Archives For September 2017

July was it. Our last full month to travel as our renters were due out at the end of the month. We raced up to Alaska in June so we could get at least of one month of exploring before heading back. We estimated two weeks of heavy driving to get all the way through Alaska, Canada much of the US and back to Texas. This left us with approximately ten days to further explore Alaska. We decided to spend it in some of the biggest Alaskan highlights – Denali and Wrangell-St. Elias National Parks. Then, it was back towards the real world (maybe)*.

Total June Cost: $4,316
Total days in the camper: 30
Total days out of camper: 0
Cost per day: $139
States Visited: Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma
Total Miles: Approx 6,100

Summary

There were a lot of “Wow’s” in July. From one of our new favorite National Parks (Denali), to the huge amount of miles covered (over 6,000) and one of the highest spending months since we started traveling. It was a purposeful stalling in Alaska while the weather was good that caused most of it, but the inevitable can only be delayed so long, and we had to head back south. Emotions were conflicted as nowhere had held us voluntarily captive as long as Alaska and we knew it would be hard to make it back, but money can’t last forever and no more renters meant no more supplemented travel and covered house payment. The real world was calling, and we couldn’t send it to voicemail again.

Spending Details

The Good

We spent most of the month of June exploring the coast of Alaska and only darted inland to avoid the expensive ferries to get to the next coastal  town. As we approached our last few weeks in Alaska, we wanted to make sure and hit one of the most exciting places – Denali National Park. Joining us on our journey to Denali were two familiar faces to the Airstream – Jocelyn’s mom and her dog, Bueno, after they flew into Anchorage.

We scored three nights at the Teklanika Campground in Denali, which is another one of those campgrounds like Yosemite that book up months in advance. However, just like Yosemite, if you’re persistent and flexible enough, you can usually find a few days that work. Teklanika is 30 miles into the park and 15 miles past the turnaround where most cars have to stop, but with the reservation they let you drive into it. Once you’re in the site, you’re not allowed to drive any farther into the park and if you leave towards the entrance, you can’t come back!

They do it for a great reason – to keep Denali wild (with animals and not tourists). The only way to tour the park is on a school bus-like Denali bus that drives the entire road. There are a couple of different types of buses and tours, but with our reservation we were able to buy one pass and ride the buses every day we were there.

Our first day started with a challenging pick up time at 8:15am (hey, that’s early for us) on a bus scheduled to drive all the way through the park (50 miles beyond us) with an estimated total trip time of 8 hours. Even crazier, for the people who started from the entrance of the park, their total trip time is 11 hours!

“STOP!!” we heard screamed from the back of the bus. It was quite startling and we wondered what sort of emergency we were about to experience. Instead, the bus driver simply complied and the lumbering bus slowly came to a stop. The passenger then yelled, “caribou, 3 o’clock”. Apparently, they were previously briefed that when they saw an animal to yell stop, and then the whole bus could have a look.

The bus stopped every 30-45 minutes at various points where you could enjoy an overlook, ranger station with some exhibits or simply a bathroom. It was the random stops that were more enjoyable as they often included caribou, moose or the infamous grizzly bear. It must be the closest thing outside of Africa to a true safari experience. It was a long day, but the beautiful mountain sites of Denali along with the wildlife made it worth it.

But we didn’t see Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) the first day**. The mountain is so tall that it creates its own weather… and apparently it really likes to hide behind clouds. In the summer, you’re lucky to see it one out of three days. We had three days total, so we hoped the law of averages worked.

On the second day, we hopped back on the bus but instead of simply going for a ride,  we strapped on our hiking boots and set out to explore the park. They don’t actually mark trails in the park besides simple nature walks, but instead encourage visitors to find their own way… you know, in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness that’s full of grizzlies! We had already seen five grizzlies the previous day, including the most dangerous – a momma with cubs, so this was a little scary!

However, the Alaskan wilderness is mostly tundra, so it was a smaller possibility of getting lost since you can see pretty far, and you could also see any bears that were coming to eat you! We ended up only going a few miles as it was a little disturbing, but it was beautiful.

