Our ferry from Vancouver Island did not depart until 7:30 pm which meant we would arrive to our next campsite after dark but we hopefully it would still be open. Unfortunately they really did not want after hours visitors given that it was closed, gated AND locked so we continued our search in the dark. Our F350 diesel makes an awful racket so entering campgrounds after hours makes us pretty unpopular neighbors. We finally found a campground near Sequim, Washington and set up for the night.
Sequim is on our list of potential new places to call home. It seemed like fate was telling us we need to seriously consider Sequim since we continually ran into travelers from the small town who told us stories of the town’s beauty. Although in Washington, Sequim sits in its own climate vortex the repels the constant rains that plague the rest of the state; even pilots call it the blue hole because of the phenomenon. We spent a couple of hours driving around Sequim the next morning but in the end, we determined that our future home sweet home was not to be in Sequim. It’s a little too small for our taste although it is a beautiful area.
We continued toward Seattle where we would spend the night then fly to Pennsylvania in the morning. About 10 miles out of town we had our first mechanical issue with the truck. I was driving when the truck pulled hard to the right, really hard! I pulled over immediately and we could see smoke coming from the front passenger side. Darryl got out and saw that it was coming from the wheel and that our trip to Seattle was at an end. AAA arrived an hour later tow us back to Port Angeles and we had to quickly work on our back-up plan to make our flight.
While at Ford, we booked a 5:30 AM flight out of Port Angeles. The Port Angeles Ford service was exceptional. While I was booking the flight they were booking our hotel room in Port Angeles for the night and arranging for the hotel owner to drive over to pick us up!
Our upcoming week would be a short vacation from our trip visiting family and celebrating the wedding of Darryl’s sister. It was a busy time in Pennsylvania with wonderful home cooked meals prepared by Darryl’s mom and late nights catching up with family. I was able to contribute in a small way to the festivities assisting with the flower arrangements. One of the highlights for me was spending an afternoon in a family friend’s flower garden picking flowers for the bouquets. Vicky is the master gardener and also very talented at flower arrangements. Darryl’s Aunt Joan, and I followed Vicky’s guidance making the flower arrangements for the wedding. It was a busy time full of laughter and in the end we created some beautiful arrangements.
It was a wonderful wedding surrounded by family and friends and full of love. We stayed until the last guests left the reception then the party continued the next day as family and friends dropped by Darryl’s parents’ home and we enjoyed more great food and company. Our time in Pennsylvania quickly came to an end and off to Iowa to visit my family before returning to our trip.
Our time in Iowa was a much quieter time even with visits from the majority of my family. My nephew brought my dog Jhango over along with the rest of his pack and a short period of chaos ensued as Kota, Kira and Jhango stormed into the house. He is so happy with his new posse it eases the guilt of leaving him behind. Jhango actually seemed excited to see me but once it was time to leave he was up and running with the rest of the pack to the car. He knows where his next meal is coming from these days!
There is a whole new generation of youngsters in the family, most of them of the toddler and younger age group. They are lots of fun but can wear you out! We made it to a volleyball game and watched my niece’s team destroy the competition! Ok, maybe not destroy but from the viewpoint of a proud Aunt it certainly seemed like it!
We were able to get in a few runs at the local parks which felt great but I quickly realized that my fitness level has taken a serious hit during our travels! i pulled out a deck of cards for a low cardio competition with my dad and we had a running series of gin rummy games going for the week. I even managed to beat him a couple times!
It was great to take a break from our travels to see our families. One thing that we learned from this trip is that it is important to not get so caught up in work and chores that you miss out on time with family and friends. Time will tell if I actually put this into practice once I return to work after our travels. I certainly hope the lessons of the road will infiltrate my daily life.
After our incredible day watching the orcas and humpbacks we had a quick lunch at our new favorite restaurant the Killer Whale Cafe in Telegraph Cove. Based on the advise of Jen and Dave we decided to spend a couple of days in Tofino. It’s a beautiful windy drive out to Tofino. For some time we drive along a river and then through a temperate rainforest. We camped at Bella Playa which is set amid a coastal forest. The coast was just a few steps away from our campsite and we spent every evening enjoying the colorful sunsets.
With so much to do in Tofino, our time here was far too short. There are a number of hikes in the Pacific Rim Rainforest park but we only did a couple of them. We spent most of the time walking along the beach where I enjoyed watching the star fish action. It’s a little like watching paint dry but I think it’s much more entertaining. 🙂 We also went on a couple of short hikes through the rainforest. I love walking through these forests which are so different from the pine forests I’m more familiar with in Tahoe or the massive redwoods along the Santa Cruz mountains.
We had a chance to break out our kayaking skills in Tofino on the Islander Tour with Tofino Sea Kayaking. This tour explores the Clayoquot Sound and the islands near Tofino. It was nice getting out on the water and seeing the area from a different perspective. I’m kind of enjoying this kayaking sport! Maybe we’ll be good enough one day to kayak the Napali Coast one day in Kauai!
We took a short side trip to Vancouver where we spent a few days enjoying the city. From Nanaimo on Vancouver Island we took the short ferry ride over to Vancouver. There is a great campground, Capilano RV Park, just under the north entrance of Lion’s Gate Bridge. The campground’s location made for easy access to the city.
