Alaska and the Far North: A retrospective

After a few weeks (OK… a couple months...) to put some time and distance between our summer trip to the far north and our “real” life back in the Northwest, I offer the following recap and some random thoughts about our northerly excursion. Let's just say the delay was for perspective. Yeah… that's it. Perspective.

There's no doubt that this was a big milestone trip for us. Not including our initial drive from Oregon to Wisconsin in May, we drove a bit over 10,000 miles during those 85 days. From Wisconsin, we angled through the Canadian Rockies to Dawson Creek, then to Whitehorse, Dawson City, the Dempster Highway to Inuvik (and Tuktoyuktuk), over to Chicken, Tok Junction, Wrangell St Elias NP, Valdez, Seward, the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage, Willow, Denali NP, and Fairbanks, before steering a mostly southeastward course and slowly heading back to our Pacific Northwest home. During the trip we drove all of the Alaska Highway, the entire Dempster, all the Top of the World Highway, the complete Cassiar, and most of the other named highways in Alaska. We consider this our “survey course” of the far north, and fully intend to travel back in a couple years for another stab at the wild and wonderful country up there. After our experience this year, you couldn't keep us away.

A few statistics from our 10,000 mile, 85 day trip: All figures here have been converted to US dollars and US gallons. Fuel for the truck: 812 gallons which lightened our bank account by $2,881. An average gallon costs us $3.55. Most expensive gas was just shy of $5.00 in Inuvik. The truck averaged 12.5 mpg over the entire trip and we drove an average of a little over 100 miles per day. We spent $1,360 for camping and lodging, but there were no lodges or motel stays for us – we camped in the little pop-top camper for 85 days straight. In case you haven't already done the math, that's an average of $16.60 per night. So fuel and camping totaled about $4,200 for the three months of travel.

As for food, the assumption is that we'd have to eat wherever we are, whether traveling or not. We spent a few additional dollars by eating out more and groceries are certainly more expensive the further north you travel. But that was offset by our tendency toward simple meals and keeping things conservative. A strong US dollar helped a lot too. There'd have to be a lot of assumptions and adjustments made in order to do a real comparison between here and there, traveling or staying home, which I'm not going to do. In any case, it's just two of us and we're not big eaters. A wild-ass guess of an additional $10 or $12 per day would probably be as close as I could get to a half-way reasonable estimate of additional food expense. If we can make that assumption, $800 to $1,000 extra for food, the total trip cost was somewhere “north” of $5,000. For almost three months, we consider that reasonable.

Weather: Generally, it was a fairly good weather year to tour the far north, which can be rainy and cold some years, and spectacularly nice others. Unfortunately, warmer and dry weather often means more wildfires, and there indeed were a higher than average number of fires this year, at one point more than 300 fires going at the same time… just in Alaska. And fires mean smoke in the air, which can obscure otherwise spectacular vistas. We experienced a few days of smoke-filled skies, particularly both times we went through Tok Junction and on the northbound drive up the Dempster. Other than those, smoke was a minor issue. The only large rain event we experienced was during our Seward visit. There were a few other days of light or intermittent rains, but that's about it.

Bugs: Before heading north, we prepared ourselves with most of the suggested items to keep a person from being eaten alive by the bugs: head nets, clothes soaked with Permethrin, deet sprays, deet lotions, and a few preventative measures I've forgotten about. But whether it was the dryer year or we just lucked out, our preparations and sprays went largely unused. The worst bug experience we had was during our 2 hour visit to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean in far northern Northwest Territories, where you literally could not be outdoors without running and flailing your arms about like a madman. There were a few other campgrounds where we opted to curtail outdoor activities in the evening, but overall a minor irritation. We will not remember bugs being a big issue on this trip.

Crowds: Even though summer is the tourist season up there, we usually didn't feel the pressure of the crowd. Perhaps it was the places we chose to go and the things we chose to do, but more often there was a sense of solitude. Especially in the far northern Yukon, there just aren't many people around.

But if you crave crowds and all the gift shops and touristy trappings that come with them, spend time in the port cities along the ocean where dozens of cruise ships loaded with tens of thousands of people who want to “see” Alaska battle their way from port to port. It's another way to do Alaska, that's for sure. The hot spots for cruiser activity are deep water ports like Skagway, Juneau, and other larger towns in Southeast Alaska. Skagway, for example, literally dries up, boards up, and mostly evacuates after the last cruise ship heads south for the Winter. These days, Skagway's historic significance takes a back seat to mining dollars from tourists for an “authentic” Alaskan experience. I'm sure it's an experience… it's just not the experience of the Alaska we sought.

