A Few More Notes from our Alaska Trip

Oma provided her reflections in the last post, but I thought I would add a few notes on other topics.

Most of the roads were fine. This section of road is, if you’ll excuse me, a “middle of the road” road. Okay shoulder and fairly smooth surface despite the patches. Some sections of road were awesome with nice shoulders and new pavement. Others had no shoulder or some potholes. I found the roads overall to be better than many two-lane roads in the midwest.

Roads

The roads were not nearly as bad as I expected. Most sections were as good or better than many of the two-lane highways we drive in the lower 48. Some sections required slowing down by 10-15 mph, although traffic was usually light and through sections that had potholes, it was often possible to use both lanes, weave between them and maintain our speed.

Frost heaves (really frost depressions) happen. These are among the worst we experienced, but just required slowing to around 35 mph for a couple of miles..

The worst paved roads I remember were a short (several mile) stretch of the Tok cut-off in Alaska that required us to slow to around 35 mph for frost heaves and a portion of the Icefields Parkway in southern Canada that had many huge heaves that were more like 5 mph speed bumps.

The Canadian portion of the dirt/gravel Top of the World Highway wasn’t bad, but the US side was awful.

Gravel/dirt roads are a whole other thing. We mostly avoided them this trip, with the exception of our Dawson Creek to Tok drive (stopping at Chicken) via the Top of the World and Taylor Highways. The Canada portion wasn’t bad, but once we were in Alaska and past the beautiful pavement that runs about ten miles after customs, our average speed was perhaps 25 mph on very rough road. Non-paved roads in northern Canada and Alaska can be highly variable depending on recent weather and recent road work (or lack there-of).

Construction

Road construction is part of the trip, but we didn’t find it terrible. Almost uniformly, road construction means the road is a single lane with a pilot car. Waits depend on how long the construction is and the luck of when you show up, but the longest wait we had was less than a half hour. Obviously though you need to have patience. Waits of 10-20 minutes before even starting through the construction are normal.

The construction zone itself usually consisted of some paved road and some dirt. How much of each varied from long stretches of pavement with just a short dirt section to mostly dirt.

Construction driving can be very dusty. Water trucks occasionally run to keep dust down, but a number of times we could barely see the vehicle in front of us for part of the drive. Fortunately the roads usually curved enough that we got breaks from the dust.

Sometimes the remote work areas were signed, but in a couple of cases we just turned a corner and had construction equipment coming toward us.

In the most remote locations, you just dodge the construction equipment. When a large grader appears in your lane coming toward you, it’s pretty obvious that you should get out of the way even without warning signs and flagmen.

Border crossings

We had no problems at border crossings. Most went very quickly (less than fifteen minutes including waiting in line). From past experience, we were very conservative with problem items (mostly produce). As usual, Canadian customs was less of a problem for us than US customs. That said, we saw other RV’s being searched, so bad luck or acting suspicious can lead to delays – or worse if you’re hiding something.

The painfully long line to cross back into Canada

We had one long wait for a border crossing when we left Skagway. Our timing was terrible as there were two trains, many busses and lots of cars and RVs. We went through quickly once it was our turn, but it was nearly an hour wait in line first.

Quiet border crossings can be worse than busier ones if the agents are bored and decide to do a more thorough inspection.

We also got physically inspected once. This was purely a case where arriving at a border crossing when there is no other traffic is not ideal. With no one behind us, the agent entered our motorhome and inspected the refrigerator (as well as looked around at what was visible in the motorhome). We had no problem items and had been honest during the questioning so it wasn’t a big issue, and it was not a full pull-everything-out-of-the-RV inspection, but it reinforces the need to be honest during questioning.

The animals were also not a problem. For several of our crossings the animals were so quiet in the back of the motorhome that I don’t think anyone knew they were there. (We never got asked if we had pets, and we absolutely adhere to the philosophy of “be honest but volunteer nothing.” I don’t understand people that create problems for themselves by bringing up things that are not being asked about.)