Denali National Park quickly jumped to one of our favorites, and we’ll definitely return someday. The road within the park is a combination of dirt and gravel with single lanes passing through incredibly steep mountain passes with drop offs, but it’s done this way perfectly to preserve the ruggedness of the land and give you the true outback experience. It worked.

But we didn’t see Denali on the second day either. As we packed up our campsite and anxiously awaited our next adventure, we wondered if Denali would reveal herself (or himself). We started driving back towards the entrance when we looked back and there she was, a towering mountain that had lurked just outside of our site behind the clouds for three days. It was huge, dwarfing everything around it.

The only thing better than seeing it from far away would be seeing it up close… which we were scheduled to do! Jocelyn’s mom decided to treat us with a Denali flightseeing tour! It was scheduled as a two hour flight with a glacier landing. We had never done one of these before even though we really wanted to in places like New Zealand, so this was a real treat. We boarded our flightseeing plane with five other people, and I was lucky enough to sit in the co-pilot seat to get a bird’s eye view of the action***.

The clouds cooperated as what seemed like one tall mountain instead proved to be a large complex of mountains, glaciers and sheer cliffs. If you ever want to feel small in life, this is a good place to do it. The small mountains are 15,000 feet tall and are dwarfed by the tall one, Denali. The ice fields and glaciers drape the mountains and valleys with new snow and old ice.

After flying around the mountains, we headed to our landing strip… an ice and snow field on the top of the glacier. The plane was equipped with snow skids and the pilot brought it down beautifully. We hung out on the glacier for a while and stood in awe of the mountains around us.

After our flight we headed back to Anchorage before Martha flew out the next day. Denali was a fitting climax to the trip. We’d spend the next few weeks driving back to Texas and back to reality.

Our spending report was pretty bad, but we were okay with it. We had a great previous six months where we kept our spending under control, and the number of miles driven guaranteed we’d pay the petrol piper. The one bright spot was our camp site spending as it’s pretty easy to find free or under $15/night spots in Alaska.

As we headed back to the “lower 49”, we passed through British Columbia and down through the Yukon and Alberta. Our driving safari continued and one day we saw 19 bears as we drove! In the beginning we were excited and stopped to take pictures, but by the end we treated them like deer as we had to watch to make sure they weren’t in the road. We stopped in the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park for some great hiking and views.

The Bad

We drove a whole lot, but we knew it was coming. We delayed as much as we could, but the time had come. We typically try not to drive more than 4-5 hours per day, but there were probably 7-8 days in July when we drove over 8 hours. We also paid for it in the gas category with $1,300 for the month… so lucky gas is half the price of what it’s been at times in the last decade!

I mentioned it last post, but it’s also scary to see how quickly climate change is impacting Alaska. The glaciers are receding and the animals are feeling the impacts. The most observable for the animals is the caribou impact in Denali. The guides told us that with the warmer temperatures, mosquitoes are hatching two weeks earlier than normal. It doesn’t sound like a big deal until you see how impacted the caribou can be by them. We passed by one caribou with its head shoved into the ground. The driver told us the reason was to keep the mosquitoes out of its ears and nose. We came back four hours later and it was still there.

We also saw a caribou shaking like a wet dog and another running through the rivers. All three of these actions were attempts to get away from the mosquitoes. With the pests hatching two weeks earlier, the caribou have less time to fatten up before they have to start running from bugs, and this seriously jeopardizes their chances of surviving a harsh Alaskan winter. Their main source of food, lichen, is also getting driven further up in altitude which makes it harder for them to eat.

But hey, let’s keep debating what’s causing it and not take any action****.

The Ugly

As we made it down to Canada and close to the US border, we still hadn’t heard from our renters if they were moving out at the end of the month. The contract said they’d have to give us one month notice, but they were working through a home renovation, so we gave them two extra weeks. It was mid-month and they asked if they could stay another month! We were okay with it since it would allow us to explore in August, but we wished we knew earlier so we could stay in Alaska.