On our first day in Vancouver we visited the Vancouver Aquarium. In 1996 the Vancouver Aquarium became the first aquarium in the world to commit to no longer capturing cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) from the wild. All of the whales, dolphins, and porpoises cared for by the aquarium were either born in an aquarium or suffered some sort of trauma in the wild and now considered unreleasable due to their situation. These ambassadors from the wild hopefully can impress upon visitors the importance of safeguarding our oceans and the planet.
One of the two pacific white sided dolphins at the aquarium. Both of these dolphins were rescued from entanglement from fixed fishing nets and were rehabilitated by Japan’s Enoshima Aquarium. Unfortunately their injuries were too severe to release them back into the wild.
The beluga whales at the aquarium are a mother (Aurora) / daughter (Qila) pair. Qila is the first beluga whale conceived and born in a Canadian aquarium. The pair will spend the rest of their days at the aquarium entertaining the visitors. It’s disappointing to learn that the aquarium promotes the breeding of captive whales rather than strictly limiting the number of cetaceans to rescued and rehabilitated animals.
We spent one of our days walking through much of Vancouver. We started with a stroll across Lion’s Gate Bridge then spent some time enjoying the sprawling Stanley Park along its southern entrance. As we walked across the bridge we were passed by dozens of bike commuters. Vancouver is a beautiful city that seems to be commuter friendly although my research for this blog post seems to contradict what I assumed based on my observations. There are bike lanes everywhere and we saw public transportation full of riders making it look like a lot of people actually use these two commute options yet the city is struggling to meet ridership projections to support the extensive network.
Darryl and I spent much of our time exploring Vancouver on foot. which is a favorite way for us to explore the cities that we visit. Driving through an area feels too sterile but walking the streets gives me a real sense of a place. It’s the perfect way to get a vibe on the city and its people.
Vancouver reminds me of the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz with buildings of glass creating a skyline that looks at once fragile and solid. I can’t imagine how it must feel to live in these steel framed glass houses growing out of a concrete landscape, disconnected from nature.
We walked along the waterfront from the park to the gaslight district enjoying the changing scenery. Eventually we succombed to taking a cab rather than walking to the Science Museum across town. After the museum we stopped at The Patty Shop which quickly hit my list of must try restaurants after reading the reviews on Yelp. If you ever make it to Vancouver you absolutely must make a side trip to The Patty Shop! This is a very small restaurant that only makes Jamaican patties (think empanadas). There is no place to sit inside but trust me that it’s worth a trip. Our first taste made it mandatory that we make a special side trip on our way out of town to stock up on the spinach patties and vegetable curry patties. I packed our refrigerator / freezer in the back of the cab with enough frozen patties to last us a couple of weeks!
We returned to Vancouver Island and continued south toward the beautiful city of Victoria. There was the cutest neighborhood of floating houses where we passed a few hours watching the local seals begging for food and photographing the quirky homes. What a fun little neighborhood! It might be a fun place to live if it weren’t for all of the tourists disturbing the peaceful setting.
The Royal BC Museum had the most beautiful exhibits that I have seen yet in a museum. Many of the exhibits had a wonderful interactive element to them which I found to be extremely engaging. All of the displays were impeccably designed giving me a new appreciation for the talents of museum curators.
At the museum we learned about the chalk festival that would start the following day. Below are a couple of artists working on their 3-D chalk art piece inside the Royal BC Museum. The museum did a wonderful job promoting the existence of the chalk art exhibit but nowhere on their brochures or website could be found a location for the exhibit! None of the museum employees knew where to find the street exhibits either. Luckily we found a local who directed us to where the exhibit was staged.
We spent the following afternoon admiring the chalk art on the streets of town. There were a few blocks that were cordoned off for the artists to display their talent. They spent one to two days drawing the art for the public to enjoy before traffic or the elements wiped their street canvas clean.
Our time on Vancouver Island drew to a close as we bumped up to a previously scheduled engagement on the East Coast. We jumped on the ferry to Port Angeles, Washington then drove to Seattle to catch a flight out of Seattle for a wedding. On the way to Seattle we had our first mechanical failure with our truck. Wouldn’t you know it, the one time during the trip when we have to meet a schedule we would break down! We called AAA and had our truck towed back to Ford in Port Angeles then made alternate arrangements to fly to Seattle to catch our flight. Now for a short break from the trip to spend time with family and friends.
Goodbye Vancouver and Vancouver Island. I’m sure we’ll be back some day to explore more of this area!
The ferry dropped us off at 2:00 AM in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada. Rolling into town in the middle of the night is one of my least favorite things to do. I have absolutely no room to complain considering that with the XP, all we have to do is park the truck and push a button (literally) to raise the camper. Voila and we’re ready for bed after a few minutes of minor set-up. This is easy compared to our fellow campers Brent & Janis who traveled Alaska by motorcycle and tent camp everywhere. We meet many motorcyclists along the way and spend hours talking to them about their experiences. It’s a mode of travel that we have considered but will have to wait for another trip once we have some experience. We’re not up for learning how to ride in a foreign country like the 3UpCollective group that we met in Baja earlier in our trip.
