the road. We found most places, fuel stations, restaurants, campgrounds and the like, open for business. There were just a couple of touristy places not yet open, but they weren't on our "Must-See" list anyway. 

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We were lucky enough to visit Denali on a clear and sunny day while at the park.

CROSSING THE BORDER

During our trip, we crossed into Canada six times and into Alaska/US six times. Half of those crossings each way were at the border in Stewart/Hyder, so they kind of don't count. That said, you still need your passport to get from Hyder back into Stewart and they will ask you a few questions.

Our first border crossing into Alaska was on our way to Haines. Again, not the main one, but still require your passport and a lot of answers to questions. Likewise returning to the Yukon to continue traveling to mainland Alaska.

The main crossings, the ones everybody freaks out about (us included) are from mainland USA into Canada and into mainland Alaska. We had no issues at the Canadian border at Sumas and after a few questions, we were waved through. We brought allowable amounts of alcohol, no firearms, no forbidden foods (as best we could figure...), basically nothing that would raise a red flag and get us pulled over and searched. We had all our documents in an easily accessible folder. We were confident going across.

We thought we had it nailed when we rolled up to the US Border in Alaska, but we were wrong. There, after inquiring about the contents of our fridge, the guard came aboard and took our tomatoes. He is the only one to ask to see our vehicle registrations, which we had in our handy-dandy folder. It was also here that our traveling companions had their firewood taken away.

Rules and restrictions can vary by border location and can change in an instant. It's always best to find out the very latest information for the crossing you plan to take.

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The border crossing at Sumas. Entering the USA is a much longer wait than leaving.

OUR ROUTE

Because we had no reservations, we were able to decide our route on a daily basis. Our intentions were to drive the Alaska Highway all the way to Tok before deciding whether to take AK Highway 1 to Anchorage or AK Highway 2 to Fairbanks. In 2015, visitors to Alaska had to contend with multiple fires and some moved on due to smoky conditions. We decided to leave our route flexible so that we could make adjustments based on realtime weather and fire conditions. That worked out really well for us, and fortunately, we encountered only one fire in British Columbia, which was under control by the time we passed by.

Our traveling companions, Bill & Kelly, wanted to visit Haines, which we thought was a great idea! Staying flexible allowed us the opportunity to detour from the Alaska Highway and spend five nights in Haines, which turned out to be one of our favorite stops in Alaska!

After reaching mainland Alaska and saying goodbye to Bill & Kelly in Glennallen, we had loads of time to mosey around before positioning ourselves to arrive in Denail, where we had reservations in mid-June. So we chose to head to Valdez and Chitina (to visit McCarthy and the Kinnecott mine) before heading north to Fairbanks on Alaska Highway 4. It's not a typical route, but it worked well for us. From Fairbanks, we went to Denail, Wasilla and then spent five weeks on the Kenai Peninsula, first in Seward on the east side, then Deep Creek and Kenai City on the west.

When we left Alaska, we did not want to retrace the route that we drove on our way in, so we chose to drive the Top of the World Highway to Dawson City, Yukon, via the quirky little town of Chicken, AK. From Dawson City we drove through the Yukon onto the Cassiar Highway which brought us back into British Columbia. This is a completely different route south until we reached Prince George, BC, after which we simply retraced our route back to Bellingham.

We met folks who traveled to Alaska via the Cassiar and returned on the Alaska Highway. Others drove to Dawson City and entered Alaska via the Top of the World Highway.  There are only a couple of ways in and out, but you can mix it up in a number of combinations. If we were to do it again, we would not drive the Cassiar Highway. We don't regret driving it once, but did not enjoy it enough to do it again.

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Our route from Washington to Deep Creek on the Kenai Peninsula.

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Our return route through Chicken, over the Top of the World Highway, the Cassiar Highway and back to Bellingham.

DRIVING THE ROADS

The roads in Canada are fine. Really, they are no different than driving in the US. Yes, there are a few bumps and dips, but for the most part all are well marked. Yes, there is construction and pilot cars, but nothing unlike what we've experience in the States.

Where this changes is the road from Destruction Bay in the Yukon to the Alaskan border. That stretch of road is under perpetual construction and the torn up chip seal, rock and dirt highway makes for a rough drive. We drove this portion separately so that Toadie Hopper would not get tons of rocks thrown on her from Scoopy. There's no way around the fact that it was a long, rocky and dusty day.