Alaska technically requires completed State of Alaska forms certifying that your animals are healthy. We seriously considered getting them, but they are only good for 30 days and we planned about that amount of time in Canada. Which means we would have had to get the certifications somewhere in northern Canada. And then the papers would still not be valid when we reentered Alaska near Haines. No one on the Facebook group had reported being asked for them, so we decided to skip them and take our chances. Now, our pets appear healthy (Coda suffers from old age but doesn’t look sick) and we obviously carried rabies and other vaccination certificates. No one asked for the Alaska papers (no one on the whole trip even asked for their rabies certs), so it worked out for us. Obviously, your experience could be different.

Museums

There are tons of small museums in Canada and Alaska. Some people try to hit as many as they can. We stopped at more early in the trip and fewer as time went on because we’re just not that into small museums. So with the caveat that we did not even try to visit every possible museum, here are a few that we most enjoyed.


There are lots of places to learn about the building of the Alaska Highway, but the Alaska Highway House museum in Dawson Creek (mile 0 of the Alaska Highway) is worth visiting since for most people it is at the start of their Alaska Highway experience. There is an excellent film on the building of the highway. I knew quite a bit about the Alaska Highway already but still learned a number of things. For Oma, who knew nothing of the history, it was very eye-opening and helped to put all of the other history we experienced into context.

For a very small museum, the George Johnston Museum in Teslin, YT (along the Alaska Highway) was our favorite. It focuses on an amazing first nations man, and covers time both before and during the Alaska Highway construction. We found the hour-long documentary to be fascinating. We both learned a great deal about this group of first nations people and how they dealt with the arrival of the highway.

Although altogether different, the North Pacific Cannery Museum outside of Prince Rupert was also fascinating. It was a time capsule of an industry that is now gone.

Dredge #4 outside Dawson City, YT

Equally fascinating was the dredge outside Dawson City. Another time capsule, it brought home the lengths and technology that were used to extract gold after the initial gold rush had passed.

The road to Valdez

A Few Favorites

  • Favorite stretch of road – The road to Valdez
  • Favorite restaurant – Klondike Rib & Salmon, Whitehorse (fish and chips, bread pudding)
For whatever reason, Homer and the Homer Spit didn’t do that much for us.

Would skip next time

We only know we would skip these because we visited them on this trip, so if you’ve got lots of time, I’d try to see as much as possible. That said, these are a few places we’ll likely skip on our next trip.

  • Homer – Some people love Homer, especially if they fish. It didn’t do anything for us.
  • Fairbanks – Cities were not the reason we went to Alaska, and there wasn’t anything in Fairbanks that would cause us to return. It we find ourselves driving through we’d certainly stop for supplies, but it won’t be a destination on a future trip.
  • Anchorage – You can’t avoid Anchorage if you’re going to the Kenai Peninsula, but we only drove through. We did shop at Fred Meyer and Costco (if you need diesel, make sure you go to the Costco that sells diesel – there are two Costcos and only one has diesel). We know a few people that liked Anchorage, but most people aren’t fans and we didn’t see anything that made us want to stay in the city.
Although there are lots of traditional gas stations in Alaska and northern Canada, the handful of surviving roadhouses like this one are important sources of fuel far from cities. Just don’t expect city prices.

Fuel

We had no problems with fuel, despite our smallish tank (26 gallons) and using the same tank for the generator. We definitely planned ahead – except for the handful of areas where fuel options were plentiful, I always knew ahead of time where I planned to fill up. But doing that allowed us to keep our small tank at least half full almost all of the trip. (Driving on the upper half of your tank is good practice in any remote area, even more so if you might need to run a generator off the same tank. Some places can take days for a tow to reach you. (We passed a motorhome that had been sitting in the road for two days already.) Roads also get closed for any number of reasons (the Alaska Highway was closed several days due to fire on our way home), and there are rarely alternate routes.) Having extra fuel in case a gas station is unexpectedly closed or to run the generator if you’re stuck for a few days is prudent.