We had the whole day to explore Prince Rupert so decided to walk to the town and see what there was to see. Sadly, it is a very depressed looking town with most of the stores boarded up and the few that were open looked like they rarely saw any business. The grey weather added to the dreariness of the area. We asked some residents where we could get lunch and were pointed to a section of town called Cow Bay. It appears that this is where the city has spent all of its economic development money creating a quaint neighborhood along the bay next to the marina. We arrived when most of the restaurants were closed, just after lunch and before dinner, so we settled on a dark tavern whose menu has probably not been updated since it opened sometime in the late 70’s based on its decor. We just had bad timing considering that the other restaurants looked inviting with interesting menu selections.
Later we dropped by the community art center and wandered along the marina before returning to our campsite where we spent the rest of the evening talking with Brent & Janis, or motorcycle traveling neighbors. They both live on Quadra Island which sounds like paradise! Brent recommended that we go to this tiny town, Telegraph Cove, and take the Stubbs Island Whale Watching tour. He was a tour guide for the company years ago and said that it is the best in the area. This turned out to be the best recommendation ever! Thanks Brent!!!
The next morning we were treated to a major upgrade in ferry service when we boarded the BC Ferry. This felt like a luxury liner after the Alaska Marine Highway’s 30 year old ferries with food service that rivaled hospital meals in blandness. The ferries were new with a cafeteria style restaurant and another smaller cafe both serving freshly prepared meals along with a substantial selection of healthy, tasty vegetarian options. There was a small theatre room where we watched Tina Fey’s “Admissions”. The only downside was that the observation deck was reserved seating only. On the Alaska Ferry we spent many hours on the free observation deck watching the spectacular views provided by the Inside Passage so the restricted access to the BC Ferry observation deck was our only very small disappointment.
We reached Port Hardy on Vancouver Island in the very early morning hours and caught a few zzzzz’s before making the short drive down to Telegraph Cove. Once we rolled into Telegraph Cove later in the afternoon we immediately booked our tour with Stubbs Island Whale Watching. I was excited to see that their calendar showed orca and humpback whale sightings on every day over the past few weeks. I left feeling confident that the next day would be the highlight of our trip!
We had dinner at the Killer Whale Cafe where I fully expected to be underwhelmed. I was so wrong! If you ever make it to Telegraphy Cove be sure to stop in for a meal. Everything we tried at this family run restaurant was exceptional and the service was outstanding.
In camp later that evening we met Dave and Jenny, an English couple whose vacation on Vancouver Island was drawing to a close. They provided the entertainment for the rest of the evening with their banter about their lives in England. They figured out how to set boundaries between work and personal life, not allowing work to get its greedy claws on their personal time. This was a lesson that took me years to understand yet I never internalized enough to change. I quickly accepted the paid cell phone which also gave my employers free access to my personal time. I bought into the Silicon Valley myth that longer working hours were badges of honor rather than warning signs that I had an unhealthy emotional life; all work and no play. Thankfully my husband is a very wise man and steered us to an early pre-retirement to travel the Americas!
The stories that Dave & Jenny told us about the small town of Tofino on the other side of the island convinced us that maybe there was more to Vancouver Island than we first imagined. We originally gave ourselves three to four days to travel the length of the island. After our evening with Dave & Jenny we will definitely need to revise our estimates!
The next morning I was practically giddy with excitement about seeing my first orca. I expected that the tour would be the usual: pack a bunch of tourists onto a boat and take them out to the usual local places while the captain shares a mostly scripted commentary about the area in an unengaged manner. This tour was nothing like that! I can’t begin to praise Stubb’s Whale Watching enough for their genuine passion for their work creating an unforgettable experience for us.
Captain Wayne had more energy and excitement at 7 am than most of us can pull together after mid-morning and more than a few cups of coffee. This man loves his work and he was not putting on a show. He introduced us to Jackie (The Marine Detective), our on board naturalist who would share with us her knowledge of the orcas and whales that we would hopefully see. Jackie is truly passionate about her work. She became a naturalist on Vancouver Island after coming to the island for a vacation. She took the whale watching tour and was hooked. After her trip she returned to Europe where she was teaching, quit her job, packed up and moved to Vancouver Island to pursue a career studying marine mammals. When you watch Jackie and Captain Wayne at work you see true joy.
We were underway for less than 5 minutes when we saw the first family of orcas! Jackie identified them as the A30’s matriline, or family group, of Northern Resident orcas which are an inshore fishing group. Family groups are tracked by the matriarch and referred to as matrilines. Individual orcas and families are identified by distinctive markings on their dorsal fins and saddle patches. Swimming amongst the orcas were Dall’s porposes and Pacific White-Sided dolphins. The interesting thing about the Pacific White-Sided dolphins is that they were once extremely rare in the BC waters during the 19th & 20th centuries and some thought them to be extinct until 1956 when a fisherman spotted one north of Vancouver Island. Only since the 1990’s have there been regular sightings of them in the area. We stayed for almost an hour watching the orcas and dolphins. At one point an orca came swimming right alongside the boat! Eventually Captain Wayne received news of humpback sightings not far from where we were so we bid the orcas farewell.