+1 month. We made it back down to family in Oklahoma and hung out there and Boulder before heading out on our next adventure. The August spending report will now be more than normal spending on a house, it’ll be continued travel spending, and we couldn’t be happier!

 

*If you made it all the way down here before reading the asterisk, you know why it was “maybe” back to the real world. If you skipped down here… well, then read the rest of the post and you’ll know why 🙂
**I stick with the native Intuit name of the mountain rather than the name given later after a president who had nothing to do with and never visited the area. 
***OK, luck wasn’t the simple reason I was sitting in the front seat. The pilot asked our group and I waited at least a few seconds before I claimed it 🙂
****The irony is not lost on me that in the same section I talk about driving 6,000 miles and then complain about no actions to stop global warming… I guess I embody the problem!

These are probably two of Jocelyn’s best pictures from the trip, just incredible. All three were taken in Denali National Park while on the bus during the tour! If you’re not too grossed out, check out the fox… it appears to have a bird and rabbit!

Pictures from the drive home through Canada… bear cubs playing, moose twins and a grizzly crossing the Alaska Highway with a motorcycle!

 

Pictures from our flightseeing tour around Mt. Denali!

Denali National Park

 

We also spent a few days in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and did some great hikes

Pictures of the Denali landscapes… and a view of Penny Lane and Denali!

Bears all around Denali National Park…. see why we were scared to go hiking on our own?!

June was our time to make the long and scary drive up through Canada and into Alaska. I won’t get into much more detail on the drive as I already covered most of it, but as always, I’ll break down the costs and add some more details along the way. After floundering a bit in Washington and staying in casinos for five nights in a row due mostly to exhaustion, we hoped Alaska would renew our energy and let us finish our trip on a high note… and Alaska delivered.

As with previous travels to scary places like Myanmar and Vietnam, the fear quickly subsides as the journey progresses. The unknowns become answered, and the fear and anxiety lightens as we progressed in the journey. Alaska went from a far away dream, to one of our most desired destinations to revisit. Combined with the amazingness of Canada, it has quickly jumped to one of our favorite places in the world, and the expenses were quite manageable.

Total June Cost: $3,733
Total days in the camper: 30
Total days out of camper: 0
Cost per day: $124
States Visited: Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon
Total Miles: Approx 4,500

Summary

We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best as our Canadian and Alaskan journey began. We loaded up on groceries in Washington and scouted out free sites along the route. Although the total driving miles were quite daunting, gas prices were much lower than we had planned, thanks to a favorable Canadian exchange rate along with cheaper gas prices overall. Amazingly, we spent less in June than we did in four other months while on the road! We skipped some of the things we might have done if we were on a regular one-week type vacation, but those are the financial sacrifices we’re willing to make to enjoy such a long journey. Let’s get into the details:

Spending Details

The Good

Alaska was the planned highlight of our trip even before we started renovating Penny Lane, so the chances of disappointment were pretty high. We could drive 60 hours through backwoods wilderness to find a fake Alaskan tourist town full of tourists and domesticated bears*. Instead, we found the Alaska we hoped to find.

An untouched wilderness with rugged landscapes, beautiful glaciers, deadly animals regularly crossing our path and unforgettable experiences. Okay, so we didn’t exactly “hope” for deadly animals crossing our paths, but we were okay with it since it meant we would see bears! Each day we kept a running total of how many bear, moose and bald eagles we saw and the numbers fluctuated from 0 to double digits depending on where we visited. At times it felt like we were in a drive through safari, except these animals had no boundaries.

That doesn’t mean you’ll automatically see a boatload of animals if you simply cruise into a port and take a quick drive into the interior. We talked to numerous travelers who hadn’t seen many animals at all, but most of them didn’t have the luxury of truly exploring as we did.

However, that exploring meant a lot of driving and a lot of roughing it. We never really knew how easy it would be to find potable water so we limited our showers probably more than we needed to**. When we stopped in Valdez, we decided to splurge on a full hook up campsite so we could shower as long as we needed. If you’re not versed in camper talk, a full hook up basically means electric, water and unlimited use since you’re hooked directly up to the sewer system. It also included Wifi and cable tv, so you can imagine we took some well deserved time to veg out.

