In 2008 we made the lengthy drive down the AlCan (Alaska-Canada Highway) by way of a few national parks (both Canadian and US) to visit family in the lower 48. We were gone for 6 weeks and spent a small fortune.
In 2009 we used airmiles to fly to Utah and stayed with family for 9 weeks, but took a couple of shorter camping/canoeing trips, and spent a small fortune on those things plus fixing up our house down there.
This year we decided that--in spite of two grandmas who really want to meet our newest family member--we should choose the modest option and just take a short in-state trip. With our job (or lack thereof) in mind, we really wanted to keep costs down, but still wanted to have a good trip (we needed to get our minds off things). We thought we could take the budget route on most things (short trip, camping, lots of PB&J for lunches) and thereby make a couple of splurges (such as the bus in Denali). In spite of living in Alaska for 3 years, we had not yet seen the interior of the state, so we sat down with maps and destination wish lists and planned a 12 day road trip.
Things we had planned:
- 12 days
- Visit Denali National Park
- (in Denali) Hubby and Wolf take the spendy all-day bus into the interior of the park (with the good views of the mountain)
- (in Denali) The little ones and I go see the sled doggies (they do winter patrols via dogsled, and in the summer you can see/meet/play with the dogs)
- Visit Dawson City (center of the Alaskan gold rush)
- Spend a day or so seeing what there is to see in Fairbanks
- Visit North Pole (which, incidentally, is south of Fairbanks...)
- Drive north of Fairbanks and cross the Arctic Circle
- See the midnight sun
- In Coldfoot (the city north of the circle) visit the visitor's center for Gates of the Arctic National Park (the park itself is a massive wild place, accessible by plane or for backcountry hiking/cross-country skiing, but not a great place to go with kids)
OK, so now our trip was at 10 days, no Dawson City...but we still had a lot of exciting things planned.
We had planned to leave in the middle of the month, but for assorted reasons decided to move the trip up a bit, so it ended up being the last minute when we got online to make our camping/bus reservations in Denali. The website was down, and the phones were busy, so we wrote down the number and figured to call from the road. Therefore we were a day into our trip (one day out from our intended arrival at Denali) when we learned that the bus we intended to take would not be running for another week. OK, deep breath, we can handle this. We just flipped our itinerary around backwards and moved Denali to the end of our trip rather than the beginning. Reservations made, and we took the other road and headed out of Anchorage the other direction. So far so good.
The first couple of days were fine. The afternoon that we'd planned to camp near Fairbanks though turned out to be very rainy. We decided to stay that one night in a hotel, and (since we wouldn't have to strike camp) we'd head out early to go for the Circle. So much for budget...but it's just one night, and we all got showers... deep breath ok, it's ok.
In the morning we headed out (not nearly as early as we'd wanted too) and started north on the Dalton Highway.There are about 200 miles between Fairbanks and Coldfoot, and about 60 of it is dirt road. There are roadsigns and guidebook notations recommending carrying two spare tires, extra gasoline, etc because there is literally nothing out there. (The road continues past Coldfoot for another few hundred miles of dirt all the way to Prudoe Bay, but we had no desire to go that far.) We figured that with a full take of gas and our standard one spare tire we'd be ok because we were not driving the whole road, just the first little bit up to Coldfoot. Imagine then our concern when we stopped at an overlook for lunch (about 150 miles in, most of the way through the dirt part) and then as we pulled out the van made a funny noise. At first I wondered if a pebble had gotten thrown up into something under the car because sometimes it would clank and then sometimes it wouldn't, however it was a loud noise and as I slowly drove across the pullout (with Hubby outside looking at the car to see if he could see/hear anything more) we both had the feeling that we were not going to cross the Arctic Circle on this trip.
We turned around and went back to Fairbanks; a whole day in the car, and we ended up right where we started, without having really seen anything. On the way back the "check engine" light came on, we checked under the hood (topped off the oil) and determined to take the van in to be looked at in Fairbanks. We guessed it was probably no big deal, but better safe than sorry, right?
Strike the Arctic Circle and Coldfoot and the Gates of the Arctic Visitor's Center. Sad, frustrating, disappointing, but at least we still had Denali to look forward to.
We found a campsite right in Fairbanks. The campsites were decent, there were flush toilets and free showers. The jets from the airport flew over us periodically, and the fighters (and who knows what all else) from the air force base flew over us often. The boys loved looking up at the planes and trying to identify them. I wished they were not quite so loud...but hey, it was entertainment, and it was looking like we'd be in town for a few days.