We easily spotted the blow, which can reach up to 9’, from a humpback hundreds of yards away. Once sighted, we started in the direction of the whale and soon we saw another whale, and then another whale! Captain Wayne had a very good problem, we couldn’t be at three places at once so he had to make a choice. The whales stayed in the general area and we were able to see their tails as they made their dives. Jackie is able to identify the various whales by the unique markings on the underside of the tails. Regular sightings of humpbacks in the area started again just in 2002. Whale hunting decimated their populations and they are just now starting to return.
We were lucky to witness a whale lunge feeding. Jackie and Captain Wayne identified the place where it was likely to happen. They could see that the birds were gathering and diving into centralized area. This behaviour will frighten the fish causing them to come together in a large group. The whale then comes up from the bottom of the school with its massive jaws opened taking in the fish, water and sometimes an unfortunate bird. The water is squeezed out of its mouth through the baleen then swallowing the fish that remain.
Our whale watching tour came to an end and we had to return to the dock. During the return Jackie gathered the group together inside the boat to talk about the current state of the orcas and whales. The orcas are dying too young due to the high concentrations of PCB’s in their systems. The concentrations of these toxins increases as you go up the food chain. Orcas and whales are high in the food chain and carry these lethal dosages. Because the chemicals are concentrated in the fat and the fat content of the female’s milk is extremely high, the females are able to release much of the poisons in their systems when they nurse their young, feeding the young this concoction of poisons.
The other threat this wildlife faces is the possible opening of the no-go-zone for boats / shipping in their hunting and migration route. Because of pressure from the business and shipping industries the Canadian government is considering opening the boating no-go-zone to commercial traffic. Just when these animals are getting a second chance and starting to come back they are facing yet another threat. Talk about hitting an orca when its down!
The whales are also fighting against declining food sources. They feed on krill but also schooling fish like herring, sand lance and pilchard pitting them in direct competition with our increasing aquaculture industry. Who do you think will win? Increases in aquaculture (fish farming) result in the capture of feed stock, like herring, for these farms. Between 50%-80% of all prey fish captured are fed to farmed fish and the majority of the remaining is fed to industrially farmed pigs and chickens. If you’re interested in learning more read the 2009 Oceana report “Hungry Oceans: What Happens When the Prey is Gone?”.
Want your omega-3’s without the risk of PCB’s & Mercury? Eat flax, hemp, soy and walnuts. The orcas and whales thank you for it!
So where were we?
Leaving for our 1.5 year journey in less than 2 months time and no vehicle. That was pretty much the state of things in mid to late December 2013.
Knowing that most custom vehicle manufacturers would have a 6-12 month delivery time, going new was not an option. So, I began looking through various internet sites such as expedition portal, eBay, Craigslist, etc…in the hopes of finding a pre-owned overland solution which would meet our requirements. I looked for about 3-4 weeks before reaching the following conclusions: a) there are plenty of vehicles for sale at any given time, b) everyone has their own idea as to what constitutes an overland vehicle, and c) there were no vehicles out there in our budget that we felt comfortable purchasing.
I am not a car geek or enthusiast. However, if I see something that I like, I do get excited. All of my adult life I have had a fascination with just two vehicles. They are the Toyota FJ and the Land Rover Defender. I have read about these vehicles over the years on how they are the workhorses used to support various expeditions throughout the world. If these vehicles could work through the rugged deserts of Africa and the high mountains of the Himalayas, then surely one of them could support a drive from Alaska to Argentina. No?
The Land Rover Defenders were last available in the US in the mid to late 90’s. So relatively speaking, they are quite rare in the U.S. and have a price tag to reflect that fact. Looking at the older FJ models was not any more attractive. It seemed that you either get a fixer upper for a low price or a restored vehicle for the cost of a modern day luxury vehicle. We had no time for a fixer upper and no interest in buying a utilitarian vehicle which had the price tag of a Lexus.
However, Toyota was still at the top of the list since they were known for both their reliability and strong legacy of expedition support. So I began looking at their modern day lineup. The Tundra, the Tacoma, and the FJ Cruiser all seem to fit the bill. The pickup trucks would give us the space we required to carry all of our gear and allow us to do some level of customization(water tank installed in the bed, slide out cooking environment, storage compartments) all contained within a camper shell. The FJ,while not having quite as much room as the pickup truck, was added to the list because of its off-road capability. Every review that I have read or watched always came to the same conclusion on the FJ. Good enough on the pavement, awesome off-road!
Autotrader and Craigslist became my new best friend as I searched the ads daily. Living in California does have its advantages because there are a lot of cars for sale…and many within our budget! Test driving each of these vehicles proved to be critical as both my wife and I would be driving the vehicle during our trip and would have to like the platform.
A good friend of mine had a Toyota Tacoma and allowed me to drive it around a bit. I really liked the size of the vehicle, but had some reservations on its spartan-like interior and whether the six cylinder engine would be up for the task. It just felt a bit underpowered and he just has the truck. Imagine the performance when weighted down with a camper shell, gear, water, etc…This ended up being a non-factor since my wife came away from her test drive with the Tacoma uninspired.
If we don’t like it, we won’t buy it. No matter how desperate we are.
