Sunday, 25 September 2011

Alaska: The ‘Can’t Leave Your Self Behind’ Guide

Beard grown? Check.  Warm clothes packed? Check.  Pioneering sense of adventure primed? Check.  Magnificent scenery-o-meter calibrated, faces set to stunned? Check and double check.

Then what do you need this guide for?  Stop buggering about and book a ticket to Alaska.

Done it yet?

You need more information?  Geez, you lot are demanding

Okay, let’s start with who this guide is not for.  If you’re sitting at your computer with a bear sandwich halfway to your lips, a hunting rifle perched next to your leg, and a truck full of bewildering outdoor kit sitting in your driveway then it’s probably best to just let out a mumbled pussy and get back to your slightly crinkly copy of Chicks, Clips and Conspiracies.  This is Alaska 101, and need not detain the veteran adventurer for long.

If however you’re intrigued and enraptured by visiting one of the most magnificent vacation destinations on earth, if you have a yearning for adventure, and if, like me a few months back, you have little to no idea of how to make this a reality then read on.  Then book a ticket.  Deal?
This guide covers some budgeting guidance (it’s expensive), the route we took, short overviews of where we visited and camped, tips on eating and drinking, and any other stuff that I think is either (a) useful, (b) funny, or (c) both.  As I have mentioned previously in the mini-guides I wrote for South East Asia what follows is far from comprehensive and even further from objective.  It is tips that I have compiled from what we did, and if it encourages just one reader to make the trip up north then I consider it time well spent on my part.  You can be the judge on whether reading it is time well spent on your part.

Before we start allow me to acknowledge the debt of gratitude I have to the anonymous contributors on the Lonely Planet and Fodor’s discussion forums who gave their time and guidance in helping me to plan for this trip.  Thank you.  This is my own contribution to the online community of travellers who understand that everyone who takes a trip needs, at some point, a bit of friendly advice.

We took our trip in mid July to early August 2011.

Northbound, ho!  


There’s no way to sugar coat this: Alaska is expensive.  The tourist businesses up there really do need to make hay whilst the sun shines and have perhaps four or five months to take home a year’s worth of income and it is this, in addition to the logistical expenses associated with being so remote, that push up prices.  We don’t regret for a moment changing our plans and including Alaska as an impromptu addition to our year long itinerary, but we did both take a sharp intake of breath when we concluded our expenses afterwards – bang goes the contingency budget, may need a plan B.
What I couldn’t find when I was planning our adventure was a rough guide to budgeting for an Alaska trip, so what follows is a partial remedy to this.  To give some context, as context is important when talking about budgets – we were conscious of our budget and didn’t do any of the more expensive activities such as flightseeing, and we camped to drastically reduce our accommodation costs.  A motel room will set you back anything from $150 USD per night upwards, whereas a campsite will charge between $10 and $25 per night.  Offsetting this somewhat is the fact that we had to buy all our camping kit, totalling perhaps $300, but this was an investment not just for Alaska but also for the rest of our trip that will follow in the ‘lower 48’ of the States. 

We ate out on occasion, probably on too many occasions if we’re honest, but also ate regularly around a campfire to cut costs.  Hiring a car undoubtedly added a big chunk to the overall expenses but it’s a cost worth swallowing for the freedom it affords.

So whilst the overall message is that Alaska will certainly make a dent in your bank account it is also worth noting that many of the best experiences are free – taking in the magnificent scenery, hiking through the backcountry, chatting with the folk who call this place home.

The hard figures

The figures below are for the two of us, in US Dollars, and are intended to provide a rough guide rather than a budget recommendation.  They cover everything from the flight up to Anchorage from Seattle, our time in Alaska, and the ferry journey back to Vancouver.

Total cost: c. $7,000 USD.

Of which roughly…

  • $1,500 went on hiring an SUV with full insurance coverage in Alaska, and $250 for a one way rental on Vancouver Island.
  • $1,360 went on flights – Seattle to Anchorage, Anchorage to Juneau
  • $420 went on the Alaska ferry leg from Juneau to Prince Rupert, including a cabin
  • $360 went on the BC ferry leg from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy
  • $400 went on gas
  • $350 went on activities: halibut fishing, kayaking, glacier hiking
  • $300 went on camping kit
The rest of it went on the normal things you spend money on when you’re on vacation; eating out, booze, gifts, groceries, bumper stickers to decorate your cooler box.  You know, important stuff like that.  

