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Destination Alaska Part I: A 66-Day Trek to the Last Frontier

The beginning of an RVing adventure

The trailer was ready, the truck fueled up and our expectations high. Our adventure was about to begin. The trailer was ready, the truck fueled up and our expectations high. Our adventure was about to begin.

By: Sheryl Gallup

April 2013

No one would ever label me the adventurous type. I have never wanted to climb a mountain, ski down a snowy slope, jump out of an airplane, or even endure the terror of whitewater rafting. Surprising to most people, I actually do enjoy hunting, fishing and remote camping. As long as I know that something resembling civilization is within 30 minutes, I’m cool with it. Call it a character flaw; I just really need a cell phone tower, flushable plumbing and a burger joint.

Two years ago when my boyfriend approached me about the idea of a road trip from Minnesota to Alaska, I was hesitant but willing to consider it. What I wasn’t prepared for was that he wanted to do the 10,000-mile roundtrip over three months while camping along the way … in a tent!

I begged him to consider a 10- to 14-day Alaskan cruise. He sweetly smiled in the way that always gets to the very core of me and said, “But, honey, it’s all about the adventure and seeing America from the road.”

He won that round. But, oh how things changed.


Click the image for photos of the adventure
Destination Alaska: A 66-Day Trek to the Last Frontier


I wanted to stay in hotels along the way. He wanted to camp in a tent. I wanted a one-month road trip. He wanted a three-month trip. In the end, and after a year-long search for a shelter with wheels that we both could agree upon, we finally purchased a 23-foot travel trailer with all the amenities. Not as large as I wanted, not as small as he wanted. That was the compromise.

It took a year of planning before we were actually ready to embark on our monumental trip to Alaska.We were excited about the idea of being first-time RVers. As we began preparing and planning for our trip, we had no idea what a costly adventure this was turning out to be. Just to get the RV ready, there were parts to replace, a generator to buy, trailer hitch to purchase and install, license tabs, insurance, furnishings and an almost endless list of other things. I kept asking him if he wanted to change his mind and the answer was always the same, “It’s an adventure!”

When our “adventure” was just days away, admittedly, I became excited. I packed and unpacked for weeks. For someone who always over packs, it is a daunting task to find that happy medium between what I feel I can’t live without and what are actually essentials for a 3-month trip. First thing out of the trailer was the TV. That horrific decision was not mine, and I seriously question how I will be able to survive for 3 months without Duck Dynasty, Sons of Guns and following the lives of the Kardashians. I hoped that I would be able to view my TV families by way of my laptop.

Since I am a business owner, I had to carefully plan how to work from a small mobile office. I didn’t mind having a mobile office, especially since it provided a convincing argument about why a travel trailer was more conducive to a mobile office than a tent. It also gave me an excuse to bring my laptop, tablet and cell phone so I can stay in touch with clients … and watch TV.

As we neared our June 2 departure date, I still had three fears that I couldn’t seem to shake. The first is the terrifying idea of hauling a 23-foot travel trailer through the mountains (remember, we are flatlanders here in Minnesota). The second is bears – black bears, brown bears, grizzly bears, polar bears, any bears – the idea of encountering one was frightening. Lastly, and probably my biggest fear, was that my 18-year relationship with my boyfriend won’t make it to 19 years after this adventure.

I invite you to follow Woodzjoe and myself through our travel blog as we make our way to the great Northwest last year. I hope you enjoy the tale and gain some travel insight from our adventure.

Happy trails,

Woodchick

Bound and Determined

Sunday, June 2, 2013

It was 6:30 a.m. when we hit the road for the first leg of our trip. The trailer was ready, the truck fueled up and our expectations high. It had finally arrived. Our adventure was about to begin.

Our destination for our first day was Bismarck, N.D. The first leg of the journey from Minneapolis to North Dakota is not exactly what one would call scenic. The flat, open, plowed fields along I-94 for hundreds of miles grew wearisome and we found it necessary to entertain ourselves with road games. You know the kind, where you count road kill and keep a tally of the numbers and species of animals that were not wise enough to look both ways before crossing the road. Desperate for entertainment, I guess.