So on to the Tundra. We looked at both versions. Absolutely love the ultra reliability of version 1. My neighbor has one with well over 250k miles on it. No issues whatsoever. I loved the sheer size and power of the newer Tundra (v2) and felt that would make an excellent vehicle. It was the double cab model, lots of power, and an extended bed. We both did a test drive. I loved it! The wife? Well, let’s just say that she did not share my enthusiasm. Oh well…
So that just leaves the FJ.
We headed over to the local dealership to look at their used inventory and take one for a test drive. Impressions: Nice. Smooth engine. Good pickup / acceleration, decent amount of room inside, and a funky look to it that I really liked. Not bad, but the asking price was not in our budget. I liked it but had reservations about whether the internal space would be enough, but my wife really liked driving the vehicle. So we are now getting somewhere.
We would continue to research this vehicle option a bit more and look for an FJ within our price range.
By now it is early February and we still do not have a vehicle to support our trip. Our planned departure of February 6, 2013 has come and gone. In mid February I came across an ad for someone selling their FJ in the local area which met our budget requirements. We went to check it out and do the mandatory test drive. Everything looked good. We did not make an offer on the vehicle that day. We went home and immediately dumped everything we knew about the car into Kelly BB to get a sense of what the car was worth. Our offer would be based on these numbers. We called back the next day and made an offer contingent on the local Toyota dealership going through the car from top to bottom so that we could get an idea as to the current mechanical condition of the vehicle. The inspection identified a couple of minor items. No big deal. We got a repair quote from the dealer and reviewed it with the owners. They agree to accept our revised offer which took into account the repairs costs. We are now the owners of a Toyota FJ Cruiser.
Great, a car that can do anything and go anywhere, but we still needed a place to sleep. Remember, while the FJ may have some storage capacity and off-road prowess, it is not an RV and has no accommodations for cooking, sleeping,etc…so we still had our work cut out for us.
Towing anything was out of the questions since we wanted to keep the overall vehicle setup simple. Additionally, towing some type of living arrangement just meant one more thing that could go wrong (axle, tires, etc…) and finding replacements on the road outside of the US / Canada could prove to be problematic. A trailer was definitely not something we wanted to deal with and not something we would use after the trip. Therefore, not a good way to spend our money.
During my research on the trip, I saw images of Australian and some Europeans over-landers with tents on the top of their overland vehicle. I later learned these are called roof top tents (RTT). The Australians use this method of camping since the ground critters in their country can actually be quite deadly! I figured this approach may work out for us.
Online research showed two manufacturers which were relatively close to us. They were Tapui tents which is located in Santa Cruz,CA and Cascadia Vehicle Tents (CVT) out of Bend, OR.
Santa Cruz is only about 30 minutes from where we live so I called them to see what type of inventory they had immediately available. The answer was none. They were expecting a major inventory shipment in March/April and anything they did have was going to be used for early season trade shows.
The next call was to Cascadia Vehicle Tents. I was able to talk with the owner Craig. I told him our situation and he confirmed that they did not have any inventory for the tent options that we were considering. Like Tapui, they too were expecting a major inventory shipment in the March/April time frame.
I hung up the phone feeling totally dejected. We had no other leads or ideas for sleeping arrangements at that time (we were not willing to do the ground tent method). It looked like we would have to postpone the departure date of the trip again while we waited for the vendors to restock their inventory. This was not looking good.
About two hours later, I happened to check my phone and noticed a missed call from the number I had dialed for CVT. I called back to see what was up. Craig called back to let me know that CVT may have a demo model of one of the tent options we wanted at his showroom in Bend, OR. He was traveling at the time to some early season trade shows, but had left a call for one of his relatives to check availability. He said he would let me know for sure once he had confirmation. Later that day he called to confirm that they had the Mt. Rainier tent at their shop. Great, we will take it!!
One problem though, Craig was out on the road doing trade shows to promote his products and would not be back in Bend, OR for a couple of weeks. So we could not take possession of the tent until he returned. Just for reference, CVT is a small, family owned company. We made plans to be there in Bend, OR the first day of his return.
We arrived in Bend the night prior to our meeting and stayed at a friend’s house for the night. We met Craig first thing in the morning and began dismantling the tent which was being demoed on an old Toyota FJ45 in his showroom. We then re-assembled it on top of our FJ Cruiser. We were now the owners of a CVT Mt. Rainier tent.
We had some additional work done to the FJ Cruiser during the two week period we were waiting to go to Bend,OR to pickup our tent. A couple days after we purchased the vehicle we went to meet with Jeff Arabia at Arabia’s Overkill in San Jose, CA.
We wanted to have an additional battery installed on the vehicle and a inverter added so that we could charge our laptops, cell phone, etc…during our journey. Additionally, we asked them to remove the backseat and create storage compartments in the area behind the front seats and a fold out cooking platform which we could use when the rear door of the FJ was open. We brought the vehicle back a few days later for him to begin the work.
Even though this work was relatively straightforward, if you are in the San Jose, CA and need work done on your 4WD vehicle, I would recommend that you talk to him about your needs. He is a very knowledgeable person and has a great personality too!
Vehicle-wise we are all ready to go!! Finally!!
