(June 16, 2006 to July 5, 2006)

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June 16 - June 22 North Pole, Alaska (74 miles)

Road conditions: The road from Delta Junction to North Pole was pretty good with a posted speed of 65 mph. One could drive at that speed if desired, but I pretty much drove it between 50-55 mph. There were some frost heaves that were marked, as well as a couple of construction areas and several areas of loose gravel.

Campground: Santaland RV Park is the most popular RV park in the area. We stayed for a week at a weekly rate of $168 (pay for six, get one night free) for a full hookup site. Nice campground. Cable TV with about 30 channels. The park used Nomad for its WiFi network. Nomad charges $9.95 per day which, of course, is completely outrageous. To their credit, Santaland provided the WiFi FREE to its campers.

The first thing we did was to go to the nearby Safeway store to buy the tourist coupon book which is a must if you are spending any kind of time in Alaska. The book costs $99 and had a lot of coupons for various attractions and tours in Alaska. We figured we would have no problem saving $99 on tours we wanted to do. The other thing we did was to go across the road to a glass place to see if they could somehow stop the crack on our driver side windshield from spreading. They told us that if the crack was more than the length of a dollar bill there was pretty much nothing they could do to stop it from spreading. When I explained the extent of the multiple cracks they told us there was already too much pressure on the glass and they couldn't do anything to stop the cracks from spreading. So I guess we'll live with it until we get back to the lower 48.

The first couple of days in North Pole was spent watching the US Open Golf Championship over the weekend. Thanks to the time difference of four hours, it was over by around 3 p.m. AT (Alaska Time). We did ride into Fairbanks to see a movie, "The Lake House" on Saturday, and to check out the Sam's Club and Wal-Mart stores. Sunday we spent watching the exciting final round of the tournament and, sadly, watched Phil Mickelson make some poor decisions that cost him the tournament. The Santa Claus House is next door to the campground, so we walked over there to check it out. Well, guess what. Santa himself was there, along with Mrs. Claus. They were very accommodating to folks wanting to get a photo with them, and we did get ours taken.

One of the attractions that came highly recommended in Fairbanks was the Riverboat Discovery, which is a  three and a half hour cruise up the Chena River on a sternwheeler. We agree that is was well worth the ride.

The company is owned by the Binkley family and they are now into their fourth generation of captains on Alaska rivers. In 1950, Captain Jim Binkley, Sr. began a river excursion business with a 25 passenger boat that he bought from a local Episcopal church. When the business proved to be successful, he had Discovery I built in 1955. It was a 150 passenger sternwheeler and it was built in his back yard. Jim and his wife, Mary, had three sons who all worked on the boat and who all became U.S. Coast Guard licensed riverboat captains. In 1970, Discovery II was built and put into service. It had a capacity of 300 passengers and is still in use today. Discovery I has been retired, but can still operate, if necessary. The large four deck Discovery III with a capacity of 900 passengers was built in 1986 and put into service in 1987. The sons had children and the third and fourth generations currently run the boat.

It was a narrated cruise and the narrator was great. During the cruise we got to see a bush pilot take off and land along the shore of the river; got to see float plane take off and land right next to the boat; got to see where Susan Butcher and her husband live and have their dog sledding kennel along the river; and got to stop at an Athabaskan Indian Village for a tour and some talks about their culture and way of life. There were some prime pieces of real estate along the river with some beautiful houses, especially the log houses.

Each of the pilots of the planes that demonstrated take off and landing also talked about their planes. One was a canvas covered plane and, apparently, that isn't a very common thing these days.

Susan Butcher and her husband, Dave Monson, live right on the river. Susan is the only woman to win the 1,100 miles Iditarod Dog Sled Race four times, and three of those were consecutive. Unfortunately, Susan is currently battling cancer at a hospital in Seattle. Dave happened to be in town for a charity event, so he came out to talk to us about dog sledding. There were pups out playing and a team of dogs ready to pull a sled on its summer wheels (actually an ATV without the engine). It was incredible to see the dogs get whipped into a frenzy when they realized it was time to mush. They were barking and jumping and couldn't wait to start pulling. The dogs are all Alaska Huskies, although we were told they are not recognized by the American Kennel Club. They are bred to pull sleds. Dave gave the command and off they went for a lap around the small lake. It was the highlight of the tour.

