Alaska-Bound Part II: The People Make The Trip

The second part of our trip was punctuated by displays of generosity and goodwill from those we encountered along the way. From times of need to times of just being in the right place at the right time, our journey from Smithers, BC to Wasilla, Alaska highlighted one of our favorite reasons to travel full-time: The opportunity to connect. We were honored and humbled to witness the inherent goodness of a warm welcome and a helping hand so many times on this leg of our journey, finding that people are generally willing to share the best of themselves when they meet travelers.

Let’s start from the beginning. This leg of the trip takes us from Smithers, BC where we were helping out and enjoying the fruits of labor at Old Iron Farm & Apiary.

The bigheartedness of the Dobrenski family cannot be understated and we are eager to make a return trip on our way back to the lower-48. We’re grateful they sent us on the road with a bounty from their farm, including some beautiful honey and pastured pork (Read more here). From there, we cruised onto the Cassiar Highway.

About 60k up the highway and long past the safety net of any town or pay phone, the unimaginable happened: One of our tires went flat!

From what we could tell, we must have run over a piece of angle iron that not only cut through the rubber, but through the steel belts and all the way down to the run-flat insert. At first it was unnoticeable; it just sounded like the road had gotten a little rougher. But Martin felt something wasn’t quite right, so we pulled over to find a seriously misshapen tire. We get so many questions about our truck’s tires, we now had to put changing one of them to the test.

We made it back to Kitwanga, BC on the sturdy run-flat without issue. There, we found a helpful waitress at 37 Grille who offered us the phone and a place to park (with a view, we might add). We have GoodSam Roadside Assistance, but they couldn’t get someone there for six hours, so our waitress quickly and obligingly got one of her restaurant regulars on the phone, a local handyman. Joey appeared just minutes later, happy to help and with all the tools we’d need for the job. With a 6-foot cheater bar and a little bit of muscle, we were back up and running in no time, but not until we had enjoyed some of the finest Rhubarb Torte at 37 Grille (rivaling my late grandma Rosie’s).

Onward! At the recommendation of many, we decided to make the detour to Stewart, BC and Hyder, Alaska. The Coastal mountains and glaciers in this region were magical and we enjoyed the uptick in our bear count as we drove. (Bethany has a minimum quota of animals we are to see on the trip, and bear sightings are one of them). We settled at a roadside pullout in front of the Bear Glacier for the night.

In Stewart, we made the rounds in the tiny town, but were advised not to do any hiking as bear activity has been particularly aggressive lately. Instead, we decided to head across the border and get “Hyderized,” a hyped-up term meaning we crossed the border into the tiny historic mining town of Hyder, and one of the few southeastern Alaskan towns that can be accessed by car, rather than boat or plane.

Seeing the Salmon Glacier just outside of Hyder was humbling as we noted its clear and constant regression.

Getting back into British Columbia from that short little side-trip was one of the more complicated parts of our journey. At the border, the black gloves came out…We had been selected for a full inspection. Luckily, our border agent was kind and more curious about the truck than anything.

She let us pass without incident and we moved on, stopping at Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park to dine on the lake. The increasing amount of daylight at night gave us energy to keep driving well into the evening, and we made a final stop at Sawmill Point Recreation Area on Dease Lake for the night. The road down to the point was a bumpy one, and we were feeling fortunate for the hardiness of the truck.

The next day, we stopped at the tourist magnet that is Jade City. Much like South of the Border in South Carolina, it was a giant let-down, yet a fun way to mark down the miles. Fun fact: About 90% of the world’s jade comes from this region’s Cassiar Mountains.

Afterward, we spent some time hiking and paddling in the bright turquoise water at Boya Lake Provincial Park before crossing the border into the Yukon Territory and onto the Alaska Highway. As dusk rolled in, we had the pleasure of sighting a few more bears, porcupines and pine martens on the roadside.

The Yukon is the least populated in Canada with just around 36,000 people in the entire territory (in a space that’s larger than California!) For a land so seemingly wide open and entrenched in a ‘wild west’ mindset, we were surprised to find it brimming with rules & regulations. The section from Watson Lake to the Alaskan border was among the most difficult to find stealth camping spots on the trip as most pullouts were adorned with ample “No Overnight Parking” signs. (Though there’s a few good spots like this one at Pickhandle Lake that don’t discourage overnight visitors).

Luckily, Whitehorse was an oasis of awesomeness in the Yukon. Starting with a hike at Miles Canyon, we knew we had found a treasure.

The running trails and suspension bridge over Miles Canyon overlook some of the first few dozen miles of the spectacularly turquoise Yukon River as it meanders northwest to the Bering Sea. Glacial sediment gives the water that distinctly beautiful color and the way it contrasts with the basaltic lava canyon walls is gorgeous.