Route and travel logistics

I debated various travel options before finally concluding on a fly-drive-ferry combo (fly to Alaska, drive around, ferry back south), and simply can’t recommend it highly enough, particularly for those flying internationally into the USA.

The overall travel plan is below, with more details on each leg in what follows (excluding the flights):

  • Flight from Seattle to Anchorage
  • Two week road trip in a hire car around central Alaska
  • Flight from Anchorage to Juneau in southeast Alaska
  • Alaska Ferry from Juneau down the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert, Canada (2 nights, 3 days)
  • BC (British Columbia, Canada) Ferry from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy, Vancouver Island (1 day)
  • One day car rental from Port Hardy to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island
  • Ferry from Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver

The sea route – an ode to the ferries and the Inside Passage

Our end destination was Vancouver so changing ferry operators (from Alaska ferries to BC ferries) at Prince Rupert was necessary.  I understand however that Alaska Ferries (the Alaska Marine Highway to give it its official name) also run a trans-marine route from Seward in Alaska to Bellingham in Washington.  This would be an amazing trip, especially if you were flying out of Seattle.

Changing ferry operators afforded me the opportunity to compare the two and much as I’m reluctant to heap more negativity on the beleaguered BC Ferries I must confess that I preferred the Alaska Ferries.  The BC Ferry was sparkly and new and was just a little too much like a cruise ship for my liking, with a price tag to match ($180 CDN for a one day sailing on BC Ferries vs. $140 USD for a three day sailing with Alaska Ferries – do the maths on that one).  Interestingly, the reason why the BC ferry is so sparkly and new is because it replaced the previous one, which sank.  The story goes that the Captain and Second-in-Command were snoozing, but had left the fully trained Third-in-Command at the helm.  Who somewhat unwisely decided to get high and turn off the camera on the bridge so he and his girlfriend could feel the motion of the ocean in privacy.  Which they certainly did when the ferry ran aground and promptly sank. Can you imagine his annual appraisal?

Well, we’ve been delighted with your progress, in particular your dedication to attaining your navigation certificates.  Having said this there are some areas for improvement – not sinking boats whilst high and boning your girlfriend should be your main area of focus.
But let’s get back on topic - regardless of who you sail with down the Inside Passage let me just say this: it is incredible.  I was mentally writing a whole blog post about it but couldn’t get past a slightly spluttery and inarticulate ‘it’s really cool, it made me dead happy, we saw whales, and you get to sleep on a boat, and the food was scrummy, and can we go again, can we, can we, CAN WE???’  I couldn’t wait to get out of my berth each morning and revelled in the slow and serene pace of ferry life you slip into.  A bite to eat, a little stare out of the window, read a chapter of a book, a brief flurry of excitement as a whale sighting is announced and everyone dives to one side of the boat, listen to some music, do some writing, chat with a fellow passenger, oh it’s 4 o’clock better have a beer, stare out of the window a bit more, repeat.  It was, without question, one of the best things we’ve done in the last six months, a six months full of good things.  I was genuinely sad to get off in Prince Rupert.

Lots of people cruise that route and I’m sure it’s very good but for my money (and for yours) I’d give the ferries a crack.  Unless you really like shuffleboard, dress codes and compulsory tipping, in which case stick to a cruise line. I jest somewhat and am reluctant to vilify a travel method that I’ve never tried but the truth of the matter is that when we walked around Juneau, the Alaskan state capital and a cruise line hub, we repeatedly felt vindicated (and a little smug) by our decision to choose the ferry over a cruise.  Downtown Juneau is dominated by gift shops that service the cruise lines, all selling identical crap to the herds who step, as one, off the cruise ship to spend money on ‘I went to Juneau and all I got was the lousy t-shirt’ t-shirts.  I’ve no reason to believe that the cruise itself is anything less than remarkable, you can’t ruin the incredible scenery after all, but the idea of being shunted ashore every so often to poke around trinkets like a walking ATM, with thousands of other walking ATMs re-enacting a scene from Dawn of the Cruising Dead, is not my idea of fun.
But you know what? How you do it is less important than actually doing it.  Sail the Inside Passage – it’s incredible.

