Wednesday, April 29, 2009
April on the ALCAN
I arrived in Fairbanks, AK today. Since arriving early, using it as a down day to shop for supplies before heading into Denali in the morning. Never having traveled on the ALCAN before, I had no idea what weather or road conditions would be encountered. After traveling 7,205 miles from Virginia as of this morning, thought I would provide a trip synopsis for those who may be considering this trip in the future. The ALCAN is actually the portion of road from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska, a distance of approximately 1,500 miles (2,449 km long). The historic end of the highway is near milepost 1422, where it meets the Richardson Highway in Delta Junction, Alaska, about 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Fairbanks.
I ran into two major snow storms during the trip. One was concentrated to the north and west of Denver, CO and the other was in the southern portion of Montana. Snow was also regular occurrence on the ALCAN portion of the trip and I encountered one smaller storm (4-6 inches) in Alberta and BC. The snow storm in CO was by far the worst one. It was actually measured in feet in the mountains. After checking the weather before that leg of the trip, I knew I would be facing some major snow. The flashing signs on Interstate 70 west of Denver stated that snow chains were required. I did get off and purchased some chains. When I got back on the interstate and went to the "chain on" area, the chains the clerk provided were 1.5" short. Since I had already committed to the interstate, exiting on side roads was not an option due to the snow. Since I had plenty of weight in the rear of the truck with the truck camper I had no problems, only sliding a couple of times. I did see at least 100 other vehicles and jack knifed tractor trailers along the inerstate in the snow.
I also encountered an incredible wind storm in central Montana. Winds gust were in the 60-70 mph. The winds were so strong they impacted a clamp on the truck camper so that the top roof portion was exposed and flapping. I could not get out of the truck cab to attempt to fix it due to wind strength. Luckily, I made it to a rural town. The camper suffered no major damage. I did find a clamp and located a shop and a mechanic and we installed the new clamp with stronger screws.
On the ALCAN I drove on a couple hundred miles of a single path in the snow. Just stayed on the road crest. I only ran into three other folks on that leg and we both slowed down and moved aside so we could pass each other safely. Above photo is typical of the road conditions in BC.
The coldest night was 12 degrees in Banff and the warmest day is today, an very unusual balmy 66 degrees in Fairbanks.
Driving a diesel truck I found stations in the US reasonably priced and accessible. The average price I paid for diesel fuel was $2.19 a gallon. On the ALCAN the pricing was a tad more expensive depending on how remote the station was from a major city. In Alaska, where most of our fuel comes from, I paid the most for diesel at $3.74 a gallon. Only once, did I not locate a needed fuel station (in the Yukon). Since it was still considered their winter season, most fuel stations were closed or closed early. So, in this one incident I had to camp out until the morning when the station opened again. This was the only night I spent in a hostel instead of the truck camper.
I averaged 15.2 mpg on the trip with the truck camper. My average speed was 60 mph. The highest mpg I got was in Wyoming with a tail wind at 18.1 and the lowest I got was 8.7 in the Montana wind storm mentioned above.
The ALCAN is not what it was in the old days. Roads were paved for all but about 50-75 miles. Roads conditions were analogous to rural county secondary roads with the occasional bumps, pot holes and wash outs. Above is a typical example of the road scene. There were several areas that had fallen rocks in the road. Some of the roads were great. The worst road portion was a couple hundred miles south of Tok where speeds could not exceed 40-50 mph due to the bumps and frost heaves. I felt like a bobble head doll during that stretch.
Looking for wildlife along the way from Yellowstone to Alaska to photograph certainly kept the trip interesting. Unfortunately, seeing critters were far in between, mostly because there was still lots of snow on the ground. When I did see something, it was usually great. I saw more moose (11) than anything.
Saw lots of big horn sheep in Banff (like the above image) and scattered other locations in CA. Saw Dall sheep in the Yukon but high up in the mountains. Saw lots of migrating caribou which was special but they move fast, thus a challenge to photograph. Saw only one grizzly bear in BC which is pictured above. He was really close to the road, grassing. Another highlight was watching a snowy owl last night attempt to catch a ptarmigan. The fox jumping in the prior post was also special.
The scenery was incredible. Something everyone should see once in their lives. My personal favorites were the stunning rockies in Banff (photo above) and the road to Skagway and from Haines.
There were plenty of private motels/hotels/inns as well as cafes/diners/restaurants along the way in the towns where most folks fueled. Cannot advise of the costs since I stayed in the truck camper for the entire trip except for the one night ($65 CA). I found showers at truck stops, RV parks, and laundry facilities. Prices ranged from $3 to $8.
1) If you plan to make this trip in April, I suggest you do it in a vehicle that has all wheel or 4WD. The chances of running into snow somewhere along the trip is high and you want something capable of handling inclement weather. There were two days when I only saw 6 other vehicles in 10 hours of driving.
2) Strategically plan your fuel stops according to your vehicle's capacity, anticipating that some fuel stations may not be open, except in the major towns.
3) Carry on board food and a fuel can in the event things don't go well. My Sprint cell only worked in Haines and Fairbanks, AK on this trip. I think I could have paid extra and turned it on for international travel in CA. Although I did not do this, would highly suggest it. I would also have a tow strap and some type of mounting plate for your jack to change a tire. Having an extra tire other than a spare and a filled fuel can are not necessary.
My next post will be from Denali. Curious if the park road is open yet.
Blue Skies and great sunsets.