Canada, eh


6/3/11 We left Glacier NP the morning of June 3.  In spite of the cold raining morning, and talking to some neighbors about their last years Alaska trip for about Ĺ an hour, we were on the road by 8:30.

Our first hurdle was Canadian customs, in the town of Peigan, about 15 miles up the road.  Guns seemed to be the big item of concern.  They do know how to ask all the right questions.  Iíd shipped mine off to brother Dave in Portland when we were in Bozeman.  A shipping receipt was enough to satisfy the agent we were in fact gun less.  Then it was on to pepper spray.  Bear spray, ok.  Personal pepper spray, not ok.  Iíd overlooked my personal pepper spray.  We had to pull over, come into the customs office and fill out some paperwork.  Fortunately, just giving it to customs satisfied the agent.  The guy actually let the slightest bit of personality and humanity slip through, a welcome change for a border guard.

As we headed off into Alberta, the skies cleared for the first time in a week and the terrain leveled off into a monotonous flatland with the Rockies distant peaks off to the west.  On the US side of the border life seemed a bit bleak for the locals.  Large, prosperous farms populated the Canadian side of the border.

Our big blunder of the day was taking an exit that dumped us right off into downtown Calgary.  We realized weíd made a mistake as soon as we (I) made it, but we were about 40 miles from downtown Calgary and there were signs saying our desired route was just ahead.  We kept following the signs leading us to 1 W to Banff for 40 miles, until we were in thick Calgary traffic.   Other than thick traffic, it didnít seem like a big problem, just an annoyance.  Then downtown Calgary appeared right ahead, with no escape, and no 1 W in sight.  The road narrowed to barely passable with thick traffic jammed all around.  And, as is usual with downtown streets, construction detours started making things even more difficult.  Over time Iíve finally learned not to panic when faced with this type of obstacle course while towing the beast. 

The real scare of the trip through downtown was an old railroad bridge with a 3.9M clearance.  If my measurements were correct, we needed 12í 6Ē clearance.  At least I think thatís what I remembered.  Once we entered Canada I had Donna calculate the metric clearance we needed.  If my figures were correct, we needed 3.75 meters.  So, if my memory was correct, and my measurements were correct, and my conversion was correct, weíd have .15m of clearance, or, to my figures, about 6Ē.  By the time we knew there was a low clearance bridge ahead, we were already blocked by traffic with no exit.  There was nothing we could do but go slow and listen for contact.  We made it, but by how much, I donít know.  Itís probably better I wasnít able to watch.

While lost, and stuck in traffic, we asked our fellow road prisoners for directions.  Each and every one of them was polite and did their very best to help.  And each and every one of them were very difficult to understand.  And each and every one of them had a different opinion of the best route out of this maze.  One guy, after giving us very detailed directions, later admitted he was himself lost and was about to ask us for directions.  We eventually extracted ourselves from this maze, made our first Canadian fuel fill, and found our way to 1 W.

1 W heads west out of Calgary directly into more Rockies, but this time, Canadian Rockies.  The drive was splendid and it was a particular treat to see the mountains on a sunny day.  Large sections of trees in the Montana area are dead or dying.  Most stands of pine show severe stress.  In Canada, this stress was notably less obvious.  There were a few sections showing sick trees, but in general the stands on the mountainsides were beautiful and healthy. 

We pulled over in the town of Canmore, about 30 miles from Banff, to resupply.  Besides guns, drugs and pepper spray, the Canadian border folks are reported to be touchy about food and booze.  Most Rvers tend to come across thin on supplies.  After hitting a Safeway we decided to settle in for the night and assault Banff, The Ice Fields Expressway, and Jasper, at first light.

 We end up at a commercial campground right off the 1 W exit  for Canmore.  The camp used to be a municipal campground, and still advertised itself as a municipal campground, but it was a private commercial camp.  We tend to like municipal campgrounds over commercial mainly because they are bare bones, and as a result, cheaper.  We really donít need power, or water, or sewer hookups, and would prefer not to pay for them.  Once we were in the campground and found out the only option was full service for full priced, $35 a night, we decided to stay anyway, just to keep things simple.  We didnít bother to hook up to any of the available services in order to facilitate a quick exit.

