Wednesday morning we got up and I finished my blog post. We then took advantage of the free Wifi and Lee geocached a little, finding his second trackable!! We both were going slow for us, and took some time to talk about what the pace would look like over the next few days. We had seen what lie ahead from Kelly and Bills blog bkamerican odyssey and Jim and Barbs blog because they were both just a few days ahead of us. We knew there would be beautiful sites to see and wanted to slow our pace way down. So we talked about what we would do, and did a little research and decided that we would drive until we wanted to stop and then stop. In order to use the Milepost book to its capacity we would reset the trip odometer to zero. Lee wasn’t crazy about that but no other way I could see to do it, and we would take it step by step. I also had picked up some free info at the Whitecourt visitors center including a magazine of BC campgrounds which I hoped would be helpful.
We stopped and dumped on the way out, (donations accepted at the box there for folks who want to stay in the Dawson Creek Walmart like Bill and Kelly did) and we were on our way. My plan was to read Lee the info out of the milepost while we were driving so we would see how well that worked. At MM 20.9 it does mention there is a bridge with strong cross winds. What it does not tell you is there is a steep downgrade with a curve leading into the bridge. OK, so it’s going to be like that. There was a brake check area, and in that area was a profile sign for the grade, with detailed info on the 10 percent grade hill with a 43 mph curve. We stopped at the top and let the traffic go by then stopped after the short 10 percent grade to rest the brakes and I took a picture, then we slowly coasted the rest of the way with Lee using the brakes as sparingly as possible. Very intense, and I was glad to see they are adding more turnouts and another lane going down. Lee did awesome, and I am super glad I didn’t need to drive that. No way I’m ready for that yet.
After the 10% grade I decided to drive the next section because the book didn’t mention any steep grades and that was stressful. First there was smoldering fires along the road, although since there were warning signs and we had experienced this in glacier not so bad. And tons of wildlife signs , no problem I wanted to go slow, unfortunately it is two lane highway and you can’t totally poke along. I started to get in my head a little bit when we saw a dead bison on the side of the road. And then right before we were going to stop for lunch the dreaded steep grade sign. No place to turn off so I was committed and it really wasn’t that bad as it was a long straight one, I was more worried about the long straightaways leading into blind curves which there were plenty of. Had to continuously monitor what gear we were in to make sure we didn’t over stress the engine and after an hour I needed a break. Let me just say it gave me a new appreciation for the pressure the regular driver is often under and a realization I definitely needed more practice. That being said I switched after lunch back with Lee. I need to take this in small chunks. Lee also stopped and picked up a carton of DEF based what our friend Jim posted. Not every place has DEF and that is definitely not something you want to be hunting for.
After my one hour of driving Lee drove the rest of the way. The lack of good instructions in the Milepost and my inexperience with driving the grades, combined with animal warning signs was too much for me. Lee did spend some time as he was driving explaining what he was doing though, which really helped. He sets the cruise control to whatever speed is appropriate for the road conditions. When going down a hill that isn’t too steep or too long, and he can see the bottom of, he flips off cruise control and lets the truck pick up a little bit of speed to help on the climb back up. For the climb he “feathers” the gas pedal to keep the speed close to where it’s supposed to be, instead of letting cruise control do it. With the “Tow/Haul” feature the truck always wants to jump quickly from 6th to 4th gear on climbs, and it’s too much RPM. It’s better if he does it manually, keeping it in 5th. With constant “drop and climb” driving, the cruise will always try to down shift too quickly to keep the truck from picking up too much speed, and then it will downshift again on the climb. It’s a lot of back and forth between 4th, 5th and 6th gear, and terrible for gas mileage and vehicle control. For steeper, or longer grades, or if he can’t see where the road goes during the grade, he puts on the blinkers and goes as slowly down as possible, only using the brakes as a last resort. He keeps the RPMs between 2500 and 3000, to give himself a margin of safety if the grade gets steeper, or goes longer than he thinks it will. Oh and by the way there is a long steep grade that is curvy at MM 124. Although the cut in the rocks is mentioned in the milepost book (with the year the cut in the mountain was made) it doesn’t mention the 6 percent grade for 1 mile with an S curve.
Next we stopped at Pink Mountain (pop 99) for gas but the pumps were closed. We were prepared for this by things we had been told so had started looking for gas when the tank was half full. We also reduced our speed down to 55 because the road was getting rougher. Still no animal sightings , except for the dead bison, but that was probably time of day. The animals are supposed to be the most active around dusk. Some beautiful vistas though from the top of the mountain.