We pulled into our day’s end destination of Bismarck at 5:00 p.m. We had spent 10 1/2 hours on the road. A trip that should have taken eight hours took us much longer. We stopped many times along the way to stretch our legs and check on the trailer. But mostly, it was fuel stops. It took three tanks of gas at seven miles per gallon to get through the plains. We knew right away that the most expensive part of our trip was going to be fuel.

We are staying in Bismarck for a couple days. A friend of Woodzjoe offered to let us use their electric hookups at their home while they are away. It is a gorgeous view in the rolling hills of the Missouri River Valley. As we pulled into this rural area yesterday, four rooster pheasants took off in a magnificent flash of color and we watched them soar towards the river. Within minutes, a huge jack rabbit bolted from his resting place and headed for the hills.

Monday, June 3, 2013

We are still in Bismarck and plan to spend one more day here with friends. Winds are strong, sky is full of rain clouds and we are not sure what type of day we are in for.

When we began planning this trip a year ago, we were trying to decide what type of trip this was going to be. Yes, it is a working one, but also it seemed to need a goal, something that made it more significant than just playing tourist. Admittedly, I have not seen much of the U.S. This opportunity lends itself well to learning the history of the land that lies between Minnesota to Canada and on into Alaska. I want to learn about the people, the land, and the motivation that our predecessors had to have had to settle here. Every town has a story to tell. And every town has locals that will want to share those tales. I want to listen and learn. From this, I hope to gain an experience that will stay with me forever.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Our alarm clock this morning was the sound of pheasants cackling from every direction around our trailer. I have always loved that sound and it was a gentle reminder that our adventure will be full of wildlife as we travel the country.

We pulled out of camp early and headed west on I-94. Our first stop was New Salem, N.D., to visit New Salem Sue. As the world’s tallest and heaviest Holstein, at 38 feetin height and 12,000 pounds, she proudly stands high atop a hill. Unfortunately, the length of our truck and trailer prevented us from climbing up the hill so we stood at the bottom and photographed the cow in all her glory.

New Salem Sue

New Salem Sue

From New Salem, we stopped in Dickinson, N.D., to visit the Dinosaur Museum, Joachim Museum and the Pioneer Machinery Museum. Each was impressive in their own way and worth visiting if ever you travel there. I was particularly impressed with the mineral and rock display which is one of the largest I have ever seen. I am a self-professed Rock Hound, to the point of addiction, and seeing all these rocks from around the world made my heart skip a beat.

Our last stop for the day was the Painted Canyon Visitor Center on I-94 very near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is really the beginning of the North Dakota Badlands and offers a fantastic view of the overwhelmingly beautiful rock formations. Absolutely a must-see!

We are camped for the night in Medora and plan to visit some of the town tomorrow and then head into the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Animal observation for the day: buffalo, deer, antelope, prairie dogs, turkey, pheasant and ducks.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

We spent the day at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, ND. I was blown away by everything I saw at the national park today. We took the 20-plus mile loop drive through the park and every turn in the road was more beautiful than the previous. We took a couple short hikes which gave us an even more personal experience with the buttes and valleys that surrounded us. This national park encompasses 110 square miles and is divided into three land sections – the North Unit, the South Unit and Elkhorn Ranch Unit. I wish we had time to see it all.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park

We also went to the Visitor Center at the park which shares the history of Theodore Roosevelt’s passion for the Badlands and explains why he settled here for a number of years. He loved the land and it helped heal his pain after the death of his wife and mother.

President Roosevelt’s conservation efforts were very advanced and it took the country decades to truly appreciate them. I like the fact that his respect for the land and his determination to make a difference made the entire country look at the land differently. His concern for conserving our natural resources was best described when he said, “That while we get rich off our natural resources like oil, coal, ore and wood, and our soil has eroded and our streams are gone, what will be left?”