The RV industry seems to be getting a big dose of what the low end sailboat business got in Florida, no business.  The campground is owned/run by a retired cop, a real nice guy.  We were the only people in the campground until about 9:00 AM when a tent camper showed up.  Beautiful weather, just outside of Banff, on one of the main feeder routes for folks going to Alaska, and only two campers here.  The owner told me things were great three years ago.  Things were starting to slow down two years ago.  Last year was very slow.  This year, well, only two campers here in peak season.  From what I hear on line from folks ahead of us on the Alaska run, the situation is the same on the whole route.  Iíd hate to be in this guyís shoes, but from what I remember, I was in this guyís shoes, before I lost my shoes.

I imagine this fuel thing, along with the general poor US economy, is going to kill most of the RV business (as well as the power boat business in Florida, which fared a bit better than the sailboat business, until now). I think fuel is going to cost us about 50% more than it cost for the folks whoíve gone the last year or two.  Iím ok with paying a bit more for fuel, as all the areas I want to go will be much less crowded.  I also think there was a good chance this would be the last year Iíd be able to justify the expense myself.

Our first stop in Banff NP was the town of Banff.  The town conveniently provides a place for travelers to drop off their trailers and explore the town bob-tail.  I am much appreciate of this freedom to roam.  Banff itself is a beautiful ski town in the mountains with a European alpine feel.  We take a couple of hikes, then have lunch at a lake before heading off the the Lake Louise area of Banff for the night.

Lake Louise is more of the same Canadian Rockies resort area.  The campground is huge and sparsely populated.  There are very nice hiking trails everywhere and the dog is more than welcomed.  Iíd become tired of the constant warnings about dogs in US parks so the change is Canada was much appreciated.  We only stayed in Lake Louise overnight, but we did get in several very nice hikes.

First thing in the morning we were chomping at the bit to start our trek. Donna, Buddy and I, started our day with a walk along the river.  At the end of the camp there was a footbridge to the other side of the river, so we were able to take the trail up one side, and then back down the other side, for about a three-mile walk.  Donna spotted a porcupine and I was assigned the duty of trailing him until I could get some photos.  I kept thinking if this ďbeaverĒ turns out to be a badger, Iím going to get my face chewed off.  After our walk, a quick trip into town for postcards and weíre on the road.

Just north of our Lake Louise campground, route 93, known as the ďIce Fields ExpresswayĒ heads towards Jasper, another Canadian Rocky Mountain National Park. The aptly named Ice Fields Expressway runs along 125 miles of phenomenally beautiful mountain valleys with glaciers along sections.  We averaged about 40 mph during this section of the dayís route.  At Jasper we turned east towards Edmonton and tacked on another 125 miles to our day, officially kicking off our efforts to eat up the miles between Alaska and us.  Then we then headed north 50 miles in search of a Provincial Park near our rendezvous with route 43. 

We had some problems finding the park, at first giving up on it, then stumbling into it while searching for another place to stay.  Carson Pegasus Provincial Park is about 9 miles north of route 43 on Lake McLeod. The office is closed so itís a find your own site situation.  I leave the truck and trailer at the entrance to scout the place on foot.  There are 180 sites on three loops set on narrow winding dirt roads.  All the sites are back in and Iíve proven more than once Iím not very good at backing the rig it.  Donna picks a site she seems to like and Iím thrilled with it as thereís not anyone nearby to watch my blundering attempts to back it in.  With Donna spotting, we manage to get it situated on the site without a great deal of gear destruction.

We are now in mosquito country, big time.  As compared to Florida mosquitoes, these are big, dumb and slow.  Apparently nature tries to overcome these shortcomings by shear numbers.  If one is minimally clothed, and moving around, these blood suckers donít seem to be much of a challenge.  With their sheer numbers swarming the door, it was impossible not to get a few dozen into the RV.  As I worked on the computer they would mount their slow determined attacks, fairly easy to kill.

The few mosquitoes that made it through the picket line did take their toll at night.  To their credit, they do their damage in a most polite manner.  Southern mosquitoes seem to get great pleasure buzzing around your face for 20 minutes to let you know whatís about to happen before they move on to leave your ankles itching like crazy.  Although this large breed feeds heavily, you never know they are there.  In the morning I moved from black splotch on the wall to black splotch on the wall, taking my revenge.  Their feeding gluttony made them fairly easy, if messy, prey.