For all the research and reading we did before embarking on this trip, one thing that surprised me were the roads in Alaska. Some of the frequently traveled roads are fine, such as Parks Highway and the roads on the Kenai, but there are others that are just awful. The road from Tok to Glennallen, and Glennallen to Valdez were the worst we encountered. (I'm not including the road to McCarthy or the Top of the World Highway, as those nasty chip seal, dirt and gravel abominations are a part of the adventure. They suck, but are doable.)

There were also some great roads, like the newly paved road to the US Border from Haines Junction, YT and the first 20 miles of the highway to Chitina. Like buttah! Roads are constantly being worked on and therefore change year-to-year. The best advice we got is SLOW DOWN. We heeded that advice and drove most of Alaska at 35 MPH. Not kidding.

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The road out of Glennallen towards Tok was one of the worst we encountered.

VEHICLE PRECAUTIONS

Should you carry spare tires? If you're driving a truck with a camper, fifth wheel or travel trailer, then yes, I'd take spare tires. We of course had a spare for Toadie, but it's not really feasible to carry a spare for a big rig like Scoopy. Even if we made room and had a spare on board, who's gonna change it? :) We took our chances and we were fine.

We bought two large yoga mats for Toadie's windshield and never used them until we drove the Top of the World Highway and through the Yukon. We also bought hardware cloth to try to cover Toadie's radiator and keep rocks from getting in there. We brought it home still in the packaging, and yes, loads of rocks got in under Toadie's hood.

We also purchased clear vinyl film to cover the headlights on both Scoopy and Toadie. We didn't suffer any cracks, so I guess it worked. We also applied this film to Scoopy's windshield as the cracks splintered and shattered their way from the lower corner to the top. It's not made for that purpose, but it sure seemed to help. We'd certainly use this product again.

On the advice of others, we purchased three windshield repair kits. We used one on Toadie and one on Scoopy. It worked great on Toadie, but had little effect on the ding Scoopy suffered on the passenger side front windshield on our trip home. 

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Toadie flaunts her yoga mats, the latest in fashion window protection.

ARE THERE MOSQUITOES?

Oh, hell yes. That said, they are not everywhere, nor do they last the entire summer. Typically mosquitoes will be around mid-June through the end of July. By August, the nights are getting cool enough to start eliminating the blood-thirsty pests. The worst places by far that we encountered mosquitoes were in commercial campgrounds. I assumed I would have to Deet up everyday, but that just wasn't the case. In fact, I rarely did. Because we camped by the water we had the inherent beach breeze and that helped keep the mosquitoes at bay. After the first week of July I started noticing the increase in black flies. We took a trip out to Exit Glacier in Seward and I ended up returning to the car because the flies were really, really bad. But again, a nice ocean breeze will carry them away from your campsite. In mid-August, gnats ate me alive in Stewart, BC when I got over 60 bites on my arms and legs. Itchy as hell, but that didn't last long.

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Actual reinactment of Steven being attacked by an Alaskan mosquito!

MILEPOST

I personally didn't spend much time with the Milepost because I found it so overwhelmingly dense that my eyes just glazed over. Seriously, I don't have to attention span required to use this book. But lucky for me, there were others who loved it, one of whom is Steven. He's gonna break it down for you.

(S)  When we first ordered this giant doorstop, I was excited by all we would learn but, when it arrived in a giant box and I flipped through the pages, I quickly became overwhelmed. We are not accustomed to having so much information at our fingertips, at least in print form but I was determined to use it in some capacity. Turns out, it greatly enhanced our experience in Alaska, particularly given that our GPS refused to work as soon as we crossed the Canadian border.

You can use this guide in many different ways. It's great to research upcoming destinations or to find places of interest along the way or, especially, to find rest stops or turnouts to let the parade of traffic behind pass you by. It also provides valuable information about grades and the general state of the road, albeit year old anecdotes.

All in all, I'd say the Milepost enhanced our trip, particularly while on the move. Context is everything and when you know where you are and the rich history of the area, it transforms what could be a generic road trip into a memorable and informative adventure.

milepost
Our well-used copy of the Milepost!


TOUR SAVER/ENTERTAINMENT


(S)  We had heard much todo about the Alaska Toursaver which is basically a book of coupons for various tourist-centric activities around the state. You'll find things like two-for-one prices on fishing charters or museum tickets or wildlife boat tours, etc. The price seems steep at $100 when you fork out your cash but we soon found it paid for itself with just a couple of activities.