At Skianni Hill there was another turn out with a sign explaining the 8 percent grade (which our truck said was 9) Those are super helpful and this was mentioned in the Milepost book. I really do recommend stopping at this hill before going down and read the sign if nothing else. This grade was long and straight but very steep, Lee had to squeeze the brakes a few times to control speeds. He only held the breaks for a count of 2-3 and then there was a place to pull over half way down. No shame in pulling over, especially to let others pass you. Then the road got very curvy and our GPS gave us a roll over warning. The speed limit sign said 50 kpm and Lee was doing about 25 mph but the big left turn was coming up. That is by far the scariest hill I have ever been on and Lee (who drove a Class B truck cross country and through the Rockies) said, “That was about as ugly as I ever want to deal with.” Alright then.
When we got to the bottom of the hill we turned into the Skinanni Rv park to get gas, but that pump was also out of order. So Lee got out and talked to a very nice guy who said 20 miles up the road there was gas. Have I mentioned The Alaska Highway is not for sissies? We stopped at Buckinghorse lodge and talked to a very nice guy there who said that was the worst north bound steep grade on the Highway. He said at least two truckers die on it every winter. The gas was a cardlock fuel stop. This one was open to the public (not all of them are) and that was a good thing because the next gas was Fort Nelson and that would have been too close for comfort. We could always drop the trailer in a pinch but who wants to do that? The machine only takes Visa or Master card though and our Visa debit has not been working (turns out that Visa had been trying to contact us for suspicious activity but no Lee couldn’t get phone calls so they shut the card off. Luckily Lee got an incoming call from them when we had WiFi and was able to select the prompts to remedy the problem) . Thankfully we have a emergency Visa we rarely use and that one worked. By this time, Fort Nelson was 110 miles away and that was now our goal for the night. Muncho Lake which we had really been looking forward to was just too far away.
Finally there was a little glimmer of sunshine in the day. We saw a bear at Mile Marker 207, pulled over and took tons of pics. Then we saw another bear at MM 261 around 4:02 pm, but the angle wasn’t right to get a pic. Still finally something cool to see.
We hit Fort Nelson at 4:20 and there was one last 7 percent grade leading into town. They also had construction so the traffic was stopped at the top of the hill. It was curvy but short and really not that bad. So I guess we getting are getting used to the grades a bit. This is a great way to get over your fear of steep grades. We stopped at an ESSO to fill up. $1.18 a liter… I miss my gas buddy, not that there are tons of gas options but it would allow us to plan out a little bit. We stayed at a campground called Triple G Hideaway. It was $40 Canadian but I liked it. The people were nice and it was a bit wooded plus they had a cute gift shop and restaurant. Full hookups and since we were close to the front the wifi worked some.
The next morning I woke up at 4 am feeling vaguely guilty. I wrote the following on my IPad because the wifi at the campground wasn’t strong enough to bring up WordPress even at 4 am. Here’s what I had to say.
I feel somehow as if I am letting you all down. I don’t want to keep writing about road conditions, steep grades, what its like to navigate without our electronic tools but that has been the reality of the last three days. Aside from a couple of cool moments like the bear sighting and the giant beaver statue (yes the jokes write themselves), it has been a largely unpleasant three days. I want to be writing the blog you all want to read. Everyone , myself included, was so excited about this trip, but I absolutely refuse to gloss over the unpleasant and just show the pretty pictures, so this is where I am at.
But before I assume my truth is everyone else’s who has made this trip let’s break this down. Why is this trip different from what I have seen or read about? Aside from the fact that we just aren’t that good at doing things for the first time. You should have seen us at the first childbirth…not pretty ) You know I like the bullet points to organize my thoughts so here goes.
- I didn’t do enough research. Ok, that’s true I tend to gloss over the negative and just see the pretty pictures myself so for all I know everyone has this experience and I just wasn’t paying attention. And I get seriously ticked off when my interpretation of conventional wisdom lets me down and this Milepost book which I thought would give me what I needed just doesn’t.
- I underestimated my reliance on the Internet. My desire to save money put me and Lee in a tough situation. It goes beyond Facebook. The lack of Internet has cut me off from my support system when I arguably need it the most and all of the tools I have learned to use to help manage this roving lifestyle. If I had to do it over again I would have upgraded my phone and bought the $2 a day Verizon plan, cost be damned.
