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Over The Network

Bernie & Marlene Dobrin's Alaska trip

The odyssey began on April 23rd, even tho our caravan to Alaska wasn't leaving home until May 5th. Our own first destination was Moab, UT where our 4th annual Compuserve RV Forum rally was gathering. Unfortunately, north of Flagstaff, we got hit with a very strong crosswind which broke the anti-billowing device on our living room slide topper and then blew out the topper awning. After getting the awning back enough to drive, we continued on to Moab.

10 days of off road 4 wheeling, hiking and biking the great national parks in the area, happy hours and lots of eating topped off with our kids joining us for a couple of days made the rally memorable. My RV maxim of "cocktails for 8, dinner for 4, sleeps 2" was completely shot. We had 11 in the coach for Happy Hour later in the trip and the kids and us made 5 for dinner and sleeping (thanks for the loans of blankets and air mattress for the 2 sleeping on the floor).

Leaving Moab, we headed to Salt Lake City where we had an appointment at Camping World to fix the awning. Turns out the material on both slide toppers need replacing but we wouldn't have time in SLC until A&E could cut and ship new topper materials. We'll have them replaced when return to the US in July or August.

While in SLC, we did some touring; visiting the Kennecott/Bingham Canyon copper mine (the largest excavation in the world), Temple Square of the Mormon Church, dinner with RV Forumites who were also in SLC, University of Utah and the Winter Olympic flame and the highlight-the Thursday open rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle choir in the Tabernacle. We were lucky that the orchestra was involved in over half of the rehearsal so we got the whole feeling. It was fascinating watching the conductor work with 360 singers and getting them "just right".

We met our Alaska caravan friends at Hill AFB between SLC and Ogden, UT after the Camping World appointment and continued our SLC tours. While at Hill AFB, we had the first Happy Hour (for us) with the group in our coach because of the cold and rain and had 11 for cocktails.

Leaving Hill (and my cellular connection and easy internet hookup), we headed for our next stop, an overniter at Dillon, MT. The next morning we left for Malmstrom AFB (Great Falls, MT), our next stop. The drive was gorgeous, we crossed the Continental Divide for the third time and had some unbelievable scenery. Only negative was the snow flurries that we ran into crossing a couple of the passes, never had any accumulation on the road but I could do without.

We are now at Malmstrom for the weekend and leave for Calgary and parts northwest on Monday.

We crossed the Canadian border at Sweetgrass, MT, the northernmost terminus of I-15. Eventually, this will be a super crossing, but right now it is under construction, trucks were backed up for over an hour and it took us over a half hour to clear. Didn't even try for the duty free shop, we would have been in the truck lane.

Canadian clearance was simple and fast. They asked if we had firearms (3 times), cigarettes, liquor and chicken, eggs or pet food. No firearms, no cigarettes, limited liquor and some frozen chicken. We were told to stop ahead at the dumpsters and throw out the chicken. Some of our friends with dogs had to dump a couple of bags of dog food because of the chicken content. We weren't boarded or our chicken disposal checked.

First Canadian stop was Calgary for a couple of nites. Did a little sightseeing, but doubt if we would want to go back except for perhaps Stampede.

Next was Banff. Between Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper, the sightseeing was unbelievable. Pictures cannot do it justice. We had snow on the mountains (and frequently along the roads) which surrounded us every day and a number of snowfalls during the whole time we were in the Canadian Park system. Temperatures every nite down to 30 degrees or lower, but the views were worth it . Couldn't see the water at Lake Louise or Lake Maligne (the most and second most photographed sites in Canada) since they were still frozen and covered with snow. Since arriving at Banff, we've had to careful driving with all of the elk and big horn sheep we've been seeing along the road, even raced a caribou along the highway today.

One of the most spectacular drives we had was between Lake Louise and Jasper, the Icefields Parkway. It is part of the Canadian Park system and requires a park pass to drive but was superb, even with the climbs and snow storms we had to drive thru. About an hour south of Jasper is the Icefields interpretive center, located across from the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier. The center is a must stop, but we passed on the Snow Cat ride up the glacier.

