I can’t tell you how great it feels to have planned and completed the 6,997 mile trip of a lifetime. I can now scratch it off of my Bucket List. I’m really glad that I was able to share this experience with Mike Smith, Tom England, John Lewis, and 2 days (along with months of planning) with my friend, Phil Kuntz from Spokane. For those of you planning the trip in the future I would suggest having a friend or two go along to share the experience. I want to use this, my final posting, to share some more memorable pictures of our trip and camaraderie. Safe travels!
Journey to Alaska
Little Guy community members Mike Smith (a.k.a. "Michigan Mike"), Tom English and Greg Seely are traveling from Michigan to Alaska. Follow them on their six week voyage to The Last Frontier. The guys will be posting updates regularly on the trip, so stop back often to see the next update!
One of the things that we really looked forward to on our trip to Alaska was a visit to Denali National Park. Although the anticipation was great, we definitely weren’t disappointed. Prior to leaving on our journey to Alaska we decided to make reservations at Riley Creek Campground as well as pre-purchase tickets for the Eielson Visitor Center tour.
We booked the earliest tour to Eielson Visitor Center; 6:00 AM. We figured that we would have a better chance of seeing wild animals throughout the 8 hour trip. We weren’t wrong. In all, we saw 9 brown bears, moose, a herd of caribou, Dall sheep, white ptarmigan, a golden eagle, and the top of Mt. McKinley (Denali); something that only 30% of visitors actually get to see.
I’m in the process of wrapping up my blog and posting more pictures of our trip to Alaska. In the meantime, here are some tips that should be helpful in the event you decide on taking the “road that never ends” up and back from Alaska.
1. Even though you are in a hurry to get there (or back), try limiting your days to no more than 350 – 400 miles of driving a day. You won’t regret it!
2. Expect a lot of construction along the AlCan Highway. Expect to stop and wait for a pilot car on a number of occasions.
3. If the signs indicate rough road or gravel, believe them! Slow down and take it easy; real easy! The worst stretch of road that I have ever been on in my entire life was between the Donjack River Bridge and Beaver Creek on the way to Tok, AK. Pot holes that sink your tires halfway down. It’s even worse if you’re double-tracking like I was. My 6-Wide Sport LG extends about 10” further out than my truck on each side. SLOW DOWN! Rough sections of the roads are identified by pink/red flags (triangles) on the side of the road.
4. Expect to pay $5 or $6 (Canadian) for bags of ice along the AlCan and Cassiar Highways.
5. Don’t expect to get good wifi coverage in any campground. Stop at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, A&W, or Tim Horton’s for wifi service.
6. Even if you pay extra for cellular coverage in Canada, just remember that reception is few and far between in northern BC and the Yukon. You could be out of range for days. If you don’t buy Canadian coverage, put your phone in the Airplane Mode or you will get a tremendous bill due to roaming throughout your trip.
7. When possible, camp in Provincial Parks. Campgrounds aren’t always how they appear online. Most Provincial Campgrounds are on a first-come first-serve basis; although, some take reservations beforehand.
8. If possible, take different routes up and back. We took the AlCan (Highway 97 turns into Hwy 1 in AK) up and the Cassiar (Highway 37) back. It makes for a nice change of scenery. Before dropping down on the Cassiar, drive into Watson Lake to fill up.
9. Expect fuel and food to be more expensive in the Yukon.
10. Take your time to meet and enjoy the company of new friends. Your LG, T@B, or T@G will draw them like moths to a candle. All of us gave “tours” of our LG’s on a daily basis. There is no dealership in Alaska at this time, so they draw quite a bit of attention; especially among traveling foreigners. We met people from China, Germany, Belgium, France, and New Zealand.
It’s been almost 3 weeks that we started this journey. It’s now Monday, August 10th, and we left Sherm’s house on the Kenai Peninsula. Tom and Mike continued driving to the Palmer/Wasilla area to spend the night while John and I decided to stay at an RV Park in Anchorage. That way, it will only take me 15 minutes to drive him to the airport tomorrow instead of 45 to an hour if I continued up the road. John’s part of the Journey to Alaska is coming to an end. After I drop him off I’ll continue my way toward Valdez, meeting up with Mike and Tom once again in Palmer. We’ll continue on the Glenn Hwy (#1) until we get to Glenallen, then head south on the Richardson Hwy (#4). We’ll spend 2 days there and plan to meet up with my friend, Phil from Spokane. I’m looking forward to the drive and stay in Valdez since it’s supposed to be so beautiful.