You are probably thinking that’s the end of the story, right?
Well, not quite.
So back in December 2013, I actually placed a call to XP Camper to find out their current production cycle times for a new camper. Unfortunately, it had not changed and was still at about ten months. My wife and I talked about it for a few days and decided to go ahead and put a deposit down which would officially put us in the production queue. We were given a delivery date of September / October 2014. So given that time frame, that would put us in the FJ Cruiser for the first six to seven months of our journey.
While I was searching for the vehicle which turned out to be the FJ Cruiser; in parallel I was also searching for a used one ton pickup truck that would be the platform for the eventual XP Camper build. In the U.S. diesel pickup truck arena, there are essentially three engines to consider: Ford PowerStroke, Dodge Cummins, and Chevy Duramax.
All are good engines. But from my research and discussions with the diesel experts in the area (Imler and Left Coast) the Cummins and Duramax engines were the most highly regarded overall. From the power stroke series, the 7.3L power stroke is highly sought after for both its reliability and performance. Other versions of the PowerStroke engine, such as the 6.0L,not so much due to potential reliability issues.
We ended buying a 2002 Ford F-350 7.3L V8 PS with 88,000 miles on it.
Why a Ford? It really came down to a couple of items.
The first was cost. Dodge and Chevy trucks have a much higher resale value than comparable Ford trucks. Great if you are the seller. Not so good if you are the buyer. The second was the 7.3L engine. As mentioned earlier, it is highly regarded and most diesel truck enthusiasts will tell you that the Ford engine designs post 7.3L production have not been on par with the 7.3L for both overall reliability and performance.
We found the truck on eBay in late December 2013. The truck was not being sold by a Ford dealer, but by what I will call a ‘2nd tier’ dealership. Not having previously dealt with this type of dealership before, I did my due diligence and searched the internet for customer reviews and BBB feedback. Everything I found on the dealership turned out to be quite positive.
The pictures linked to the auction showed the truck to be in very good to excellent condition. The truck’s location was in Southern California (SoCal). We live in Northern California. Distance-wise, it may sound close, but it is at least a 7 hour drive to the vehicle’s dealer location. Not wanting to travel that distance just be be disappointed or not purchase the vehicle, we hired an independent vehicle inspector from SoCal to check out the vehicle for us. The inspector would go over the car from head to toe and advise on current status, test drive performance, and provide additional photos of the interior and exterior. The report from the inspector came back a day or two later and was extremely positive. Only a couple of minor items were identified which we eventually reviewed with the vehicle dealership and they took care of them. I was feeling better about things, but still not eager to head on down to SoCal. I happened to be on Google Earth (or similar) and was looking at street view photos of the vehicle dealership. I happened to notice that there was an actual Ford dealership located near the vehicle dealership. I called the vehicle dealership and told them I was interested in purchasing the truck, but wanted to have a diesel specialist from Ford to inspect the it. The vehicle dealership agreed as long as I made the appointment and paid for the cost of the inspection. No problem!
Ford went through the car from top to bottom and remarked that overall the vehicle was in very good condition. Again, the issues which were identified were the same as the independent vehicle inspector’s. The vehicle dealership addressed all items which were highlighted during the inspection process.
We drove down to SoCal to look at the car for ourselves and take it for a test drive. Everything checked out just fine. We purchased the car that day and proceeded to drive it directly to Grass Valley, CA (XP Camper location) for drop-off. By now, it is late January 2014. Remember our planned February departure date? That is why we did not bring the truck back to San Jose, CA with us. We were in the process of moving everything from our house into storage as well as dealing with other last minute trip details. This was the only time we had available to drive to Grass Valley, CA which is a 4 hour drive from our home.
So by the time we leave for our trip, we will have a Toyota FJ Cruiser with a CVT roof top tent to use for the first 6-7 months of the trip and we have delivered a Ford F-350 pickup to XP Camper for our long term solution which is projected to be completed by September/October 2014.
Finally, no more thinking about and searching for vehicles!!
So, despite our original plan, we actually ended up leaving for our trip on March 8, 2014. We spent some time exploring Death Valley NP, Joshua Tree NP, Mojave Desert,and the Salton Sea area in California before making our way down along the Baja Peninsula to catch the humpback whale migration.
In the interest of time, we will fast forward a bit since this article is about vehicles and not the trip per se. Be sure to check out the other blog entries for actual trip details. 🙂
We took delivery of our XP Camper on July 10, 2014.
…“Huh? I thought you said it would be done in the September / October time frame!”
I did, but…On April 16, 2014, my wife and I were sitting in a cafe in Loreto, Baja California Sur checking email. I received an email from the owner of XP Camper. In the email, he stated that there was a used XP Camper available and asked would we be interested in purchasing it as opposed to waiting for a new one? Heck yeah!! Going this route would save us both time and money. Our delivery date now pulls in from the September/October to June/July timeframe. What an unexpected surprise!!
We received the vehicle just in time to familiarize ourselves with it for a few days in the Tahoe National Forest before heading up to Bellingham, WA to catch a ferry to our next destination. ALASKA.
So, there you have it. The condensed version of our vehicle journey.