Our morning walk was as peaceful and enjoyable as any Iíve had since leaving Florida.  I had intended a short poo poo cruise around the camping loop before returning to finish my ration of morning coffee but Buddy had other ideas.  He started with a nice swim in the lake.  The sun was over the horizon Iíd guess, but not visible over the tree line.  Unlike in yesterdays afternoon winds, there was not a ripple on the surface of the lake, just shimmering steam rising.  Waterfowl of all kinds rested along the shore, but it was the Loon that stood out for itís haunting call. A gravel-hiking trail follows the shoreline for maybe two miles, weaving through the coastal swamps.  Mosquitoes must been late sleepers as they where nowhere to be seen. I didnít see any, but this must be the land of the beaver, and the child with a hatchet.  

After breakfast, Donna, Buddy and I head out for another hike along a park trail that heads inland into the dense forest around the lake.  The going on this trail was a bit more than anyone wanted to deal with so after a mile we turned back to get ready to leave.  Hot showers for a loonie were a deal we were not going to pass up, so we stopped at the shower hut on way out.  The full-length mirror in the shower was the first Iíd seen since the trip started and it wasnít telling a pretty tale.  It looks like there needs to be a little more hiking and a little less Canadian beer on the menu.

We crank out another 320 miles on the route to Alaska, finally hitting mile marker zero of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek.  Most of the way itís bumpy two lane roads sporting decent paved shoulders with 90 to 100 km speed limits.  We eventually pull into Charlie Lake Provincial Park, just west of Ft. St. John, BC. 

We are again a bit large for a provincial park but we manage to get backed into a fairly narrow site.  I seem to have mastered most aspects of moving this rig around in any conditions, but Iím still struggling with backing it in.  A cold rain started about a half hour before we pulled into the park and lasted just long enough to make our set up a sloppy wet affair. 

Buddy and I set out for our evening walk expecting to just make a quick loop of the park.  We find that there are several hiking trails leading from the camp loop down to Charlie Lake.  I decided to take the shortest one, 1.2 km, and leave the longer part of the hike for our morning walk.  The trail led down, down, down, and down some more, towards what must be a lake down there somewhere.  Eventually the lake did appear, but we were a long way down an extremely slick trail though very thick forest.  I let Buddy take a quick dip and I took a look at the lake.  The sky was black with millions upon millions of some kind of hatch mixed with mosquitoes.  Fortunately, once again, these Canadian mosquitoes are nowhere near as aggressive as their redneck brethren.  If these had been mangrove mosquitoes I donít think Buddy and I would have made it up the hill alive.

6/7/11.  We start our day with a nice four mile walk down to the lake and back on the park trail.  I ran right into three moose standing motionless watching me.  If it hadnít been for the flying squirrel Iíd have never noticed them watching me from the thick bush they were feeding on.  After a minute or two of watching me watching them, the two females retreated off to a safe distance to observe me.  The male never retreated, just stood his ground.  Thatís a good way to end up filling up someoneís wall of mason jars, but I this day he pulled it off.  The trail was tough sledding with a slippery 500í descent to the lake and a lakeside trail consisting of an endless series of 3í hills and ditches.  I spotted what appeared to be a mink on the way back up the trail but the little devil only gave me the briefest of glimpses before he was off into the bush.

Our plan for an early start to rack up some road miles was wasted on several hours of shopping in Port St. John, but we finally hit the road at noon.  I expected this to be a miserable day of dealing with heavy truck traffic as it had been pretty thick with heavy commercial truck traffic up to this point.  Within a half hour or so of leaving the truck traffic, and petty much all traffic, vanished.  We were treated to mile after mile of the Alaska Highway, just about all to ourselves.  We did see one black bear foraging along side the road but he was in no mood to hang around when we slowed for photos.

We have reached the point that planning for fuel stops in mandatory.  The hill country was eating more fuel than normal and it was starting to look iffy on reaching our planned fuel stop in  St John.  At half a tank I decided to fuel up so as to not add to my worries.  That was the only fuel stop along the way.  Iíd have made it, but only just barely.  I was treated to my first $6+ diesel. 