Ferry websites for fares, schedules and booking:

If you still would rather book a cruise rather than the ferry, and live in the States or Canada, then try Cruise Compete to negotiate a good deal

The land route

Our route took us south from Anchorage to a loop in the Kenai Peninsula (Kenai, Homer, Seward), back up to Anchorage, then in a loop via Talkeetna, Chena Hot Springs, Valdez, McCarthy and back to Anchorage.  We covered about 2,000 miles in two weeks and although there were a couple of long drive days the routes were magnificent and easy driving.  More details on the places we stopped follows in the section below.

View Larger Map

Hints and tips from the road tip

What follows is a collection of titbits, categorised by the locations we stopped at, and covering camping, activities, eating and drinking, plus anything else that pops into my mind.


We were very fond of Homer, not least because the sun came out and the sea glistened.
The City Campground in Hornaday Park on the hill above the town was fantastic, with beautiful peek-a-boo views out to the sea, and relatively secluded wooded sites. Plus it was cheap at only $8 per night.  No showers but you can pay for a good hot shower at the Washboard, who also offer laundry services, free Wi-Fi and good coffee.

The Tourist Information office in Homer was manned by quite possibly the friendliest chap in all of Alaska – worth dropping by just to have a chat with him.

Halibut fishing tours are big business in Homer, with countless operators lining the Spit.  I wandered from place to place trying to get the best deal before rapidly realising that they’d all price fixed, getting bored, and booking at the place with the most attractive professional staff.  I loved the tour I went on, and have written about it previously, so shan’t labour the point.  I did a half day trip and this was plenty, not least because I had bruises in my groin area from the two hours spent reeling in the monster, OK large-ish, halibut from the bottom of the ocean.  What, exactly, have you been up to to? asked Helen as I returned sweaty, tired, smelling of fish and with a bruised testicle.


Seward’s great attraction is Exit Glacier, and it’s well worth the short hike up there to stand next to it.  I mean, it’s not something you do every day, stand next to a glacier, even if it is just, in reality, like a massive cold boulder.

Kayaking in Seward
We camped at Miller’s Landing just out of the town centre and it has a majestic setting next to the water.  The sites are more expensive than State run campgrounds, and are a little close together, although the proximity to the water makes up for this.  They were also running a cracking deal on a half day kayak trip and we were fortunate to push off onto a perfectly still surface, our faces bathed in early morning sunshine.
Helen’s advice on the aquarium in Seward is: don’t bother, overpriced and underwhelming.  I anticipated as much so didn’t go.  Ooh, aren’t I clever?


As we sat watching the US Army band rock out at the weekly ‘live at five’ gig in Talkeetna’s town square, the Alaskan railroad train chugging by in the background, the warm sun showing no signs of setting, I thought to myself I could live here

We camped at the small city campground at the end of Talkeetna’s main, and only, drag.  Although it didn’t provide the seclusion I prefer when camping it did afford the opportunity to have a drink, or several, and stagger back to the tent.  The girls put me to shame by staying out until 4am drinking at the Fairview Inn before falling through the tent flap and filling me in on their new best friend – an avuncular old timer called Leonard who, they slurred, had some moves.  So here’s the practical tip - go to Talkeetna, get drunk, and have a dance with the man in overalls called Leonard.  The girls also confirmed that the old adage about the male female ratio in Alaska – the odds are good but the goods are odd – was indeed true.

It won

Man vs Food recently filmed an episode at Talkeetna’s West Rib CafĂ© and Pub where the increasingly chubby host took on the ji-normous Seward’s Folly burger.  I tried to conquer it’s half-size sibling.  Food won.

Chena Hot Springs Resort, north of Fairbanks

Don’t bother.  It’s tatty and overpriced, and the owners seemed to have given up.  It’s the one place we regretted going, especially as we made the judgement call to head up north rather than go to Denali National park. 