We managed a glacier boat tour out of Valdez, a visit to the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, kayaking in Seward, a Kenai River float in Cooper Landing and a tram ride in Girdwood all using our Tour Saver coupons. All were fabulous experiences and the coupons saved us a few hundred dollars, money we gleefully put towards alcohol :) Not really, but some of these things would have been budget-busters without the Toursaver. For Entertainment, we spent $1732.20. Our son came to visit for 8 days and we saved a lot of these things to do with him. Therefore, our coupons didn't quite add up to as much savings as usual, but it worked out fine.

Like the Milepost, the book can be a little overwhelming and even confusing when you first browse through it but each deal is broken down by area so it will become clearer with use. It's a no-brainer to have it by your side while in Alaska. In fact, you must have it by your side because it is only valid if the coupon is still in the booklet at the time you present it to the vendor. In other words, don't tear it out! If you have a smart phone, you can download the digital version and save yourself an additional $15!

toursaver
This little jobber saved us hundreds of dollars!!


WIFI/PHONES/TELEVISION

(S) We all love the comforts of home and probably none more than our satellite TV, internet and phones.
Technology is definitely a consideration when traveling to Alaska and we weren't sure what to expect. Here's the lowdown on our experience.

1. DIRECTV
We suspended service for the entire time we were north. The actual satellite is so close to the horizon that locking onto a signal was a crap shoot. We decided it wasn't worth the hassle and, frankly,we didn't even miss watching TV. Directv does not charge any fees during this time so our bill was zero for four months, yay!

2. Cell/Wifi Service
I can only comment on the service we have, which is Verizon. We found cell and data to be equal parts average and spotty-to-nothing. Most towns have at least 3G but, once you are a few miles into the boonies all services disappear. This was not always the case, however. In fact, we found actual LTE signals in some of the most remote areas. The only exceptions to the above were in Fairbanks and Anchorage where we got decent 4G signals.

One more thing of note. There are very few cell towers in Alaska so, if a lot of people are accessing the same tower, it becomes overtaxed and data speeds slow down to a crawl and sometime you just won't get anything at all.

When we stayed in Haines, we had a fairly decent 3G Verizon signal until the day a cruise ship came in. With thousands of people spilling into the little town, our precious signal disappeared completely for the entire day!!

Traveling through Canada  is a whole different story. By connecting to local carriers, you will incur massive roaming charges. Verizon has a great service to deal with this problem. It's called Travel Pass and you can either enable it for your phones or mifi online or with a call to Verizon's customer service.

In a nutshell, you are charged $2 per day per device and you can connect to whichever Canadian service is available. You will incur no roaming charges. It is important to note that you are only charged if you actually use the device. If you don’t use it for a day, for instance, there will be no $2 charge. I strongly recommend that you enable this service before you enter Canada.

Using Travel Pass, you can make phone calls and access the Web just like you would in the United States. Your data cap is the same as it always is. If you have a 10GB per month plan, you can use those 10GBs in Canada with Travel Pass.

In order to minimize the $2 charges we designated one device for data (our mifi) and connected to it with our phones and ipads and computers. Total cost per day: $2. Just be sure to put your other devices into airplane mode and just enable wifi.

3. Campsite WiFi
Data is a precious commodity in Alaska and most campsites have less than mediocre speeds. Probably somewhere between 2G and 3G. So put it in the Unreliable category. We had no experience with park wifi in Canada so I can't comment on that.

Keep your expectations realistic. If you are a power user and like to surf the Web all day long, you will be sorely disappointed. If you like to occasionally check into Facebook and read and write email, etc., it's totally doable.

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HIGHLIGHTS

There were plenty of places in Alaska that we could deem our "favorite", honestly, it's difficult to choose. But the real highlights of our trip were more about people than places.

I mentioned Bill & Kelly a couple of times, and if you follow our blog you know that we traveled with them from Bellingham to Glennallen, AK, then spent time with them on the Kenai where they were working for the summer. We met them through RVillage only a few days prior to beginning our trip. Kelly and I hit it off well enough that we considered traveling together, crossing our fingers that our husbands would also enjoy each others company. It was a real leap of faith for all of us, but it worked out so well that we consider traveling together to be one of the highlights of our entire trip. We can't imagine it any other way. We also hosted a couple of RVillage get-togethers in Seward and meeting all those folks was also a memorable part of our trip.

Yes, we do have our favorite places, too. I asked Steven to name his top three, and they matched mine exactly. In no particular order, here are our favorites: 

1.) Haines, AK
2.) Seward, AK
3.) Deep Creek Campground, Ninilchik, AK.

happyhour12[5]
Friends Kelly and Bill join us to celebrate our arrival in Haines, Alaska!