A few days later…
I dropped John off at the Anchorage airport and continued on my way to meet up with Mike and Tom. We hooked up in the parking lot of a Fred Meyer store in Palmer, then headed south to Valdez. We thought that we had already experienced mthe book, ost of the beauty of Alaska in the Kenai Peninsula and the Turnagain Arm, but we were wrong. We had read that the next portion of our trip to Valdez was known as “the Switzerland of Alaska,” but we had no idea how true that would be. About an hour along the Glenn Hwy. (Alaska 1) we turned the corner and saw the Matanuska Glacier across the way. Naturally, we stopped several times to take pictures of this beautiful sight, and eventually split up because Mike and Tom wanted to go back to some better vantage points. I went ahead and continued on to Glennallen where I stopped to make a sandwich for lunch and rest from the long drive. During that time, and between bites of my ham and cheese sandwich, I gave 3 tours of my Little Guy. People seemed to be interested in my 6-Wide Sport because of the “front porch” and its ability to haul a “quad.” Evidently, it was opening day for moose and caribou and everyone was out on their quads in the thick of the brush hunting them down. Had I mentioned earlier that there isn’t a Little Guy dealership anywhere in Alaska? The interest seems to be very high up here!
I continued to Valdez on the Richardson Hwy. heading south. Mike and Tom and still not hooked up with me so I was on my own. For about the first hour I was more impressed with the Glenn Hwy; until I turned a corner and saw the start of the Wrangell-Nutzotin Mtns. Breathtaking! (Since the internet is quite sporadic out here, I’ll have to post the pictures at a later date; before finishing my blog.) During this stretch of the highway each turn brings a surprise; glaciers, ice fields, the Alaska pipeline, and wildlife. Closer to Valdez I turned a bend and became part of the picture on the cover of the book, Guide To The Alaska Highway by Ron Dalby. There was the Worthington Glacier in all its splendor! I took a moment or two to stop, get out, and admire what was before my eyes. Later on I’ll post my pictures as well as shots from within a glacial ice cave at its base.
About an hour and a half after I settled in the campground in Valdez, Mike and Tom showed up. They had spent the afternoon driving and stopping and taking pictures. It was here that I met up with my friend from Spokane, Phil. He started out on his Alaska adventures about a week and a half after me, so this was our opportunity to meet up. Luckily, we were all next to one another in the campground. Needless to say, our LG’s were a big here there too. People came over wanting to see how we can live out of “such a little thing.” Mike and I continued to hand out LG brochures and explain how we all met. The next thing we knew, we had people coming over with beers and smoked salmon, acting like we’ve been friends for years.
The next day was interesting. Phil and I took an morning walk around the harbor and watched as people started preparing for their day of fishing an/or charter rides. It took about 30 minutes to check out the entire “downtown.” We wanted to get the layout of the land, so we headed out in separate cars in different directions. Phil and I in one and Mike and Tom in another. We went to Valdez Glacier and then over to the salmon ladders where hatchery salmon are released. This was a sad experience because thousands of hatchery salmon had returned “home” to spawn (as salmon do after 3-5 years), but couldn’t make it up the ladder and had nowhere to go even if they did. So, they just gathered in big groups and flopped around in the water until they died or the bear come over and eat them. guess it’s a regular ritual for people to gather in the parking lot and stay behind the barricades as bear come down from the hills and dine on the salmon. (As stated earlier, pictures to follow.)
We left Valdez on Thursday morning. Mike and I hiked up to the base of Worthington Glacier and took pictures inside an ice cave. The rest of the day was spent driving to get beyond the “highway from hell.” The 48.5 miles section of road from Beaver Creek to Destruction Bay. It wasn’t as bad this time because they had 3 weeks to patch up and put gravel in the potholes we had previously became familiar with. It was bad, but NOT AS BAD! We drove for close to 12 hours that day (495 miles) and found nice campsites at Congdon Campgrounds (a Provincial Campground) for $12.