Yes, I wish that I could have told Teddy Roosevelt how grateful I am for his unwavering determination to set aside more than 150 million acres of land to be protected and enjoyed forever.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Today is what we affectionately call our “Road Warrior” day, which means, that we really didn’t do any sight-seeing except what we could see from the interstate and from roadside rests. But, what we did see was awe-inspiring scenery as we traveled along the Lewis & Clark Trail alongside the Yellowstone River. The route did produce some amusing dialogue between us though as we thought about what Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea must have thought as they traveled through the North Dakota Badlands through the mountains of Montana and on toward the West. I am not sure if they were cursing types, but I can almost hear them saying, “Are you kidding me, MORE stupid Buttes to go around?”

We started the day from Medora, North Dakota and ended our day at a pretty little town called Big Timber, Montana, just off of I-90. The day was long, our bodies road-weary and we couldn’t seem to find a campground, so we decided to “treat” ourselves to a Super 8 for the night. Nothing fancy, but far more inviting than our small trailer.

Crazy Mountains, Big Timber, MT

Crazy Mountains, Big Timber, MT

At the restaurant in Big Timber, we had a nice view of the Crazy Mountains and found out that there is a legend or two about this mountain range. It is a rugged and jagged range of rock more than 11,000 feet high. Folk lore offers several versions of how the mountains were so named. The first version is that the mountains are haunted by a crazy Native American woman, but no one seems to know why she was crazy.

It was the second version that intrigued me. Apparently, hundreds of years ago, there was a woman named Jane Morgan who was traveling with her husband John from Independence, Missouri, headed for the Oregon Trail across the plains with a wagon train of settlers. After being separated from the wagon train, they were attacked by Blackfoot Indians. John Morgan and their three children were killed.

Jane Morgan was overcome with grief and insanely charged after the Blackfoot with an axe, killing four of them. At the end of the day, a young Rocky Mountain trapper named John Johnson came upon the “crazy” woman. He stayed for a number of days to help bury the dead and to build a small cabin for Jane Morgan. The “Crazy Woman” refused to leave the cabin because she wanted to stay with the graves, so John Johnson moved on.

The woman lived in the mountains and they were named the Crazy Mountains. If this legend sounds familiar to you, it is because this bit of folk lore was the basis for one of the best movies ever made…Jeremiah Johnson.

Animal observation for the day: A disappointing one! We saw lots of domestic horses, cattle and sheep, and one lousy turkey vulture.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Today was mostly a travel day as we had to get from Big Timber, Mont., to Missoula to spend some time visiting with my friend Jon.

The drive to Missoula was absolutely beautiful. We drove through a gorgeous mountain pass near Butte and we were fortunate enough to see three elk grazing on the mountainside and shortly thereafter, we also saw some mule deer.

We reached Missoula late in the afternoon and decided to make our first stop the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Their new location has a small museum, and we enjoyed seeing all the mounts they had of North American animals – including elk of course.

There was an interesting display that discussed how when the Europeans first arrived here, that North America had about 10 million elk. But, over-hunting and loss of habitat nearly completely wiped out the Eastern Elk and by the early 1900s, less than 90,000 elk roamed the lands west of the Mississippi. Fortunately, conservation groups, like RMEF, have enhanced and conserved nearly six million acres of elk country, bringing elk populations to about 1.1 million today.

Jon’s Grand Slam of Sheep

Jon’s Grand Slam of Sheep

From the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, we finished up our travels for the day at my friend Jon’s place located in the foothills of the Missoula Valley. Woodzjoe had never met Jon, but I knew right away the two guys would hit off. Like us, Jon also is a hunter and fisherman, and is a passionate conservationist.

Over cocktails, Jon shared tales of his hunts to South Africa, Canada, Alaska and other parts of the world. Jon has had so many successful hunts, that he found it necessary to add an enormous addition to his home to showcase all the species he has hunted. He has about 37 different African species and 15 North American species – with no repeats. His trophy room contains his grand slam of North American Sheep that he got in just two years.