Actually, it was hard to veg out because we were still in Alaska! I can guess what you think of when you hear “Valdez” (yes, those sad pictures of birds and seals covered in oil), but thankfully the town and environment have moved beyond that. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Alaska, with the small port town surrounded by mountains which are draped in glaciers. We spent a lot of time just enjoying the views. Our RV park also had a strange attraction: Bald Eagle feeding. They have a license from the state and can only do it when the salmon aren’t running, which happened to be the time we visited.

We watched as a man flung small fish into the air in sync with the diving eagles that would swoop down to catch them in their talons. It was all taking place 20 feet in front of us and while it felt a little strange to see the wild birds fed, it was an incredible site. There we probably two dozen eagles that sometimes took turns and other times battled for the same fish as they dive bombed down towards us. They were beautiful and powerful birds with massive talons that could inflict some major damage on us weak humans!

After Valdez, we continued our touring which meant driving back inland (through amazingly beautiful landscape) and then diving down into the next set of port towns on the Seward peninsula which includes the port towns of Whittier, Homer and Seward that we were set to see.

While in Seward, we decided to splurge on at least one tour to see what they were all about. We took an all day boat cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park that included wildlife and glacier viewing. The trip started with the captain promising one of the smoothest cruise days of the year thanks to smooth seas and a few minutes later we stopped to watch humpbacks feeding right in the bay. To make it even more special, it was a mother humpy teaching her baby to lunge feed!

We cruised out of the bay past a Kiitiwake rookery and cut across the smooth ocean into the Kenai Fjords bay. We had already seen a few glaciers up on the peaks, but now the tidewater glaciers were coming into view as we approached our next stop. The captain expertly guided our large catamaran*** around icebergs as we pulled within a quarter pile of the large tidewater glacier. We sat in awe as we watched small chunks of ice “calve” off the glacier and into the ocean. We could hear the large glacier creak and groan as the “river of ice” bulldozed its way down the mountain and into the sea.

Our next stop was an even bigger glacier, Aialik glacier, which is a full mile wide and 300-600 feet high where it meets the water! As we approached, sea lions and otters played in the iceberg strewn waters and used them as rafts as they soaked up the sun. The iceberg dwarfed the other boats already viewing at the base as we pulled up to take it all in. It was stunning and a feeling of regret passed by me as I realized our overuse of exaggerated terms in the US such as “awesome” were trivialized with their daily use… when in fact, they should be preserved for moments like this.

We headed back to sea and noticed other boats ahead of us that had stopped. It was then our captain notified us of another treat – we’d get to view a pod of orcas! We motored closer and drifted along as a dozen or so orcas spread out before us. It was a great ending to the cruise and made us wonder if the cruise was always the productive or if we were just lucky.

On the expense side of things, we did really well. There are many cheap and free places to camp along the highways leading to Alaska and within Alaksa itself, so we were pretty happy with our $16/day for campsites. We only went out to eat once (another sacrifice considering the amazing sea food there) and kept our grocery costs down by stocking up before we left. We prepared for the worst, but fared really well. Gas was the biggest expense as expected, but it was mostly due the large number of miles rather than the high price (it only averaged around $3/gallon).

The Bad

Tourism in Alaska can be cheap, but is mostly expensive. For most visitors who only have a week to visit, their time will be filled with tours and adventures… all of which cost a pretty penny. The expenses can easily justified as it’s the trip of a lifetime, so I’d say save accordingly and go for it!

But yes, it’s expensive. For our Kenai Fjords day cruise we paid $430 for the two of us, but we also upgraded to the all you can eat salmon and prime rib lunch buffet! $215/each isn’t killer on a regular vacation, but it was a lot for us.

We also eyed additional tours such as the brown bear viewing in Katmai National Park which included a flight and guided hiking, but it was almost $800/each! Glacier hiking, boat tours, plane tours, sea kayaking, dog sled rides… you can do it all, but be prepared to pay. It would’ve been great to do tours in all of the amazing places we visited, but the costs would’ve definitely set us over the top of the budget!