The drive from Jasper to our overniter in Grande Prairie was very scenic. The beginning was still in the park and we had the snow covered mountains around us for company. After turning northwest at Hinton, we lost the majestic beauty of the mountains and had to contend with so/so roads with no shoulders or places to pull off to stop. But after a stop at Grand Cache, the road was excellent again except for the climbs, drops and curves. A straight line from Hinton to Grande Prairie would probably reduce driving distance by about a third. On to Dawson Creek tomorrow, crossing into British Columbia from Alberta.

We are now in Dawson City, Yukon Territories, our last stop before crossing into Alaska.

This section started in Dawson Creek, MilePost 0 on the Alaska Highway. Except for our last day to Dawson City, we have been seeing a lot of wildlife game every day, about a dozen different animals so far; moose, elk, caribou, deer (both white tail and mule), bison, sheep (big horn and dall), bear, fox, coyote and wolf.

Roads have generally been pretty good from Dawson City, they have all been paved at one time or another. There were a few short construction zones but nothing really bad before Whitehorse. One major construction area planned west of Watson Lake had not yet started but we will go thru it on the way back. At Whitehorse, we turned north on the Klondike Highway to Dawson City, that section had the worse roads we've seen to date. A lot of frost heaves and potholes, some filled, many not. A long stretch of pavement had been torn out for replacement just before Dawson City and that made for some rough going.

The scenery has been unbelievable. Long lakes with nary a ripple, endless forests and snow capped mountains. There is still some snow on the river and lake beds and the spring thaw is a little late, and all the animals . The fishermen among us haven't had much success; it is a little too early and the mosquitoes are awesome. You could put saddles on some. Luckily, we haven't been bitten yet. I don't know how they missed.

The campgrounds are becoming more primitive with less services available; sites aren't sewered, electricity is 15-30 amp, no cable, water not always at the sites, etc. Oh well, we'll just have to rough it.

The towns we have stayed in are small and rustic, but historic. Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territories, only has a population of 20,000, but is a charming frontier town. The Yukon Territories is 70% the size of Texas with only 30,000 people. Dawson City, the site of the Klondike gold strike is 1/10 the population of Whitehorse but 10 times even more interesting. The streets are still dirt with boardwalk sidewalks, looks pretty much like it did when it was founded 105 years ago.

We cross the Yukon River on the ferry Monday and take the Top of the World Highway to Chicken, Alaska.

When we arrived in Fairbanks, I saw that we were actually slightly further north than on the Top of the World Highway. Even tho Fairbanks technically has a sunset and sunrise, we have not seen it dark here. There is enough light after sunset and before sunrise so you can drive throughout the night without headlights on.

Yesterday, we took the best tour we've had yet. We went on an all day trip to the Arctic Circle. It took over 13 hours but was worth it. We saw much of the pipeline, interesting trading posts along the way and had our preconceptions of the Arctic Cirlce smashed . We were in shirt sleeves and the land was rolling hills covered in green vegetation. Marlene was disappointed, she was expecting to see polar bears, Eskimos and igloos, but it was very temperate. On the way we did see a grizzly bear, a black bear and a caribou.

This morning we took an amazingly well choreographed tour, the Riverboat Discovery. They have a bush pilot take off and landing, a stop at Susan Butcher's (4 time Iditerod winner) kennel where she talked about her sled dogs, an Indian fish camp and a stop at the Chena Village, a recreation where David Monson (Susan Butcher's husband and fellow breeder and racer) ran a dog team. Very well done. They even managed to have a couple of beaver make appearances along the shore.

Other highlights of Fairbanks are the University of Alaska Museum and the Large Animal Research Facility where they are breeding muskoxen.

Tomorrow we leave for Denali Park as we start heading back.

Frustrating repairs in Anchorage and a lingering cold for the last week have kind of held me back from writing. Difficult email connections in Anchorage and subsequently haven't helped either.

