Sunday, January 22, 2012

Our Alaska Trip, The Final Leg

The sun was setting on our long journey but before returning home we wanted to see more of the north Pacific coast. Neither of us had been there in many years. Spike hoped to do a few more paintings.

We traveled south on I-5 and soon experienced the worst 3 hours of the entire trip, Seattle-Tacoma area through Olympia in drenching rain, bumper to bumper stop-and-go traffic and the roughest stretch of road we'd seen yet- cracks, pot-holes, lumps and bumps. Not  recommended for anyone towing a trailer. We were so happy to escape that urban mess at last, we stopped for the night at the first rest-area we saw.

Following the recommendation of another vintage Airstream traveler, Polly Pulver, we headed for Cape Disappointment on the mouth of the Columbia River where Lewis & Clark first reached the Pacific on their long expedition. This is at the very southwest corner of the state of Washington. We could see Oregon across the river. The Cape Disappointment lighthouse and Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center are part of the Cape Disappointment State Park where we stayed for two nights.

The Cape Disappointment campground was very large and well managed. We registered with a ranger sitting at a computer who assigned us a spot with water and electric for $27. Though not entirely full, the campground was busy. It was clamming season and the clam-diggers were out in force. It wasn't easy to smell fresh-dug clams cooking in campsites all around us while we opened yet another can of chili for dinner.

The Fish Cleaning Table, part of a public art project by Maya Lin called The Confluence Project. Maya Lin is the artist best known for designing the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. With the Confluence Project she is creating site-specific, permanent installations at seven locations along the historic 450 mile Columbia River Basin. Of those we saw at Cape Disappointment, we found the Fish Cleaning Table most interesting and effective since it not only refers to the historic importance of the Chinook people in this region, but is also being put to practical use by present day residents for cleaning the day's catch. Formed out of columnar basalt, you can see in this photo the top is inscribed with the Chinook emergence story. The structure includes a deep sink with running water.

We crossed the bridge into Astoria, Oregon. The north Oregon coast is dramatic with rocks and mist. We found another really nice campground at Nehalem Bay State Park.  Here we paid $20 for water and electric in a spacious and very empty campground. Empty of humans, that is. We had white-tail deer visitors who were curious enough to come within three feet of us as we sat in the sun while a large herd of elk grazed nearby.

We took advantage of a sunny day to explore up and down the coast, looking at crashing waves, big rocks, cliff sides and lighthouses.

It was time to head eastward towards home. We cut across the state of Oregon, aiming for the SE corner where we intended to enter northern Nevada via route 140. This was not to be. Near dusk we encountered a snow storm that worsened until the roads were slick with snow. We passed up our turn off and crept into Lakeview, Oregon where, with much relief, we found an open RV park. Safely parked and hooked to electricity, we were prepared to sit out the storm as long as it took.

With luck, the next morning was clear. We continued south, cutting through the corner of California into Nevada. We decided to go as far south as possible to avoid high mountain passes. The forecast was for snow all over the northern part of the state.

The coldest night of the entire 10 week trip was our last night on the road spent boondocking at a rest stop in Luning, Nevada. It was 17 degrees when we got up. We quickly made coffee and got back on the road towards home in time to see this a beautiful November sunrise looking west across the desert at the snow covered  Wassuk Range.

We arrived home November 4th. It snowed the night before. We had one clear, sunny day to unload and winterize before a storm arrived November 6th and left 8” of fresh snow. Nevertheless, we were glad to be home.

For travelers thinking of a trip to Alaska with your trailer

This is what we found: road conditions are fine if you take it easy and drive smart. After winter’s wear and tear, road repairs take place in the warmer months. By autumn there were still patches of gravel to beware of as well as areas with dreadful frost-heaves (especially in the Yukon along the boundary of  Kluane National Park.)  We learned to watch for small, red warning flags along the roadside marking pot-holes or other road damage. With trailer in tow you sometimes had to slow down to 35–40 mph. Don’t be in a hurry and stay alert for wildlife.  

We had no problem with availability of gas as long as we paid attention to the gas gauge and distance between towns. The Milepost guide is extremely helpful with information on availability of services but not always correct (as editions are updated yearly, use the most recent edition.)  Carry extra gas and top-off at ½ a tank or less. Since we live and travel a lot in the southwest, great distance between gas stations was not a new concept for us.

Gas is very expensive in Canada (as is booze!) prices are somewhat lower in Alaska but food prices are high everywhere up north, especially in more remote areas. We resigned ourselves to paying $7 for a gallon of milk or $5 for a bag of tortilla chips. A favorite staple became giant Idaho baking potatoes, at close to 1lb each, they were a meal in themselves. We never see those here in southern Utah.

Many public and private campgrounds close up for the season mid to late September. This made finding campsites difficult as we continued to travel in October. Again, the Milepost guide was very helpful to locate not only campgrounds but also roadside pull-outs and rest areas. We also relied on local visitor centers for camping and dump station information. We grabbed all the helpful, free tourist literature we could. Some of these publications can be acquired on-line ahead of time. Pre-planning is helpful but winging it is fun too.