The fuel stops that are open are very different than what Iíve seen in the past.  Fuel tanks are all above ground, right at the pumps.  Thereís usually two, maybe three, 70s vintage fuel pumps in a huge mud lot.  The upscale places have a boardwalk around the pump area.  Bitching, whining, or even joking, about the price is obviously a sore subject. 

I try to get in at least 300 miles a day before looking for a park to stay at.  On this day a fuel stop/RV park/general store with (RV) world famous cinnamon rolls and a bakery was along the route.  I had to stop and get Donna a cinnamon bun so I went ahead and topped off the diesel.  It was the usual set up, ancient pump next to an above ground fuel tank, in a huge muddy lot.  No dollar amount registered on the pump, just a liter meter, $1.60 per liter. 

We then move on in search of the next Provincial Park beyond my 300 mile goal.  Rocky Mountain Provincial Park was about 15 miles down the Alcan.  We are rewarded with our most beautiful site to date.  As usual, we are fairly large for the sites in a PP.  We make a round through to see where we might want to be.  There are a couple Iím sure we can get into with a little effort, so I parked the rig to go pace off the pads to make sure Iíd have enough room for the RV and the truck, 45í.  The camp host pulls up and suggests I park right in front of the day use area, a splendid spot with our windows overlooking the lake.  No backing, no muss, no fuss, just pull up and park.  It was an offer I couldnít refuse, so I didnít.  $16 per night for the best seat in the house in a small way makes up for the fuel cost. 

A quick evening walk of the park revealed two spectacular hiking trails, one around the lake, and one alongside a river with many waterfalls.  Buddy seems to be enamored with the river walk and I have to concur. 

6/8.  Unfortunately Buddy didnít have the same desire to walk the trails this morning as he did the previous evening.  For whatever reason, he was very reluctant to climb up the canyon.  He had the same wild-eyed stare and determination not to move forward as he does when we start down a street with a pit bull.  Iíd guess he just doesnít like the smell of the game animals in the area.  We managed to get up about ĺ of a mile before I finally gave up.  The little bit I did see was beyond spectacular. I tried to get him on the around the lake hike with the same results.  We did make it far enough to see the den of the beaver we saw swimming across the lake the nigh before.  

After a few chores and a good bit of gabbing with the park hosts we hit the road.  It was hard not staying in this place for a few more days but Alaska called. Our three hundred mile goal would bring us through the town of Watson Lake with itís sign city, past Muncho Lake, and into the Yukon Territory.

Sign City in Watson Lake was a pretty neat stop for me.  There are thousands and thousands of signs, each representing a very special trip for a lot of people.  A trip of a lifetime, no doubt, just like it is for us.  I was just as fascinated by the construction equipment from the building of the Alcan Highway that was part of the display.  I found it interesting that most of the people wandering around looking at the display seemed cold and withdrawn. 

This was a good day for animal watching.  The camp hosts at Rocky Mountain  told us to look for mountain goats and sheep up in the rocks about 10 miles up the road.  We were treated to both goats and sheep right along the road.  Except for one baby goat, none of them seemed the slightest bit concerned about us walking around them.  We spotted two black bears feeding on what looked like dandelions along the road.  The last black bear we saw ran as soon as it spotted us. These two didnít seem to care one bit that we were taking their photos.  And we finally saw a few bison grazing along the road.

We ended our day after 275 miles, stopping at a Yukon Provencal Park, Big Creek.  This was a basic park, $12 a night, no frills, no trails, no running water or dump station.  There is a big difference between Yukon mosquitoes and BC mosquitoes.  Yukon mosquitoes are not the least bit shy about chowing down on you the first chance they get.  I donít think there will be any reason to hang around after a quick dog walk in the morning as our blood sucking friends have us confined to quarters.  There is a very nice fast flowing river right at the back of the RV, but itís a bit too swift to allow Buddy a swim.

6/9/11  We finally get an early start.  Weíre working with 20 hours of light a day so at 4:00 AM itís plenty light to get going.  No trails here so a few laps around the park and some forays into the fringe of the surrounding forest is it before we start packing up to go.  Weíre on the road by 6:15 AM.

