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Don & Abby's Alaska trip - part 1

by Don Jensen

Forum member Don Jensen wrote this log of his sometimes hillarious and eventful trip to Alaska.

Chapter one

We left Houston Sunday morning (May 7th) for Minneapolis.

We met the charter buses (2) in the evening for the 2 hour ride to Forest City, Iowa. This is the home of Winnebago.

We were met by the reps from Great Alaskan Holidays who were the ring masters of the show. They had 100 new RV's waiting for this merry band of travelers to take to Anchorage Alaska over the next few weeks. Great Alaska Holidays purchases 100 RV's a year from Winnebago to be used in Alaska for the upcoming summer season. They need to transport the RV's to Alaska. They came up with the idea of offering discounted rentals to move these to Alaska. I love the concept. They need help and they charge us money to assist them.

We spent Sunday night in the RV sans the ignition key. I guess they don't trust 100 boozed up couples to stick around for the orientation the next day. The RV's come fully equipped with linens, pots and pans, silverware etc. Abby and I walked to the local convenience store for the essentials. Coffee, popcorn and beer, not necessarily in that order. We spent the evening unpacking and storing the contents of our suitcases, an operation very similar to packing 10 pounds in a 5 pound sack. It also brings new meaning to the statements of flight attendants who warn about opening the overhead bins as the contents may have shifted in flight. Every time we stop and open a cupboard, something flies out.

Monday morning we received our orientation briefing and departed the Winnebago factory. This was my first attempt at driving a land yacht. Rather intimidating. Yeah, you're thinking this guy flies big airplanes for a living and this should be a piece of cake. The taxiways are wider than most interstates and we don't have kamikaze pilots screaming down narrow 2 lane roads with a cigarette in one hand and a can of beer in the other. It didn't take me long to figure out that if I hogged the road, cars would give way to me. Remember the Chevy Chase movie where he moves from New York to New Hampshire to become a writer? I'm like the mailman he is trying to flag down as he passes his house. Get out of the way boys, madman coming through!

Lots of rain and wind turned this first time RV driver into an overstressed glassy eyed veteran in a hurry. I don't think they will ever get my finger impressions out of the steering wheel.

We spent the night in Sioux Falls South Dakota at a KOA. We ate greasy chicken fried steak dinner at a truck stop. The waitress was a cute young girl with a beer belly that would make any redneck proud. They only thing missing was a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth.

The next morning we awoke to see one of our fellow travelers docked next door. The wife was standing in the doorway holding a dead hair dryer with a forlorn look on her face. Her husband was tearing apart the electrical panel of the brand new RV. It seems they had a power failure during the night. I asked if they had checked to be sure the circuit breaker was turned on at the hookup panel the night before. The blank stare told me all I needed to know. We went to the panel and there it was as expected, sitting in the OFF position. Problem solved. Now if I could just set the correct time on the radio in our RV!

We drove to Rapid City SD in the rain and wind again. I learned how to recover from a skid on wet pavement. You just look out the passengers side window at the roadway, ignoring the horrified look on Abby's' face and wait for the wind to blow you straight again. Or you can hold on until the RV comes to a stop. Thank God we have a bathroom on board!

We spent Tuesday night at another KOA. John was the manager. He is a former Army ranger with several tours in Viet Nam. John managed in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee to tell me his life story. He knows 150 ways to kill someone without leaving a trace of evidence. I suggested he should go to New Orleans and help with the Katrina looters.

We visited Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument. Abby was our tour guide. Unfortunately the picture doesn't show the SNOW! It snowed the whole time we drove up the mountain. I was very glad to have had the skid recovery training the previous day. Now if I could just tell if Abby is shaking from drinking too much coffee or my driving.

The countryside and wildlife between Rapid City and Billings Montana was spectacular. We saw many herds of deer and antelope. Do you know how hard it is to drive while your wife sings "home on the range" every time she sees the wildlife? I have learned there is value to be gleaned from a skid. The singing stops but the shakes continue. I think I have my answer to the above question.

It was amazing to see the number of wind powered generators along the way.

We spent Wednesday at the original KOA in Billings. It is a very picturesque location on the banks of the Yellowstone River. We would [have] loved to have stayed longer but it IS a 3300 mile trip.

Yesterday we arrived at Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. We stopped at you guessed it, another KOA. A very rugged and quaint spot with the St Mary River running through the property. We intend to stay 2 nights.