My leveling jacks stopped working back in Whitehorse, Yukon and were diagnosed in Fairbanks as a bad pump motor. Parts were shipped to Anchorage where, between no instructions with the parts (the motor was twice the size of the one being replaced), a 4 hour time difference from the factory and difficulty in getting thru to the technician and then the motor blowing up, necessitating another one to be shipped, not much got accomplished. We stop at the shop tomorrow on our way to Palmer, hopefully it will work out this time.

Denali was beautiful, but tiring. Cars are allowed only a short distance into the park. On our arrival, we drove as far as we could and got up close and personal to 3 caribou and a half dozen dall sheep (pure white big horns). The next day we took an 8 hour (roundtrip) school bus ride out to the Eisleson ranger station. Lots of close up sheep, caribou and brown bear sightings. A mother and her 3 spring cubs (only a month or two old) walked around our bus.

Anchorage has changed substantially since our last visit there 15 years ago. Marlene would have gladly bypassed Anchorage based on our previous visit, but now it is OK to go back . We were able to fit in 5 hours to visit the Native Heritage Center, a do not miss representation and demonstration of the life and living of the various tribal groupings in Alaska. Otherwise, we got in a lot of driving tours of Anchorage between our jack service visits.

We kind of left our caravan in Anchorage to travel down to Homer. Half the group had left a day earlier to go halibut fishing out of Homer. The rest were staying back in Soldotna, about 90 miles north on the Kenai Peninsula. We all got back together for the drive later to Seward. Homer kind of reminds me of what would happen if you mixed Montauk, Long Island, NY and Quartzsite. Motor homes parked willy-nilly along the waterfront and hundreds of fishing boats and boat tours in the harbor. Fun place, would go back even if we don't fish. Our campground, Oceanview, had great views of the Bay and mountains (usually fog shrouded) across the bay.

We have now been as far north as the Arctic Circle and the western most city in North America to which you can drive, Homer. We have also added beaver, otter, bald eagles, hordes of beautiful magpies, sand hill cranes, ptarmigans, red tail and deer hawks and other hawks and rare birds to our list of viewings. Missed a whale today, seen where we drove yesterday.

The drive from Homer to Seward, our next stop was as picturesque as any we have seen so far. Driving along the Russion River and seeing the combat fishermen was amazing (fishermen about 5 feet apart lining both sides of the river, crossing poles, lines and tempers ). Glaciers, mountains, rivers, mirror top lakes, just too many sights to describe adequately.

Seward's claim to fame is the disastrous earthquake (9.2 on the Richter Scale, largest recorded in North America) and tsunami back in the early 60's, an ice free harbor and the Exit Glacier just out of town. You can walk to the toe of the glacier and hike up to the icefield supplying it and camp out there (we only walked to the toe).

Tomorrow back to Anchorage where hopefully we can finally get our jacks working again, luckily, we've been able to park in very level spaces. Maybe while waiting we'll have time to visit the Anchorage Musuem, which is supposed to be top class.

While we were in Valdez, an unfortunate family tragedy occurred, Marlene's sister died in a SCUBA diving accident. We left the coach and our caravan in Valdez, drove the 300 miles to the Anchorage airport and flew back to Chicago.

This did teach us a lesson about communications. All of our friends know that the best way to contact us is by email. Cell phone is spotty and the only ones calling our home number are telemarketers. I had posted our itinerary and the phone number of all our campgrounds on our My.Yahoo Calendar site. Our daughter was able to leave a message for us and we got the message the same day. Of course, this doesn't work if you don't have a fixed itinerary, one of the few advantages of a caravan.

Chapter V left us also heading to Anchorage for our jack repairs. Unfortunately, the jack company forgot to ship the replacement motor, so we continued on the 45 miles to Palmer later in the day, just a couple of hours behind our caravan. Palmer is an interesting town, it's claim to fame is that President Roosevelt tried to "colonize" it during the depression with relocated farmers and others from Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Not very successful but it seems to be the agricultural center of Alaska and local 90# cabbages take the prizes at the Alaska State Fair also in Palmer.

