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.

Road Conditions
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.


SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

WOW Ken, this is a wonderful and informative post especially the tips at the end.

You have done a lot of mileage so far but from the pictures, it has been worthwhile.

Those winds you encounteresd sound pretty awful and I know these campers are definitely not made for them. I always used to say about mind that it was as streamlined as a loaf of bread. LOL!!

I look forward to more on this trip of yours. Stay safe.

Fish Whisperer said...

Holy sh*t Ken. What an amazing trip. Can't wait to read more.
Stay warm and keep the rubber side down.

fishing guy said...

Ken: I have always thought that Denali was a name straight out of Africa. I have seen specials on the park and there should be some gret images coming our way.

Greener Bangalore said...

what should i say..just dumbstuck after seeing your blog and pics.....

Juan C. Aguero said...

Brave, Congratulations and good reportage.
Good luck Ken!!

Tim Rucci said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your latest entry, and with it you have answered a lot of the questions I've had concerning your trip. The photos are amazing, and viewing them makes me feel like I'm almost in the passenger seat of the KingRanch. Parts of the trip sounded challenging, and it's good that you have arrived safe and sound. Did you take those tire chains back for a refund?
I don't know your timeframe or exactly when your Ranger gig starts, but I hope you have some time to venture into the park and do some exploring beforehand. My favorite view from my own trip to Denali was from Stony Point, at the end of the 88 mile road, which offers a stunning view of Mt McKinley. I have been wanting to return to the Park ever since that first (and only) visit. I was with a group then, which severely limited my freedom to go where I wanted & shoot what I wanted.
Thanks for a such a great summary of the trip so far. Keep the updates coming and show us more! You gotta be loving it up there!

Bradley Myers said...

It looks and sounds like you have had a great adventure so far and the trip has only just begun. I can't imagine what we will see here as you spend so much time in the park learinign and exploring areas the general public can not go.

Stay safe and have a great summer in Alaska.

Twisted Fencepost said...

What an information packed post. Love it! And I can't wait to see and hear more.
That bear shot is amazing.

Jose's World said...

Well Ken, Although I have traveled as many miles as you (by plane, bus with chains for ice in the roads and ships) and encountered, snow, ice, rain, glaciers and wind, I had it campers to sleep on and plenty of Argentine fish, lamb and beef to eat.


Stacey Huston said...

Thanks for the tips and wonderful photo updates.. beautiful country. travel safe my friend.

Rocky Mountain Photography said...

Awesome update, good luck in Denali, I am headed back to yellowstone in a week. Thursday night the canyon pack found a coyote den and was running arounf with coyote pups in there mouth.
I was on my way home to utah, but my friens was up there at that time and took pictures. Friday they killed a adilt bison on the road to gardnier

April 30, 2009 9:40 PM

harold davis said...

man, i'm just glad you got there safely!! sounds like a fun trip though. i wouldnt know what to think only seeing six cars on the highway in a day. keep the blog going!! it's really cool. will be checking back in regularly.

yen said...

and you have got a caravan that take you to all the places ...the dream of all wildlife photographers.