Sunday, August 17, 2014

Alaska Trip 2014 Summary

Our adventure to Alaska started on May 14 when we crossed the border from Montana into Alberta. Eighty seven days later we returned to the lower 48 in North Dakota having put 6,678 miles on Opus and 2,100 on the CRV.  In that time we spent about $4,600 on fuel for both vehicles, by far our biggest expense.  Prices varied from under $4.00 a gallon (to our surprise) in Fairbanks to a high of $5.95 in Dease Lake, BC where I'm not sure we didn't get ripped off as our mpg's were much lower after that fill up than any other.  There is really no way around the cost of fuel, it is a long, long trip.

We stayed in 33 different places at a total cost of about $2,500. There were times we could have spent less, but opted for a better site with a view or chose a FHU site over dry camping so we could do laundry in the rig rather that use the laundry facilities that cost as much a $6.00 a load.  The most we paid was $43.50 in Watson Lake and we had free nights a half dozen times.  If you are staying in campgrounds, a Good Sam's membership is a must as about a third of the parks offer a 10% discount with it.  Our best deal was at Country Boy in Ninilchik where we stayed for 13 days at the $15.00 a day Passport America rate.  Mike and Terri Church's Traveler's Guide to Alaskan Camping was very helpful in finding places to stay as well as being another source of what to do and see. Of course the other must have guide book is The Milepost, which gives mile by mile info on food, fuel, places to stay, possible animal sightings, attractions and much needed road conditions.

Another big expense, $2,300, was for the dozen excursions we did. We did save over $300 on these using the Alaska Tour Saver that is another must for anyone planning an extended stay in Alaska.  Not knowing if we would ever return, we tried to do as many things as possible and we were not disappointed with any of the experiences.

Food is another thing that is going to be more expensive up north compared to the lower 48.  Nanc had done a thorough inventory of our larder before we headed north so we were able to save a lot on groceries by stocking up before we crossed into Canada.  As a general rule the smaller the town the more you are going to pay. Larger places, Whitehorse, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Soldotna, were all less expensive because of having the larger grocery chains, so it was important to buy there.  In Haines we paid $1.99 a pound for bananas, a daily staple for us, and milk could be as high as $6.00 a gallon.  We did not go out to dinner as often as we normally do and, again, because of the higher cost. We found restaurant meals to be at least 25% more than in the lower 48.  Nanc, who eats no meat, was pleasantly surprised at the many offerings to her liking when we did eat out.  A big part of dining out was going to brewpubs and we found most to be very good.  A couple of microbreweries only had beer tastings and no food and I even bought a small growler at one of these.

In addition to food we had to make sure Opus and the CRV were ready for the long trip.  Opus was due for new front tires and we put four new ones on the CRV.  That was a good move when you consider the condition of the roads.  Good rain gear is another must have and plenty of warm clothes including gloves for any boating excursions.  The best investment we made was for a new Canon EOS with a 300mm telephoto lens.  We also had a new point and shoot Canon so we were both able to take pictures. We took nearly 7,000 pictures and in most cases were very happy with the performance of both cameras.

Without a doubt, other than the overall expense that there is no way around, the biggest downside of the whole trip was the condition of the roads.  They tell you the Alaska Highway is paved all the way, but we hit long stretches of major reconstruction and gravel.  There were many time that we were only going 10 mph. The good news, Opus seems to have survived the trip in good shape. We only had one windshield chip and that was on a paved section and a couple of new nicks in the paint.  Our covering on the CRV worked well in protecting it from stone chips. We were surprised both going north and heading south how little traffic there was.  We never worried about tying up others when we slowed down or even stopped to see animals or for a approaching truck.   All the way back to the lower 48 we talked about what we would do and see differently the next time, then we would hit several miles of bad, bad road and we would say we are never bringing Opus north again.  My biggest disappointment was because of road conditions. We did not go to Dawson City and over the Top of the World Highway.  Not doing that road was later reinforced as the right decision when we talked to people who had done the route and had to deal with major reconstruction and costly repairs to their vehicles.  We got reports of at least three RVs that went over the edge on that road, including a $1,000,000 Prevost.  Because of the frost heaves I don't ever see the road getting much better in long stretches of the Yukon.  That said, next year may be a good year to make the trip because so many miles are being rebuilt.