On Sunday we returned to Anchorage hoping the pump motor would arrive Monday morning as promised. Maybe Anchorage was taking it's revenge for Marlene's remembrances of it 15 years ago since we were now going back there so often, but enjoying the town this time. The jack pump motor arrived and was replaced quickly and we were on our way again after only a couple of hours.

It was a long drive, including a 9 mile one-way construction zone, to Valdez, where we again arrived a number of hours behind our caravan. We found some friends from back home in another campground who were traveling solo and circumnavigating Alaska in a clockwise manner, we were traveling counter clockwise. We had planned that Valdez was where we would cross. Dinner and an exchange of experiences and sights not to be missed (or to be missed) followed into the late twilight. Valdez was in the middle of it's annual Last Frontier Theater Symposium and we were able to obtain freebie tickets to the evening's performance by Patricia Neal of her monolog "As I Am", story of her live. She was captivating.

That evening, we received a call from our daughter informing us of Marlene's sister's death. Arrangement were made to park the coach in a storage area of the campground, plane tickets confirmed and travel plans coordinated with our scattered family.

On our return to Valdez, we saw the only wildlife since leaving Denali, a moose trotting alongside us then crossing the road in front and a porcupine sitting on the side of the road. The caravan was long gone on our return to Valdez, but we decided to just continue on with our itinerary, modifying it as circumstances dictated. We had planned on staying on in Valdez for another day to take a cruise ship into the sound for whale/seal/sea lion/glacier watching. However, our rainy weather in Valdez continued (it rained every day we were there, but was sunny the time we were in Chicago), so we decided to move on.

Our destination was Haines, AK but first we had to travel some of the worst of the north's roads. The route from Valdez was to Tok, AK then onto the Alaska Highway eastbound. After crossing the Canadian border we had to travel the longest and most torn up roadways encountered so far. Our car windshield's demolition was completed, more pock marks on the front of the car and it was just covered with mud. Nobody could tell the color (for those not familiar, it is a bright yellow). But the drive around Destruction Bay (aptly named according to our car's condition ) was the most scenic yet. We were happy to get to Haines Junction (Canada) where we turned south to Haines, AK on a very scenic and paved road.

Haines is a quaint town that seems to offer it's residents a lot. There were lots of families and kids in this former fort town. We were there for the 4th of July and enjoyed watching the town's parade and other activities (mud volley ball and fire hose battle). Couldn't stay awake for the 11PM fireworks, tho. The Chilkoot Dance Theater was a most enjoyable hour using dance, music and narration to tell some Tlingit stories. We had a long discussion with a totem pole carver about a pole to put in our house, but timing and cost were both a bit long for us. However, this carver does beautiful work and his prices are the most reasonable we have seen. Maybe for next trip?????

The next day we took the ferry up to Skagway. We did not have the car hooked up, both cheaper and easier to get onto the ferry. The entry was fairly easy tho I did scrape the front slightly going down the ramp (we were at low tide). Pulled into our space and parked. The hour ride up was comfortable and scenic. Coming off was even easier, backed up into the stern and drove forward out of the hold, the dock was even with the ramp, no problems.

Skagway is a tourist town, only 850 residents year round. When the cruise ships dock, 5 came into port the day after we arrived, the town is loaded with shoppers filling the stores and the sidewalks. Our main activity was the White Pass and Yukon RR trip to White Pass, a 3 1/2 hour narrow gauge trip in restored RR cars following one of the two main overland trails the Klondike gold rush stampeders took to get to the Dawson City gold fields. The trail (and train) climbs about 2,800 feet in less than 20 miles. Parts of the trail are still visible, only a couple of feet wide. We would recommend taking the trip once.