The visitor’s center in town is extremely welcoming toward travelers and has desks and wifi where we could get some work done. There are ample parking areas designated for RVs/vans near the paddle outfitters and the visitor’s center. If you find yourself in Whitehorse, be sure to check out:

– Up North Adventures – They hooked us up with an inflatable stand up paddle board and transportation for a fantastic 30k trip from the Marsh Lake Dam to the dam in Whitehorse.

Alpine Bakery – Organic breads & treats from German ladies who are serious about their dough.

– Riverside Grocery – A cramped, but extremely well-stocked place to provision right downtown & across from the historic SS Klondike. There’s not a commercial whole foods store for miles, so it was refreshing to find a place with all the basics and then some.

– The Dirty Northern – Grab a pizza a beer… the oval-shaped wood-fired pies are full of flavor and are surprisingly sophisticated.

– Coast Mountain Sports – The closest thing you’ll find to an REI in these parts.

– Baked Coffee Shop – Very few places in Whitehorse have wifi beyond the visitor’s center. This is one of them. They also happen to make a pretty good cup of joe.

– Run the Millennium Trail – One of the cool things about Whitehorse is that you don’t have to go far to get your adventure on. Trails like the Yukon River Trail and Millennium Trail connect downtown to the network of trails out by Miles Canyon so you can hike & run to your heart’s content (all with a view of that gorgeous Yukon River).

– Don’t leave without checking out the Fish Ladder. When they built the dam, planners hadn’t accounted for the fact that the Chinook would be up a creek without a paddle…. So they gave the salmon a leg up by building the world’s largest fish ladder to help them swim up over the dam to spawn.

From Whitehorse, we drove through Kluane National Park and the home of the largest non-polar icefields in the world, including the highest peak in Canada, Mount Logan, at 19,551 feet. We saw several of the area’s Dall sheep and hiked the Sheep Creek trail with stellar views of the valley and Lake Kluane.

Up to this point, the roads had been pretty good; nothing outside of a few trailheads that an average RV couldn’t tackle. But, at this point there was an increasing number and severity to the frost heaves in the road. More and more sections became compacted dirt roads or were under repair. Apparently, road repair in these parts is a labor of Sisyphus… Part of the problem is that the permafrost layer is full of glacial sediment/ice which turns to liquid in warmer temps. Then, upon refreezing, the roads rupture and create mammoth cracks.

Most are well-marked and have attempted to have been repaired, but whew! It’s a bumpy ride in some spots! Where many a Winnebago had passed us at our constant 55 mph earlier in the trip, we were now leaving the same RVs in the dust as we effortlessly maintained our speed over the road craters. We heard horror stories of conventional RV-owners’ microwaves flying out of windows, cabinets dumping their contents, bumpers falling off, and the like. Our truck, on the other hand, rather likes the bumps in the road.

Our first day in Alaska, we drove through Tok and North Pole and stayed in Fairbanks for a few days.  Admittedly, we were a little disappointed in our first impressions… To our expectation, Alaska was supposed to be filled with awe-inspiring glaciers, snow-capped mountains, rivers & lakes galore, and animal sightings on every turn. What we found were thin stands of black spruce and boreal forest for miles (not that we can deny the ecological significance of its austerity).  

As a city, Fairbanks was a little run-down, but it turned out to be a meeting ground for several friendly faces – one of whom we had actually met while traveling from Tahoe to San Francisco earlier this spring! Subsequently, two different families (one local and one visiting from Tennessee) introduced themselves. They had seen the video of us on YouTube, and the teens were fans of the truck and inspired by the life of travel. It was so encouraging to see a younger generation already looking beyond the standard American life and dreaming of something deeper.

Though it was 4th of July weekend, we decided to brave the crowds and move southward toward Denali National Park. It wasn’t our best travel move, but it was in the right direction so we thought, “What the hell? How bad can it be?” So many people tell us that Denali is a life-changing experience for them, but we picked the wrong weekend. The tourist buses were filled to the brim (you can’t drive in to Denali unless on lottery), and were advised against road biking the main dirt road of the park this weekend. It wasn’t good weather to view Denali, anyway, so we opted for some of the hikes in the front country instead.

“Look, ma! No views!”
The loop around Byers Lake in Denali State Park to the south, for instance, was a great 5-6 mile hike but didn’t produce the elusive views we sought on account of the weather. A big mountain like Denali produces its own weather and shows itself on its own time. Luckily for us, we’ll be in the vicinity until November, so we can always make another go of it.

Should have been a mountain in the distance there……Denali is elusive! (Hike around Byers Lake and Campground, part of Denali State Park)
Instead, we spent the rainy weekend enjoying the tiny town of Talkeetna in all its festive 4th of July glory.

We learned about the magic of the Alaskan fishing favorite: Xtra-Tuf rain boots. As Murphy’s Law would have it, Martin buying rain boots encouraged the rain to leave and we headed east to Palmer. We had heard of some spectacular hiking areas up on Hatcher Pass, but it was still cloudy so we chose a local hike in the Talkeetna Mountains to the summit of Lazy Mountain.