Driving the Alaska Highway, as well as all the other routes we traveled is no longer the rugged, daring adventure it once was, but it’s a wonderful adventure nonetheless.

Summing it Up                                

Total days of trip: 69
Miles covered:  10,832
Fuel cost:  $3,691.79 (for an average price of $4.24 per gal)
Gallons bought: 558.89
Liters bought: 1181.84 (÷ 3.7854 = 312.21 gal )
Total fuel: 871.1 gal  (with an average of 12.4 MPG)
Gasoline used in generator: 6 gal 
Hours of generator use: 51:25

Total camping fees: $844.92  (an average of $12.43 per night)
Privately owned RV parks: 19 nights
National, State, Provincial, Territorial or Municipal park campgrounds: 23 nights
Paid campgrounds (including RV parks): 35 nights
Free campgrounds: 9 nights
Free roadside boondocking: 10 nights
“Courtesy parking” at friends' homes: 12 (11 nights at the Bear's in North Pole, AK)
Inside a home sleeping in a king-sized bed: 2 nights

Number of states, provinces or territories crossed: 11
Utah, Idaho, Montana, Alberta Canada, British Columbia, Yukon Territory, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California. Nevada

International border crossings, passport required: 6
Number of times we ran out of gas: 2
     1st in Idaho the first day driving
     2nd in Faibanks 10' from gas pump, put gas in from can, pulled forward & filled the tank, LOL!
Chips in the windshield: 1 (in Yukon Territory)
Repairs, patches and improvements on Moonshadow: 11
Oil changes: 2
Credit cards used: 3
Credit cards compromised: 1 (in Alberta, Canada)
Number of books read: 7.5
Paintings done: 12
Photos taken: 2,171 (thank goodness for digital!)

Airstream sightings: 66

Alaska scored the most with 14, Washington second with 10, in use 25, in storage 41.

Wildlife Sightings                                     

Mammals: black bears, brown bears (grizzlies), caribou, rock sheep, Dall sheep, bison, moose, muskox, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, mink, red fox, muskrats, steller sea lion, harbor seals, sea otters, red squirrels, coyotes.

Birds: bald eagles, gray jays, black-capped chickadees, varied thrush, sandhill cranes, harlequin ducks, trumpeter swans, brant geese, red-breasted mergansers, common mergansers, common loons, Barrow's golden-eyes, spruce grouse, spotted owl, American pipits, nuthatches, winter wren, and many others less significant or unidentified.

Fish: coho salman (silver), chum salmon (calico or dog)

Mosquitoes: NONE! We were there in September & October.

Best things we bought along the way: clip-on LED lights, strap wrench, Peterson's First Guide to Forests, Alaska Wildlife Notebook

Best things we took with us: Big Heat electric space heater, 12 volt fan, Italiano stove-top espresso pot, The Milepost Alaska Travel Planner.

Things we wished we had brought: more underwear and warm socks, bathing suits for the hot springs, 5-in-one screwdriver, more DVD movies to watch, a device to hang clothes to dry in front of the Panel-ray heater (will have to invent something if it doesn't already exist.)

Things we brought that we didn't need: dress-up clothes, pop-up shade canopy.

Things we wish we'd had more time for:  museums, visiting with friends - new and old, walking & hiking, painting, reading, eating crab & smoked salmon, and the list goes on...

If you have any specific questions we haven’t addressed here, please leave a comment below and we will do our best to give an answer.


  1. Excellant and interesting report all the way my freinds.
    Bill Mains

  2. Spike, terrific blog. Thanks. You will be a source for my trip, hopefully next year. See you at the Restoration Rally?

    1. Thanks Zep. We’ll be taking our trailer apart soon, for a full shell off redo. Hope to show up at the rally with an aluminum tent. Could use some Airstream Doctor help with things like electrical before I do it wrong.

  3. Sue and Spike, My wife and I have followed your trip, looks like lots of adventures, really enjoyed the pictures. It is definitively on our travel list with "Nellie". Fun that you got to meet Steve and Pam in Washington.Thanks for the summery, I always like looking at the details.

    1. Thanks Doug, I just hook-up the trailer, get in the van & go (Van Gogh), Sue details everything in a travel journal. Together we make a good teem. We hope to apply some of your ideas as we rebuild, like the lower storage compartments you added to yours.

  4. Spike and Sue: Enjoyed reading the blog. Thanks for sharing. Great details to sum it up. Sounds like a once in a lifetime trip.

    Love you Patty and Pete

  5. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this journal. As all artists, you are have many gifts, authorship among them. As a former English teacher and coach of writing skills, it was a joy to follow you and participate through your "painted book." You should consider publishing this in one whole volume: "Airstream Alaska: Artists' View from the Road to the Top of the United States" - or some such title. I'd buy one in a heartbeat! Include some photos of paintings and artist books, and a way to order prints, etc. What else would anyone want for Christmas? what better celebration of the wanderlust, adventure, survivalist, discovery spirit of Americans?
    Congratulations on building the memories that will expand and fill your souls for decades to come!

  6. What a wonderful adventure. The photos are spectacular. Thanks for such a detailed account of the experience.

    About the Italiano stove-top espresso maker as one of the best things you took with you ~ I totally get that!