When you arrive at your camp site, you have some things that need to be accomplished. This RV has 2 slide outs that need to be opened. Water and electricity need to be plugged in to the vehicle. The RV must be leveled. This leveling is supposedly necessary so as not to burn out the propane fired refrigerator (propane fired refrigerator, is this an oxymoron?). There is a level gauge mounted near the refrigerator. The RV is leveled by placing wood blocks under the tires. A lot of trial and error ensues until it gets leveled. Abby and I have become pretty proficient at setting up camp when we arrive for the night. While I do the above she opens and pours the wine. Actually we work well together. Last night was very difficult. The campsite is not at all level and it took us over 30 minutes just getting the RV leveled. We ended up changing to another parking site and Abby was quite good at changing the blocks until we got it leveled.

It is very enjoyable looking at the wildlife around the camp. There are wild horses (more on this later) dogs, prairie dogs, chipmunks, deer and eagles all around.

When you check in at these camp sites they give you a rules sheet. This site has an interesting rule. They make it very clear that you are to clean up after your pets. Last night we spent a considerable amount of time cleaning the horse manure out of our shoes. It is all over the campsite. You can tell the wild west is different. They place a higher value on wild horse crap than they do on pet poop.

I was seriously considering fly fishing the river today but Abby made a very astute observation. She had not seen any medical clinics in the immediate area as we were coming in to the site. The wind is blowing very hard today. She reminded me of a past fishing trip to Montana where I had to go to a clinic and have 3 fishing flies cut out of my hands due to high winds. Cancel the fishing and open the wine.

Chapter Two

Clark Griswold(Chevy Chase, National Lampoon Vacation) meets Carl Spackler(Bill Murray, Caddy Shack)

We left you with the decision not to attempt fly fishing last Friday in Glacier National Park. Good decision! The winds gusted up to 50 mph during the day. Abby spent the day doing women's work (the laundry) and I spent the day doing mans work (napping). Actually we went for 2 walks around the area which was quite enjoyable.

The KOA was a very nice facility. I met the owner while he was attempting to eradicate the vicious Columbian Ground Squirrel from his property. The Columbian Ground Squirrel is a cute little furry thing that looks very similar to the Prairie Dog. It lives in the same type habitat as the Prairie Dog and eats identical food but it hibernates in the winter starting in August.

The Columbian Ground Squirrel digs holes with multiple entrances (this is important to remember later on) with a similar mounding outside not unlike a gopher. In fact the locals call it a gopher. I'm sorry, I'm into accuracy.

I met Will, the owner outside our RV (notice I'm starting to take ownership of this RV, much to Abby's dismay) as he was attempting the Columbian Ground Squirrel eradication. Will is an attorney from Bozeman. He bought the property 10 years ago and has put his heart and soul (if an attorney has either) into upgrading the property.

The approved method of eradication is to place a lighted stick of nitrate (similar to dynamite) in the entrance of a Columbian Ground Squirrel home. This stick of nitrate emits copious amounts of smoke but does not explode. The reason for "smoking" these creatures is they get into the sewer system and drown which clogs the system. Liquid Plumber does not clear up this problem, thus the nitrate solution. The smoke pours out of the other entrances which Will would quickly fill in with dirt. This supposedly kills the little varmits and probably would except for "Boots".

Boots is a Carillion Bear Dog. Boots has whitish gray eyes with the bluest pupils I have ever seen. Carillion Bear Dogs are a special breed of Russian dog that is trained to attack bears and bite them in the ass! (trust me, I can't make this stuff up) This supposedly teaches the bear to associate this painful experience with the dog to dealing with humans and thus leave us alone.

Boots belongs to a neighbor of Will's. This neighbor is the ultimate entrepreneur. He tells people he has grazing land for their horses and charges them a fee for the rights to graze. He then lets the horses loose on Will's property. No expenses, pure profit. Boots spends his days on Will's property mingling with the guests. He is quite the good will ambassador.

While Will was talking to me during the eradication procedure, unbeknownst to us, Abby observed Boots going behind Will and digging out the freshly filled in holes. His little buddies would scramble out of the hole coughing and sneezing with watery eyes and go off chatter with each other. It seems Boots enjoys chasing these critters and wanted to keep his play things alive.

That night Will came over to the RV for happy hour. Abby made nachos and served wine. Will agreed to stay for dinner and we had a very pleasant evening. We had seen literally hundreds of white crosses along side the road from the town of Browning up to the KOA park at St. Marys. Will confirmed our suspicions. The local Indians get tanked up on fire water and kill themselves while driving. It is so bad that Will and his family will not drive the local roads at night on Friday or Saturday. He also explained tribal politics makes doing business in the area a very sensitive proposition.

