Sunday, August 24, 2014

Trip Recap and Lessons Learned

Now that we have been home for a week we thought it might be good to provide some of the stats from our trip.  Also, we wanted to provide some “Lessons Learned” that future Alaska travelers might find helpful.  Thanks to all who followed our trip these past couple months. It was truly a trip of a lifetime.

Trip Stats

Miles driven 8866
Days on the road 41
Gallons of gas used 952
Average price of gas $4.41
Highest gas price $5.68 in Dease Lake BC
Lowest gas price $3.31 in Chandler AZ
Nights in RV parks 16
Nights in state/forest/city parks 18
Nights boondocking 6


Lessons Learned

Reservations – With the exception of reservations at Denali we did not find it necessary to have reservations at RV parks or campgrounds.  In general, we stopped for the day in mid afternoon and had no problems finding a place to stay.  Toward evening a few of the parks did start to fill up but there were usually some open spaces.  We stayed at the Riley Creek campground in Denali and it was full every night we were there and from what we heard that is typical for most of the summer.  The only other place that reservations might be a good idea is in Dawson Creek.  There are only a couple decent campgrounds there and since many of the caravans form up there, the sites can go quickly.

Road Conditions – For the most part the roads were in very good shape.  A few exceptions were:  1. East of Grande Prairie AB there were several miles of frost heaves.  2. The northern 100 miles of the Cassiar Highway out of Watson Lake YT is very narrow with no markings.  There were many rough and gravel spots where we had to slow to 15 mph or so.  The rough spots seemed to come about every half mile so it was hard to make any time on that stretch.  3. By far and away the worst section of road was on the Alaska Highway south of Beaver Creek YT which is near the AK border.  That section is under construction where they have basically removed all of the pavement and all that’s left is a gravel (or mud) road.  This construction zone stretches for about 80 miles.  In general, most of the rough spots are flagged with small red flags on the shoulder.  You learn very quickly to keep a keen eye out for them.  One thing we noticed in BC, YT and AK was that they generally clear a huge area for the roads so there is at least 200 feet or more between the road edge and the tree line (called the verge).  This makes it very easy to spot animals coming onto the road.  The only time we felt that there was much risk of hitting an animal on the road was on the Cassiar Highway, which did not have the wide clearing.

Gas – Most travel sites and the Milepost book indicate that gas is available about every 50 miles or so along the Alaska Highway.  What we found was a lot of those stations were closed and there were a few stretches of at least 100-150 miles were there was no gas source.  Also, keep in mind that the sources that are available may not be normal gas stations.  In many cases, the gas sources are at RV parks or lodges and the prices are very, very high (law of supply and demand!).  At one RV Park we noticed a price that was right at $7 per gallon!  We traveled with three 5 gallon cans of gas, one of which was designated for emergency use only, so we could use from those reserves which helped us to avoid the extremely high prices.  Even at that, we paid a maximum price of $5.68 at Deese Lake BC.  If we were going to repeat the trip again we would take at least 20 to 25 gallons of extra in cans to avoid the high prices.

Driving in Canada – We found driving in Canada fairly easy once you got accustomed to the kilometer speed limits.  We found the road markings for lanes to be a little different than in the US but it didn’t caused any real problems.  In general, the speed limits are a little lower than in the US with typical limits being 56, 62, and 68 mph.  Driving in Alberta was just like being at home but when we got into BC and Yukon we found that the local drivers basically disregarded the posted speed limits and worse yet complete ignored the no passing zones.  They had no problem passing on curves and with oncoming traffic.  We witnessed several “near misses”.  Part of what may be the cause of this is there is basically no visible law enforcement in northern BC or Yukon.  From the time we left Edmonton until we got into southern BC near Prince George we only saw one law enforcement officer on the road.  We did find Alaska to be fairly heavily patrolled.