The Klondike Highway leaving Skagway parallels the RR track for a good portion of the drive, but it is on the other side of the valley and you get a much different view. After getting the explanations on the train, you understand it a little better also. Another border crossing into Canada (our third) after the summit and we are now in the most scenic part of our trip. The glacial lakes were like mirrors reflecting the mountains and sky. The lakes wove their way thru the valleys between the mountains, just endless vistas. Breathtaking. Photography cannot do it justice.

We reached Teslin, Yukon and are parked facing Teslin Lake with a great view of the sunset (such as they are up north ). Mukluk Annie's is up the road and the Tlingit Heritage Center and Johnston Tlingit Musuem are on the agenda. A chance to do laundry and wash the coach and car (comes with the campground fee) and rest a bit before tackling the Cassiar tomorrow. The campground is the Yukon Motel & CG, behind the Shell station next to the bridge, $18CN water and electric, no charge for the view or washes.

Leaving Teslin, Yukon we headed south on the Cassiar Highway toward Stewart/Hyder and the bear boardwalk. The Cassiar wasn't in too bad shape, it was narrow, no shoulders and no paint lines. Facilities were few, far between and expensive. The scenery was also very boring. While it was very scenic, it was same-o same-o for almost 400 miles, but we did see 6 black bears on the Stewart extension. Also stopped at Bear Glacier on the extension. This beautiful glacier ends at a small lake between the road and the glacier which calves icebergs into the lake.

We arrived at Stewart and unexpectedly caught up with our caravan group who were leaving the next morning. After saying our goodbyes the next morning (for the last time) we drove over to the bear boardwalk, but there was no activity. We then drove up the mining road to the top of Salmon Glacier, about 22 miles of dirt road. It was fascinating to see a glacier from the top looking down.

On the way down, we stopped at the bear boardwalk again but still no activity. After dinner we decided to try the boardwalk one last time, getting there around 8:30PM. After a half hour of nothing, we were ready to give up, but got into a conversation with a ranger while watching some salmon spawn. Then we heard another ranger announce that the sow (a mother bear with 4 cubs seen recently) was crossing the river. Everyone ran up the boardwalk to the end to wait for the sow. She finally appeared walking back and forth across the river but no sign of the cubs. Then we saw some rustling in the bushes on the shore and eventually we saw the cubs. What a fascinating sight. Not enough salmon were running to attract many other bears and, because the other bears weren't around the cubs were with the sow. If the other bears were there, the sow would have kept her cubs away.

The next morning we left to meet some friends in Prince Rupert. On the way, we spent a nite at the Ferry Island campground in Terrace. We enjoyed the area so much we stayed a second nite, walking the island trails (a local artist has carved about 150 faces into the cottonwood trees around the island) and watching the fisherman casting into the Skeena river. The salmon weren't running very strongly here either. The drive to Prince Rupert followed the Skeena River to the bay at Prince Rupert, beautiful.

We spent 5 nites in Prince Rupert with our friends. One day I went fishing with them and caught our limit of halibut in just a couple of hours. We also brought back 3 good sized Dungeness crabs from the crab pots we set out on the way out to the halibut grounds. Marlene says she has never had such tasty fresh crabs. We are still working on the halibut, delicious.

Leaving Prince Rupert, we decided to stop for a few days in Smithers and travel around to some of the Indian and geographic sights in the area. The next morning we drove to the K'San Native Heritage Museum in Hazelton. On the way, we stopped at the Moricetown Rapids, a section of the Bulkley River. The local Indian tribe, cannot remember the name, has fishing rights to the Rapids and they catch salmon by gaffing or netting. The gaff hooks are maybe 30 feet long and the fisherman has a rope tied around his waist to keep him from falling into the rapids. Watched a couple of fish being caught before continuing on.

The K'San Museum is an excellent collection housed in one building with 4 other buildings recreating meeting houses used 100+ years ago. About a dozen totem poles were in place in front of the buildings and a few new ones were being worked on. From K'San we drove to Kispiox where 15 totem poles have been saved from flood and fire in the area. The oldest dated back to 1815. On the way back stopped at Moricetown Rapids again and watched more fishing.

