2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   TRAVELING TO ALASKA, p. 6:  IN DEFENSE
OF SPONTANEITY + SOME CHALLENGES WE FACED

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 9

 
"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." 
~ Lao Tsu
 
 
(Continued from the last page.)

We sort of convoluted that quote by having very few fixed plans on our way to and within Alaska. We were definitely intent on arriving there, however, so our plan was to get there as quickly as possible and spend more time on the return in Canada.

As mentioned on a previous page, even that vague plan was altered in September.

PLAN OR NO PLAN?

The shorter your stay in Alaska (e.g., only one or two weeks), the more important it is to make definite reservations for accommodations and tours -- especially if you're there between mid-June to mid-August when the majority of other tourists are visiting.

You simply don't have the luxury of time to be hunting for a suitable place to stay if you're on a rather tight schedule.


Scenic Johnson Lake is across the road from the Kasilof RV Park on the Kenai Peninsula.  (7-13-12)

The longer you can spend in Alaska (e.g., a month or more), the more flexible and spontaneous you can be regarding campsites, motel rooms, tours, etc. If one area is packed and you can't find a place to stay, you can move somewhere else and return later when it's not as busy.

It really doesn't take that long to drive between most of the popular tourist areas in Alaska so if you want to backtrack some, it's not a big deal. We were in Anchorage three times, Denali NP twice, and wandered back and forth a little bit over the busy Kenai Peninsula while we were there.

We also did quite a few day trips from central locations like Anchorage. That was easier than moving the camper more frequently.

IN DEFENSE OF SPONTANEITY

Because we're retired and had what seemed in June like lots of time to spend in Alaska, we had the advantage of being very spontaneous about where we went and how long we spent in each locale. We made fewer long-term plans and reservations during this trip than any previous ones we've taken.

That MO caused some occasional angst but worked out very well overall.


One of the spacious sites we occupied at Riley Creek CG in Denali NP   (8-14-12)

The only campground reservations we made before reaching Alaska were at Denali National Park on our first visit in early August. We made reservations at Riley Creek and Teklanika campgrounds as soon as we could do it online (December 1, 2011). We made our Tek Pass shuttle bus reservation at the same time.

Advance reservations were a good thing because that was still the height of the season at the park.

 
Teklanika CG is 29 miles back the park's interior road.  We enjoyed camping there for four nights
(there is a three-night minimum). We had a boreal forest and wide riverbed behind our site.  (8-9-12)

To our surprise, however, we were able to extend the Riley Creek reservation at the campground office by three more days when we saw how great the weather was, and we made our second reservation at Riley for eight days at the end of August/beginning of September just a few days before going back to the park.

My point is, even at uber-popular Denali National Park you don't always have to make reservations far in advance.


Our site at Byers Lake Campground in Denali State Park, located SE of Denali National Park  (8-2-12)

Every other place we stayed was either spur of the moment or with a couple days advance notice.

The main reason was to maximize spontaneity so we could stay longer in some places than we thought we might, or move on earlier than we anticipated for one reason or another (crowds, rain, etc.).

We also stayed at military campgrounds in Valdez, Seward, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. The only one of those where we could make a reservation was the Seward Military Resort. The other ones were first-come, first-served. We had no problems getting nice sites at any of them.


We liked the Black Spruce CG at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) in Anchorage 
so much that we stayed there three times for a total of almost six weeks.  (6-29-12)

We had a bit of a problem in Seward when we decided we wanted to stay longer at the military resort. We were able to extend for two more days but came up one day short because the campground was full the third day.

We just moved across the street to the Air Force campground the last day. It was less expensive and we had more room, so the only "problem" was having to move.


The RV sites at the Seward Military Resort are small but the price and location are great.  (7-7-12)

Our timing to visit the Kenai Peninsula wasn't real good but I don't know how we'd do it any differently the next time.

Various rivers on the peninsula are very popular destinations for residents when the salmon are running. At least five kinds of salmon come back to spawn anywhere from mid-June to mid-September so there isn't much leeway weather-wise to better time a visit to the Kenai if you don't fish.

That time period also includes the peak tourist season. Many tourists time their visits to the Kenai for optimal fishing opportunities.

We solved that problem by staying several days at a small private campground in Kasilof part way down the west coast of the peninsula and making three day trips in the truck to visit areas we wanted to see north and south of there. That RV park was much nicer than the parking lot-type "campgrounds" where the fish-folks crowded together in Soldotna, Kenai, and Homer:


Our site at the Kasilof RV Park, one of the few private campgrounds we used;
the large wooded sites are similar to those in public campgrounds.   (7-13-12)

We also found some very nice, low-cost provincial (government) campgrounds in Canada with sites for large RVs. Congdon Creek and Snag Junction in the Yukon were two with pretty lakes that we enjoyed. Neither had very many other campers in early June or early September.