Border Crossing – In general, the border crossings were much simpler than we were lead to believe.  All total we did six crossings and with one exception it only took a few minutes each time.  One of the things that was very evident in researching the border crossing rules is that there are significant limits on bringing food into Canada.  Since we were traveling with almost 10 weeks worth of food we were really concerned that there might be a problem.  We even went so far as to call the Canadian Border Service to understand exactly what the rules were.  What we found in our three crossings into Canada is that they did not once ask or even seem to care about what food we were bringing.  The only thing they really seemed to care about were: fire arms, fireworks, fire wood, pepper spray, tasers, or large sums of money. When coming back into the US we did get asked if we had any fruit or vegetables.  Unfortunately we had just bought some at a BC farmers market near the border.  This answer of course triggered a secondary inspection which included an inspection of our trailer.  The whole process only took a few minutes and they ended up taking nothing.

Money – We chose to pay for everything in Canada with cash.  Most of the RV parks and gas stations accepted Visa and Master Card but many of those cards, including ours, charge an additional 3% “foreign transition fee”.  That may not sound like much but when you are spending $150 to $175 for a fill up it adds up quickly.  Discover Card does not charge this fee but we only found one station, and it was near the border, which accepted Discover.  We got our Canadian money at our local bank before leaving home.  We did this believing it would be simpler than trying to find a bank after crossing the border.  We were able to get additional Canadian money in Fairbanks.  In addition to gas prices in Canada being very high the food costs are equally high.  We only visited a couple grocery stores but in general it seems the prices are 2 to 3 times what we would pay at home.  For example, we typically pay around $2 for a gallon of milk but in Canada it was going for over $6.  In Alaska the prices were more reasonable but were still about 25% higher than at home.  One exception was at Costco in Anchorage where the prices were almost identical to at home.  Since we had extra space in the truck bed we took enough food along for the complete trip so we only had to buy such things as bread and milk.

Tires/RV Care – Given the expected road conditions the tires on the trailer were our biggest concern prior to the trip.  Because of that concern we carried two mounted spares for the trailer.  During the course of the trip we did end up having two tire failures on the trailer and having that extra spare was a great comfort.  Had we not had the second spare there would have been a real sense of urgency to find a replacement after each failure but with the extra spare we could take our time finding the replacement. Our first failure occurred on the way home in southern BC (which is very populated). But even with that we had to visit three Canadian Tire stores before we could find the correct size tire and even at that they only had a bias tire instead of a radial.  We suspect it would be nearly impossible to find a replacement in Yukon or northern BC. We also carried some basic replacement parts for the RV such as vent covers because as expected we did not see any RV part stores between Grand Prairie AB and Fairbanks.  Be prepared to make to make “MacGyver” repairs by having such things as duct tape and baling wire.

Communications – Cell phone coverage across in Alberta and southern BC was generally very good but in Yukon and northern BC was very limited. The only time we had coverage on the Alaska Highway was near the “larger” towns of Watson Lake and Whitehorse.  In Alaska the coverage was fairly good.  We use Verizon so before leaving home we activated their “Canada/Mexico Plan”.  The plan is very good as it give you 1000 minutes of voice and unlimited texts for and additional $15 per month. Verizon also offers a data plan extension for Canada but there cost is $2.50 per Megabyte which is very expensive.  Even the Verizon rep said to turn off the data function on your phone before crossing the border.

WiFi - Most of the RV parks in Canada offer Wifi but there always seemed to be a “catch”.  One in Whitehorse said free wifi but in actuality it was only free for the first 30 minutes and required additional payment for more time.  Others would only allow one device to use the wifi. The RV park in Deese Lake made a big deal about having free wifi but they didn’t tell you that it shut off at 10 pm when the owner shut their generator down.  Our advice is to ask if the wifi is free and unlimited and where it is located. Avoid parks that advertise “Wifi” or “Wifi Available” as there is probably some catch!

Security - One thing you need to consider is personal security if you plan to do any road side camping.  Canada does not allow Americans to bring fire arms in to the country so you may want to consider an alternative.  After we crossed the border we purchased a large can of bear spray from an outdoor store.  While Canadian law will not allow you to have a small can of pepper spray they will allow you to have a huge can of bear spray!  When you purchase it you have to sign a statement that says you will not use it on another person.

