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.
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.
The border crossing at Sumas. Entering the USA is a much longer wait than leaving.
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.
Our route from Washington to Deep Creek on the Kenai Peninsula.
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.
The road out of Glennallen towards Tok was one of the worst we encountered.
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.
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.
Actual reinactment of Steven being attacked by an Alaskan mosquito!
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.
Our well-used copy of the Milepost!
(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!
This little jobber saved us hundreds of dollars!!
(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.
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.
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.
Friends Kelly and Bill join us to celebrate our arrival in Haines, Alaska!
That's all! :)
NEXT UP: Back to our regularly scheduled program…