From Smithers we drove on to Prince George where we met our friends again (they had gone to Stewart/Hyder to see the bears). Got a chance to tour a local sawmill. Couldn't believe the automation and computerization in slicing a log into 2x4s. Also took the opportunity to replace the windshield on the XTerra, repaired the one chip on the coach windshield and had the oil changed on the XTerra.

Our next stop was Kamloops on the way to Kelowna where we were going to visit some Canadian friends who live there and were part of our caravan. The drive was quite interesting as we crossed from the rain forest coastal area into the arid high desert of the interior, from green to brown. We toured some of the British Columbian wineries in Kelowna, having an excellent lunch and view at the Quails Gate winery.

Leaving Kelowna, we had a 5,000 foot climb at an 8% grade in over 90° heat. Did the whole thing in cruise control, temperature gauge peaked at 217°. I now think I had been losing coolant which is why the temperature climbed so.

When we got to the US border at Sumas, WA we stopped at the duty free shop and finally found some Genievre (Dutch style gin). On returning to the coach, we found a pool of coolant under the engine and warning lights and buzzers went off when restarting. After adding some water, we crossed the border without incident (as far as Customs was concerned and pulled into an auto repair shop. The mechanic diagnosed a couple of holes in the radiator but couldn't handle the repairs. Spartan and CoachNet arranged for us to get to a truck shop in Bellingham, 20 miles away and there we had the radiator pulled and repaired and the radiator fan replaced. I am sure that the pressure of the climb out of Kelowna popped the holes, but can't say for sure that the Alaskan highways caused it.

Now that we are back in the lower 48, the Alaska journey is over and we will be spending time with friends who live in the Northwet (sic). This was one trip that was unbelievable, hard to describe and impossible to photograph. We saw more wildlife than we could have imagined and probably missed a lot on the return since we were concentrating on all of the glaciers and mountains, looking up rather than down. Would we do it again, YES, we are already thinking about our next trip. I will put out one more report, a statistical report of miles, costs, etc for those interested in those things. For those interested in specific campgrounds, mileages, or other details or suggestions can contact me and I will be happy to expand.

Statistics

OK, for those who couldn't wait for the details, here they are.

Costs and mileage are based from our last campground before crossing north into Canada (May 10th @ Malmstrom AFB, Montana) south of Calgary and returning to the lower 48 at Sumas, WA, NE of Seattle on July 30, less 6 days in Chicago. Fuel consumption is based on miles driven from last northbound fuel stop in US (Shelby, MT) to the first back in the lower 48 (Tacoma, WA). Nearly all of our expenses were paid by credit card, less than $500 was paid out in cash during the trip, so we had an accurate exchange rate on our Canadian spending.

Days on the road: 76
Campground fees: $1,442.53
Average per nite: $18.98
Dry camping included: 7 nites
Miles driven: 6,666
Miles for fuel: 6,726
Gallons diesel: 796.64
Diesel fuel $1,425.78
Avg. price 1.79
Avg. MPG 8.45
Towed vehicle miles 3,000 approx.
Towed vehicle fuel: $363.29
Sightseeing, admission fees, ferry $1,031.61
Restaurants $1,376.57
Groceries $981.13
Mail forwarding $46.97
Trip planning, souvenirs, misc. $1,350.48
Total $7,943.38
Avg. Per day $100.59

Normal maintenance (lube, oil, filters) for both the coach and towed vehicle are excluded, tho we spent about $600 total for both vehicles, including 2 air filters for the coach. The second filter was replaced when the radiator was removed for repair, saved the labor cost of the next replacement. The new windshield for the car $396.50, and radiator repair for the coach $1,410.00, are also excluded since insurance and Spartan are to be reimbursing me.

We left home on April 23rd and have been traveling for 111 days so far, over 9,000 miles accumulated on the coach. Don't expect to be back until after Labor Day.