That's all! :)

NEXT UP: Back to our regularly scheduled program…

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Alaska Recap, Part I – Expenses

Copyrighted image - no use without permission

Before we headed to Alaska, we did as much research as we possibly could to try and prepare ourselves and our vehicles for all that we might encounter. There is no better resource than the experience of those who have gone before us. It takes a lot of time and effort to summarize the many topics of interest for those who follow, but we found these summary blog posts so helpful, we decided early on we would make the time to recap our trip as well. Keep in mind this is OUR experience, yours WILL vary.

This post is organized into two parts, the second is forthcoming and will cover topics such as our travel dates, routes, resources, preparation, etc.

We traveled to Alaska in our 2002 Travel Supreme motorhome, Scoopy. She’s 38’ long with two slides on the driver’s side. Our tow vehicle is a 2013 Chevy Sonic named Toadie Hopper.

GENERAL TRIP STATS
For the purposes of accounting, we consider our trip to have begun and ended in Bellingham, WA. Before leaving Bellingham, we filled our fuel tanks and fridge, and those expenses are included in the line item costs listed below. Conversions from Canadian Dollars to USD have been made and actual costs included in these numbers.

Total Days: 108
Days in Canada: 24
Days in Alaska: 84
Total Miles Traveled: 10,400
Miles in Scoopy: 6,192
Miles in Toadie: 4,208
Total Trip Cost: $11,439.14

That's it in a nutshell. Let's break it down.


FUEL
I know how much money we spent total on diesel, gas and propane, but I can't tell you how many gallons we bought or what the average price was. I do know it was more expensive in Canada, and really expensive if you stopped to refuel at a touristy place. Otherwise, we found gas and diesel in the more populated areas of Alaska to be comparable to prices in Washington state.

Diesel: $2,221.54
Gasoline: $383.57
Propane: $91.98
Total Fuel: $2,701.09

gas
A typical gas station in Alaska (not really, we came across this one in the little town of Hope)

REPAIRS
Considering some of the roads we traveled over, it's amazing that we didn't incur more expenses in this category, We ended up in only two repair shops during our trip. Toadie required new front brake pads as well as a spendy new computer, which fortunately was covered under warranty. We had the driver's front windshield replaced on Scoopy, but it had been cracked for months before we even began our trip north. We made it worse with some questionable leveling techniques at Muncho Lake, BC. We probably could have made it back to the Lower 48 without having it replaced, but since we were going over the Top of the World Highway, I didn't want to chance having it fall out. :) Insurance covered the replacement and there was no actual cost to us.

TOTAL REPAIRS:  $ 295.75

glass_crack
The crack in Scoopy’s front windshield steadily got worse while in Alaska.


WHERE WE STAYED
There are plenty of commercial campgrounds throughout Canada and Alaska, but we rarely stayed in them. First, they are really expensive and second, we did not want to have to adhere to a timetable based on campground reservations. We had only one advanced reservation for the Teklanika Campground at Denali National Park.

When we were traveling and mostly just overnighting, we boondocked (Free, no hook-ups) at Visitors Centers, Walmart, Fred Meyer and pullouts beside the road.

Our campgrounds of choice were city parks (Seward Waterfront!!) Alaska State Parks (Deep Creek!!) Provincial Parks in British Columbia (Muncho Lake!!) and Yukon Government Campgrounds in the Yukon (Dawson City!!). These are categorized as Paid Boondocking, as there were no hookups and few services. Some have pit toilets and a water faucet to pump by hand, which instructs you to boil before use. Prices ranged from $10 to $20 per night. All the ones we stayed in were fantastic.

As Elks members, we visited three lodges, Fairbanks, Kenai and Palmer/Wasilla. All offered electric, Kenai also had water at each site. None had an onsite dump station, but there was usually one nearby. Elks Lodges were a fairly economical choice with prices ranging from $13.57 to $18 per night. In Fairbanks and Palmer/Wasilla we paid the weekly rate. Elks Lodges and Rainey Creek, a city park in Stewart, BC make up the Partial Hookups category.

deepcreek
Our fabulous waterfront campsite at Deep Creek.