The stop at the Athabaskan Indian Village was very interesting. There were three talks as we moved from site to site. We heard how they lived, and how they made the clothes, and there was a pen with a team of huskies where we could watch them romp and pet them if they were so inclined to come over for a pat or a scratch. There were also several reindeer. Did you know that reindeer and caribou are the same specie? We learned that a reindeer is a domesticated caribou.

The Athabaskan Indians lived along the major riverways in Alaska. One of the talks was about the clothing. Dixie Alexander, an Athabaskan, showed us some of her work. One item was a parka that took her about six months to make and was valued at more than $16,000. The inner part of the parka was made with wolverine and the outer part was made of timber wolf. The main part of the parka was made of muskrat, which is a small animal with very warm fur.

A pleasant surprise was running into Gay and Don Chaffin who we met at Rika's Roadhouse. They were going on the same cruise so we sat together during the cruise and toured the indian village together. It was a fun afternoon.

Another highly recommended stop in Fairbanks is the University of Alaska Museum of the North. We visited the museum and spent about three hours looking at the exhibits. We enjoyed the time we spent there. After visiting the museum we drove to downtown where the Midnight Sun Festival was about to start up. It occurs every year on June 21, the summer solstice, to celebrate the longest day of the year. In Alaska, on the longest day, the sun rose at 2:59 a.m. and set at 12:47 a.m. the next day. That meant there was a total of 21 hours and 48 minutes of daylight. However, it's the converse for the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year, when the sun will rise at 10:58 a.m. and set at 242 p.m. for a total of just 3 hours and 43 minutes of daylight.

Three streets were blocked off for booths filled with crafts and food, plus three stages for entertainment. We spent five hours walking around and eating and taking in some entertainment. We even bumped into Tim and Barb Campbell who we met at Rika's Roadhouse in Delta Junction. We had a fun afternoon.

One of the RV forums that I was monitoring for Alaska information was Dick Jewel posted some stuff there and then indicated he was in North Pole. We made contact and Diane and I met Dick and his wife, Ann, for dinner one evening. As usual, we spent a couple of hours enjoying a meal and chatting.

I received a note from my oldest son that he had an aunt (a former sister-in-law of mine) who lived in North Pole. Her name is Sarah and I don't think we've seen each other for around 35 years. I made contact and she invited us over to her place for a cookout. It was nice to see her after so many years and we spent an enjoyable evening visiting with her and her husband, Allen.

We did manage to catch a couple of movies on our last day in Fairbanks. We enjoyed "The Breakup", but "Nacho Libre" would probably only appeal to Jack Black fans.

Before we left North Pole we met our neighbors on either side. The conversations were very interesting. On one side, the conversation was about driving the Top of the World Highway. He had a fifth wheel and showed me a seven inch crack in the fiberglass on the front curb side of the rig that he sustained on the highway. We still have no desire to drive that highway and will leave our car in Tok when we drive over in the CR-V. Here's a link to a site that saw an accident on the TOTW highway several days ago:

The other conversation with folks who were driving a Phaeton motorhome was about windshields. I mentioned I had two cracked windshields that had to be replaced and would always opt for the two piece windshield rather than the one piece windshield. Those one piece windows cost upwards of $2500, and more, to replace. She told me that they had their one piece window replaced at the Tiffin factory and it cost them $800. If that were, indeed, the case then the glass companies are really uplifting their costs more than to just cover the cost of labor to replace the window.