The Kenai Penninsula was crowded with dip-netters during our visit. It was the only place we found totally full campgrounds. And the spit in Homer was swamped with tourists, which kept our enthusiasm in check. We don't fish, so I'm sure those that do might have a different opinion. We'd like to experience the Kenai during the off-season during our next trip up there.

But it wasn't only the solitude we liked. Part of our experience was the collection of new acquaintances and friends made along the way. Because there are relatively few roads for the size of the geography, it's common to run into the same travelers more than once. Common bonds and interests abound that grease interactions and encourage even introverts to reach out and touch others in some way. I'm sure it's an aspect of being human… the need to connect. Being in an area with very few people just enhances that need. Contrast that with being in even a moderate size crowd, say in a shopping mall or on a busy street corner, where interactions between people are limited, even avoided.

There's no doubt we want to go back for another go at it. Like any trip to any place, you can't see it all the first time. And at least for North America, there's no other place that's like the far north.

Below are a series of additional thoughts and comments that I casually noted during the trip.

Wildlife: Most people report that you’ll see more wildlife alongside the highways in Canada than you’ll find in Alaska. The leading theory as to why this is blames it on people. There are more people that live along and travel on the roads here in Alaska than there is in northern Canada, and the density of people-activity has driven the animals that haven’t been hit by traffic or hunted further back into un-populated areas. Some believe there's a lot of poaching going on too. That moose you might have seen between Anchorage and Fairbanks may very well be in someone's freezer.

Another reason for not seeing wildlife is that many tourists have a bad case of “get-there-itis”. They drive as fast as they can and then wonder why they're not seeing anything. As one native Alaskan told me, “the animals are there… most people just don't take the time to really look. They expect the moose to step out on the road in front of them and pose for a picture.”

We saw just about everything we were hoping to see… more black bear than expected, fewer moose... a playful family of Dahl Sheep; bison; grizzly; elk; many eagles; humpback whales; dolphins; sea otters; seals; sea lions; and others not coming to mind right now.  With the possible exception of some grayish blur that ran in front of us on the Dempster, we don't think we saw a wild cat of any kind, or a wolf. Not seeing a wolf was a real miss in my book.

Big RVs: Long multi-month trips to Alaska can be done with big motorhomes or monster fifth wheels, but we think most people will enjoy it more in a smaller RV… ideally, the smallest rig that works for you. Any way you look at it, this is primarily a driving trip, and, in our opinion, you’ll enjoy the trip so much more with a small nimble rig that can go and park just about anywhere. We’ve observed big RVs white-knuckling their way along narrow shoulder-less roads, bouncing and rolling over uneven frost heaved road surfaces, spraying thick layers of mud and dirt onto and into every nook and cranny of their “toad”, and then spending hours scraping and scrubbing bugs and road grime from acres of glass and painted fiberglass. Dirt covered rigs are a way of life up here. When a shiny clean RV pulls into a campground, the others gather and talk about the guy that doesn't fit in. Additionally, large RVs are almost as wide as the narrow road lane they're on. The constant driver attention required to stay on the road doesn’t provide for much time to look around and enjoy the scenery.

I know… there are those who need their space and don't feel they can do it any other way… and that's OK. Do what works for you. And folks do drive these big things up there all the time. All I'm saying is that I believe many people will enjoy the trip far more with a small rig. I know we did.

Climate: I was a little surprised to learn that August is usually the wettest month of the year in Alaska. Locals don't think much of Summer and debate whether Spring or Fall is the best time of the year. We're thinking our next trip up that way will be during a shoulder season… either late spring or early fall… before or after peak tourist season and when most RVers are hunkered down in Arizona in deathly fear of little snowflakes. However, it'd be good to have a four-season rig before we attempt that.

The northernmost fine dining establishment
we ever found... Alestine's in Inuvik.
The bus is the kitchen.
Meals and Food: Despite being on a three month long road trip, we still have to eat. Under the assumption that we have to eat regardless of whether we’re traveling or at home, we attempted only to keep track of “extra” or larger food expenditures – and weren't real successful at that. Food is more expensive the further north one travels, but how much more is only a guess.