Today is Friday, the 14th. We started out later in the morning, but still ended up driving 350+ miles until we found another Provincial Park called Big Creek; about 30 miles north of Watson Lake. Still only $12 a night. In the morning we’ll drive into Watson Lake to gas up, then get on the Cassar Hwy. (Highway 37) until it meets up with Hwy. 16 to Prince George.
Yesterday, August 8 (Saturday), my friend Sherm took us out to one of his favorite fishing spots on the Kenai River. Since I’m neither a fisherman nor a hunter I decided to go along and document the day so no one would be able to come back and exaggerate a story about the size of “the one that got away!” It was a nice and sunny day on the Kenai. To make a long story short, the guys each caught a Sockeye salmon. We ate a wonderful meal of baked salmon (fixed 3 ways), mushroom and herb risotto, fresh salad, and wine.
Well, I’ve driven 3,885 miles so far on this trip and we start our return tomorrow. We’ll be driving to Anchorage to drop John off at the airport for his return trip home to Portland. From there, we’ll head down to Valdez to spend a couple of days. It may be a while before I can post again, so wish us luck. Toward the end of the trip I plan on posting more pictures that I haven’t been able to post to date. I’m sure our return trip will be as interesting as the trip up here.
We arrived at my friend Sherm Smith’s house a couple of days ago. He lives just outside of Kenai, AK. Sherm has a pretty big area where he cleared out the trees and put down gravel, so it’s a great place for us to park our LGs for a few days while we check out the rest of the peninsula. On our way here from Anchorage we made several stops along the way. One of them was at Costco. It gave us the opportunity to stock up in wine and beer. Along the Turnagain Arm, we stopped at the small town of Girdwood and found a very good bakery. After enjoying a raspberry fritter and a cup of coffee we headed over to the Alyeska Resort and spent a little time admiring the hotel as well as the grounds. If you decide to come this way I highly recommend taking the tram up to the top and enjoying the scenery. From Girdwood we drove a short distance to Portage Glacier. Although the glacier has recede tremendously over the years, this is still a great stop. The views are breathtaking and the lake is wonderful. The Information Center is not to be missed. If you have a National Park Pass (like the lifetime Senior Pass that we old geezers have) the museum and movie are free. Otherwise, it will cost you $5. Very informative. From there, we drove a couple more hours and eventually made it to Kenai where I introduced the guys to my friend Sherm.
Yesterday, we head out to Seward without having to pull the LGs behind us. A couple of miles outside of Seward is the turnoff to Exit Glacier. Don’t miss this! It’s about 8 miles back on a nicely paved road before entering the Kenai Fjords National Park. Along the way we spotted a moose and her two calfs grazing along the roadside. Once inside the park it’s only a short walk (.9 miles or 1.3 miles depending on your choice of paths) to the edge of Exit Glacier. I know I’ve used this term several times, but, again, it applies here; Breathtaking! Each day up here in Alaska seems to be better than the next when it comes to beauty and landscape. We drove in to town and decided it was time for lunch. Note: Once you drive in to Seward and drive on the road parallel to the harbor you’ll have a tendency to pull in to the paid parking lots to park. DON’T DO IT. The minimum cost is $10. If you continue to drive down the road into downtown Seward (past the harbor) there’s plenty of free parking. Plus, there’s a free shuttle to take you back and forth. There are really nice shops and less expensive restaurant downtown as well. We parked for free and had a great lunch at Thorn’s Showcase; a rustic bar reminiscent of something from the early 1970’s; dimly lit, red tuck and roll leather booths, black and silver tables, etc. They have a wonderful bar and bartender and a very reasonable menus. Their specialty is “a bucket of butt.” Halibut chunks lightly fried with french fries. You can substitute the fries with a cup of homemade chowder or pay a dollar extra and get seafood chowder. Both are great! There’s no shortage of the alcohol in their mixed drinks either.