Boondocking - We had heard from previous travelers that there were many opportunities to boondock on the Alaska Highway at road side pulloffs and old gravel pits along the way.  What we found was that many of the road side parks and pull offs in BC and YT are now marked with no overnight parking or camping signs.  We suspect this many be new.  All of the gravel pits were gated and locked.  In Alaska, there was no restriction at all so there were lots of boondocking opportunities there.

Tour Saver Book - If you plan to do any tours in Alaska the Tour Saver Book, which can be purchased at most Safeways for $100, is the best deal going.  We only did three tours but we saved over $200 with the book. The book contains over 130 buy one get one free coupons for all kinds of tours.  Be aware that in some cases the coupons have some restrictions.  For example, we took a Glacier Cruise out of Whittier and the coupon was only good for one of the several cruises that were offered.  The website for the Tour Saver Book lists all the coupons and identifies any restrictions that may apply so there is no surprise after purchasing the book. Also, be sure to not remove any of the coupons form the book. They need to be intact in the book when you use them. 

Milepost Book - Basically the Milepost book is a must have for the trip.  It provides an unbelievable amount of information and lists all the services, attractions, road conditions, and directions along the way.  The only negative thing we can say about the book is everything is indexed to mileposts (or kilometer posts) but the road has very few posts so it can be a challenge to determine where you are located unless you are following along continuously.

Tours - We took a number of tours on this trip and here are some of our observations

Denali Bus Trip - The only way to really experience Denali National park is to take one of the bus trips offered since the park road is only accessible to private cars for the first 16 miles.  The best of the park is well beyond that point.  The park offers two types of bus trips.  The first type is basically a shuttle which takes you to various points with the driver providing some narration along the way.  He does stop for wildlife where possible and you can get on and off the bus as desired.  The second type of trip is a ranger led tour bus which provides more in depth narration but you must stay on the bus for the complete trip.  We opted for the first type and were very pleased with our choice.  You can choose various length trips ranging from a few hours to a 12 hour trip.  We chose the 8 hour trip to the Eielson Visitor Center.  The tour bus is very basic and is really nothing more than a school bus but we found it comfortable for our 8 hour trip.  The driver did stop every hour and half for a restroom break. Note that there is no food in the park so you will want to pack a lunch.

Discovery Riverboat - We found the Discovery Riverboat from Fairbanks to be an exceptionally good value at $59 for two with the Tour Saver Coupon.  The boat leaves the dock near the airport and goes a few miles down the Chena river to where it joins with the Tanana river. Along the way they provide a float plane demonstration, dog sled presentation and near the Tanana river you stop for a visit at a recreated Athabascan Indian village.

Gold Dredge 8 - The Gold Dredge 8 is located a few miles north of Fairbanks.  The tour starts with a discussion of the Trans Alaska Pipeline which passed right next to their parking log.  After that we boarded a train for a short trip around the area.  At various points they stopped and different aspects of the mining operation were discussed and demonstrated.  The final stop was at the gold dredge itself which you could explore.  The highlight of the tour was the opportunity to pan for gold using pay dirt that they provided.  Once you separated out the gold you could take into the gift shop where they would weigh it and tell you how much it was worth.  Seemed like most people found $5 to $10 worth of gold.  We felt this tour was a great value at $39 for two using the Tour Saver Coupon.  A few miles south of the dredge on the east side of the road is a road side park that has some great info about the pipeline and you have easy access to the pipeline for photos.

Glacier Cruise - We took the Major Marine Blackstone glacier tour in the Prince William Sound.  The tour which is 4.5 hours long included lunch and was $119 for two with the Tour Saver Book.  We were lucky in that there were only 31 people on board so we had a lot of room. The boat which holds 125 passengers had two decks with enclosed seating with large windows.  In addition, you are free to roam outside where there are viewing areas on the front and rear of the boat.  The tour visits several glaciers and we were surprised with how close they actually got to the face of the glaciers.  We were able to view several harbor seals, four humped backed whales, a falcon, and thousands of kittiwakes. We felt the cruise was outstanding and would highly recommend it.

No comments:

Post a Comment