We left Glacier National Park Saturday morning for Banff. As we came upon the border crossing point I became concerned. It appeared to have an overhang that would conflict with the roof of the RV. After a few moments of contemplation, I decided I would take the outside lane which had no overhang. Wrong decision!

This border crossing does not get much traffic and really has no need for 3 lanes. They may have 3 lanes but they only have one officer to run this facility. The officer waves me into the inside lane and I refuse, pointing to the roof of the RV as the obvious reason for not following his instructions.

The officer then fully opens his window, sticks his head and shoulders out of the booth and vigorously waves me into the inside lane. I decide that even though he is a government official, he must know what he is doing and follow his instructions. He was right, no problems.

Part of our orientation lecture at the Winnebago factory made a really big deal out of how to deal with the border crossing. They told us to expect a full inspection of the vehicle inside and out and expect to take at least an hour.

Our inspector must have felt there was no way this idiot was smuggling contraband across the border and waved us through after a few minor questions. One question though, I thought was goofy. Are you bringing into Canada over $10,000 in cash? I of course said no but really wanted to say "if I had that kind of money do you really think I would drive instead of fly"?

The drive to Banff was uneventful except for the rock that hit the windshield on Abby's side of the RV and left a large gouge about the size of a quarter. Well we did have one little problem. I got lost in Calgary.

We were trying to navigate through Calgary and take a shortcut to the highway that leads to Banff. After rebuffing Abby's many suggestions that I stop and ask for directions, I pulled over and did something even better. I cranked up my laptop, connected the GPS (Global Positioning System) antenna and waited for it to tell me where I was located. After a few seconds it came up with my position. It said I was right where I wanted to be. Bulls***. I was sitting under an overpass on a dead end street in an area of town the cops from NYPD Blue would be nervous. Then the light came on! I was under the very road I was supposed to be on according to the map program. The problem was, how do I get up there? Very simple. Remember my previous missive about learning how to recover from a skid? I turn around go back to the intersection where the entrance ramp starts and smartly do a skidding 180 degree pirouette onto the ramp and race off towards Banff.

Banff is a very beautiful town. It sits in a National Park. Entry to the park requires paying a fee at a booth. After the border crossing I was more than ready to pull up to the booth. There is one minor problem with driving a RV. They have these very long rear view mirrors on both sides. These mirrors are almost 3 feet in length.

I very carefully drive up to the booth keeping in mind the mirror problem and allowing myself a short reach to pay the attendant the park fee. I am an airline pilot and we do this sort of thing many times a day so no big deal.

I go to hand her my credit card and I drop it on the ground. No problem. I'll just open the door and get it. One problem! The aforementioned mirror. When I open the door, the mirror swings through the open window of the booth and nearly decapitates the attendant. Because of the precise positioning of the RV at the booth, the mirror touches NOTHING but air as it goes through the window.

The look on the face of the young female attendant was priceless (it WAS a MasterCard credit card). I attempted some levity. I said I know you don't do windows, but do you do mirrors? Levity failed. The attendant was smart enough to duck as I closed the door or she would have been hit from behind by the mirror.

We drive into the park heading for the RV camp run by the province of Alberta. The scenery is magnificent.

The directions said to go 2 ½ kilometers south of the town for entry into the campground. After many circles through Banff dodging Japanese tour buses on a busy Saturday afternoon, I finally found the campground 2 ½ kilometers NORTH of Banff.

When I mentioned this discrepancy to the campground attendant, her response was "we use meters in Canada and you use feet so you probably got the distance wrong". I responded by saying "if you use meters instead of feet does that mean South changes to North"? Boy, she had an evil stare.

We found our site easily. This campsite was very nice with shaded parking. As we were doing the previously described setup I noticed something familiar. The dreaded Columbian Ground Squirrel! There were multiple large holes around the electrical and water sources. After the experience with Will, I figured I could do better since Boots was not in attendance. Since I didn't have any smoking nitrates with me, I decided to attempt the Carl Spackler solution. I would drown the little muthers.

I take the hose that is supposed to supply water to the RV and stick it down the large hole next to the electrical and water service outlets. Now I've got water pouring from 4 holes around the RV and to make matters worse, I've got 3 Columbian Ground Squirrels sitting not 15 feet from me laughing their asses off literally clapping their hands and high fiving each other. Screw the squirrels, open the wine Abby.

