(Continued from the last page.)
NOT SO FOREIGN AFTER ALL
To maximize their chance of a good time in Alaska (and northern
Canada) visitors need to
have a sense of adventure and more time and money than they think
Before this trip I had traveled to every state in the Lower 48, Quebec, Vancouver
Island, Great Britain and Wales, Mexico, and the Bahamas. Jim had been
to every state but Alaska, Vancouver Island, southern Alberta and British Columbia,
Germany, The Netherlands, and Viet Nam.
In many ways,
Alaska and the Northwestern Canadian provinces we experienced were like
none of these places. We're glad we had the opportunity this summer to enjoy some of the
unique aspects of the Far North.
If you visit Alaska in the winter
you can observe the historic Iditarod or Yukon Quest ultra-distance
sled dog races. The Yukon Quest
is run between Whitehorse, YT and Fairbanks, AK in Feb.
Once we crossed the border from Montana into Alberta in early June every day was a new adventure
for us. There were many new sights and customs to experience.
We discovered that the farther we traveled into Canada, the bigger
the differences from the Lower 48 -- although all the residents
we met spoke English (French is Canada's second language, and First
Nations People have their own languages) and the only time we needed
Canadian money was at Laundromats. We were always able to pay with our
U.S. credit card or American cash or checks for campsites, food, and
fuel. The American dollar was almost on par this summer with the
Canadian loony so we usually knew what our real cost was.
The TV and radio stations we accessed were similar to those in the
U.S. and often included "our" news and "our" music," too.
In most ways we felt right at home in Canada.
Fall color and early snow along
the Kluane River in southwestern Yukon Territories (9-7-12)
The eastern access route to Alaska through Alberta, northeastern
British Columbia, and southwestern Yukon (primarily on the Alaska
Highway) is in a different country but not that "foreign" to U.S.
However, we enjoyed the minor differences.
The biggest adjustment for us was getting used to Celsius
temperatures. Jim printed out a cheat sheet for quick reference (that
way 16 C. didn't sound so cold!). If we'd been in Canada longer I think
Celsius would have come naturally before long. The metric system for
road distances and liters of fuel was easier for us to compute in our
Of course, all this was moot in Alaska since it's a U.S. state.
Sometimes Alaska still felt pretty "foreign," however.
Intricate Native Alaskan beadwork on display
at the visitor and cultural center in Fairbanks
As soon as we crossed the border into Alaska we were back to Fahrenheit
miles, and U.S. currency -- and we could use our Verizon cell phones and secure MiFi
internet card again at no extra expense. We could have used them in
Canada for emergencies but the price was more than we wanted to pay for
I'll have more about communications in another section.
Nothing comes cheap in Alaska or northern Canada, especially if it
has to be shipped, flown, or trucked in from the Lower 48 or one of the
large cities in southern Canada. Services seemed relatively expensive,
Native Alaskan mask on display
at the Anchorage Museum; some artifacts are priceless.
Many high-quality Alaskan-made items that are for
sale are also very expensive. (7-23-12)
We learned just how dependent some communities are on the Alaska
Highway when it unexpectedly closed down several hours south of Whitehorse, YT for an
unprecedented five days in early June.
Every town to the north and west of the worst washout was cut off
from highway traffic flowing from the south and east. Shelves in grocery stores were
nearly bare within that time when residents and visitors hoarded goods,
not knowing how long it would be before they'd be restocked. There was
also a run on gas stations.
You'll pay more for almost
everything in northern Canada and Alaska, especially perishable foods, even in the larger cities and even at
discounters like Walmart, Costco, and Sam's Club.
I did note that some non-food items I regularly purchase at Walmart and Sam's
Club in the pharmacy department (e.g., Clif Bars, toothpaste, OTC pain
meds, supplements) were about the same price in their Anchorage stores as they
are in the Lower 48. That surprised me because they have to be shipped, too.
Roadhouses were spaced about ten
miles apart on dirt roads before motorized vehicles and paved roads
linked towns together in Alaska.
Some old roadhouses are still in business, like this one in Talkeetna.