After lunch we visited a few of their gift shops and drove back to the harbor. Along the streets are free 30 minute parking spaces. After checking out a few more shops and walking along the harbor watching the boats and ships come in the fjord, we gassed up and headed back to Kenai. The price of gas in Seward is about 10 cents a gallon higher than in Kenai. When we got back to Sherm’s place we enjoyed some wine and talked about the trip to date. As Mike, Tom, and John went into to town to buy their fishing licenses I went ahead and prepared a spaghetti dinner complete with salad, and garlic bread. Oh yeah,…and more wine!
We’re 14 days into the trip and are about at the halfway point. We drove only about 220 miles yesterday from Denali to Wasilla, AK. What a gorgeous view the entire 220 miles. There were several pullouts where we were able to get pictures of Mt. McKinley on a really clear day. As we were driving we saw even more picturesque landscapes in the rear view mirror. Unfortunately, there were very few places where we could turn around with our LGs to take more pictures.
We checked into the Big Bear RV Park in Wasilla; about 40 miles from Anchorage. I looked in every direction to see if one could “actually see Russia from here,” but I’m beginning to think that Sarah Palin was exaggerating! We couldn’t even see the small town of Palmer that’s only about 10 miles down the road. Today was another somewhat restful day. We all 4 went out to breakfast before driving into Anchorage. We spent the morning and afternoon in Anchorage visiting the Ulu Factory, the Alaska Wild Berry Products, Costco (to stock up on wines), Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers Co-Op, the Alaska Knife Co., and had lunch at Humpy’s. I’ve been craving pie for a while, so I found a pie shop and bought a Triple Berry Pie for tonight before we hit the road tomorrow.
We’re only going as far as Kenai tomorrow; about 160 miles from Anchorage. It’ll take us a while because we intend to stop along the way at Girdwood, Alyeska Resort, Portage Glacier, and any other place of interest we come across on the road to Kenai. I have a friend in Kenai that is building a house (between fishing trips) and we’ll be parking our LGs on his land. From Kenai we intend to take day trips to Soldatna, Homer, Seward, and possibly Whittier (if we decide on it).
Mike decided that the dirt and grime has been on his car and LG long enough, so he’s out looking for a carwash. There were several rough, dusty, and muddy sections of road on the way here. I’m sure there are plenty more ahead; especially when we head up to Chicken. I’ll keep you posted.
We made it to Denali, finally. It’s a short 3 hour drive from Fairbanks. We were fortunate because we were able to see Mt. McKinley from the road; albeit, quite a distance away. Traffic was light because we got up early enough to get ahead of the large motorhomes that were eventually going in the same direction. There’s some major road construction on both sides of Denali Park, so we had to slow down for about 8 miles. We stopped at the “touristy shops” outside the Park and enjoyed a cup of coffee and a bagel. We also checked out the shops and realized that we’ll have access to the same things at a much affordable price when we get closer to Anchorage. In fact, a ceramic tile that I had my eyes on was made in Palmer, AK. That’s where we’ll be for the next 2 days once we leave Denali.
Yesterday was a GREAT day! We had made reservations beforehand for the 6:00 AM Eielson Shuttle Tour. We got up at 4:30, had coffee, and packed our day packs with sandwiches, chips, water, and various munchies. It’s an 8 hr. bus trip to Eielson Center and return. To make a long story short, WE HIGHLY RECOMMEND this tour; especially the early morning run. We saw 9 grizzly bears, dozens of caribou, Dall sheep, Willow Ptarmigan, a golden eagle, and several moose; AND the top of Mt. McKinley. We are now members of the 30% Club. That’s about the number of people that actually get to see the top of Mt. McKinley overall.
Once we got back to the entrance of the Park I checked out the short films in the Wilderness Center and the Visitor’s Center. They give a great history of the story of the making of the Park. Today, John and I walked over to the Wilderness Center as well as the Visitor’s Center so he could buy his lifetime Senior Pass to the National Parks for $10. Congratulations, John, for being an old guy. It’s official!
This afternoon we plan on visiting the Sled Dogs and watching a Sled Dog Demonstration by the Parks Department. Denali is the only National Park that uses sleds and sled dogs in the winter. They had tried using snow mobiles in the past, but they were unreliable in -30+ degree weather. They have never had an issue with sled dogs breaking down or refusing to go further. It should be an interesting demonstration.