Rockaway Beach, Oregon to Kenai, Alaska – all during the month of May and almost 3,000 miles! Our journey:
While in Oregon, we visited Tillamook Cheese, a dairy co-op that has been around almost 100 years. After watching a short video about the co-op, we took the self-guided tour that leads you upstairs, overlooking the production line. It was interesting seeing both medium and sharp cheddar cheese being produced on an assembly line on one side; the other side processing large blocks of freshly pressed curds being wrapped on their way to be aged, time dependent on how sharp the final flavor will be. Mild cheddar may age a couple of months while the extra sharp may age two years. Some factoids: the average age of the dairy farmer in the co-op is 45; the dairies have an average of 100 producing cows, which gross about $2,100 per cow per year – it costs $1,000/cow/year to care and feed it, thus netting a profit of $1,100/cow. After reading about a farmer’s typical day, we can understand why the average age is 45. They are on the go from the time they get up at 4 am till after 10 pm when they call it a day, assuming they don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to help birth a calf.
Time to hit the road. Based on the campground owner’s recommendation, we continue on US 101 through Oregon, into Washington. We have now driven the entire length of Oregon on US 101 – very scenic. Our destination is McChord AFB, just outside of Tacoma, where we spend a couple of days. We opt to stay in the dry camp area at McChord – their serviced sites were nestled deep in a treed area, somewhat of a challenge for a long truck/RV combo and impossible to get a signal for our internet satellite dish. We had the entire field to ourselves and took advantage of the openness to keep our solar system fully charged. We are getting more comfortable with living off the grid, depending on our solar panels for most of our power needs.
Mount Rainier is located about an hour’s drive from McChord, AFB. The day was overcast but we were optimistic as we headed out that it would clear long enough to glimpse the peak of the mountain as we got closer. On the way, we stopped to photograph the Elbe Kirche, a national historic site. Built in 1906, this is one of America’s smallest churches, with services performed monthly by a traveling minister.
The highlight of the national park is Mount Rainier, a majestic 14,410-foot active volcanic mountain, glacier capped. The 235,613-acre park is nearly all wilderness with 1000-year old trees at its base with numerous waterfalls throughout. A scenic road into the park brought us to the visitor center at Paradise, parts of which were still closed due to past snowfalls. We enjoyed the view from the 360-degree observation deck on top of the visitor center but still had difficulty seeing the peak because low clouds were playing hide and seek with the mountaintop.
On the road again – destination Sumas, WA, from where we’ll cross into Canada. The campground is located in a quiet country setting – we decide to stay an extra day, giving Larry an opportunity to wash the truck.
Sunday, May 8th, and we crossed into British Columbia, Canada. Our grand entrance was a little more exciting than most because we misunderstood the signals at the border crossing. What a jumpstart to our day! We waited for the green light to proceed through the customs booth and when the inspector waved us on, we thought we were clear to go on, thinking that was the US side. It wasn’t – a siren went off and at least three agents came running out with flak jackets on. Larry got out immediately, explained why we had moved, although the rig was still in the booth lane. They made us pull over and proceeded to thoroughly inspect us. They first took our passports, truck and RV keys and Larry’s ID card and had us wait over by the building, taking Shelley with us. An hour later, they were done. But during that hour, they opened all the slides. They went into all the cubbyholes outside and most likely all the drawers and cabinets inside. They pulled our luggage out from its storage area underneath the rig and went through that, even pulling the kayak out of its storage bag, inspecting it. The truck was thoroughly checked also. Once they were assured that we had just made a mistake, we got their blessing to move on. Lesson learned: we will cautiously approach any crossing till we are clear on whether or not to proceed.
We got back on the road and continued on for a total of almost 200 miles of driving that day, to just north of Cache Creek, stopping at the 59 Mile Roadhouse Restaurant which also provides for free overnight parking in their rear lot. We got permission to stay there, parked and got leveled, fed Shelley, and then went into the Roadhouse for a very good meal.
Earlier that day, we stopped at Hope, home of the Chainsaw Carving Capital. There are over 30 carvings located throughout the town, most of which are within walking distance of the visitor center, which had ample parking for our truck and RV. The carvings have only been around since 1991 and had an interesting beginning. A large tree in Memorial Park was diagnosed with root rot. A local artist, Pete Ryan, suggested cutting the tree down, leaving behind a 12-foot stump. On this stump he then carved a bald eagle with a salmon in its talons. Residents and visitors fell in love with this unique artwork. Since then Hope businesses and non-profit organizations have worked with the District of Hope to hire Pete and another chainsaw carver to create these works of art. The visitor center has a map detailing the carvings’ location as well as a location of any carvings-in-progress.
Our next destination was Prince George, where we stayed for several nights at Southpark RV Park. Robin, one of the owners, was very helpful, telling us some neat places to visit in the area, where to get fuel with a discount, and a great place to get fish and chips.
Based on his recommendations, we visited the Railway & Forestry Museum in Prince George. The Railway & Forestry Museum was a couple of weeks away from being officially open for the season but we were able to walk around the grounds and climb into most of the displays on the premises. There were steam and diesel locomotives, a steam powered crane used to lift derailed train cars, cabooses, boxcars, and passenger cars. One impressive display is the turntable originally located at the Canadian National Railway Roundhouse in Prince George and donated to the museum. The turntable weighs 102 tons, is 88’ long and has a load capacity of 394,000 pounds. Also on the grounds are logging and agricultural machinery as well as mining and heavy-duty equipment. We ate lunch at Joey’s Only Seafood and had the best fish and chips ever. Tuesdays are all you can eat and we managed to eat five pieces each, Alaskan cod. We are going to look for Joey’s restaurants in other Canadian and US cities as we travel – well worth the stop, especially on Tuesdays!
We left Prince George with our goal to stop overnight at Mackenzie, home of the World’s Largest Tree Crusher. We stayed at a nice municipal park in Mackenzie, just a few minutes walk from the tree crusher. This park is free for the first three nights in the dry camp area, with level, easy access sites. Once again, we benefited from our solar panels.
The tree crusher, which has a place of honor just as you enter Mackenzie, is a Le Tourneau G175 machine, electrically powered, using two diesel-electric generator sets, and is similar in concept to a steamroller. This monster steamroller is 56 feet long, 21 feet high, has an 1100-gallon fuel tank, and weighs 175 tons. It was designed specifically for land clearing – clearing large tracts of land with just one machine and one operator, then compressing all wood materials into a compact splintered mat. After air-drying, this mat was then burned in place. A very impressive machine that you wouldn’t want to stand in its way.
After just one night in Mackenzie, we then left for Dawson Creek – an awesome ride through beautiful scenery, part of the Rocky Mountain Trench. We stopped at a couple of pullouts, including one overlooking the beautiful and still frozen Azouzetta Lake. Brrrrr….
We arrived at Alahart RV Park in Dawson Creek around 1 pm – Karen and Galen Ballentine were already there. (The Ballentines and the Monroes, who were on their way, would be part of our mini-caravan to Kenai. All three of our families will be school grounds host there.) Karen and Galen showed us some of the highlights of the area. We stopped at the Visitor Center and watched the movie on the making of the Alaska Highway. And we took the obligatory picture of us standing by the Milepost Zero monument.
On Friday that week, Karen and Galen drove as the four of us went to see Kinuseo Falls, about 120 miles from Dawson Creek, 35 miles of which was on gravel. It was very slow going once we hit the gravel road. The falls were beautiful, though, and worth the drive. When we got back around 4 pm, we saw that Ron & Donna Monroe had arrived – yippee! The gang’s all here. The Monroes had had engine problems on their truck and had been stranded in South Dakota for several days. After getting a new engine installed, they hit the road to join us in Dawson Creek.
On Saturday, we took a short ride to see the original Kiskatinaw River Bridge on the old Alaska Highway. It is a 531-foot long structure, a curved wooden bridge and the only timber bridge built along the Alaska Highway still in use today.
On Monday, May 15th, our mini-caravan hit the road. We have agreed to take turns leading our mini-caravan. Galen is first up. Our first overnight stop would be Prophet River, a provincial park that supposedly has free parking. Apparently, this was true in the past but it looks like they’re going to charge this year. No one was there yet, no envelopes for self-check in, but fees were posted. We parallel parked along what used to be the free area in the picnic grounds. Two other RVs parked nearby overnight. We were located next to an airstrip for small planes that used to be used as a staging area for the military during WWII. We’ve also agreed to each take one night a week to cook for all of us – Mondays, Wednesdays, & Fridays. Wotta deal! We get to eat out twice a week! Why does a meal always taste better when someone else fixes it?
We headed out around 8:30 the next day for Liard River and the hot springs. Monroes’ turn to lead. We had rain most of the way up. We stopped at one point that advertised the best cinnamon buns in the galaxy but they didn’t have any baked yet. We bought some other pastries instead. Hot soup would have been wonderful.
The road followed beautiful Muncho Lake, its emerald color a result of copper oxide filtering into the water. If the provincial park had been opened, it would have been a very picturesque overnight stop. We continued on to Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park and found three back-in sites next to each other. Karen fixed a wonderful chicken dish that hit the spot as cold and damp as the weather was.
Most of the gang hit the hot springs the following morning. Larry felt that the springs in Truth or Consequences in NM were nicer. Today was our turn to lead. We immediately ran into almost nine miles of gravel road with no warning other than bumpy road ahead. We all took it slow – no problems. A little further on, once we were on the pavement again, we came across a flooded section. Possibly a beaver dam contributed to the overflow along with all the rain from Monday. We did spot a beaver as we (trucks and rigs) were wading through the water, guided by the construction crew.
Campground Services RV Park in Watson Lake became our home for the next several days. We opted to dry camp here to help keep our costs down. Here it is mid-May, normally time to break out the shorts and tank tops. Instead, out came the catalytic heater and some of our winter clothes. Will we ever wear shorts this summer?
Watson Lake is known for its Signpost Forest. Shortly after the Alaska Highway was built, one of the military men put up a sign, with his name and mileage to his hometown. Thus was started a tradition with over 54,000 signs now mounted on huge poles. It really does resemble a forest.
Our next stop was Whitehorse, with the Pioneer RV Park our home for the next several days. We lucked out - all the museums in the area had free admission on the Saturday we were in the area so we took advantage of the hospitality.
The S.S. Klondike was one of the largest sternwheelers to ply the Yukon River. It has been restored and open to the public as a National Historic Site by Parks Canada. Our guided tour took us through the engine room, where several cords of wood were burned each trip to power the boiler that powered the paddles as well as various equipment located through the ship. We also toured the dining facilities, sleeping quarters and crews’ quarters.
Miles Canyon posed a challenge to the gold stampeders trying to reach the Klondike gold fields in the late 1800s. The Yukon River funneled down into a narrow steep-walled canyon with many rapids. The dam has tamed the wild waters and a suspension bridge leads to the other side.
We spent a couple of hours touring the Yukon Transportation Museum. Within the museum’s walls are found the story of Yukon transportation: snowshoes to moose skin boats to dog sleds, stage coaches, pioneer aircraft, railroad items, riverboats and some of the old military vehicles that helped build the Alaska Highway.
Nearby is the one of the world’s largest weathervanes – a DC-3 airplane, fully restored and perfectly balanced on its mounting pole so that it turns freely when the wind blows. After many years of use during war and in peace, the plane was lovingly restored and installed at the entrance to the Whitehorse airport.
The rest of the gang went to Skagway today, taking advantage of a tour offered through the campground. When we had cruised Alaska’s Inside Passage in 2000, we had visited Skagway, so we opted to stay ‘home’. We were treated to a special showing, though, of a red fox going through the garbage cans systematically, scrounging for scraps. Unbelievable photo opportunity!
Back on the road, we encountered road construction around Kluane Lake that slowed us down. During our many stops and starts, we had plenty of opportunity to take pictures of the beautiful mountain range across from the lake, with its mirrored reflection on the surface of the calm waters. Kluane Lake is the largest lake in the Yukon and its unusual color is a result of glacial silt suspended in the water, reflecting the sky.
Our last night in Canada was spent at a paved pullout just south of Beaver Creek. The next morning, we stopped in Beaver Creek at Buckshot Betty’s for a very good breakfast. We walked around town for a few minutes and got some great pictures of one of three churches made from Quonset huts left over from the building of the Alaska Highway. The other two are in Haines Junction and Burwash Landing. The interior was small, maybe seating for a dozen people at the most, with a small room to the rear with a cot for the traveling priest. It is certainly the most unusual house of worship we’ve seen so far.
At last, we are in Alaska, crossing the border about 30 miles north of Beaver Creek. Larry was in the lead today and despite our last unlucky border crossing, we had faith that we’d get through without any problems this time. Kidding us, the others had already decided they would deny knowing us if there was a problem and continue on without us. Shortly after our uneventful (thank goodness!) crossing, we stopped at the Tetlin Wildlife Refuge – gorgeous views all around. We enjoyed talking to the rangers there and seeing a beading demonstration.
We arrived at Tok, crossroads to Anchorage and Fairbanks, at lunchtime. We parked for the night at John’s Chevron – campsites available for free with fill up.
While in Tok, we visited with our friends Richard and Linda, whom we had met at Desert Haven in NM earlier this year. They are now spending their summer working at an RV park in Tok. They gave us good feedback on driving the Cassiar Highway, which we may take on the return trip.
When we left the next morning, we took the Tok Cutoff to Glennallen, which is a beautiful road with little traffic. We did run into a horrible construction site. We waited almost 20 minutes for the pilot car, and then it took almost 10 minutes to traverse the area. This was probably the worst area we’ve seen so far but generally, the roads have been much better than we had thought.
We had an overnight stop at a paved pullout area near Tolsona. Shortly after setting up, we were visited by an Alaska state trooper who told us about a bear recently seen walking down the middle of the road. Oh joy! We got his okay to stay there for the night.
It was now Ron’s turn to lead and he found some gorgeous pullouts for picture taking. We made a note of these as future overnight stops on our return trip. One overlooked a glacier – just breathtaking, albeit a little chilly and windy there. The other one was beautiful too.
We stopped at the Musk-Ox Farm in Palmer for lunch, then a tour of the facility. The musk ox is a beautiful animal that is not an ox but more in the sheep and goat family. Their wool, called qiviut, is harvested, either from brushing them out or picking up the wool clumps that they shed against the willow trees, then sold to local co-ops that knit the wool into very warm garments.
We took over the lead at that point as we were heading to Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage where we stayed at the military campground for three nights. Elmendorf is one of the few military bases that we’ve seen so far that has allowed non-military to stay at the campground as guests of an authorized visitor. It was nice that we could be parked near each other for the three days we were in Anchorage. Fuel and propane are much cheaper here than we’ve seen in a long time, at last. We were advised to stock up on stuff here, as it will cost more in the Kenai area.
We all hopped into Galen’s truck one afternoon and went to the Earthquake Exhibit. A massive earthquake hit the Anchorage area on Good Friday in 1964, related to the tsunami that wiped out Valdez, further south. Seeing the damages that occurred back then was amazing as was the courage of those that were affected. Afterwards, we drove to Earthquake Park, where parts of Anchorage slid into Knik Inlet. It is now a forest surrounded partly by the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.
Downtown Anchorage is the site of the City Market, held Saturdays and Sundays during the summer. We met a really neat lady at one of the booths who told us that no buildings were allowed to be built in the City Market area as that area had been wiped out in the ‘64 earthquake. Buildings in that immediate area could not be taller than two stories. We then looked for the Ulu Factory but got lost on base trying to find it after missing a turn. While finding our way out, we spotted a young male moose snacking on shrubs around the base golf course, oblivious to our gawking and picture taking. Shortly afterwards, a small red fox came strolling down the road. What a great wrong turn that was! We eventually found the Ulu Factory where we all purchased something, helping the local economy! An ulu is an Alaskan cutting tool used by native Eskimo people for centuries. Originally made from slate, the modern day ulu is made from stainless steel but the design has remained the same - a half-moon shaped curve tapered to a fine edge.
Larry led our caravan as we headed out. We headed out on the Seward Highway, the only route south. The Seward is very scenic and has been designated a National Forest Scenic Byway. It hugs the cliffs around Turnagain Arm, and then climbs into mountains leading to the Kenai Peninsula. We ran into some rain and debated whether or not to stop to see the Portage Glacier and decided to take our chances. Upon arriving at the dock for the cruise to Portage Glacier, we were informed that weather conditions made it ideal to see the colorations in the glacier. We bundled up, dressing in warm clothes and raingear, and took the hour tour, narrated by a Forest Service employee. When we got closer to the glacier, we went topside to the viewing deck and were awed by how beautiful the glacier was up close, hoping we could see it calve while we were there. We had toured a glacier in 2000 when we were on the Alaskan cruise but today’s glacier viewing far surpassed what we saw then. We were able to get much closer to the glacier because this particular vessel was much smaller than the cruise ship. The colors were spectacular, combined with the rain we experienced. Portage Glacier used to recede about several hundred feet per year but has now slowed down to about twenty feet per year. Icebergs of different shapes, sizes and colors were bobbing around us. The water temperature was a balmy 37; the air temperature 45.
After the cruise, we headed to Kenai, our last stop on our journey to Alaska. Ballentines parked at the middle school where they will be for the rest of the summer. The Monroes and we parked in the back of the high school’s parking lot. As soon as everyone was set up, we had happy hour, celebrating the end of our journey to Kenai.
Our first full day in Kenai was spent getting brochures at the visitor’s center and getting to know our way around a little bit. On Tuesday, the Kenai Peninsula School District had an orientation meeting for all the Workampers. Afterwards, we then found our school’s custodian, Bobby, to learn where we are to park. Despite the fact that this program has been in existence five years, the high school wasn’t quite prepared for us. One site that an RV can park was occupied by a roll-off dumpster that wasn’t scheduled to be picked up till later in the week. Bobby arranged to have it moved that same afternoon. Ron and Donna took this spot that has 30 amp power and water.
Our site is on the opposite end of the school and had sewer only to begin with. Between the help of the school’s electrician and plumber, we eventually got 30 amp power and water. Later that day, Bobby brought us some freshly caught red salmon. Ron cleaned it, Karen prepared it, and Donna and I brought fixings for an impromptu potluck dinner. What a great way to start our tour of duty in Kenai!
Our duties are simple – just provide a presence at the schools during the summer. We learned that the school board was initially hesitant about having RVers park on the school grounds, but after vandal costs were reduced by two-thirds the first year, the school board became enthusiastic about the program. We are parked in safe locations and are visible from the street. Nightly, we make the rounds of the building, checking to make sure the doors are secured. We’ve been given a list of phone numbers to contact in the event of a problem.
Some general observations and comments: From the time we crossed the border into Canada from Washington until we parked in Kenai, the 2005 edition of The MILEPOST stayed in the navigator’s lap. It is the bible for anyone traveling to and through this area. All highways and several side trips are listed in the book, with details galore on everything from services found at a particular section of that highway to a point of interest to a scenic pullout to a caution about upcoming construction or wildlife. Distances are shown to and from the farthest point on whatever highway you are on, with mileage updates at each posted listing. It is particularly handy when you travel in an RV as pullouts along the road are listed as to their size and ease of access. The larger towns have detailed information as far as population, services offered, more detailed information on places to visit, as well as telephone numbers for police, hospital, etc.
The Alaska Highway, as well as some of the other roads we traveled, was in much better shape than we anticipated. We did get a small windshield ding that we’ll get fixed when we return from our trip. Most of the roads are two-lane. Frost heaves, from the permafrost beneath thawing and damaging the road, were usually well marked. We followed the speed limit, or less. In construction areas, we drove slower than posted because of our size, careful not to damage either our rig or anyone following us. Driving 200 miles on the roads here is comparable time-wise to driving two or three times that distance on interstates. Time wasn’t an issue, so we enjoyed the ride.
We’ve read that most of the roads here tend to be boring but we never found that the case at all. Every turn brought into view another beautiful mountain or lake or valley, plus we were always on the lookout for wildlife. And we saw wildlife! – Bison, black bear, moose, caribou, beaver, deer, rabbits (possibly snowshoe?), wild horses, bald eagles, red fox, and tundra swans. It is like driving through an animal safari park but this is their environment and we are the trespassers. When possible and safe to do so without causing traffic problems, at least one in our mini-caravan would try to get pictures of whatever wildlife we spotted. The count continues!
Next month – we’ll start exploring the area!