Our entire trip was 108 days. Here's the breakdown: 

Free Boondocking - 20 nights: $0.00
Paid Boondocking - 51 nights: $881.20 (Avg. $17.28)
FHU Campgrounds – 14 nights: $482.00 (Avg. $34.43)
Partial Hookups – 23 nights: $364.00 (Avg. $15.83)
Total Campground Expenses: $1,727.20

Our overall average camping cost was $16.00 per night. We were very happy that we were able to keep our camping expenses low by using our solar and, when needed, our generator. Yes, there are costs associated with running the genny, but I didn't keep track of how often we ran it. With the long, long days in Alaska, our batteries were typically at 100 percent very late into the night, so we often went days without using the generator, even with a big residential fridge!

ENTERTAINMENT
There are unlimited opportunities for entertainment in Alaska, particularly of the outdoor variety. We were somewhat selective, but enjoyed two glacier/wildlife cruises, kayaking, river rafting, museums and so on. We didn't go overboard and mostly stayed away from the big tourist traps. We saved a few of the tours and water activities for the week when our son was visiting, so some of our expenses in this category are for three people, not just the two of us. Also, we purchased a Tour Saver booklet which saved us some money. More on the Tour Saver in Part II.

Total Entertainment:  $1,189.98

glacier
We went on a tour of Columbia Glacier while we were staying in Valdez.


FISHING
I think some folks put fishing in their entertainment category and if we did that, well, our entertainment costs would be a lot higher. Thing is, Steven would NEVER consider fishing to be entertainment. He wanted to put it in the "Food" category, but that didn't seem to work either. So I finally created a whole new category for fishing! The total includes our fishing licenses, the day trip out of Deep Creek, tips for the crew and processing & freezing our halibut catch (which we actually got for free due to Steven's lack of enjoyment of our trip...) as well as the salmon we purchased. We came home with 23 lbs. of halibut. and 9 lbs. of salmon. The Tour Saver has several coupons for fishing trips, but we just couldn't make it work for us.

Halibut Fishing: $479.10
Salmon Purchasing: $138.80
TOTAL FISHING: $635.90

halibut
Our halibut catch of the day out of Deep Creek.

GROCERIES/RESTAURANTS/ALCOHOL
This category is a complete budget-killer, our number one expense! Without question food in Alaska is more expensive than in the Lower 48, as is dining out. But one thing I didn't do is separate out expenditures that had nothing to do with food. For example, I went on a mini-shopping spree at Fred Meyer, buying new jammies and a few cute bowls, but I didn't subtract those from the receipts. In other words, almost anything purchased at Walmart or Fred Meyer went into the grocery category. So our expenses here are probably not as high as it seems at first glance, but trust me, they were high enough!

Dining out in restaurants and booze, well, I can't give any excuses for those expenditures, they are what they are! Except, I will say that alcohol is prohibitively expensive in Canada. Like, double or more what we pay in the US. So there's that. :)

Groceries: $2,128.52
Dining Out: $1,290.60
Alcohol: $561.93
TOTAL SPENT: $3,981.05

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The vodka we picked up at Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines.


MISCELLANEOUS
We're not the best bookkeepers when it comes to tracking our expenses, so a few things went into this category just because we didn't know where else to put them. Probably half or more of these expenses have nothing to do with Alaska directly, for example, haircuts, a visit to a Chiropractor, etc. Just life stuff. But the other half pertains to our trip. Bear spray, gifts and souvenirs, yoga mats for Toadie's windshield, etc.

TOTAL MISC.:  $ 908.17


So there you have it. We did have purchases not included here, for example, we both got new computers. Yeah, that wasn't planned at all, but both our laptops were old, so it was time, no matter where we were traveling. Steven bought his at Costco and I got mine at Best Buy. The purchase price was the same in Alaska as in these stores in the Lower 48, but we made sure to buy them in Anchorage, where we paid zero sales tax. That means we actually saved about $170 over buying them in Seattle or even from Amazon. (More money for the booze category!)

FINANCIAL RECAP

FUEL: $2,701.09
REPAIRS: $295.75
CAMPING: $1,727.20
ENTERTAINMENT: $1,189.98
FISHING: $635.90
FOOD/BOOZE: $3,981.05
MISCELLANEOUS: $908.17
GRAND TOTAL: $11,439.14

For two completely different perspectives on expenses, take a look at the blogs of our friends Rambling RV Rat and Jim and Barb’s Adventures. The Rat gang went full tilt staying in commercial campgrounds and kicked it up a notch in the entertainment category with their awesome trip to Dick Proenneke’s “Alone in the Wilderness” cabin. Jim & Barb left their big rig 5th wheel in Salt Lake City and purchased a camper for their truck. They were super nimble and their camping fees show it!

NEXT UP:  Alaska Recap, Part II – The Details