Dense clouds starting to settle in at the halfway point as we continued our climb up Lazy Mountain.
The climb was anything but lazy with a 3,700-foot elevation gain in just 2.5 miles. Views? Nope. A dense blanket of clouds enshrouded us at the top, a sight that was impressive enough in itself. Fittingly, our July 4th activity was reaching the American flag set up at the summit of Lazy Mountain.

That night, we camped on the braided and ever-changing Matanuska River. The clouds finally started to lift so we could see for the first time in days that we were surrounded by mountains. With expansive views of the Chugach Range & Pioneer Peak across from us, and the Knick Glacier to the east, we could also see the area we had just hiked behind us.

The next few days proved to be some of our favorite from the trip so far. And, again, it goes back to the people we met.

In Wasilla, we finally got to link up with Andrew Cater, a fellow FLMTV owner and military veteran who has been in touch with us for months, offering travel tips & his valuable insights on the truck. Andrew is in the business of buying military trucks like ours at auction, servicing them and making any necessary repairs, then reselling them. He has kindly offered us his driveway for the week where, together, we are fine-tuning the truck and getting all of its annual service needs completed. His other business venture, Alaska Backcountry Cold Brew Coffee, has kept us pleasantly caffeinated and on the ball. Andrew and his business partner, Jen, make their brew locally from glacier water and we loved it.

On the afternoon of our first day in Wasilla, a local recreational pilot reached out to us. He had seen our truck and thought, “You know…if these two have the initiative and passion to be doing what they’re doing, then I really need to show them this area from a perspective they can’t get from their truck.”

Kurt and his wonderful wife, Chelle, instantly became old friends and we were thrilled to be offered the invitation to share in their passion for flying. Their plane lovingly sits in the front yard where a community airstrip is just a stone’s throw away. Bethany had never been in a small plane before, so this was quite the experience, and she spent most of the evening in silent awe.

The night was spectacularly calm and clear, and Kurt was marvelously thorough as he pointed out each of the geological and geographical features of the landscape.

He went low so we could count moose grazing in the shallows, past the Knick Glacier and around to a big mud strip where we landed and hiked to Lake George overlooking the Colony Glacier. We couldn’t get too close there because there are wreckage crews working on excavating a 1952 plane crash. Until recently, it had become part of the glacier itself, but is now resurfacing.

Those in the lower-48 may be surprised to learn that many of these photos were taken close to 10:00 at night. Land of the midnight sun, indeed! One of the problems with the sun setting so late is that bedtime is next to impossible. That’s not so bad, though, when you’ve met new friends and are up until the wee hours of the night, unable to put an end to great conversation.

We’re so grateful to all those we’ve met on this trip. It’s heartening how the simple act of traveling stimulates others to share the best of themselves, open up new dialogues and show us what makes them proud to live where they do.

From here, we don’t really have too much of a schedule. There’s much more rafting, biking, hiking and paddling to be had. But equally, there are days of just sitting on the aft deck of the truck, enjoying lazy afternoons carving, painting, working and reading. We will eventually be heading toward Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula – We love hearing your recommendations so be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below.

11 comments

  1. Welcome to AK! I built my own E350 4×4 diesel monster van back in 2005. I’ve enjoyed a fair bit of travel in it. And, now I’m looking at my next build…likely an LMTV. I’m actually working in Valdez right now (on the pipeline), and saw your truck at the small boat harbor! Small world. Lots of overland vehicles pass through here. I’ve been working on vehicle concepts, designs, and procurement in the evenings. Maybe I’ll bump into you guys before you head out. Either way, Happy Trails!!!

  2. Megan! Great to hear from you. We are leaving homer now and would absolutely love to connect! Will be headed back up to anchorage in the next week or so and will be there through October. Backchannel us and let’s make a hike happen! Cheers!

  3. Hello!
    We just saw your YouTube video, so I checked out your blog. I love it! And as luck would have it, we live in Anchorage. If you two would like to go to dinner or hiking one of these days, we’d love to meet you! Hopefully the weather clears up for all of us soon.
    Megan

  4. Thanks Rob!Our freezer broke so we were trying to have it looked at over there. Ended up figuring it out on our own, thankfully! 😅 Thanks for following along!

  5. Saw your fancy rig parked outside an RV maintainace shop in anchorage near where I work. I’ve been following your trip for the better part of a year now. Would have stopped and said hello but I am working!

  6. Party hardy, you two! Glad you’re digging the open roads and people of Alaska. I find it hard to believe Martin went to a National Park on a holiday weekend! #travelfail 😉

  7. I always enjoy stories of your travels. I can almost smell the cleansing crispness of that rarified air. Thank You. I Especially dig details about your expedition vehicle. That tire mishap would have been magnitudes bummerosity squared in a lesser vehicle.
    Be safe, keep me in the loop.

  8. Very good , interesting story.
    Many peaple will be jealous .
    Good luck no more flat tire .Enjoy every minutes of this dream life.
    Mama

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