The one saving grace was that a moose wandered into our campground, unhurriedly chomped its way through some wild flowers, then made a beeline for Kate who was hiding behind the car, causing her to let out a small squeal.  Both humbling and extremely funny.


Well, it rained in Valdez.  A lot.  Then it rained some more.  Then the mist descended. So we didn’t really see Valdez in its best light, which is unfortunate as judging by the drive over the mountains and then down into Valdez this is one of the most beautiful places in Alaska. 

The Valdez Glacier Campground provided a good place to stay, with hot showers.  And here’s a tip for the dog loving budget traveller; the local animal rescue centre lets you take their dogs for a walk.  Cute dogs, nice trails, free.  A winning combination.  Until you have to say goodbye to your new best friend of course.


I’ve written about McCarthy in a previous post, so just the additions here.

Fill up the car before you start the road to McCarthy – there’s no gas en route.  There are a couple of campsites near McCarthy which seemed fairly similar to me.  We chose to stay at the one that was overseen by a cheerful Jonny Vegas lookalike, and it was fine.

The glacier hike is a great way to spend the day, especially if you’ve never walked with crampons on your feet before.


I want to go back.  Writing about Alaska makes me miss it.  It’s incredible.

Seriously now, I’ve told you once already, stop reading this and book a ticket.

Go on, on your way, nothing more to see here.

My other posts written whilst we were in Alaska

A-Unit: Thrift in the Last Frontier.  Written whilst in Homer, and an ode to my love of thrift stores, with a bit of impromptu rapping thrown in for good measure.

Dream Catcher: Also written from Homer, a post that recounts the day I spent halibut fishing, and the good people I met on the boat.

Warner & Spidey get lucky: A post about the road to McCarthy, what to expect when you get there, and some cheeky historical reimagining of what it must have been like to be the pioneers who first discovered this remote place.

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Thursday, 1 September 2011

Warner & Spidey get lucky

Alaska: McCarthy

When the opportunity presented itself to go to McCarthy, a town at the end of an infamous 60 mile one way road, I was nervous.  Reading about this town some years back had triggered my nascent fascination with Alaska – the town had become the mysterious hero in my own mental wilderness novel - and this made me nervous because you should never meet your heroes.   More prosaically I was nervous because we would be driving a hire car, a hire car with a location transponder no less, down what was for a long time referred to as ‘the worst road in Alaska’.  I have a deep-rooted and unshakeable distrust for hire car companies, and had images of me returning the car with a small chip in the bodywork to be told that I would be charged a squillion dollars for my oversight, them pulling out our route map and pointing out the ‘bad road’ to silence my increasingly hysterical protests.  So I was nervous; one part fear of the unknown to one part distrust of the known. 

But since when, I asked myself, have nerves got in the way of you doing something?  If they did, I reasoned, then I wouldn’t have disappeared for a year, wouldn’t be in Alaska, and certainly wouldn’t be gently idling the car at the mouth of this famous road; a narrow and foreboding passageway blasted out of millennia old rock.  And you know what? The road was a doddle.  Although there was mild peril to be found in the occasional shards of old railway sleeper that poked out of the ground, a reminder that this was once a railroad servicing the copper mines at Kennicott, just up the hill from McCarthy, the ‘worst road in Alaska’ proved to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing.  My assessment of what constitutes a bad road may have been, I’ll admit, skewed somewhat by African roads which dispense with the ‘pot’ and just do ‘holes’, but even so this road did not live up to its fabled billing.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed by this, but given the choice between (a) a smooth and incident free journey and (b) a front tyre blow-out and a close up view of a tree, I’d have to opt, on consideration, for the former.  Helen and Kate, my co-pilots, needed no such consideration and were happy, given that navigational duties were redundant, to resume deeply meditative wildlife spotting. Snoozing to you and me.