The next morning we took the van into a shop. They plugged it in and the computer told them that it was a transmission problem (our van is 4 years old with only 37,000 miles on it, so this was shocking). They didn't do transmissions though, so they sent us to a place that did. We went to that place and they noted the make of our car and said "you know there's a kia dealership in town?" We didn't know. It was a new dealership, and we'd never been to Fairbanks anyway, but our van is under warranty so we went over there. They told us that we needed a whole new transmission. (I guess they're faulty on this model?!) It was going to take two days to get the transmission in, and then another full day (12 hours of work) to install the thing.
So one day in Fairbanks became four. deep breath Wow, this trip just isn't what we planned at all. No Dawson. No Circle. But we still had Denali. And in the meantime, I was able to meet a couple of online friends who live in Fairbanks, and one invited me to come to her house to do our laundry so I didn't have to spend an afternoon in a laundromat. We visited LARS (University of Alaska Fairbanks' Large Animal Research Station) with musk oxen and caribou. We visited North Pole and the Santa Claus house, and saw the reindeer there. We spent a day at Pioneer Park playing on playgrounds, eating greek food, playing putt-putt golf, and sending Bear on his first carousel ride. We went to the local fudge shop and tried cranberry and blueberry fudge (YUM). The transmission was supposed to arrive on day 3 (with installation planned for day 4) but on the morning of day 3 as we tried to pull out of the campground the van didn't want to drop into gear, so we emptied out everything, left it all in the campsite, and drove straight to the dealership. We'd hoped they would give us a rental vehicle, but they didn't have any, so we had to find our own (though they did take us over to get it). More money. deep breath They said it was helpful to have the van a day early though because they could get everything dismantled that day, and it would be ready to start installing the transmission first thing on day 4. We hoped that might mean we would be able to leave town midday on day 4--and get right on down to Denali.
As you may have noticed, we fixated on Denali as a great equalizer. We'd had so many hopes dashed on this trip, but Denali was one of the things we'd been most excited about, and we still had our reservations, and we were still going to make it there. The van wasn't finished until 5pm on that 4th day, but we were so ready to leave Fairbanks that we packed up and left town anyway. Fortunately Denali's campground check-in is open until 11pm (it's still as light as 5 at that time) and we rolled in at 10:54. No joke. We checked in and set up camp and finally tucked in around midnight.
In the morning, we awoke to rain. Lots of rain. Not a downpour exactly, but enough to get ya pretty wet if you went out for more than a few minutes, enough to have the tent very wet, enough to chill us...and enough that the clouds were thick and low and we couldn't see the mountain at all. We checked weather reports and they indicated that the clouds and rain were to be expected for the entire coming week. Unfortunately we were at less than 24 hours from the bus departure time, so no refunds. We talked it over and decided to give up and leave. We didn't want to spend three days camping in the rain if we weren't even going to be able to see the mountain that we had come to see. So I inquired about getting a refund for our other nights of camping...check in/out time was 11am, since it was already 12:30, sorry, I was too late, we couldn't get a refund for that night. We also could not get a refund for the next night because of their 24hour notice policy. We spent one night there but between all the un-refunded things we paid more than that hotel in Fairbanks had cost, and we got rained on. We didn't even stick around an extra hour to see the sled dogs because it was a 10 hour drive home.
I've had disappointments before, but this trip really does beat all. I don't think I've ever been so glad to get home from a trip, or wished so much that we'd just never gone at all.
I understand why Denali has their stringent refund policy--Alaskan weather is finicky and they would lose a lot of money if they gave refunds easily. In the future I will not make reservations in advance. I'll plan to arrive mid-week when they're not crowded, and I will watch the weather forecast and not even go if it doesn't look clear. The campground was actually pretty nice, I just was too worn out to be willing to camp there in the rain.
In spite of all the things we didn't do, there were memorable things that we did do, and some of them were good.
Things we actually did:
- Visit Denali National Park (but not see the mountain)
Hubby and Wolf take the spendy all-day bus into the interior of the park The little ones and I go see the sled doggies Visit Dawson City (center of the Alaskan gold rush)
- Spend a day or so seeing what there is to see in Fairbanks
- Visit North Pole and the Santa Claus House and reindeer
- Drive north of Fairbanks (lotta good that did us)
and cross the Arctic Circle
- See the midnight sun (In Fairbanks it didn't matter if I looked up at the tent ceiling at 8pm, 11pm, 2am, 5am, or 9am--it all looked about the same. This makes it very hard to get kids to sleep. It also gave me a remarkable (and sometimes frustrating) sense of timelessness.
Visitor's center for Gates of the Arctic National Park
- Acquired two new national parks magnets for the fridge (Denali NP and Wrangell-St Elias NP)
- Eagle cut his first two teeth
- We met a French couple who camped next to us in Fairbanks--they had a tandem bicycle and had taken an entire year off work and were going to bike from the Arctic Circle all the say down the west coast to Chile and the Antarctic Circle. Whoa!!
- Bear's first carousel ride
- Wolf learned to split firewood and kindling and build/light a fire