We’ve come to find that, while exploring, eating in smaller local restaurants or road-side lodges staffed by local folks (and not chains staffed by teenagers) is an enriching element of the traveling experience. If you look for the right situation, you’ll find interesting people who’ll let you in on their world. You’ll learn more about their lives, lifestyles, interests, and concerns. Those interactions make you feel more engaged with the place you’re visiting… and that place becomes a part of you in some way. During our travels we find we eat out every other day or so… sometimes two days out of three. We look for good basic food… nothing fancy.

When we’re tired from a day of travel or exploration, and neither of us feels like cooking something… and going out isn’t in the cards… we keep a ready supply of dehydrated meals in the larder. A staple food for backpackers and trekkers, they're simple to make. Just boil water, add, mix, and wait ten minutes. We’ve enjoyed beef pot roast, chicken and rice, beef stroganoff, spaghetti and meat sauce, and others, when the option would have been a peanut butter sandwich. Clean up is easy and they're usually right-sized so there are no leftovers. Very efficient and they taste reasonably good too. (about $5 to $8 per meal for two)

Modes of travel: The enjoyment a person gets from travel and exploring is largely up to that person. During our trip we observed every imaginable travel and camping mode one can imagine. I talked with bicyclists and motorcyclists who were tent camping and having the time of their lives… couldn’t imagine doing the trip any other way. And we talked with one couple who were traveling in an organized caravan with a 45 foot motorhome and were having a positively miserable time… couldn’t wait for the whole ugly ordeal to be over. And I’m sure there are other examples of love and hate with every other mode of travel. One's frame-of-mind, expectations, and how open-minded a person is to new and different places are probably the keys to a positive and enriching experience.

Staying in motels or lodges? Personally, besides the high cost, I’d get tired of schlepping my bags from car to room and back to car again every day.

RV Rentals? Renting a class C motorhome or truck camper is an amazingly popular travel option for visitors to the far north, especially tourists from Europe or Asia. For many, this is a good choice… certainly better than bouncing from motel to motel every night. But because I enjoy the drive up and back and I'm really a tightwad at heart, the cost (which can be considerable) and the time constraint on the back end would nag at me, limiting my enjoyment of the trip. What do I do if I feel like staying someplace an extra day or two but my two week rental has expired?

Tours or caravans? Not for me, but if you need the security and resources of a group led by a knowledgeable guide, it's another option.

Whichever way one decides to see the far north, try to get in the right frame of mind. We did three months in about the smallest truck camper you can buy, and had a thoroughly wonderful time.

Access to the Internet. We knew going into this trip that we’d have limited access to the Internet or cell phone systems. Since we didn't buy Canadian phone or data plan, we knew we’d be totally reliant on finding WIFI along the way during our time in Canada. Public wifi hotspots are found in libraries, coffee shops, cafe's and restaurants, at some campgrounds. But, in our experience, the wifi is either so busy or so restricted and so slow that it's literally un-usable for anything but the basics… if even that.

What I hadn’t planned on was the lousy data service we got from Verizon in Alaska. I did learn they’re building out their own system in the 49th state, but it’s slow going with all the small grand-fathered in cell companies who were first and are hanging on for dear life, milking it while they can. Because of the vast area you really only have a chance at service in and between the larger cities. For the few days we were there, we had very good service in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Because it’s on the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, we even had good 4G data at our campsite in Willow… and we were there for 8 nights. For some strange reason we had good data coverage in Valdez. But anywhere else… from the Kenai Peninsula to Seward to just about anywhere else… zip. Nadda. I'm sure this will improve somewhat in the next few years, but with all the mountains and large areas of little or no population, wireless access is going to be a problem for many years to come.

Blogging: I did make a huge improvement to my blogging stress by changing from a daily to a weekly publishing schedule during our trip. By having one file to edit and add to as the week progresses… and a file that can even be worked on with my little tablet if I choose, it’s far easier for me to keep my notes up during the week and then stress out about finding an internet connect only on Sunday… or as soon as I can thereafter. I re-confirmed that daily blogging is not for me.

For a few days after leaving the sparsely populated north and heading back to the lower 48… oh, somewhere about the middle of British Columbia, I started feeling something… not sure what, but an uncomfortableness. Speed, hustle and bustle, everything moving so fast. Cars and trucks on the highway are quickly coming up behind us and passing, frantically going somewhere much faster than we need to go in order to get where we're going. Even an elderly woman who had to look through her steering wheel instead of over it, and who I guessed was zipping her canasta club to lunch, sped past us as we trundled toward Vancouver. So much activity… I want to go back to the quieter north.

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Until Next Time...