Alaska is very dependent on goods from the Lower 48. There are relatively
few manufacturing and production facilities in
Alaska. Not a lot of food is grown there, either, especially when the
summer was as cold and wet as this one was.
And even with the Alyeska Pipeline running through the
state from Prudhoe Bay to
Valdez, gasoline and diesel fuel aren't refined in Alaska so the
stuff has to be shipped back there for consumer use = higher costs.
The price of food, fuel, and everything else is more
expensive the farther you are from the larger cities in Alaska and
Canada. We noticed a more exponential difference in that regard than in
small towns and remote areas in the Lower 48. Transportation costs are more of a factor up
Wetlands in Valdez, which is far
enough away from Anchorage to have
higher costs for foods and
services than towns closer to the metro area. (6-15-12)
Here are some examples.
In mid-June the average price of diesel in the Lower 48 was about
$3.72/gallon, per the online RV Travel newsletter we get every weekend.
We were paying $4.11/gallon then at JBER (Joint Base
Elmendorf-Richardson) in Anchorage, the lowest price we found. Elsewhere in town it was up to
$4.29. Prices were even higher in small, more remote areas like Seward
and Valdez -- and much higher out in the Bush.
Unfortunately, the price of diesel continued rising throughout
the summer so our fuel cost was higher on the return trip in early September
than going outbound in early June.
We paid $2.86/gallon for milk at Sam's Club in Anchorage. The price
was over a dollar more at non-Walmart chain grocery stores. Sam's Club's price was great
for Alaska and cheaper than some places in the Lower 48.
However, milk was well over $5/gallon at Safeway and other groceries in Valdez and Seward, over
$6/gallon (U.S. equivalent) in the Yukon -- even at Walmart --
and a whopping $11/gallon in and near Denali National Park.
Other perishables like bread and produce had a similar spread from
urban areas to more far-flung communities. Ever pay over $8 for a plain
loaf of Sara Lee whole wheat bread?? That's what it cost near Denali.
Alaska is the first state where
we've seen food caches like this one on display at the
visitor center in Delta
Junction. They are all over the place and some are still in use.
I can't imagine what these essentials cost out in the Alaskan Bush
(communities beyond the highway system or on rugged dirt/gravel roads).
Products are so expensive there
-- or unavailable locally at any cost -- that most
of those folks order groceries and supplies online or fly or drive
several hundred miles to Anchorage or Fairbanks periodically to stock up
for several months at a time.
A NEW CONCEPT TO US: BUSH ORDERS
If folks from remote areas in Alaska can't get all the goods in their
vehicle or luggage, they use the Bush Mail Services offered by Walmart,
Sam's Club, Costco, and other businesses.
In what other U.S. state will you find Bush Mail Service??
I did a double-take when I first saw the big sign for Bush Orders at the large
Dimond Blvd. /Old Seward Hwy. Walmart store in Anchorage. I did some
online research and learned more about the challenges of living in a
truly remote corner of the world.
Residents in far-flung areas of Alaska often buy huge quantities of
food and other supplies in person, by phone, or online and have them
shipped by boat, rail, truck, or airplane to their community. Even
though they're purchasing in quantity at lower costs they still have to
pay handling and shipping costs -- plus their own transportation
costs if they fly or drive to Anchorage or Fairbanks to buy the goods.
Yum! Unfortunately, these
cabbages, carrots, herbs, and other veggies at the entrance to the
Botanical Garden in Anchorage are
for decorative purposes and probably won't get eaten. (7-27-12)
Which brings up the topic of fresh produce -- don't expect to find
a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in Alaska or northern Canada,
even in cities and even in the summer when long hours of daylight can
result in humongous veggies like cabbage and squash.
I think it would be a real challenge to eat a vegetarian diet in Alaska
or northern Canada unless you relied primarily on frozen, dried, or
canned fruits and vegetables.
Despite all the weekly summer farmers' markets in every town, we found more
art and craft items than appealing produce at the ones we patronized. The produce at Walmart and in
chain grocery stores was generally pathetic and cost a minor fortune. If it
looked decent when we purchased it, we had to eat it quickly so it
didn't go bad.