Next up: My impressions of each of our overland solutions (Sportsmobile, FJ/CVT combo, XP Camper)…
On our way to Whittier we stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The Center provides a home for animals that were either rescued due to injury or because they were found orphaned at a very young age and have little chance for survival in the wild. One of the exceptions is the wood bison program which is run in cooperation with Canada with a mission to restore the wood bison to their former Alaskan habitat. This is the only wood bison herd in the United States. The conservationists expect to release them into an area in the interior of Alaska sometime in March, 2015. At the center are three grizzlies, a couple of black bears, porcupine, moose, musk ox, reindeer a bald eagle, caribou, a fox, a pair of lynx and sitka black tailed deer.
The grizzlies were the most popular and I spent most of my time watching these beautiful giants. Two of the grizzlies are brother and sister and there is another female with them. When I first approached the grizzly enclosure I only saw the females. I was much impressed with their size, especially after watching their smaller neighbors, the black bears which I have seen in California’s Yosemite Park. But then big brother comes along, a giant among them. Although I saw a few grizzlies in Denali I was nowhere near this close to them. These are truly impressive animals.
Our next stop was Whittier, Alaska, a tiny town that sits along the Kenai Peninsula. We would only stay for less than 24 hours before picking up the ferry to take us to Valdez.
To get to Whittier we had to drive through a 13,200 foot tunnel that is a multi-use road / rail line. It’s only one lane and the traffic queues on each end of the tunnel awaiting an opportunity to pass through. The trains have priority to meet their schedule and the traffic alternates in 15 minute intervals. Once in Whittier, we realized just how tiny this town was. It took us just a couple of minutes to walk through the town of 222 (2013 population). There were only a handful of stores and a couple of restaurants. We were a little surprised to see a cruise ship docked here considering that we didn’t see many other tourists during our stroll. It would be hard to miss a couple thousand cruisers! Later we saw the railroad tracks for the train that picks up the passengers straight from the dock and takes them onto other destinations beyond the town.
We boarded the ferry to Valdez and spent a rainy couple of days there. After Whittier, Valdez seemed like a small city! It’s the end point for the Trans-Alaska pipeline which moves the oil from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields across Alaska to the port of Valdez. The town made headlines in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez tanker hit a reef, releasing over 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. “The Atlantic” website has a beautiful photo essay covering the 25th anniversary of the spill titled “The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: 25 Years Ago Today“.
We visited the museum which describes the spill and its continued impact on the environment and the social impact on the fishermen and Native Alaskans whose lives were changed forever by the spill. Exxon fought the $5 Billion dollar punitive judgement against it eventually paying only $507.5 Million. In response, a shame pole has been erected by the Alaskan Natives of Cordova at the Ilanka Cultural Center.
We spent some time watching people fishing along the docks in the marina for salmon lost in its maze. These salmon barely missed the entrance to their native spawning stream and ended up here. It made me incredibly sad to see them here, their epic journey at an end with no hope of achieving their life’s mission. Considering that I have no sense of direction and I could completely empathize with these navigationally challenged individuals. If reincarnation is the way of the universe then I hope that I never return as a salmon considering this would surely be my fate.
Our time in Alaska was quickly drawing to an end. We had a ferry to catch out of Haines in two days and 690 miles to cover in that time. This made for a couple of very long days of driving. The views and incredible landscapes made it an easy journey and one that I didn’t want to end too quickly.
We arrived in Haines, Alaska sometime in late afternoon. Just in time for dinner. Our first stop was the ferry terminal to see if they would let us camp in their parking lot since we would be boarding at 7:30 am which means they expect you in line by 5:30 am. We got the ok then we found something to eat. It’s been a lot of fish ‘n chips and hummus throughout Alaska and today wasn’t any different. As you can probably imagine, there are not a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables to be found but surprisingly, we consistently found that the restaurants were out of salmon! Go figure?!
After dinner we drove around the town for awhile and we were lucky enough to see two more bald eagles. The guide books say that there are bald eagles everywhere in Haines although we saw just these two. Given our very limited wildlife sightings we weren’t surprised that we didn’t see many bald eagles. Maybe when we return some day the eagles, bears, wolves, foxes, salmon, and others will reveal themselves to us.
We boarded the Alaska Marine Ferry for our second time through the Inside Passage. This time through we would be in Juneau for a few hours; just long enough to go see the Mendenhall Glacier. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to do the hike to get closer to the glacier but the views from the visitor center were wonderful. Nugget Falls, some distance to the right of the glacier ran directly under the glacier until the 1970’s. You can see from the photo below that the glacier has retreated quite a bit from those earlier days. Check here for a chronology of the glacier’s retreat along with some photographs of the glacier from earlier times.
Ketchikan was the next town that we visited during our trip through the Inside Passage. It was a very wet walk into town to the visitor center where we picked up a map of the town’s totem poles. We visited the Totem Heritage Center where salvaged Tlingit and Haida totem poles were on display. As we passed over Ketchikan Creek Darryl noticed a group of salmon in the waters. As we looked closer we noticed that the whole creek was packed with hundreds of salmon! It was the most amazing sight seeing the creek literally shimmering with life.