- We picked the most expedient route. We did this to save time and money and I don’t really regret that, but we also missed out on the spectacular views. Couple that with the time pressure we are under and it’s not a great mix. We keep telling ourselves this is not our only trip, but it’s hard not to think that way.
- We brought the big rig. Ok this one I knew. Lots of people talk about how they will only do Alaska in a small rig. Jim and Barb bought a truck trailer just for the trip and Jo and Ben only travel that way. I thought it was because they were more outdoorsy than us and wanted the freedom to explore the smaller trails which is true, but what I didn’t understand is how much the big rig limits you and adds stress. We have lost an engine, broke our suspension, and had weight issues all before we got here. We are babying our rig and our truck as much as possible, because we know what those repairs look like and don’t want to experience that here. That’s why lots of people won’t bring their rigs up here. Never got it before, but I get it now.
- We aren’t boondocking and that limits our stays to traditional private campgrounds. These aren’t awful and it’s certainly nice to have full hookups, but they are not located along the pretty. You want to stay at a campground with a gorgeous view? Thus far you need to leave the main highway, travel down a side road, and live with limited services. That includes no potable water in many cases by the way. I totally get the truck camper thing now. Much easier to pop down a side road and “check out” a campground if you know you can turn around at the end of it. We were leery about that in the lower 48 but used google satellite to explore options which we don’t have now. And the Milepost book gives little information on these parks. Heck the park websites themselves barely tell you anything. I took advantage of wifi yesterday to try to research Muncho Lake and the website was terrible.
- We don’t have unlimited time. That’s on us 100 percent , but we can’t just take a few days to hunker down somewhere and figure this out. We need to be at our work kamping job before Memorial Day weekend at the latest, and every day costs us money and we aren’t making money so there is a budget impact. We have a couple of extra days but aren’t sure where the best place to use them is and shame on us really for not researching more.
What’s all this mean in reality? Here is a perfect example. We saw great pictures from Kelly & Bill and Jim & Barb. They stayed at Macdonalds campground and it looked great. I know from FB messenger they have no services, but we can fit. OK great, we can take on water in the visitors center in Fort Nelson. So we drive a couple hundred miles with a full water tank (an extra 700 lbs) over a section of road the milepost says has “numerous steep grades.” Should we do that? The picture is really pretty. That would be a short day for us, but we have been hoofing it and can give the extra day. Is that the best place to take the extra day? We know there is no wifi at the campground but the cost is good at $16 a day and there is a lodge nearby that has wifi I think. Do we need wifi or just blow it off? Will the place be pretty enough it won’t matter? Here’s the thing, I have absolutely no idea, which takes me back to number one…we should have researched this trip. We really thought the pretty was sort of everywhere and we couldn’t mess it up. That is obviously not true. We thought our experience as full timers the last couple of years would give us a leg up, that is not really true. This is a situation when the more camping experience you have the better off you are. We thought we could wing it and demonstrably we cannot. So, sorry, really I am. These are not the blogs I want to write just like these are not the moments I want to be having on this trip, but at the very least I can write about the experience and if it helps anyone in a small way its worth it. Not really, but it sucks less. In a nutshell are the views and animal sightings the last three days worth the cost and stress? Nope. But we are hopeful as we head into tomorrow that things will improve and if not …well it’s not the end of the world. There are certainly less appealing things we could be doing.
Spoiler alert: Things get a ton better on Day 4, but I left this post as I wrote it because I want to protect the integrity of the moment. I promise the pretty pictures are coming.
- Call your credit card companies and tell them where you are going if you will be without cell service. They text or call now for suspicious activity and you will not be able to answer the call. Carry a backup just in case, because even if you call they still may shut you off if they can’t talk to you.
- Research your campgrounds in advance. Check RV Park Reviews. Know what others have to say about WiFi, conditions, power, water etc. If you plan on boondocking research where you will get water and dump because the government campgrounds do not have these options. Keep in mind the information is mostly anecdotal so have a backup plan and contingencies.
- Don’t underestimate the impact not having internet will have. If you can get a reasonably priced internet option do it. Save yourself major headaches.
- Don’t underestimate the challenge of driving on steep grades even if you are an experienced RV driver. Think about taking some trips on steep grades to work up to it before coming. Always stop before the signed grades and think it through. Don’t let people drive you from behind!!
- My opinion the really beautiful stuff doesn’t start until you enter Stone Sheep Provincial Park pas Fort Nelson. Yes it is all relative and if you can take side trips that may not be the case, but don’t expect the wow factor day 1
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