Many Canadian towns have attractive city parks with campsites (Hythe, AB, e.g.) and/or Rotary Club campgrounds we liked, such as the one in Grande Prairie near the visitor center and bike path:


View of our section of the Rotary RV Park from the bike path in Grande Prairie  (6-4-12)

Those were cheaper than the private campgrounds we used in Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson, and Watson Lake.

The campground in Grande Prairie was nearly full when we got there in early June but only three couples camped at the city park in Hythe in mid-September:


Nice city RV park in Hythe, AB that was nearly empty when we camped there overnight  (9-10-12)

In Calgary, Whitecourt, and Olds, Alberta we stayed overnight for free at Walmart stores a total of four times out and back. That practice is as popular in Canada as it is in the U.S.!

FINDING CAMPGROUNDS

It was usually pretty easy for us to find places to camp, even without reservations. We would have had more options with a smaller RV but most places in which we were interested had sites for large trailers and motorhomes, too.

I already mentioned having to move across the street to another military campground in Seward when we wanted to extend our reservation.

The only other campground problem we had was with our original site at the Russian River National Forest Service campground on the Kenai Peninsula. When we made an online reservation a few days before the 4th of July holiday we had to select a specific site. We'd never seen the campground before so it was a shot in the dark, based only on online information about the size and location of the site.


Self-walking dog:  Cody carries his leash toward our camper
at the end of a walk at the Russian River CG.  (7-11-12)

The site we blindly picked was long enough and wide enough for the Cameo but there was no maneuvering room on the campground road across from the site to get into it (trees and shrubs in the way of turning the truck). We were able to move to another site shown above but because the campground was so full then, we could get the larger site for only two of the three nights we wanted to stay there.

It turned out OK. We found a scenic turnout a few miles down the road where we boondocked for a peaceful afternoon and night the third day:

Three other RVs liked the spot so well they tucked in behind us! They were quiet and I felt a little safer with them there. The next morning we continued on our merry way to Seward after the holiday crowds were gone from that town.

Some of our "spontaneity" re: finding campsites caused a little temporary angst but we were able to overcome the challenges by being flexible and open to experimenting with alternatives.

We'll probably use the same MO when we go back the next time.

BOOKING DAY TOURS

Our spontaneous decisions re: a day cruise out of Seward to Kenai Fjords National Park and a flight-seeing plane ride from Healy over Denali National Park also worked out well. 

We debated about getting a coupon book for half-price day tours and admissions to various tourist attractions in Alaska but decided against that because advanced reservations were required for most of the places offering coupons. We also wanted to check out the businesses and options in person, not just from ads and online journals.


One of Jim's most memorable days in Alaska was our flight over Denali when he
got to sit in the co-pilot's seat next to our personable pilot, Trent.  (8-7-12)

We made reservations for both trips just one day in advance, after we had time to do some on-site research and were certain the weather would be good.

We're glad we did it that way, even if it cost us more for tickets. We got military discounts on the cruise and our campground host at Denali arranged a sweet deal for us on the plane ride.

There are several cruise and plane tour operators in various locations and each has lots of different packages, so the chances of booking a fun day trip on short notice are pretty good even during the height of the tourist season.

SOME OTHER CHALLENGES WE FACED

The good news is, we had very few things go wrong on this trip with route-finding or mechanical problems with our truck or 5th-wheel camper.

The bad news was the weather in Alaska this year.

ROUTE-FINDING & GPS UNITS

We discovered that a GPS with updated Canada/Alaska information is great to have but not essential with the other routing information we had at hand and on our computers.

We bought a new Garmin Nuvi 1490 GPS before our trip because our old Magellan unit wasn't programmed for Canada. It worked well on our trip up to Alaska but self-destructed soon after we reached Anchorage the first time in June.

We're not real fond of the free refurbished replacement Garmin sent us. The software wasn't current for either Canada or the U.S. and required a large number of gigabytes and too much time to update with the weak or non-existent internet connections we had available to us most of the time in Alaska.


I didn't think to take a picture of the Garmin GPS while I was driving in Alaska or Canada. I took
this one recently while driving (slowly!) on a twisty road through the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The Nuvi suited our needs fine while we were in Alaska so Jim delayed updating it until we were ready to leave and he found a strong enough free WiFi signal to do the job. However, he was able to update only the American part of the software (long story) and not Canada, too. The GPS unit was basically useless during the trip back through Canada.