This section of the route is nothing special, as compared to other sections of the Alcan.  A few black bears were out feeding along side the road and that was pretty much the end of the sight seeing.  Our next big city destination was Whitehorse, YT.  Whitehorse was at the extreme end of our fuel range so weíd hoped for fuel at a small town about 100 miles up the road, Teslin. 

Just before we reached Teslin there was a gas station saying they had better prices than Whitehorse.  Almost no one advertises fuel prices, especially diesel, on this route.  I paid $1.60 per liter at one place, served with a surly attitude.  At the next fuel stop I paid $1.34 per liter and they guy was quite nice.  He used to live near Orlando and still had property in Yeehaw Junction.  So I bit on the sign for ďJakeís GarageĒ and pull in.

The place looked like it had a line of trucks and RVs waiting for fuel, or fueling.  They all turned out to be parked, probably inoperable, sort of like a fake line of people at a restaurant.  I struck up a conversation with the guy who came to pump my fuel (Jake was long since dead so this was probably Jake II).  We yak about business, and the old days and how things have changed.  It looks like the Alaskan Highway business is in much worse shape than the Florida boat business, and that is bad.  Jake II told me the hay days were in the 60s and 70s, with an average of one lodge every 15 miles for the entire route.  Now you have to be careful with your fuel to make sure you can go from lodge to lodge.  About half to two thirds of the places are out of business and boarded up.  Commercial RV lots with 150 to 200 spots might have 10 or 20 RVs in them, and this is peak season.  It was nice to find someone who would talk a little bit about the area and itís history as many just seem to have a bitter attitude.

After Jakeís, itís on to Whitehorse.  We stop in town but thereís nothing to see of interest to me.  Nice town, obviously vibrant, plenty of beautiful people, but winters to die for, literally.  Just west of Whitehorse we make our connection with the Klondike Highway and head north.

At the 285 mile mark we pull into Fox Lake Yukon Provincial Park, leaving us 285 miles to Dawson City.  Fox Lake is another beautiful park on a very large lake.  The park is about half full but we have no problem getting a site right on the lake with a stream right next to our site.  $12 a night for this kind of location is hard to beat.

6/10  Fox Lake doesnít have a hiking trail so it was a loop around the park and a swim. I couldnít stand being on this beautiful lake and not cast a lure.  Three casts produced two fish.  We had a long drive planned so it was then pack to go.  This was another park I had a hard time leaving.

There was a light, cold rain falling all morning.  Our first driving break was at five finger rapids on the Yukon River.  These rapids presented a major obstacle for paddle wheel riverboats back in the gold rush days.  The hike was only two miles but there was a long series of stairs that added a little spice to things.  This area was a major source of firewood for the boilers on the riverboats. 

Or second stop was the small crossing town of Carnac.  Carnac is where the gold that started the Klondike Gold Rush was discovered.  The only thing bringing in gold to Carnac now was diesel and we topped our tank off.  It was a classic Alcan fuel stop: cold drizzling rain, ancient fuel pumps in a large muddy lot, no posted prices but the likelihood they were very high, cold efficient collection of your payment.

After Carnac we pushed on another grueling 200 miles to Dawson City.  On the far side of Dawson City the province of Yukon provides a free ferry service across the Yukon River to continue on the Klondike Highway.  After negotiating our RV on and off the fairly small ferry, we stopped at the Yukon River Provincial Park.  Yukon River Park is fairly large by Provincial Park standards, about 100 sites.  There were probably 25 or 30 occupied.  The park is conveniently located about 100 yards from the ferry so after dropping off the RV, we took a quick trip back to town to explore.

We are dealing with very early sunrises and late sunsets so exploring town was different.  We arrived at about 8:30 with just a few shops open.  By 9:00 PM, all the shops were closed and it was only the bars that were open.  There are a lot of bars in Dawson City and watching all the action in broad daylight was an interesting change.  Carson City has a real feel of a frontier town.  The streets are dirt and mud with boardwalks in front of all the buildings.  The more upscale buildings have boardwalks that are raised up out of the mud, but most are right at mud level.  The city has done a wonderful job of preserving and reusing the old original structures.

As interesting as Dawson City is, and as much as we need a days rest from our seven day trek across Canada, we decide to push on into Alaska the next day, as long as it wasnít raining. Much of the run from Dawson City to the Alaskan border is dirt road so we were going to wait for a sunny day.