June 23 - June 26 Denali National Park (127 miles)

Road conditions: The road from Fairbanks to Denali is known as the Parks Highway (AK 3). The road started out smooth to a little bumpy. Then we saw a sign that said "25 miles of construction". At first, the road was newly paved and silky smooth, but we came to the area where they were paving and we had to follow a pilot car on a single lane. After that section the road was very smooth for a long distance, but became very rough with frost heaves. Some were marked, most were not. Lots of dips. Then the road became smooth again until about two miles prior to the Nenana River where the road was dug up and under construction. Finally, within 15 miles of Denali the road became very rough with frost heaves that were not marked. The posted speed was 65 mph, but we pretty much traveled the road at 55 mph except when it got rough and we slowed down to around 40-45 mph.

Campground: There were several campgrounds in the Denali area and they got more expensive closer to town. We opted for the Denali RV Park and Motel about eight miles from the park entrance. We also chose to stay in a water and electric back-in site for the four nights we planned to stay in the area. Part of that decision was caused by the fact that two caravans were in the park at the time. The park had FREE WiFi, however, it was very erratic and not always available. It would come and go at the most inopportune times. The problem seemed to be caused, at times, by the provider of the campground's DSL connection. The power in the park hovered between 111 and 113 volts most of the time. One heat pump took that down to between 106 and 108 volts most of the time.

Fuel: Our tank was just under three quarters, but we decided to fill up at what was a great $2.889 per gallon price compared to the over $3 we had been paying. We filled up in North Pole at the Tesoro station. One interesting thing about the station was a sign that said the diesel fuel contained extra sulfur (15 ppm). It also said Federal law prohibited selling that diesel fuel to vehicles 2007, or later.

The drive from Fairbanks did not offer much in the way of scenery until we got closer to Denali and saw mountains in the distance. We set up the motorhome in the campground and then drove into Denali National Park to the very nice visitor center. The short movie about the park was very good, as were the exhibits. The next day we drove to the Wilderness Access Center to pick up our tickets for the tour we were taking the next day and to watch the short movie about the history of the park. That movie was also very good.

You can drive into the park about 13 miles to the Savage River turnaround. We drove out there to see if we could spot any animals, but we came up empty. On the way back we stopped to visit the Denali dog sled kennels. The dogs were the same Alaskan Husky breed we saw when we were on the Riverboat Discovery tour. However, these dogs looked different than the ones we saw in Fairbanks. We stayed to listen to a talk given by a park ranger about the dogs and the work they do in the park. It was very interesting. We learned that Alaskan Huskies were bred for different tasks. The dogs we saw in Fairbanks were bred for speed and racing. The dogs in Denali were bred for hauling supplies to outlying ranger posts in winter.

Mount McKinley National Park was created in 1917 as a game refuge and was the first national park established after the creation of the National Park Service. It was renamed to Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980. It's crown jewel is Mount McKinley and is the official name of the mountain that is part of the Alaska Range. It is better known in Alaska as Denali, the Athabaskan name for the mountain. It means the "High One". It rises to 20,320 feet above sea level. From the lowlands at Wonder Lake it rises 18,000 feet, which means its vertical relief is great than that of Mount Everest. Today the park encompasses 6.8 million acres which is about the size of New Hampshire.

We lucked out with the day we chose to take a bus tour into the park. We selected the 9:15 a.m. Wonder Lake tour and the weather was pretty nice all day except for the last hour of the drive back to the Wilderness Access Center when we ran into a rain and hail storm. Our driver, Mike Reifler, was very knowledgeable about the park and did a good job explaining what we were seeing and stopping when wildlife was spotted. He told us that this was his ninth year driving in the park and that his wife also drove a bus in the park. In the winter they go to a small town in Mexico to tutor people in learning to speak English.

On our drive out to Wonder Lake we saw 11 grizzlies, some caribou, a red fox, some Dall Sheep on some rocks right above us on the road. The drive took us 86 miles out into the wilderness. The views were magnificent. The extent of the land out there was incredible. At one point, Mike told us the mountains just across from us were five miles away, but appear closer and has fooled many a hiker.