Our time in Alaska has drawn to a close and our wild, beautiful adventure in this beautiful State was more spectacular than I expected. We are so grateful for this opportunity that we have to make this epic journey and we definitely made the right decision when we added Alaska to the itinerary.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!!
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!
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!
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 where 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.
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!
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.
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.
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!!!
We had a beautiful drive through the Canadian Province of the Yukon Territory. If this is what is in store for us as we travel through Alaska then we’ll have some beautiful drives ahead of us! We stopped at Kluane Lake for lunch and took a few moments to capture the scenery around us. There were some boon docking options along the lake but we decided to drive on through to Tok, Alaska taking advantage of the long daylight hours.
Our first stop in Tok was at their visitor’s center where Darryl found a pamphlet advertising a local dog musher and a tour of his kennels. We called Hugh Neff, the 2012 Yukon Quest winner, to ask him if we could schedule a tour of his kennels. He invited us to his talk later that evening at a local hotel were we could meet one of his dogs and arrange a time for a tour the following morning. He also suggested that we drive out to Chicken, Alaska for the day. Chicken was on our pre-trip planning map and we were on the fence as to whether to drive out there or not. We just drove 400 miles the day before so we were a little road weary. At Hugh’s suggestion we decided that we should make the drive.
The woman at the Tok Visitor’s Center told us that there were now six full time residents in Chicken. After visiting Chicken, I honestly can’t tell you what they do all year round. During the summer the town probably doubles in size with a small transient population that spends their summer in Chicken working at the tourist shops. They live the rest of the year in Dawson City leaving the locals to stay through the harsh winter. The roads aren’t plowed so their only way to the nearest town is by snow machine.
We had a nice lunch at the Chicken Creek Cafe then spent some time walking around the town. The sights include a giant metal chicken at the top of a small hill along with a sign post showing the distances to cities with name associations to Chicken, a gold panning operation and a historic town. The day was cloudy and overcast which limited the typically incredible scenic views along the road to Chicken. It was still a nice day trip from Tok and worth the extra time in the driver’s seat.
Once back in Tok we went directly to Hugh’s talk where we learned about the Yukon Quest race which is arguably a tougher race than the famous Iditarod. Hugh explained that although they are both the same length, 1,000 miles, the terrain is more remote and more rugged. There are less than half the number of checkpoints in the Yukon Quest than during the Iditarod. Fewer checkpoints means that the Quest teams have to carry substantially more supplies (i.e. more weight) to support themselves between these resupply opportunities. All Quest teams have a mandatory 36 hour layover in Dawson City which is 12 hours longer than the mandatory 24 hour layover in the Iditarod at the checkpoint of the racer’s choosing.
Hugh’s passion for his dogs and mushing is evident from the first moment you meet him. He brought one of his dogs, Walter, to the talk. I was shocked at how small the dog was and doubly shocked to find out that he was part German Shorthair just like my Jhango. He certainly hid that side of his breeding since he looked more like a husky / german shepherd mix. Walter is one of Hugh’s lead dogs and has a charming personality. We got the chance to see Walter at work the next morning.
When we arrived at Hugh’s “Laughing Eyes Kennel” the following morning all we heard were dozens of dogs barking. Hugh was just finishing the morning feeding of fish gruel. He told us we could go play with the puppies while he finished feeding the dogs. They were soooo cute but I resisted going into their kennel to play with them because they were covered in fish gruel. I don’t mind getting a little dirty but we were both on our last pair of pants. Smelling like fish for the day didn’t sound so appealing.
As soon as Hugh started harnessing the dogs the barking hit a frenzied pitch as each dog tried to convince Hugh that the were the most eager to run this morning. And once they were in their harnesses the dogs lunged against the harnesses in a vain attempt to get the workout started. They did not want to wait around! I couldn’t believe how small these dogs were and they are all different breed mixes. They are lean and completely focused on their task. Walter was Mr. Social the night before at the talk but when I came over to greet him while he was standing at his lead position he wouldn’t move to look at me. He was all business standing there with his head down letting the team know that they can’t go until Hugh yells “hike’.
Their summer training means pulling a quad runner along the trails around Hugh’s property. They go out only three times a week for around 20 minutes to maintain their fitness. The real training doesn’t begin until late summer / early fall when Hugh takes them out for 70-100 miles runs. These dogs are incredible athletes and they love their job and they love Hugh. The interaction between Hugh and the dogs was inspiring. It’s rare to see somebody so in love with their work.
With the dogs all harnessed, they pulled the three of us on the quad runner for 20 minutes. Take a look at the video to see the speed of the dogs and you can hear their excitement. The clip is from the first few minutes of the run. They settled into a nice jog a little later but even then Hugh was braking at times to keep the dogs from running too hard. The temperature was in the low 60’s when we started which is really warm for the dogs. It didn’t dampen their enthusiasm though!
We really enjoyed our time with Hugh and his dogs. Hugh shared with us his story of growing up in Chicago and his dream as a kid of moving to Alaska to become a musher. What a great story and then he wins the 2012 Yukon Quest 12 years after his first 1,000 mile race. Hugh is an advocate for reading and spends much of his time speaking at Alaskan schools talking about the importance of reading and following your dreams. This will surely be one our our highlights during our Alaska portion of the trip.