All that said, looking back at our wonderful summer adventure of driving our home to Alaska, now that we have returned to the lower 48, we can say that it exceeded all expectations.  Many times in the last seven years on the road we have been asked what is your favorite place.  We could never really say, but now we will say, Alaska.  We saw so many amazing things and had so many wonderful new experiences.  Here is another look at a few things we felt were the high points of our trip.  
We love to soak our bones and we had a couple of chances on this trip.  Here at Liard and also at Chena Hot Springs.
After reading about the Watson Lake sign forest for so many years it was really neat seeing it.  Finding the names of places and people we know and hanging our own sign was very cool. 
How many people can say they have been to the Arctic Circle? We can.  It was on our must do list for this trip from the very beginning.  And riding on the Dalton Highway to get there was also neat.
 Seeing the Big Five, Dall sheep, wolf, grizzly bear, caribou and moose on our trip into the Denali wilderness was wonderful.
And we became 30%ers when we got to see mount McKinley towering over all the surrounding mountains. That was something we said we were determined see even if it meant spending extra time there.  We not only got glimpses of it several time, we got this fantastic view on our last day there, WOW!!!!!!
The literal high point was taking a flight and getting to land on a glacier on the slopes of Denali in the Alaska Range.  A once in a lifetime experience.
The abundant and diverse wildlife that we were able to get up close to was beyond all expectations.  You never knew what you would see around the next bend.
What can I say, a 71 pound halibut.  And that after catching and releasing at least five smaller ones was a real high point for me.
Another thing that was truly amazing was the number of wildflowers.  Because of the long days of summer daylight there are many beautiful varieties and colors growing all over the state.
So many eagles. There were times and places where they seemed more numerous than robins.
The trip to Columbia Glacier for a close up look at this huge mass of ice that is rapidly disappearing was great.
More fish stories.  I knew we would not be on the Kenai for the major part of the sockeye run and was disappointed that I did not get one despite many hours in the water.  I made up for that in Valdez when I caught my limit of six pinks in about an hour.
What can you say about the scenery, but WOW!!!!!  Forest, waterfalls, mountains, rivers, ocean, glaciers and more.  As we traveled each day we would think that it could not get any better than what we had already seen and then something even more spectacular would come into view.
Another once in a lifetime happening was seeing the humpback whales circling to create a bubble net to hold and capture their prey was unbelievable.
Seeing one fluke is a neat experience, seeing two or more at the same time is another, WOW!!!!!!
Being able to get so close to the bears at Hyder and witnessing them stalking and catching the salmon was another incredible experience.  Especially this black bear, who we had watched miss so many times the day before.
And the grizzlies, being within a few feet of an animal that is at the top of the food chain was fantastic.
As with all our travel experiences these last seven years meeting and making friends is always a high point.  We  crossed paths with old friends and made many new ones.  Top are Larry and Mollie; Lora and John. Bottom are Jerrie and Chuck; Bea, Bennett,Wanda, Nanc and Wallace.  
Top are Marcel and Sonya; Gary and Anita.  Bottom are Nanc, Pat, and Don; Britta and Bjorn.  We had a fun time with all of them and often crossed paths more than once.

The one question we can't answer at this point is, will we return?  The up side is the chance to experience so many wonderful things that you can only do and see in Alaska.  The down sides are the overall expense, which you just have to plan for, and the condition of the roads, which are a toss up.  If we do go back, it will not be for at least a couple of years.  That said, if you have not driven to the North Country we would say you must add Alaska to your to do list.  You will not be disappointed.  And as far as the road conditions, you just have to be prepared to go REALLY SLOW!!!!!


Ray/Wendy said...

Nice review that we will have to save for the future. Thanks for taking us along.)
PS. great pics!

Doing It On the Road(Part II) said...

Good summary. We are already saving for a trip back but are also looking for a pickup camper as we don't want to pull our fifth wheel that far again. Oh and next time we will go to Chicken and then drive the Top of the world for a day trip.