We suggest that anyone looking into a bus tour into the park take a look at the Denali website and do some research ( There were two types of tours: park shuttles and narrated tours. Both were operated by outside companies. The park shuttles offer more departures and more choices. There were shorter tours lasting four to five hours and longer tours, such as the Wonder Lake tour, that lasted 11 hours. There were two narrated tours. One was a four hour tour that went 17 miles into the park and the other was a six to eight hour tour that went 53 miles into the park. The big difference was in price. We paid $33.25 for our tickets for the 11 hour Wonder Lake tour. The six to eight hour narrated tour cost almost triple the price at $90. Unless you feel the need to have a narrated tour, we recommend the park shuttles. The park website says that the drivers are not obligated to narrate on the park shuttles, but do attempt to answer questions. Mike did do some narration and answered questions. We were satisfied with our tour.

We met Al and Sandy Olson at the dog sled demonstration yesterday and they were on the same bus so we hung out together all day. They were from a town in southern Utah and were heading to Fairbanks. We chatted about their stays in Skagway, Valdez, Seward, and Homer, and we told them about some things we did in Fairbanks and Delta Junction.

The last day we were in Denali was cold, wet, and nasty. Other than a drive to the Denali Visitor Center we stayed home all day. George and Sandy Bickmore arrived from Fairbanks and we went to town for dinner and had a nice visit over dinner.

June 27 - June 28 Wasilla (206 miles)

Road conditions: The road just north and just south of Denali was fairly bumpy and had some frost heaves. Then the road became pretty good the rest of the way to Wasilla.

Campground: Sears parking lot. We thought we would park at the Wal-Mart, but it was under construction to make it a supercenter and they were not allowing RVs to park there. We did see a couple of RVs parked in the Fred Meyers lot, but it was pretty busy and not a very large lot. A lady in Wal-Mart told us she thought the Sears across the highway allowed RV parking, so we went there and asked if we could park and they said it was okay. We spent two nights in a lot that was almost totally empty.

We checked out the visitor center and found out they had a terminal available for email, which was nice. We both got caught up on our email and picked up some information.

The Iditarod Trail was used by explorers of the Russian-American Company in the early 1800s. It wasn't known as the Iditarod Trail
then, but rather was a network of trails in the interior of Alaska. Early prospectors to Alaska after the U.S. purchased it in 1867 used the trails as a winter route to the mining areas. The trail was officially surveyed, cleared, and marked by the Alaska Road Commission in 1908. For about twenty years the trail was used to deliver mail and to ship out gold from the mines. Dog teams were the most popular means of transportation with teams of six to twenty dogs depending on the load being hauled. In 1924, bush pilots started doing those tasks and by 1930 most of the roadhouses had closed. For more than 40 years the Iditarod Trail was forgotten until the 1960s when interest in racing became popular.

Joe Redington, Sr., along with historian Dorothy Page, were determined to keep dog mushing alive and staged the first Iditarod race in 1967. That race was between Knik and Big Lake. The next race was held in 1969 and was run between Anchorage and Nome. Today the Iditarod race is known internationally and is known as "the last great race". Susan Butcher was the only woman to win the race and she won it four times, three of those in succession in the 1980s.

The headquarters building had exhibits showing the winners of the races and the huge trophy with the winners' names inscribed. There was an interesting movie about the race and the dogs and you could take a ride on a dog sled if you so desired.

June 29 - July 6 Anchorage (40 miles)

Road conditions: The Parks Highway (AK 3) ends where it meets the Glenn Highway (AK 1). Both roads from Wasilla to Anchorage were four lane, limited access highways with a wide median.

Campground: We stayed at the Golden Nugget Campground. It was a large park with back in and pullthru sites. We had a pullthru full hookup 30 amp site. The sites were not very deep or wide, but passable. The power in the park was horrible and hovered between 108 and 112 volts most of the time with no appliances turned on. Attempts to use a heat pump would often cause the power to drop below 105 volts and the surge guard turned off the power to the motorhome to prevent damage to the appliances. For that reason we would probably stay at another park. We do not enjoy parks that do not provide adequate power to the sites.

Fuel: We filled up at the Tesoro station in front of the Fred Meyer store at the corner of Northern Lights and the New Seward Highway. The cost was $2.899 per gallon.