We walked SOUTH into town and ate dinner at Guido's. A very nice Italian restaurant in downtown Banff. There was a large group of Japanese in the restaurant. There were several Japanese waitresses in attendance. Visualize this….. Japanese trying to order Italian dishes by pronouncing the Italian names to Japanese waitresses. I don't have a clue what they ordered and I bet they didn't either!

We left Banff the next morning for Edmonton via the Jasper National Park. This has to be one of the most spectacular drives in North America. The road is called the Iceland Parkway between Banff and Jasper. The views were breath taking.

We stopped so many times to take pictures we decided to stay at the KOA in Hinton, Alberta. Of course while we were there, Abby met someone who knew Gordon Geyer her College professor at Michigan State. He was a retired zoologist at Central Texas University. We went for a walk on the property and saw what first we thought was a small bear. It was a large beaver! We were totally disbelieving until we talked to Abby's buddy. He told us beavers in that area commonly reach 65 lbs or greater.

The next day was uneventful except for my pick of the RV park where we stayed. It seems that I have spoiled Abby with the KOA's. Does the name Tubby's bring anything to mind? This was the name of the RV park. Let your imagination run wild and you will have the complete picture of our overnight stay. Abby has taken over the duties of RV park selection when a KOA is not available.

The next day Abby was ready to depart much earlier than other days. We had a very nice drive to the next stop at the Laird Hot Springs in British Columbia. En route we saw many different wild animals including a small black bear right next to the road. I pulled over as best I could and took several pictures from the safety of our vehicle. Many vehicles passed us while we were stopped.

Awhile later while stopped at a gas station for refueling, I casually asked a fellow refueling motorist if he had seen the bear next to the road. He responded by saying "yeah did you see the asshole who stopped in the middle of the road? I had to slam on my brakes! I was about to respond that, while I may be an asshole, I was not stopped in the middle of the road when this loud crashing sound followed by hysterical laughter from inside my RV (there's that ownership thing again) prompted me to say nothing.

After finishing refueling I walked back into the RV and Abby says, Clark, are you an ********?

For years Abby has tried time and again to get me to be more personable with people and initiate conversations with them. See what happens when I do, they call me an *******.? We arrived at the Laird Hot Springs Park and checked in. They would not take a credit card so we walked back to the entrance after parking and uneventfully paid our fee. We mentioned to the Park Ranger that we were parked next to the manual water pump. He immediately told us not to use this pump. When queried as to why, he stated that the pipes were frozen. You all know I'm not the sharpest knife in the box but, wouldn't you expect that when you are staying at a HOT SPRINGS park you should anticipate being able to use the water? I never got a plausible explanation.

Today we are staying in Whitehorse in the Yukon Territories. No gophers, I'm staying inside like a hermit, and we have plenty of hot water. Tomorrow we hope to end up in Northway Alaska where we will hopefully begin to catch copious quantities of Salmon and Trout for the next 10 days. We will keep you updated.

Chapter 3, or the Griswold's have nothing on us

We left you at our arrival in Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territories. Let me go back for a moment to an earlier time in our trek across the Canadian Provinces. In the last installment I mentioned we had dinner at a nice Italian restaurant in Banff.

The campsite sits 1 ½ miles from, and above the town. We had walked down the hill to the restaurant thinking we might want to take a taxi back up the hill after dinner. We ate far too much. We decided the exercise would be beneficial so we walked back up the hill. By the time we got back to the RV we were hungry again! As we got close to our RV we could hear sirens.

We found out a few days later why there were sirens that night.

It seems one of the local government officials was riding his bicycle up the hill and was attacked by a bear! The bear cracked his bicycle helmet in half, snatched him from the bicycle and mauled him. He managed to escape from the bear by going down the hill and hiding in the woods until he was found by some other bicyclists. He was life flighted to a hospital where he was in serious but stable condition and expected to fully recover.

While walking this route we had taken some shortcuts through the woods. After hearing about the plight of the bicyclist, we were thinking the garlic laden Italian food we consumed protected us from the bear. Maybe the old time myth about garlic repelling evil spirits is true or the bear doesn't like Italian food.

I am wondering how the bear got this guy. Was the bear hitchhiking? Was the bear mad this guy would not pick him and gave him a NHL style "high stick" with his paw as he went by? Or maybe the bear was just getting even with the local government by attacking one of their leaders. I guess we will never know.

My good friend Wayne Collins told me about a town called Dawson Creek (the start of the Alaskan Highway) that has thousands of signs indicating the distance and direction to various cities around the country. Wayne told me he had placed a sign at this site several years ago identifying The Woodlands.