So despite being a disappointing doddle for those in search of a driving challenge (try it in winter, smartass, I can hear the residents saying in my head), the road is still exciting.  There is undoubtedly something exhilarating about heading down a one way road, knowing with certainty that the road will soon come to a dead stop, and slowly watching the wilderness take hold around you.  I giggled at the irony of a road sign that pointed off to ‘wilderness’, a waggish reminder that we were entering what many consider to be the wildest terrain Alaska has to offer; the Wrangell St. Elias National Park.  It made me reflect on quite how tough, and possibly mentally deranged, the two prospectors who discovered the staggering quantities of copper in this remote place must have been.  It was their discovery that triggered the brief but concerted copper rush at the Kennicott mines, and the establishment of McCarthy as a frontier town servicing the social needs of the miners – where men were men and women were picky. 

Now, I have, on rare occasions, worked in environments that could be considered hostile (where a disconnect in respective ideology can preface a disconnect between your head and neck), but I struggle to imagine quite how hostile this environment must have been for these two prospectors – Clarence Warner and ‘Tarantula’ Jack Smith (Spidey to his mates) - who trudged their way through virgin wilderness, blindly searching out a fortune in the ground.  The story goes that upon stopping for lunch next to McCarthy Creek they initially mistook the green shimmer on the mountains for grass, before doing a double take and going ‘hang on a second’...  

Imagine, if you can, paddling in a stream and commenting to your companion (let’s nickname him ‘Mamba’ to get us in the mood) that there was a lot of glass on the river bed.  Now imagine Mamba turning to you and saying ‘that there’s not glass nancy boy, them be diamonds’! I like to think that Warner and Spidey shared a similar moment of revelation upon ascertaining that the green tinge on the mountainside was copper, not grass; the two of them dancing a little jig hand in hand, shouting into the air ‘we’re gonna be rich’, Warner holding Spidey’s hand tenderly and letting eye contact linger for just a little too long, before Spidey rebuffs him with a grunt and a muttered ‘I’m lonely but I’m not that lonely’. It was these two men, with their special relationship, and even more special discovery that was the start of a typical boom and bust pioneer history that would, over a hundred years later, find the three of us standing at the bank of the same creek, staring at the same mountain range.  And with the same spirit of discovery that motivated these early pioneers we crossed the footbridge leading into McCarthy, searching for our own riches: dinner and a pint.

It’s easy to walk the length of McCarthy’s main drag, as we did, get to the end and go ‘er, is that it’? And that’s why I loved it.  This is a ghost town, a speck of civilisation in the vast wilderness, but it’s a ghost town with perks, not least of which is a snug pub with a hearty menu.  Adjoined to the pub is a rather innocuous fine dining restaurant; its innocuous location being the main selling point I think, although I gather that the food is really rather splendid.  It’s not my cup of moose stew though; I considered the bear shaped plates we’d bought for our camping a superfluous luxury on account of my belief that camp cuisine is best serviced by a fire, some meat, and a stick.  If it’s a special night then I might crack out the napkin shaped leaves.  So the prospect of dealing with not just one, but several, sets of cutlery was simply an affectation too far in this ghost town.  Instead we got tipsy on a surprisingly diverse selection of beers, ear wigging the conversations of the local residents, and hearing snippets of what passes for day-to-day life in a town where the road ends and wilderness begins.  Lost dogs and bears seemed to dominate, although I couldn’t confirm that the two were related.

And so we spent a couple of days enjoying being on the edge of wilderness; sitting around a campfire, hiking the nearby glacier with crampon’ed feet, and listening intently to the strange sound in our ears: silence.  It’s Alaska’s soundtrack, after all, and I like to imagine that it was maybe shattered late one night in 1900 when, from a lonely tent, Spidey's gruff tones rang out; you better pray that that's a bear got into our tent who's touching my leg Warner, or you and I are gonna fall out.                       

Sshh! Don't tell the hire car company.

Just so you can tell the difference

'The worst road in Alaska' - what-evs!

Bridge across the McCarthy River. Pete McCarthy tells the tale of two local residents who, on their return from Anchorage with a live pig as cargo, thought it would be fun to bungy the pig off the edge.  The pig enjoyed it apparently and so began a short-lived bungee jumping business.

Ice hiking on a glacier just outside McCarthy