We were told by a few folks to just blow by Anchorage as it was just another city. That may be true, but we like to see what's going on in areas we pass through, including cities. Plus, we like to sit for a week if we can to catch up on chores around the motorhome. We drove into the downtown area a couple of times so we could pick up our mail and to hook up with some old friends. I found Anchorage fairly easy to navigate once I got the lay of the land and how the streets ran.

The unique bus that we saw in Newfoundland came into the campground one day followed by a second bus. They cater to German tourists and travel routes from Panama to Alaska, as well as the Maritimes and Newfoundland. It is such an interesting bus that I had to include a photo in this travelog. You can see more photos of the bus in the travelog titled "A Tour of the Maritime Provinces - Newfoundland".

I've said before that one of the great things about our lifestyle is being able to hook up with people in different places as we travel. Such a visit occurred in Anchorage as we were able to visit with Mike and Carol Connor who we have known for about 40 years. We all lived in New York and then in Georgia. They retired to the Myrtle Beach area and we hit the road. It turned out they were on a Holland America land/sea vacation that would end in Anchorage when we were there. We made plans to meet them downtown and have a visit over brunch. It was nice to see them again and we had a great visit chatting about places they've been that we will be visiting over the next few weeks.

After we dropped them back at the hotel and said good bye we walked over to check out the Saturday-Sunday Market. It was a beautiful day and we appreciated the chance to walk off the great brunch we had at the Snow City Cafe that came highly recommended. Then we decided that since we were downtown we would take in the Alaska Experience Theater. There were two exhibits that were of interest. One was a 70 mm movie on a domed screen about Alaska. It was a good movie, albeit the quality wasn't great. The other exhibit was about the massive 9.2 earthquake that hit Anchorage on Good Friday in March 1964. The short film was interesting as were the photos of the damage caused by the earthquake. These two exhibits were part of the tour saver book we bought, so the cost was $10 rather than $20.

Another attraction in Anchorage was the Alaska Native Heritage Center, a 26 acre site with exhibits and programs about native culture in Alaska. We joined a tour of the facility to hear stories about how various native peoples lived. These people were the Athabaskan, Yupiit, Cupiit, Aleuts, Alutiit, Eyaks, Tlingits, Haidas, and Tsimshians. These groups comprised more than twenty different languages. Some lived along the coast and some lived way up in the very north of Alaska. Some lived off the sea, others lived off the land. It was all very interesting. After we got back into the main building we were able to watch a demonstration of native music and dance. The center was also part of the tour saver book. The cost was $23.50, which we thought was too high for admission to the center, but was worthwhile as a two for one.

Anchorage had a few movie theaters, so we were able to catch up on movies before we go into a period of a couple of weeks with no movie theaters within reach. We got to see "Superman Returns" (very good) and "The Devil Wears Prada" (very good).

The Alaska Wildberry Products store had a chocolate waterfall that was constructed in June 1994. It is believed to be the largest of its kind in the world and contains 3,400 pounds of real liquid chocolate. Pretty cool to see all that chocolate flowing.

The Winckels and the Hirths arrived in Anchorage toward the end of our stay. We hooked up for dinner one evening in downtown Anchorage at Rumrunners Old Towne Bar & Grille and traded stories about our Alaska journey. On Wednesdays, the Snow City Cafe opens its doors for an evening of Celtic music and dance for anyone who wants to come play, or dance, or listen. We all went there and enjoyed a few hours of some great Celtic music. There were up to 10 people playing instruments at one time, including a banjo, a few fiddles, an accordion, a couple of concertinas, a couple of guitars, and more. They were all talented musicians and the music was lively. There were many young folks there who were dancing different types of Celtic dances. One of the folks seemed to know all the dances and was teaching the young folks. It was great to see them all having such a fun time, and we all had fun watching.

Having completed the Fairbanks to Anchorage leg of our Alaska journey, we loaded up and headed to the Kenai Peninsula where we were anticipating seeing the part of Alaska that we were came to see, that is, glaciers and the sea, and more wildlife.

To be continued.....

Until next time, safe travels.....

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