When we arrived in Dawson Creek I called Wayne to say we were having a tough time finding this site. He said "keep looking you will find the signs". We did, except we found them 600 miles further north, in the town of Watkins Lake!

While I was refueling our RV in Watkins Lake another much larger, diesel powered RV pulled up to refuel. The owner and I started chatting. I was intrigued with his unit as it was bigger than mine (a male thing). After several minutes of the refueling process I asked him how much fuel his rig could hold.

He responded that it held 90 gallons. I asked him how much fuel he had when he arrived. He responded "about half full" (he obviously was an optimist) and he asked why I was asking. I replied that the gauge on the pump had just passed 60 gallons and what was that puddle of diesel doing under his RV? I wish I had a picture of his face. It seems that on his rig you could refuel from either side of the RV. The ground around the pump was slanted. As he was pumping diesel in one side, it was overflowing out the other side.

One of the reasons to take this trip is to see the flora, fauna, and wildlife along the way. It is admittedly difficult to drive and attempt to spot these opportunities on your own, while keeping the vehicle on the road. Traveling down the highways Abby and I have developed a sure fire method of identifying these potential sightings.

It is very simple. If we come across vehicles stopped in front of us with the occupants standing outside holding cameras in their hands, they have very likely spotted a photographic moment worthy of National Geographic.

The odds are definitely in our favor. They have done us the great favor of spotting, and are pointing in the direction of the target with their cameras. We therefore slam on the brakes and come to a screeching halt. Hopefully stopping short of the group attempting to take their pictures of the wildlife they have discovered.

We jump out of our RV (ownership again, Abby is starting to come around?) cameras at the ready. There is only one problem. After many tests of this theory of identification we discovered a potential flaw.

Before you come to a stop in a cloud of smoke and a hearty hi ho silver you must make sure that the people are holding CAMERAS in their hands. We found this out the hard (bad term) way. We saw a van of 6 males standing along the roadway. Using our above theory we jumped out of the RV cameras at the ready. To our dismay we discovered they were NOT holding cameras in their hands.

I can still see the look on their faces as these 2 perverts peeled rubber hastily departing the area.

There was a group of 6 couples spread out over 4 RV's during this odyssey. It turns out the men were all retired Navy pilots who know some of my Navy pilot friends. Four of the men went in one RV and their wives traveled together in another RV.

They did not all arrive in Alaska together. It seems the women had a problem along the way. They were driving the Alaskan highway in British Columbia when they had their windshield destroyed in a midair collision with a DUCK! I guess you could call it a "quack up".

It took 2 days to get the windshield replaced. The guys kept going as they had fishing charters arranged. Talk about priorities.

During the inbrief (military term) at the Winnebago factory they told us to test the smoke detector on a regular basis. In fact there is a BIG warning label attached to the device stating this requirement. I can assure you it is absolutely NOT necessary.

Starting out on this trip I talked about how I was learning to drive a RV over a several day period. Learning to use the systems inside the RV was a similar experience. It wasn't until we got to Banff that we got up the courage to try using the propane stove. Actually we ran out of frozen food items that could be cooked in the Microwave. If we wanted to eat, we didn't have any choice.

The morning after the bear attack I decided I would serve Abby breakfast in bed consisting of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast. I lit the stove on the first attempt. I turned on the range vent and as the saying goes, "we were cooking with gas. I don't know why this was such a big step. The stove starts the same way as my BBQ.

The bacon had been cooking for a couple of minutes and doing just fine when all of a sudden this loud squealing shriek of a sound comes out of the smoke detector. The natural thing to do is to open windows, the door, anything to vent the smoke outdoors.

It's funny what goes through your mind when this occurs. I was not going to open the windows and let my neighbors and the world know that I had (according to the smoke detector) set my RV on fire. I came up with a brilliant idea! I grabbed my hat and started waving it back and forth under the smoke detector. It worked! I dropped my hat and went back to cooking. The smoke detector starts screeching again.

You know that TV advertisement that shows the guy trying to get a hold of his cell phone provider while cooking in the kitchen? That's me. I'm waving my hat until the smoke detector turns off, trying to open a window while attempting to turn the bacon over so it won't burn.

While this was going on Abby had gotten out of bed and witnessed this display. She just shook her head and went back to bed.

After almost 3 weeks in the RV we have become accustomed to the daily testing of the smoke detector. I don't care what the neighbors think anymore. I won't see them tomorrow.