The weather can also be pretty nasty, even in the Alaskan summer. We were lucky to see highs move out of the upper 50’s or lower 60’s and many days were filled with clouds and rain. The interior is usually sunnier and warmer, with it even reaching 90 once in Whitehorse, but we spent most of our time exploring the coast and feeling constantly wet.

The Ugly

The land where the sun never sits sounds appealing until you spend more than a few days there. Here’s a sunset timeline from the Equinox (June 21st):


Yes, that’s right, 1 hr and 5 mins of darkness… and it’s not really even that dark! The sun started flirting with the horizon in the late evening, but just can’t quite make it down until very late. We had that opposite experience Iceland when 20 hours of sunlight transformed into 20 hours of darkness, and it’s just as troubling!

The locals fully embrace the long summer days because they know darkness is coming, pulling into campsites at midnight and instead of quietly setting up sites and bunking down, they’d start a campfire and eat dinner! It was entertaining and maddening all at the same time. We tried to stay on a decent routine of going to bed by midnight, but the light easily made it’s way through our attempts of blocking it. We’d block the windows with our car sun shades, close the curtains and then cover them with blankets or clothes… and it still didn’t help much! After falling asleep, the sun would be tapping on our eyelids again at 4am to nudge us back awake.

It was a fun experience for a few days, bearable for a few weeks, but I don’t think I’d be able handle it long term!

Oh yeah, there’s also the whole global warming thing. Whether you believe it to be fully caused by us or not, it’s wreaking serious damage on Alaska. In fact, if you want to see glaciers, you should probably visit in the next 5-10 years because after that, many of them will only be accessible with a long hike. The rapidity of the melting isn’t unprecedented as there were high melting periods in the 1950’s, but it’s happening quickly with no signs of stopping. It’s also changing or eliminating food sources and habits for the animals and birds, and putting many of them in danger of not living. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Back to how greatness of Alaska. Obviously, if one of our biggest complaints with Alaska is “too much light”, we didn’t have much to complain about. As mentioned in the beginning, it quickly jumped to one of our favorite places in the world, and we definitely want to return. While it can be intimidating to plan and execute the trip, it’s worth it. Even if you don’t have two months to plan a driving trip through the state, an Alaskan cruise would still suffice, although wildlife viewing expectations should be tempered.

As we reached the end of June, we had another adventure ahead of us: Denali National Park. After that we’d have a few more weeks before we needed to head back to the “lower 49”, as the locals called it. Reality would soon be calling, but first we had more exploring.

 

*Okay, so there was one of those “fake” Alaskan tourist towns and that was Skagway. While it might have been a cool frontier town at some point, now it’s filled with tourist shops selling diamonds, furs and all sorts of tourist goods. The other towns make fun of it and say the cruise ship companies own it!

**I used to be a shower every day kind of guy, but when water and holding tanks are limited, it’s not so easy! We switched to showering once every two days… and a few times beyond that! As we learned when traveling the world, people don’t notice they smell… but luckily we had each other to keep ourselves accountable!

***We shared our Kenai Fjords cruise with around 80 other people. While it take away some of the experience when everyone rushes to the side of the boat and you’re trapped three rows back, it’s nice knowing your large catamaran won’t be sunken like the Titanic!

Some of the spectacular wildlife and sites on the Kenai Fjords cruise… the middle picture is a Humpback whale teaching its baby to lunge feed! You can see the baby on the side of the momma.

 

All about the glaciers… the top picture is Portage glacier along with dog caused glacier melting.. the bottom two are from Worthington Glacier

One of our favorite hikes in Alaska – Crow Pass. Along with some more hiking pics below.

Hiking to the top of Worthington Glacier… Lucy really likes to walk over to the edges of cliffs and look down… it’s really quite unnerving.!

 

More views from the Kenai Fjords cruise… the top glacier is the Aialik glacier

 

Mountain views and emerald water kayaking… Alaska and Canada has it all!