The Canadian maps and descriptions in the 2011 Milepost book, 2011 Alaska Camping book, our topo software, and two- to three-year old AAA maps supplemented what old information we had on the GPS. We also remembered most of the Alaska Hwy. from going outbound on it.

However, new highway interchanges in Edmonton and Lethbridge, Alberta caused us to get off-course briefly in both those cities because none of our routing information was up to date.

Otherwise we found our way through Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska with few to no problems. The Nuvi works fine in the U.S. so we'll probably keep it. By the time we go back to Alaska again it'll be time to get a new GPS unit anyway.


The end of the Alaska Hwy. is at Delta Junction, AK if you follow it
all the way north. The road was originally 1,422 miles from Mile 0 in
Dawson Creek, BC but is shorter now because of several re-routes.  (9-6-12)

As with any electronic device, do not blindly follow GPS directions, especially with an RV!!

You may have heard horror stories about folks with RVs being directed to dead-end or very narrow streets, under extremely low bridges, or worse. Once we had to back up the camper after "Maggie" told us to turn on a dead-end street. It worked out OK but caused unnecessary stress.

Fortunately that's the worst RV-GPS misadventure story we have. While we were in Alaska a man followed his GPS in his car, not an RV, right into the water in Prince William Sound when he exited the tunnel to the port town of Whittier!

I forget whether he drowned or not.


We drove the Alaska Hwy. from Dawson Creek to Tok  1,282 miles) on the way to Alaska
and the whole thing (1,390 miles) from Delta Jct. to Dawson Creek on the way back.

That's not the first story (or the last) I've head about GPS directions sending people into dangerous situations.

Not only is it difficult to keep the software updated every time a road is built, rerouted, or closed, most GPS units don't take into account the length, width, and height of an RV. It's best to buy one that is manufactured specifically for truckers or RV owners. They are more expensive, which is why we didn't get one of them in the first place.

As with the inadequate camera we bought in Anchorage, frugality isn't always wise.

MINOR MECHANICAL ISSUES

We did very well regarding truck and camper problems, too.

In our research we read about other RVers' problems with flat tires, broken springs and shocks, chipped windshields, and filthy campers from their treks through Alaska and northern Canada. We avoided some of those problems by sticking to paved roads when pulling the Cameo, by being very alert to rough places, and by driving very slowly when necessary.


Although it's in a remote location in northern BC the Alaska Hwy. was fairly smooth
along the Toad River, a beautiful glacial-blue stream with an unattractive name!  (9-9-12)

Fortunately, we had no flat tires, no windshield chips, and no mechanical problems with the truck or camper other than an issue with the hitch when we got back to the Lower 48.

That's pretty good, considering our 2008 Dodge Ram 2500 diesel pick-up now has over 91,000 miles on it (almost 94,000 by the time we get to Virginia). Jim does all the maintenance and is a stickler about doing it regularly. We also started the trip with fairly new truck tires, which helped. 

The camper tires were a year old when we started out but still in good enough shape that we had no problems with them, either.

We have a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) that alerts us to any high or low pressures or temperatures. The alarm never went off, partly because Jim kept the pressure a little lower than usual and the weather was cool all summer.


Cool?? That's an understatement. Low clouds hung over the Valdez Glacier CG and
snow covered the nearby mountains down to sea level on this day in mid-June.  (6-14-12)

We did have three "hassles" with the truck and camper, however.

One was keeping the truck and camper clean. We drove over thousands of dusty or muddy gravel breaks (where crews had removed the pavement but hadn't replaced it yet) and some dirt campground roads. We also took just the truck on some rough dirt roads to a mine, various trailheads, the park road at Denali, and other places.

Every chance he got Jim washed both the truck and camper with a hose at our campsites. Many of the private campgrounds in Alaska and along the Alaska Highway in Canada also have RV washes, most for an extra fee.


We stayed at the Triple G Campground in Fort Nelson, BC again on our way back in September. This time
it wasn't raining and there were many fewer RVs. This campground has an RV wash for a hefty sum. (9-9-12)

The only other vehicle problems we had were mildew and swollen wooden doors in the camper from all the humidity, and the sliding handle to the hitch head in the bed of the truck got bent on the way back through Canada and had to be replaced.

Those were more aggravation than $$$. We took care of both problems pretty quickly when we got back to Montana.

The Curt company replaced the hitch head for free (five-year warranty) and it was delivered right at our campsite via FedEx in less than 24 hours. With considerable effort Jim was able to force the handle out to disconnect the camper. He removed the old hitch head and mounted the new one by himself.

He's currently researching different types of hitch heads and pin boxes that are designed to eliminate some of the shaking and "bucking" between trucks and trailers so our next trip will be more comfortable in that regard.