I can't even imagine how folks out in the Bush ever get quality
fresh produce unless they can grow it themselves in one or two months in the
summer, then preserve some of it for the long winter months.
Meals at restaurants, even fast food chains, are also more expensive
than Jim and I are accustomed to. We looked at prices at several
restaurants in the areas we visited and usually decided to cook at home.
Of course, we do the same thing in the Lower 48! We don't eat out
Patrons enjoy lunch at Veronica's
Coffeehouse in the restored
c. 1918 Oskolkof-Dolchok House in
Jim sometimes gets breakfast items or sub sandwiches at
Subway so I'll use that as an example for comparison. Yes, Alaska has
Subway restaurants in the larger towns and cities.
He paid about $1
more for those items on base at JBER in Anchorage than anywhere in the Lower 48. The
Subways off-base in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, were about $2 more per item he regularly buys. Prices were
$3-4 higher in smaller
towns like Valdez and Homer but he still wanted them anyway.
He finally reached his upper limit when we were at Denali National
Park. He chose not to buy anything at the
Subway in Nenana Canyon AKA "Glitter Gulch" just outside the
park -- a $5 sub cost almost $10 at that location.
On the other hand, in mid-August all the shops but one in Nenana
Canyon had their tourist-oriented t-shirts and other clothing marked at
half price. That seemed early to me for end-of-season sales but I took
advantage of the mark-downs and got some inexpensive t-shirts and a
reversible water-resistant/fleece jacket that I'd been eyeing earlier.
All have fairly subtle Denali designs to
remind me of my favorite place in Alaska:
Small moose motif on one shirt
Larger wolf design on another
shirt to remind me of our rather rare wolf sighting.
That's appropriate for a dog
Neither one of us particularly likes to shop. However, I enjoyed finding interesting
Alaska-made regional items in stores all over
the state, including Walmart.
Say what you want about Walmart but in Alaska at least the chain carries
a fair amount of locally-made and grown items. For example, their Anchorage stores have
a variety of ulus (curved knives) that are made in Alaska.
A young woman at the Ulu Factory
in Anchorage demonstrates to
visitors the use and care of the
curved knives made in-house. (6-21)
Syrup made from birch trees, wines made with local
berries, baskets woven from birch bark, bowls carved from knobby tree
burls, ceramic mugs shaped and fired from local clay, beaded Native Alaska accessories . . .
. . . these are just a
few of the Alaska-made items that were fun to sample, look at, purchase,
or watch being made by the artisans as we traveled around the state.
Home-grown birch syrup and other
products available from a booth at a farmer's market in Anchorage.
At Sam's Club we saw a lot of specialized equipment for preserving
the big game animals (moose, caribou, etc.) and wild salmon that many
residents catch for their food supply. This is known as subsistence
hunting and fishing; it's probably practiced more widely in
Alaska than any other state.
The most expensive item we saw at Sam's was a sauna for about
$4,000. Bet that feels pretty good during a long winter in the Arctic!
I can't speak to the cost of renting a vehicle, staying in motels or
resorts, or taking tours but I assume those are comparatively more
expensive, too. I do know that housing, medical care, and some services are much more
expensive for Alaska residents than for folks who live in the Lower 48 states.
The general cost of living is relatively high in Alaska.
You might be able to purchase
this picturesque abandoned building in Kenai for a good price! (7-13-12)
Don't feel too sorry for Alaska residents, though. Their median
income is among the highest in the U.S.
In addition, Alaska is the only
state with no state sales tax or state income tax (they still have to pay
federal taxes) -- and residents get an annual refund called the
Permanent Fund Dividend, which is primarily funded by the oil industry.
The amount varies year to year but has averaged about $1,000
since the program began. This year's PFD, to be distributed in October, is
a little lower than that.
There's yet another way life is different in Alaska than the Lower
48. At least visitors get the benefit of no state sales taxes when they
purchase goods there.
Continued on the next page: OK, so Alaska is expensive and a
long way away. I still want to go. What's the best way to get
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the ultra Lab
© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil