Our Journey to our Overland Travel Vehicle (part 1 of 5)

by Darryl Williams

Disclosures: The following outline represents my opinion and is not meant to be inflammatory. All vehicles mentioned in the article below are fine vehicles in their own right. Some vehicles may suit you better than others. In the end, it all comes down to personal preference which is largely shaped by the way you travel.

After all the research, I can say safely the following:

In an ideal world, if we were only traveling in the US and Canada, I would probably go with a Class A diesel pusher with a capable 4WD vehicle in tow. One can’t beat this setup for the ultimate in comfort combined with the ability to go and explore the proverbial ‘off the beaten path’. 

However, since traveling the Pan Am highway requires a slightly smaller footprint, my vehicle of choice would be the MB Sprinter 3500 (extended body and height) with 4WD. However, since this vehicle option was not available in the US at the time time of our departure (or prior), this was not an option.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s go back to the beginning.

The idea of an extended international trip first came up in 2011. The idea originally started as a trip through the continent of Africa. The plan was to explore the entire West coast from Morocco to South Africa over a span of about 4 months.

The more I researched this trip, the more I did not feel comfortable with a couple of things.
* Civil / political / social unrest which can erupt at any time
* Required bribery as you cross the border from one country to the other

However, as I was researching Africa, I would tend to come across articles about adventures on something called the Pan-Am highway, the Alaskan highway, travels through Europe, and even travels through Asia. I started reading about some of those journeys and mentioned these possible alternatives to my wife. 
In the end, it was the Pan Am trip that intrigued us the most.

Once we knew we were going to to travel the Pan Am highway for at least a year, we needed a vehicle to support our journey. 

Naively, we began our search for a vehicle in late 2011 by attending RV shows in the San Francisco Bay area (as at that time we had never heard about expedition vehicles and the like). What I learned very quickly from these shows was that the traditional RV had all the comforts of home, but would not allow us to get off the beaten path…so I kept researching. Even though I had come across blogs of a few overlanders and some Pan Am journeys, the vehicle information (and options) really began to pour in when I came across a website called Expedition Portal. Now we were getting somewhere!!

So after lots of reading, I was able to define a minimum set of requirements for our vehicle as follows: 

  • Diesel engine for increased fuel efficiency and torque
  • Diesel engine which could burn the ‘dirty’ diesel found in Central and South America; manufacture date prior 2006
  • 4WD with sufficient clearance and a preference for manual gear box engagement over electronic on the fly 4WD; we would like to explore the unknown trails and backroads wherever we go
  • Manueverability; reasonable wheelbase for tighter areas
  • Reasonable storage for clothes, food. cookware, and other essentials to support our journey
  • Reliability; self explanatory
  • Serviceabilty; access to parts and mechanics to work on our rig in Mexico, Latin America, and South America

By late 2012 / early 2013, we had visited the following vehicle manufacturers:

  • Sportsmobile in Fresno, CA
  • Earthroamer in Dracono, CO
  • XP Camper in Grass Valley, CA
  • Provan / Tiger Adventures dealer agent near Napa, CA

We also attended the May 2013 Overland Expo at Mormon Lake, Arizona which is just outside of Flagstaff, AZ. We attended the expo because we wanted to see E-V-E-R-Y possible vehicle option before we made a final decision. We spent two days at the exposition. It was overwhelming, but well worth the time.

Here are some initial impressions from the plant tours and Expo…

Earthroamer: Very nice product and great attention to detail, but ultimately proved to be too expensive…even used! I kept asking myself ‘would you really want to go off-road with something so expensive?’

XP Camper: Interesting design twist in the pop-up camper category; manufacturer strongly recommends the 1 ton US pickup trucks as the vehicle platform with a preference for Dodge. XP is a relatively new manufacturer with two functioning prototypes at that time (V1 and V2).

Sportsmobile: In the expedition vehicle game for quite some time; there appears to be plenty of demand for both new and used inventory.

Provan: Nice products, but at that time they did not have a model which fit our needs. We were able to find a used vehicle, currently named the Bengal TX, but the sleeping area was not to our liking. The Siberian was well beyond our price point and their Malayan was just released and proved to be too small for our needs.

General thoughts: If you are in the market for an overland or expedition vehicle, I would highly recommend that you attend Overland Expo before making your final decision. You will see everything related to overlanding and expedition travel adventures. Literally everything.

So, after several discussions with my wife, we finally decided that the XP Camper would be our choice. We were so happy to have finalized the decision! 

However, after contacting the owner of XP, we learned that a submission of deposit in May 2013 would get us a truck in February 2014…that’s like 10 months!! To make matters worse, we were planning to leave for our trip on February 6, 2014.
Obviously this would not work since we wanted to use our vehicle during the summer and fall of 2013 for trips to the eastern Sierra of California and Oregon. We told The owner of XP that the timeline would not work for us and that we would be going in another direction.

Time for plan B. So we contacted Sportsmobile and at that time they had a 5-6 month cycle time for a new SMB. Better than XP, but still would not meet our requirements for use in 2013 use. So a new SMB would not work either. 

Time for plan C. We begin looking for a used Sportsmobile that we could buy and start getting familiar with right away. This was a great idea in theory, but in reality finding a used SMB in good condition proved to be more difficult than originally planned since anything we did find that we liked had either just been sold or was in the process of being sold. Ever hear the phrase ‘ A Day late and a dollar short’?

However, not to be deterred, we eventually purchased a used SMB in June 2013. 
The quick facts: 2006 6.0L diesel V8 turbo engine, Ford E350 Extended Body with pop-up roof, ’50’ layout , Quigley 4WD conversion

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Some quick thoughts on the SMB:

  • Great flow through design; we liked the ability to access the refrigerator and storage areas while on the go
  • Solid platform being the Ford E350
  • Reasonable fuel efficiency at 15-16 mpg; especially given the weight of vehicle
  • Highly rated 4WD conversion be it Quigley or Sportsmobile
  • Pop-up sleep area is very good for a single individual. In our experience, the area was too tight for 2 adults
  • Storage impacted if using rear bench as dual purpose seat and bed
  • Would advise on extended body (EB) E350 if you are tall or require more space
  • 6.0L diesel can be problematic; check V10 version and see if that meets your needs
  • Quality of materials and workmanship on SMB interior average at best
  • Limited space within the vehicle if you need to be inside during inclement weather
  • We did winter camping in the Sierras and when we used the included table the 2 occupants were trapped on either side of the table; one on bench seat, other on passenger seat
  • Great, go anywhere vehicle within limitations (i.e. overall height of vehicle, depth of water, etc…)
  • Service: Make sure your local Ford dealer is willing to work on such a highly customized vehicle or you can do the work yourself; Ford has no obligation to work on non OEM parts
  • Our truck weighed ~10,000 pounds. You can’t just take that to any garage /mechanic…think lift!!

We realized after about 6 months of ownership that we would not be taking the SMB on our Pan American highway journey. It had nothing to do with capability and everything to do with functionality. Our issues specifically had to do with the sleeping area and the interior layout. No matter how hard we tried we were never comfortable sleeping in the penthouse unit with 2 adults. It was just too small an area for us (especially since we have a California King bed at home). We only slept well when one of us slept in the penthouse and the other slept down on the rear bench.

As for the interior layout, it proved to be too cramped for us especially when we had to be inside the vehicle during inclement weather. Neither of these issues would matter much to us if we were to only use the vehicle for extended weekends or shorts trips. However, we would be living in this vehicle for a year (or possibly longer), we realized that these minor issues would become major issues very quickly.

So, what to do?  
It is now December 2013. 
We are slated to leave for our trip in February 2014
…and we have no vehicle. 

Glacial Landscapes

August 15 – 22, 2014

On our way to Anchorage we passed through Wasilla, AK and everyone knows that it was in this small town that the career of a political pundit and social pop icon Sarah Palin was launched. When we arrived I looked around and was surprised that I couldn’t see Russia from anywhere. Perhaps Sarah lives on a small knoll that rises just high enough to see across the Bering Strait? Darryl looked up her address and we went to take a look. Alas, the gates to her estate weren’t open and nobody was waiting for our arrival. Her home is along the highway and sits along the coast of a small inland lake. I seriously doubt the validity of that international experience. 🙂 Which reminds me of how much I loved that Saturday Night Live came to life again during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Tina Fey was hilarious and I still crack up whenever I think of the very pregnant Amy Poehlin’s rap bit during Palin’s cameo on SNL (check it out here: https://screen.yahoo.com/palin-rap-000000488.html).

With nothing else to offer us, we left Wasilla and stopped in the hippy town of Talkeetna, Alaska. It’s just over 100 miles north of Anchorage with about 1,000 full time residents. We arrived on a day with a band playing in the park, cruise ship tour buses unloading their passengers and political activists gathering signature along the street. Although we were only there for a day, I really liked the town’s vibe. The restaurants served tasty comfort food with portions that satisfied the appetite.IMG 1755

While walking through town I noticed a couple that was collecting signatures for a petition to stop the building of a dam on the Susitna River. Talkeetna is a small town that calls the banks of the Susitna home. The dam would produce a mere 300 MW of energy (enough to power ~180k homes) and proponents say would contribute to the State’s renewable energy goals. Opponents view the $5.2 billion project as a massive misuse of government funds with a devastating environmental impact on the salmon runs and the river related tourism industry. The environmental impact of dams vs their energy output is being seriously questioned and we have bumped up against the debate through our travels in California, Nevada and now Alaska. The couple gathering signatures opposing the Susitna Dam recommended that we watch the documentary Dam Nation which portrays the failure of dams across the nation and worldwide.

I find the debates on renewable energy fascinating from a couple of perspectives. On the one hand, most people would agree that the use of fossil fuels is unsustainable yet environmentalists can’t decide on what is the best renewable energy solution for a particular area since all of these solutions have some negative environmental impacts. On the other hand, I don’t hear much discussion about how to reduce our energy usage overall. The conversation seems to be focused on energy needs from the supply side and very little discussion about the demand side and how to curtail it.

After signing the petition and adding our names to their mailing list we went to the Salmon Center and watched the last half of a documentary on Pebble Mine. Just before leaving on this trip a friend of ours who is an avid fly fisherman told us about Pebble Mine. It’s a proposed gold mine to be built in Bristol Bay. A poisonous concoction of chemicals is required to mine for gold and the local fisherman were fighting the mining conglomerate and the state in an attempt to block the mine. Although the mining authorities maintained that they would put in place safety mechanisms to protect the pristine waters of Bristol Bay, the fisherman didn’t have faith that an accident wouldn’t happen. They have witnessed the aftermath of the Valdez spill upon the local community and their financial and environment ruin. These individuals have been compensated a mere fraction of the amount that was promised and the environment is still soiled from the oil spill from more than 20 years ago. Currently, the funding for Pebble Mine has dried up but I’m sure that once the price of gold hits some pre-set target amount the investors will be back and pushing for the mine again.

Salmon totem outside of Salmon Center
Salmon totem outside of Salmon Center

The two activists had an interesting perspective on Alaska and its relationship with the lower 48. They feel that Alaska is like a third world country in the sense that US companies invest in Alaska only so they can extract the wealth of minerals and resources that can be extracted from the State with no care for the environment or the residents of the State. I would agree that Alaskans do not seem to be wealthy in the least and most of them seem to be just surviving. I was surprised to see such an absence of wealth in the state considering the size of the oil, lumber, fishing, and tourism industries. While driving through the Alaskan towns and cities we never came upon that “wealthier” section of town. We wondered where the wealth was and after talking with this couple we might have been provided a clue as to the seeming absence of wealth in Alaska. Perhaps it’s because the large industries are not locally owned and the wealth is exported along with the resources in exactly the same way as in any mineral rich third world nation. My assumption before coming to Alaska was that people didn’t have to work because of the oil dividend given to all Alaskans who have lived in the State for a year or longer. I thought that this dividend was substantial but after looking at how Alaskans live, it certainly doesn’t seem to be based on our conversation with the activists.

We really enjoyed our time in Talkeetna and considered staying for an extra day but decided that we needed to move on toward Anchorage since we recently decided to add Valdez to our itinerary. This addition would cut a couple of days out of our time along the Kenai Peninsula but we thought it would be worth it. Valdez kept coming up as a must-see from fellow travelers that we met along our trip because the town is set within a stunning landscape and because the drive from Valdez to Haines is considered to be another epic beauty. So we packed up and continued south.

We spent only a couple of days in Anchorage. With the same bad timing as we had in Wrangell we arrived in Juneau the day after a road race. At this point I’m not sure that I could run a half marathon let alone a 10k. I’m sure that our timing will get better and my fitness will improve again but until then I’ll continue to focus my efforts on finding the best restaurant in town. 🙂 And I did just that when we stumbled upon a really nice place in Anchorage called Snow City Cafe! Later that evening we drove out along the waterfront where there was a beautiful view of the city.DSC05260

We met another couple who was admiring the view. They were Canadians who have lived in Detroit for the past ten years or more. It was fascinating to hear their perspectives on universal health care (Canadian style) compared to the US system (both pre and post Affordable Care Act). They are not so sure that the Canadian system is the right solution since they don’t believe that the government is efficient in its handling of resources. But they also agreed that perhaps the  free market and private industry might not have the best interest of the individual in mind when striving for greater profits. We debated the issues for a couple of hours and it was a very civil conversation. I only wish that our politicians could have a civil discourse and actually make some inroads on the issue of healthcare in the US!

The following day we went for a run along the river near our campgrounds. We encountered all of these fisherman lined up along the river using the most interesting fishing technique. They were basically hitting the water with a quick overhand motion and almost slapping the water with the lure. We didn’t see anyone catch anything with this method but the men that we spoke with assured us that it was an effective way to catch the salmon as they headed up the river.


Later the following day I had a riding lesson at Rockin B horse riding camp. My instructor was Amanda who rode at the collegiate level. I’m really enjoying my riding lessons. By taking lessons from various riding instructors I’m not only learning how to ride more competently but also about the differences in instruction techniques and riding styles. It’s also nice to ride horses that have a bit more personality than trail horses that follow each other nose to tail along a trail. In the lesson I actually have to exert some level of control over the horse. As you can see in the photo, I needed a little assistance from Amanda to encourage Sierra to maintain a trot while I practiced posting.


After my lesson we made our way down the Kenai peninsula to Seward, Alaska. Anchorage was nice enough but I really enjoy the smaller Alaskan towns and with over 300,000 residents, Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city. Everywhere we turned in Anchorage there seemed to be road construction going on. It reminded me of a comment that I heard at some point during the trip where an Alaskan told us that there were two seasons in Alaska, winter and construction. I wasn’t enjoying the Anchorage construction season!

The drive from Anchorage to Seward was AMAZING! The mountains rise up from the roadside along one side of the road as you drive along a river for parts of the drive. Because the mountains rise up so abruptly from the sea they seem grander and more rugged than other mountain ranges that I’ve driven through. The blue skies and clear rivers and seas pop against the dark greens of the mountains creating an unbelievably fantastic scene that is a truly spectacular experience.

Once in Seward we found a place to eat and then afterwards took a walk along the marina. Just behind the restaurant there were tourists that had just returned from their day of deep sea fishing. I spoke with a guy who was standing next to this wheel barrow overflowing with a variety of fishes (monk fish, cod, halibut, salmon, rock fish, flounder and others). The guy flies from Boston to Alaska every couple of years to fish. Once cleaned, packaged and frozen, his catch is shipped back to Boston and will last him and his family a couple of years until his next fishing trip.

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The next day we drove out to Exit Glacier. As we were walking along the overlook trail there were numbered sign posts along the way which marked where the toe of the glacier once reached and the year. Over the past 10 years the glacier has retreated over 1,000 feet. At the end of the paved footpath is now an overlook where we can look at the glacier in the distance. If we had arrived just 10-13 years earlier we would be touching the glacier. If you read the TripAdvisor reviews of Exit Glacier you will see the comments left by many lamenting that they weren’t able to touch the glacier this year as they had just ten years prior. This has been the common refrain from fellow tourists starting on the ferry and now carried through at the glacier visits on land. They talk about the receding glaciers and how different Alaska looked just a decade or more ago. Once inside the visitor center I was reminded again of the glacial retreat when looking at glacier photos taken over the years.




Like many, I have been concerned about global warming for many years but actually traveling to Alaska and bearing witness to the physical changes in our environment has been shocking to me. That we continue to debate what to do to reduce our impact on the environment rather than actually taking any meaningful action is foolhardy. I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t until this trip that I really internalized the warnings from the many documentaries that I’ve watched and articles and books that I’ve read. Alaska is truly awe inspiring and thought provoking. I only hope that we still have a chance to reverse some of the damage that we’ve caused to our wonderful world.

On our last day in Seward we took the boat tour to the Kenai Fjords to see the tidewater glaciers. During this trip we would pass harbor seals sun bathing on ice bergs and tidewater glaciers dipping their toes into the icy waters.









The farthest point of the tour is at the face of a tidewater glacier which is famous for its calving events and the noise that it makes as the house size chunks of ice fall into the waters. Once we arrived at the glacier our captain positioned the ship so that we had a panoramic view of the glacier. The temperature plummeted as soon as we arrived to the front of the glacier but I barely noticed the cold as I took in the beauty around me. It was impossible for me to really comprehend its size. Looking at the monochromatic sheet of ice doesn’t allow the brain to process scale but once we heard the calving of a small chunk of ice, the sound confirmed what the eyes couldn’t; these were massive pieces of ice falling into the sea. The ice might look like the size of a snow ball but the sound confirmed that it these pieces were the size of a car, house or even a multi-story building.

I captured on video an icefall from Northwestern Glacier where a section of the glacier breaks away and slides off getting smashed to bits as it slides down the rock face. It was incredible to be there and you can hear the amazement of my fellow tourists and the beautiful sounds of the glacier. 

Northwestern Glacier is considered a tidewater glacier because its toe touches the water.





Harbor seals sun bathing on blocks of ice.





A puffin trying to take off as we pass.


After our Kenai Fjords tour we spent an hour at the Sea Center in Seward. There was a sea bird exhibit where I captured a photo of my favorite bird, the puffin. During mating season they grow these huge colorful beaks. They spend their winters out to sea and lose the large beak.


The Sea Center was established after the Exxon Valdez spill funded by the settlements paid to Alaska. When I looked through the major donors list I noted that most of the names were those of energy, coal, and petroleum companies. Their board of directors is also made up of leaders from these same organizations. I get it that these science institutes need funding but I have trouble reconciling how these same science institutes manage the conflict of interest in their science and the funding and management sources. The exhibits were interesting but I took it all in with a shade of skepticism.

There is so much of Alaska to explore and our short 5 weeks in this beautiful land was too quickly drawing to an end. The last legs of our journey are ahead of us. Our next stop will be Whittier from where we’ll pick up a ferry to Valdez then drive to Haines and a final trip through the Inside Passage. I have a long list of places we need to return to some day. Top of the list is the Kenai Peninsula and over to Bristol Bay. Until next time.

Our Denali Experience

August 9 – 14, 2014

This next part of the trip is what I was looking forward to ever since we put Alaska on our itinerary. In my research I read that the Denali Highway was perhaps the most beautiful highway in Alaska. It’s a hard packed gravel road that runs east / west across the tundra of central Alaska. There are no towns or cities to mar the landscape. Just wide open road and plenty of open spaces to set up a roadside camp.

The more direct route to Denali National Park is only about 120 miles. Instead I put the Denali Highway as a “must do” on our itinerary which added another 220 miles to our route. It was well worth the additional miles!

So, instead of heading southwest out of Fairbanks we drove southeast which took us straight to the North Pole! I remember sending letters to Santa Claus addressed to the North Pole when I was in grade school. Now, some years later (better to not think about how many years), I get to see where they ended up!DSC05024

We stopped just long enough for the photo and then back on the road. We wanted to make it to Delta Junction before the end of the day since we only had a couple of days to complete the drive. There are only a few dates that we have to meet on this trip and our campsite reservation in Denali is one of them. We spent the night at the Delta State Recreation campgrounds just outside Delta Junction. We really enjoyed the change of scenery moving away from forests and into a land of braided rivers and distant mountain ranges across tundra dotted with tundra lakes.

We took a walk across the road from the campgrounds to take in the views.
We took a walk across the road from the campgrounds to take in the views.

Our next day was all about the Denali Highway. At this point of the trip we were wondering when we would actually start to see some wildlife. Before the trip I read something about the multitudes of bald eagles and that they were everywhere you looked. So far the bald eagle count is two and that was back in Wrangell. I thought that I would be braking for wildlife as it crossed the road in front of us. The only wildlife that we have stopped for has been captured in photographs that we admired at the fair. But now things were about to change. I could feel it. We would be driving across the middle of Alaska; no towns and wide open wilderness. DSC05037

This is the beauty that we saw for hundreds of miles but still no wildlife. We stopped at a restaurant just a few miles into our Denali Highway experience to get a late lunch. As we were parking I noticed a set of antlers peaking out of the back of a pick-up driving along the highway. And then we saw in the parking lot another pick-up with a caribou carcass in the truck bed. This wasn’t exactly how I envisioned my wildlife encounters to be.

We were sent away from the restaurant because they had been over-run with customers all morning and weren’t prepared to offer any more service until later in the evening. Turned away, we went back out on the road to another restaurant about 50 miles away. The number of trucks and campers along the road was much more than we expected to see. This is supposed to be open space with rarely other vehicles on the road. What was going on?

We got our answer at the next restaurant. It was opening day of caribou hunting season! Everyone was out and getting set up for a week of hunting, or less time if they killed their quarry earlier which we had already witnessed. This changed our plans for the day as we drove by hunters all along the road. They were out on their quads, rifles in hand and ready to shoot. The hunting was on both sides of the road and every open spot for camping was taken. Originally we planned to go out for a hike once we set up camp but we weren’t sure if wearing brightly colored clothes would really keep us safe from a stray bullet. We finally found an awesome little camping spot late in the evening. The spot was atop a small hill that was just steep enough to discourage most of the campers. We had the place all to ourselves and settled in for the evening. We still have yet to see any wildlife but we know it’s out there based on the number of caribou being hauled out of the area.DSC05047


This is the sunset I watched while preparing dinner. Pretty awesome!

We drove the last forty miles of the Denali Highway then made our way to our camp site in Denali National Park. We had dinner outside the park at Denali Park Salmon Bake. We were surprised to see a Princess Hotel and other cruise line restaurants this far north from their ports. We saw many cruise line buses transporting their passengers to Denali from Anchorage. Consistent with the other cruise line port of calls we saw the familiar signs posted in a few restaurants and business announcing that they were Alaska owned and operated. The Salmon Bank restaurant was one of these Alaskan owned business and one of the better options that we’ve found in Alaska. We were not impressed with the food at the restaurants in Denali National Park. We later learned that the park service actually subcontracts their food service to Aramark, the same company that provides airline food service. This explained why the food was so bad. 😦

The next day we awoke early to catch our bus tour of the Kantishna Experience. This tour takes you all the way to the end of the park. Private cars are only allowed on the first few miles of road into the park and to go further you must take one of the park shuttles or tours. Our bus would take us 92 miles through the park, one way. Our bus driver, Sheryl Paxton, was also a certified interpretive guide and very knowledgeable about the park and its history. She had stories to fill the 15 hour day that we had with her. 

While we were standing in line awaiting the bus we listened to stories from our fellow passengers about the wild life that they had seen during their travels. It seemed that all of the couples surrounding us had stories of seeing grizzlies, caribou, bald eagles, and wolves. We warned them that we had some sort of curse on us and that we haven’t seen anything but two bald eagles during our almost three weeks in Alaska. They didn’t seem fazed at all by our curse and assured us that our luck was about to change. 

From the beginning of our tour the bus had mechanical issues which eventually required a replacement to be brought out for us. We waited at the Teklanika rest stop, about 30 miles into the tour, for over an hour for the replacement. We passed the time enjoying the incredible views at an overlook above a river. Most of us were out along the overlook when a grizzly ambled down the river just below us feasting on the berries growing along the banks. I was in heaven!!

Another bus showed up and now the grizzly had a packed house watching him eat. The bus driver was keeping a close eye on him and told us that if the grizzly headed into the bush just below us then we all needed to go back into the bus because he would likely be headed up into the parking lot. He just finished warning us when the bear turned toward us up the hill. The majority of us  (myself included) turned tail and headed for the safety of the buses. A few stayed behind but pretty soon we saw a group running toward the buses and close behind was the bear walking just a few feet from the bus across the parking lot! He was huge! Darryl managed to get a couple of photos before the grizzly disappeared into the bush.

Here the grizzly is making his way toward the trail up to the parking lot.
He was only about 25 yards from our bus!

Our replacement bus finally arrived and we got on our way. Not 20 minutes later and we came across this family of bears tearing up the mountainside looking for squirrels. What a day so far!DSC05117

When I got up the morning of the tour I had already lowered my expectations about seeing any wildlife and was ready to accept a day where we wouldn’t see anything. So I set all my hopes on seeing a glimpse of Denali. It’s rare to see Denali during the summer months and when you do get a glimpse of her you need to appreciate it because the next minute she might have covered herself up behind a thick layer of clouds. I told myself that it would be an awesome day if I could get just one glimpse of Denali. So I was ready, camera in hand, when Shirley told us to get our cameras ready because around the next bend would be our first opportunity to see if Denali wished to reveal herself today. And wow!!! What a spectacular sight awaited us! Denali was out and in full glory!!

Our first view of Denali!

My day could have ended right then and there but we still had many more hours ahead of us. It turned out to be an incredible day driving through Denali. Grizzlies, moose, caribou, dall sheep, pica and Denali, this was better than I had hoped for!

Polychrome pass in Denali National Park
Taken at Eielson Visitor Center
One of dozens of caribou seen along the road.
One of dozens of caribou seen along the road.
Denali with caribou along the road.
Denali with caribou along the road.



After our tour we went to the Salmon Bake Restaurant for dinner. We were just finishing when we noticed another couple from our tour group, Meg and Mark from New Zealand. We started talking with them about the day and before long we invited them to sit down with us as we chatted late into the evening about their travels and their life stories. Mark had an interesting take on the life that they’ve created for themselves and described it as Lifestyle Engineering. His concept is basically saying that you prioritize the things that are important to you and engineer a lifestyle (work and play) that allows you to realize a balance between these priorities. This idea resonated with Darryl and I since we have spent many hours talking about what sort of life do we want after this trip and here Mark had a fancy name for it. Over the past few months Darryl and I have spent a lot of time talking with other couples about how they have created a lifestyle that allows them to balance their passions with making a living to support their lifestyles. We expect that our lives after this trip will look very different from what they were before we started the trip.

The following day we had tickets for another bus tour through the park but after spending over 15 hours in a bus the previous day we decided to bail on that plan and gave away our tickets. We spent the day enjoying the park on foot and exploring the trails around the campground. Later in the afternoon we went to see the sled dog expedition at the Denali Headquarters. These huskies have each run over 2,000 miles through Denali’s back country during the winter months patrolling and delivering construction and other materials to sites that are inaccessible by truck. The Denali huskies were more laid back than Hugh’s racing dogs and the were much larger. They were all still very excited about their jobs but once they finished their short expedition run for the tourists they laid down and calmly waited for the park ranger to finish her presentation. Hugh’s dogs were amped from the moment Hugh started harnessing the team until the dogs were finished with their workout and returned to their dens.



Our last day in Denali was spent walking the Savage River trails. These trails are along park road at the farthest point where private cars can travel to without a special permit. It was a beautiful ending to our time in Denali. I’m sure we would have extended our stay if there were campsites available but unfortunately Denali was fully booked. We left feeling like we had really experienced Alaska and a little bit of it’s wilder side. Now to Anchorage but first a short detour to see Alaska’s most famous pop culture icon. Stay tuned! DSC05252


To the Arctic Circle

August 5 – 8, 2014

After our time at Laughing Eyes Kennel we had a quick lunch and did a load of laundry before getting on the road to Fairbanks. The drive to Fairbanks was uneventful and we found a beautiful campsite a few miles outside of town at Tors Trailhead State Campground which is along Chena Hot Springs Road.

The next morning we felt the need for a workout so we tried to find the nearby trails. Unfortunately, every trail we found seemed to end in a mosquito infested bog. After getting bit up and going nowhere we ran back to the campsite and ran loops around the campground. Not the most interesting run I’ve ever been on but we were among the trees and ran along a river for a very small portion of the loop. With the workout over we went to Fairbanks to prepare for our drive along the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle.

We headed north out of Fairbanks toward the Dalton Highway. Just a few miles north of Fairbanks is a viewpoint of the Alaskan Pipeline wheIMG_1707re we stopped to get a close-up look at the pipeline. We met a local who asked us about our XP and then told us that we needed to stop at High Top truck stop for their pies. We took his advice, (who can pass up a great pie recommendation?) and I had a blackberry rhubarb pie which was really good. I love strawberry rhubarb but I think I have a new favorite!


The drive along the Dalton Highway was a beautiful mix of varying landscapes from sycamore spruce forest and open tundra. The drama unfolds as you drive north starting with sycamore spruce forests then the country opens up to expansive views of green tundra and hills. We stopped at an interesting outcropping of jagged rocks called tors jutting out of the tundra landscape. They’re created by the extreme freezing and thawing of the ground causing the rock to be thrust upward creating the outcropping. As we walked along the interpretative trail Darryl noticed a cloud formation that looked like a tornado off in the distance.


I read about how dangerous the Dalton Highway could be and that the truckers along this stretch of road were ruthless and tourists should get off the road as they barrel down the road spraying gravel and dust in their wake. Trucks have the right of way so you do have to move over but it isn’t always possible to actually get off the roadway. Perhaps my imagination is worse than reality but I thought they were courteous, slowing down when approaching and never pushing me off the road from behind.



We had a beautiful day driving north along the highway and I wanted to take advantage of the wonderful weather and stop to see the massive Yukon River. I thought we could enjoy a leisurely lunch sitting along the river and taking in the views. One step out of the truck into the mosquito clouds along the river changed that plan pretty quickly. I snapped a couple of photos with my iPhone and away we went again. Not the greatest photos but I wasn’t about to make a blood sacrifice for a better shot.


The Dalton Highway begins 84 miles north of Fairbanks and was originally built as a haul road for truckers to transporting supplies for the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline and to the oil field operations at Prudhoe Bay. We only made it as far as the Arctic Circle at mile 115 which is the northern-most point on our trip at N 66 33′, W 150 48.

I refused to get out of the truck because of the mosquitos. The cloud of mosquitos around Darryl’s head while he took the photo was so thick that I could see it from a distance.

From here we basically turn around and head south to Ushuaia, Argentina, a mere ~30,000 miles away depending on the number and extent of our side trips. Although it would have been cool to get to Prudhoe Bay, neither of us had a burning interest to see the oil fields which would have added an additional 600 miles (round trip) to our journey.

We stopped at the Hot Spot Cafe on the return trip to Fairbanks. They had the best food that we’ve had so far in Alaska! I was completely surprised that a little cafe in the middle of nowhere along the Dalton Highway would have such tasty food. While we waited for our food, the owner’s (Theresa Morin) mom shared stories with us about bears nosing around the place for food. Just a few days before a grizzly was walking around the building just under the window where she was working. She looked out to see who it was and saw the bear. They have a bell that she started ringing and Theresa came running out of the nearby house with her pink AR15 semi-automatic. After a few shots in the air the grizzly high tailed it to the wood frightened away by the racket these two women were making. She tells the story like it’s just another day at the Hot Spot Cafe. That’s Alaska!DSC05015

Bumperstickers covering one of the doors at the Hot Spot Cafe. Reading these provides a glimpse into the Alaskan psyche! :-)
Bumperstickers covering one of the doors at the Hot Spot Cafe. Reading these provides a glimpse into the Alaskan psyche! 🙂

It started to rain after leaving the Hot Spot Cafe and I learned just how treacherous the Dalton Highway can be. I’m sure it’s nothing like driving the road during winter icy conditions but in the rain the road turns into a slick sludge of dirt and calcium chloride (used to keep the dust down during the summer) which our tires glided over. In some sections it felt like I was driving on black ice or hydroplaning. Either way, it was a stressful drive back!

The truckers that make a living driving this haul road throughout the year have what is considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the road. I was lucky that most of my drive time was during perfect weather and limited traffic. Once we reached camp I was grateful that this section of road was behind us. Although our time on the Dalton Highway was packed with beautiful scenery and I’m left wondering if we didn’t leave some of the best scenery behind us since we didn’t get to the Brooks Range and other spectacular views further north. Perhaps for a future trip.

Our XP looked like an Oreo cookie when we returned!
Our XP looked like an Oreo cookie when we returned!

Back in Fairbanks we spent the next couple days at the fair. The first night we saw a really interesting band called Cello Fury. Darryl spotted the flyer for them at our campground at River Eagle RV. We took a cab to see the Pennsylvania based band. Their sound is a “fusion of progressive rock and classical music styles” (from Wikipedia). Most of the pieces were original compositions by them with a rock feel but they also played a couple pieces that highlighted their classical training. The place was packed and the audience loved their performance, I did too! Check out this YouTube video and you can listen to them play against a backdrop of video footage of their Alaska 2014 tour.

Under the category of “events we’ve never attended before this trip” was going to the Demolition Derby at the fair. I wasn’t interested in going but Darryl pointed out that we’d probably never see another one so why not now?! So we paid the cover fee and found a place in the bleachers to watch the action. We happened to be attending the grand finale event of the week with 7 trucks that were pretty beaten up but still operational (barely). These 7 finalists were competing for the championship. Each truck has a stick attached to the frame on the driver’s side which he’ll pull off when he “surrenders”. These guys ram into each other with the back of their vehicles hitting the front end of the other vehicles. They’ll gang up on one vehicle and take it out in a coordinated ramming and finally the last ones standing start after each other. It’s crazy! These guys hit each other so hard that they knock over the cement barriers and tires are jettisoned during collisions and clods of dirt are launched into the stands.

Check out the green truck. He has no rear tires but was still in the mix!

Our time in Fairbanks came to an end and now back to the road. Coming up is on of the other most scenic roads in Alaska, the Denali Highway and then Denali!! I can’t wait!!!