Fuel prices, with the exception of the Anchorage area, were higher than home. How high depended both on whether you’re in the USA or Canada, as well how remote the location is. The most expensive fuel we bought was at Dawson City in the Yukon, a place that has the double whammy of Canadian fuel taxes and is a very long way from anywhere. We noticed a few people get all knotted up about fuel costs in remote areas, but we assumed when we left on the trip that fuel in remote locations would be expensive. Also, like groceries in the section below, some people wouldn’t do the math and equated Canadian dollars with US dollars. At the time we traveled, that was very misleading, since super-expensive $6.00/gal (CAN) gasoline/diesel was really only about $4.50/gal (US). Still very expensive (at the time), but $4.50/gal is a lot less than $6.00/gal. You just have to do a little math.

Steak, potatoes and vegetables may cost a bit more in Alaska and northern Canada, but they surely taste good when cooked over a fire next to a beautiful Yukon lake.

Groceries

Like fuel, groceries are more expensive in more remote locations. (Canada was not necessarily more expensive than the USA once you factored in the exchange rate. Since both countries call their currency “dollars”, many people look at something that is $5.00 CAN and think of it as $4.00 US. At the time we traveled, $5.00 CAN only cost us about $3.75 US.)

I heard of people that made and froze meals for their entire trip because they were afraid of grocery prices. That was not even a consideration given the small size of our freezer, but I can’t image having no fresh food for four months at any rate. As expected, food in more remote locations – especially fresh food and dairy – was noticeably more expensive. Food in larger cities was more reasonable, although cities like Whitehorse in the Yukon are still far, far away from suppliers.

We always spend more on groceries when traveling than when we’re at home (at home we can watch for sales and buy in larger quantities), so the relevant comparison for me was the cost of groceries when we were traveling in the southern USA from January – March vs. the cost on our Alaska trip from June – August.

We spent 16% more on food during our Alaska trip. That includes meat/fish, fresh fruits, some fresh vegetables, dairy and other things that have limited shelf lives. If you almost exclusively eat fresh fruits and vegetables, you may see a larger cost increase than we did. If you only eat processed foods, you may hardly see higher prices at all if you can stock up in larger cities.

Some commercial campgrounds were little more than parking lots, although this one came with a great view.

Campgrounds

I’d heard that most commercial campgrounds were going to be little more than parking lots. While there are lots of campgrounds that fit that description, we stayed at commercial campgrounds that were forested and definitely not just a parking lot. And several of the parking lots we stayed at overlooked the water. So there are often options other than sterile parking lots. On the other hand, if you’re looking for manicured parks with concrete pads, you’re definitely going to be disappointed. Prices varied quite a bit, but most of the commercial campgrounds we stayed at ranged from $30-45 per night for an electric site. We only needed 30A, but I did notice that 50A service was definitely uncommon outside cities.

Some commercial campgrounds were wooded with decent site separation.

The provincial, state, national and forest campgrounds were often much nicer but usually did not have hookups. Many of then were our favorite campgrounds. Prices were all over the map. British Columbia parks were usually very nice but also more expensive ($25-35 CAN ($18-25 US) per night for dry camping). Yukon campgrounds were very inexpensive (generally $12 CAN/$9 US). Some Yukon campgrounds were fantastic and others just so so. Alaska state parks were somewhat expensive ($20-30 typically) for dry camping and were often just so so. There are some beautiful national forest/fish and wildlife/etc. parks on the Kenai Peninsula, which are reasonably priced (some are even free) and an even better deal if you have a senior pass.

One of our campsites in Denali National Park..

There are also plenty of places for free camping, although more in some locations than others. We almost always chose a campground so that we’d have someplace to walk the dog. Some people we know stayed at campgrounds with electric every night. Other people go to great lengths to avoid paying for camping. We saw people camped within a couple of feet of roads with moderate traffic, which is not for us. There are trade-offs between every option, but one nice thing about this trip is that there are usually options in most areas.

Free camping was available at Downtown Chicken if you didn’t mind the noise of the generator and the not-very-scenic location next to the buildings.


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