One view of our Mor-Ryde pin box (attached to camper) and Curt hitch (attached to truck bed)

Solving the mildew problem inside the Cameo took only a few days. We thoroughly cleaned the walls, carpeting, shelves, cabinets, and drawers, aired everything out in Montana's dry heat, and ran both central air conditioners for several days while temperatures were in the 80s. Within a week we could tell a big difference in how dry the Cameo was. Doors closed properly and everything smelled fresh.

The weather was also hot and dry while we were in South Dakota as we made our way East this fall.  We rented a steam cleaner at Ellsworth AFB to shampoo the carpeting. The rental units are more powerful than the steam cleaner we have at our house.

We weren't acclimated to temperatures in the 70s and 80s F. but after such a cold, wet summer we loved the heat and dry air in Montana and South Dakota during September!

Speaking of the weather . . .

WEATHER WOES

This probably wasn't the best summer for us to visit Alaska but we had such a good time overall that we don't regret our decision to go. We just dealt with the challenges and enjoyed the adventure.

Fuel prices were at or near all-time highs, the parts of Alaska we visited in the South Central region had record-breaking levels of snow last winter, and the region also had a much wetter, colder summer than normal.


In mid-June piles of snow remain in this neighborhood at sea level in Valdez. There were even higher
snow piles in some vacant lots downtown, ye the trees all sported green summer leaves.  (6-16-12)

Winter is always long and brutal in Alaska. The winter of 2011-12 was worse than usual.

The roads were clear when we got there but spring was late and some of the trails I hiked were still under snow or completely impassable until later in the summer. Some flooding occurred as late as mid-summer because of the late snow-melt and summer rain.

From our perspective the only good thing about all the excess winter snow and chillier temperatures was a reduction in the number and size of the huge mosquitoes and flies we'd been warned about. We never needed the mosquito nets we purchased. We didn't even have to use our insect repellent.


Mist hangs in the air as Jim and Cody inspect the old Beeman Cabin above Byers Lake
at Denali State Park. We didn't even need mosquito repellant in that wet environment.  (8-2-12)

We knew about the tough winter before we began our trip. We couldn't have accurately predicted the cold, wet summer, however.

The flooding in Alaska didn't affect us (only the flooding in the Yukon on our way up) but the frequent rain was depressing and limited some of our activities. June and July were cooler and wetter than normal in the South Central area; August was a little drier and warmer than normal.

I read that July was the coldest on record in Anchorage. Here's an online article you might find interesting: http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/anchorage-makes-weather-channels-top-5-worst-summer-weather-2012


How wet was it? Even the mushrooms were furry at JBER by the end of summer!!  (8-22-12)

When we periodically read/heard about the millions of people in the Lower 48 who suffered this summer from prolonged high heat and serious drought conditions . . . you can understand the irony and why we had trouble relating to that. We felt like we were on a different planet.

We were definitely in a different ZIP code!

As a result of the frequent cold, wet weather we stayed in campgrounds with electric and water hookups more frequently than we thought we would. It's a lot more comfortable to boondock (no electric or water hookups) in warmer, drier conditions than it is when it's wet.


A large puddle fills half the parking lot at the Talkeetna visitor center.  (8-2-12)

Even with electric heat in our camper more than half the time that we were in Canada and Alaska we still had mildew problems that had to be addressed as soon as we got back to hot, dry Montana. We used propane heat when we didn't have electricity; that just seemed to add more moisture to the already-damp interior of the camper.

Rain and cold temperatures weren't the only problems Anchorage had this summer. While we were in Fairbanks in early September we heard/read about extremely high straight-line winds in the Anchorage area -- and we were glad we weren't there!

Wind velocities of up to 130 MPH were recorded in foothill subdivisions in the Chugach Range on the east side of the metro area. That's where we accessed several trails into the mountains, including the popular Flattop Mountain trail. Trees and utility lines were down all over the city and thousands of folks were without power for days.

Residents are accustomed to storms like this in the winter but apparently they are unusual in the fall.


The broad Talkeetna River on an overcast day in August;
the water was high but not flooding the town then.  (8-2-12)

Excess rain caused further problems in South Central and Interior Alaska later in September, after we were back in the Lower 48. We read accounts of serious flooding in Talkeetna (three rivers converge there), the Mat-Su Valley, Kenai Peninsula, and other areas of the state.

By late September Anchorage was already getting some snow. Residents bemoaned the short autumn season. Many Alaskans just didn't get a break re: the weather this year.

Continued on the next page:  tips re: the condition and type of vehicle(s) you drive to and/or around Alaska

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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