2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  TRAVELING TO ALASKA, p. 2:  PACK YOUR
SENSE OF ADVENTURE
+ PLENTY OF TIME AND $$$

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 9

 

"We could bore ourselves to death, drink ourselves to death, or have a bit of an adventure."

~ Terry Darlington

 
 

(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 they'll need.

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.  (9-4-12)

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. travelers.

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 heads.

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  (9-3-12)

As soon as we crossed the border into Alaska we were back to Fahrenheit degrees, gallons, 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 casual use.

I'll have more about communications in another section.

HIGH COSTS

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, too.


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. (8-2-12)

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 there.


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.  (9-6-12)

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 Alaska
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 much.


Patrons enjoy lunch at Veronica's Coffeehouse in the restored
c. 1918 Oskolkof-Dolchok House in Kenai.   (7-13-12)

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 lover, eh?

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. (7-21)

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 there??

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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