He also has a hand-painted diorama that spans an enormous wall in the trophy room. His taxidermist did an amazing job not only with the mounts, but also with the realistic placement of them in front of the diorama. This room almost makes you feel like you walked into a museum of natural history.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Our destination today was Glacier National Park, and we are not sure how it happened, but we actually made the trip on just ONE tank of gas. Normally, that GMC gray beast has to be fed three meals a day! Before we left, Jon had given us some tips on what route to take and we were glad that we heeded that advice as we drove along the east side of Flathead Lake. What an amazing view of that huge body of water. Coming from the Land of 10,000 Lakes our expectations were high, and fortunately, Flathead Lake actually over-delivered.

Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park

Jon’s other piece of advice was to be sure and stop just before we enter Glacier National Park and try the huckleberry ice cream. To be honest, I thought he was trying to play a joke on us when he suggested this because I thought that huckleberries were fictional. I am so glad that we decided to take a chance, because we stopped at a great little place and had an amazing piece of huckleberry pie with a scoop of huckleberry ice cream. I’m in love!

After dinner, we decided to take the Going to the Sun Road for some site-seeing. It is still closed due to snow at the higher altitudes, but we were able to drive 14 miles before we came to the road-closed sign. It offers a spectacular view of all the streams that feed into Lake MacDonald and we took a lot of pictures.

Fort Steele, British Columbia Implements
Fort Steele, British Columbia Implements

Tomorrow we head north to Canada as the adventure continues.

Animal observation for the day: Some mule deer and some song birds. But, I have also been seeing quite a few Magpies and I find delight in each one.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Oh Canada! We crossed over the border with no problems and now were officially referred to as Americans.

On our way north, we traveled along the east shore of the enormous Flathead Lake. The water was incredibly blue and the shoreline was dotted with one cherry orchard after another. A very beautiful drive and one in which we took our time (as if we even had a choice hauling a trailer around the winding road).

In Fort Steele, British Columbia, we stopped at an old frontier town called, ironically, Fort Steele. The attraction was established as it was in the 1800s during the gold rush and as the settlers’ pockets got bigger, so did the town. Some of the buildings were the existing ones from around 1860, but others were replicas of buildings that had stood there. It appeared to have been a bustling town in its day, for it had a schoolhouse, three churches, dentist, surgeon, hotel, miners’ quarters, tailor shop, bakery, restaurant, some very nice homes, and many more buildings as well.

Fort Steele Schoolhouse

Fort Steele Schoolhouse

We got an opportunity to try gold panning here, and Woodzjoe and I found ourselves in competition to see who would have the most gold in their pay dirt. I won! I had one small flake more than him. We celebrated our new found talents at panning by actually buying a gold pan. This will come in handy once we hit Alaska. We need to pan enough gold to pay off this trip!

From Fort Steele, we headed north in hopes of finding a campground. We thought about stopping in Radium Hot Springs, but it was so filled with tourists that we decided to continue on our journey.

I am new to the Rocky Mountains, but Woodzjoe actually lived for a number of years in Colorado. As beautiful as they are, nothing prepared me for what I would see when we got to Kootenay National Park, B.C. Without a doubt, this is my favorite place on the planet … so far. The mountains of Montana paled in comparison to what British Columbia had to offer. As we entered the national park, we both were overwhelmed by the beauty. The mountains were snow-capped, the park carpeted with lush green trees and grass, and wildflowers had sprung up here and there.

We hadn’t been in the park long when a flashing road sign warned of “Bears on the Road.” Our anticipation was high, but we both doubted that the bear would still be there. Much to our delight, there he was, in all his golden fur, a big ol’ grizzly bear. He strolled along the shoulder of the road like a hiker out for a nice evening walk.

Elk, Kootenay National Park

Elk, Kootenay National Park

It wasn’t long before brake lights up ahead told us that something else was meandering along the road. Another bear, this one was a chubby black bear alongside the road eating grass. We saw our third black bear just minutes after that. As we winded our way through the mountain passes of the park, we saw some elk and a rather impressive herd of mule deer. What a way to end the travel day.

We pulled into Banff, Alberta, late, primarily because all the campgrounds in Kootenay National Park were closed. Apparently, we are ahead of the busy season. It was almost dark when we found an RV park in Banff and rushed to get set up and get some sleep.

Click here to read "Part Two: Oh, Canada! Heading Northwest"

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