We headed towards Canada for the first time with our rig with some trepidation. We double and triple checked our cell phones, my fi, and iPad to make sure everything was turned off. We ate the last of our eggs , worried about the chicken in our freezer, and put our first stop in the GPS. Luckily our GPS worked in Canada when we popped over for the day this summer, but I also had the Milepost book and a map the woman at the campground had given us. I think we were so nervous largely because of anecdotes we kept hearing. “They will take your chicken at the border” (not true), they are price gouging in Muncho Lake it costs $100 for breakfast (I doubt this and we have breakfast stuff.) Still all the “people say” was making us nuts, because for the first time in a really long time we were going without technology. My phone won’t work at all internationally (Verizon said texting would work but that turned out to not be true) and AT&T was charging a ton of money, so we were relying solely on Wi-Fi if we could find it, the Milepost book, GPS, and the kindness of strangers. Oh yeah…that’s going to go well!
We left the campground at 8:30 and arrived at the Sweetwater border crossing at 9:00 on the dot. There was a small camper and car in front of us, and we sat and waited our turn for just a couple of minutes. It took 2 minutes to get us through customs but it was an intense 2 minutes. Lee did tell them we were full timers (I don’t really recommend this but the guy didn’t blink an eye and asked where our mailing address was). He asked about tobacco and alcohol and we said we had some for personal use, downplayed what we had, and the customs agent asked if we were were planning on selling anything and when we said no he moved on. He never asked about eggs (which we ate in the morning) or chicken and when he asked about fruits and veggies (we had a little for personal use), Lee said no and we moved on. The most time was spent on guns. Numerous questions about guns and ammo but since we aren’t gun owners those were easy. I think it’s a little harder if you are a gun owner and you left them at home. He said “If we check your rig will we find any of these things and Lee emphatically said “No” which is true. Lee said he was staring right into his soul, so that must be in the job description. Anyway it was only two minutes (I timed it), but Lee said it felt a lot longer, and we were through.
We passed into Canada, and initially it looked a bit like Iowa. Lots of farms,straight and well maintained roads, and small towns. We stopped at the first major town, Lethbridge at the Visitor’s Center and I highly recommend that. The woman working there gave us TONS of good information all the way up to Edmonton and we used it all. Her advice about bypassing Calgary and Edmonton was better than anything else we saw so I definitely recommend a few minutes there. Seriously, I really want to go back and thank her for the help. We were also looking for a bank, but no luck there. When you ask for help, most folks don’t understand how big your RV is and will direct you to places that you simply cannot get into. Lethbridge is full of lots of strip malls, jammed with cars, and our rig was not fitting in there. So we kept going towards Ft. MacLeod and did not switch drivers like we usually do. I was still trying to figure out navigating, now I had too much conflicting information and driving through the small towns was not super easy in the big rig.
This is where the Milepost book , the self proclaimed “bible” of Northern travel really let us down. Everyone, and I mean everyone, said use this book and you will be OK. Well I absolutely do not agree. Yes, it gives you tons of info on things to see, but the info is sketchy on everything else unless the company advertises with them. Coming up on a small town, it says diesel is available, but doesn’t say if your big rig can fit. It lists campgrounds, but usually no address, just a phone number and cross street, which may or many not work on the GPS. Yes they give you phone numbers or a website, but guess what, phone calls cost me a $1 a minute here and I had no data unless I stop at the campsite I cannot find. Seriously, not cool. We are spoiled by our apps for sure, but it’s not just us. When we found our first Pilot, Lee went in and got a paper listing of sites which the woman said they give away tons of in Canada because everyone is used to the My Pilot app. (Oh and by the way, the listing for Dawson Creek in that Pilot book was totally wrong and no longer exists.) There is a reason we don’t use paper anymore!! The Milepost map also uses mile markers from a particular location like Sweet Grass, so you are supposed to change your trip odometer and use that going on their route. Well guess what? Their routes are not the best to get around Edmonton and Calgary and once you go off the route the MM numbers are all screwed up. Just use what’s on the road you say? Well we didn’t see one kilometer marker on our route. Use exit numbers instead? Well that would be great if the Milepost book included exit numbers. Seriously, it’s really stupid. When I was a kid going to Florida I learned to navigate using AAA trip ticks. That was my “job” on those trips and it kept me entertained and useful, so I know how to navigate, but this book seriously upset me. Ok I am done, but I know Lee has a few things to say.
(Uh, yeah, this book is the biggest piece of crap I have ever seen. It’s completely worthless. I can’t even think of enough bad things to say about it. The layout makes no sense, and follows no intuitive system. There’s no logic involved whatsoever. In this day and age, this kind of information is not that complicated to gather and compile. It MIGHT be useful if you were stopping in places to sightsee and spend some time there. But for finding fuel and campgrounds, it’s completely worthless. I seriously can’t say that enough. It reads like a tour book, but without any useful details. “Canadaville has many restaurants and fuel stops.” is about all there is. And then there several lines of local history and other useless information. It’s clear that the publishers simply don’t want to bother updating the book every year, so they don’t include information that might change. When you’re pulling a 40′ fifth wheel it’s nice to know if you can get in and out of places. GPS coordinates would do the trick, I would have paid four times as much money for a book that simply listed the locations of truck stops and campgrounds, and nothing else. -Lee)
Thank heavens for our RV specific GPS which not only worked but worked well. It automatically converted speed limits to kmph for us and knew our height and length in meters as well. It also didn’t always pick the route recommended by the woman at the visitors center, but it was at least close enough for us to figure it out. Personally I would never try this without one. It directed us to a bypass of Fort McLeod and we followed it stopping at a small gas station in the teeny town of Granum. The switch on the pumps was broken so no gas, according to the attendant, but they had an ATB financial next door. I walked over and exchanged my $1,000 cash. I got $1270 then paid back a $10 Canadian fee. That ended up being 1.26 Canadian for every US dollar, and most importantly we had enough cash for the trip up and back. Plus the girl was super sweet and let me use their restroom. Whew, that was one less thing to worry about , although Lee still wanted to get gas but we were pleased to see the small town gas station could not only fit us and the diesel there was .83 a liter. Not a bad price. One of the reasons we had chosen the Eastern route was because we had been told gas prices were much cheaper than the western route and we definitely found that to be true. Prices started at 99 cents a liter once we hit the Alaska Highway, but for the first two days we paid under .89 cents and once we started using Pilots we also got around 3 cents a liter off with our Pilot Gas card.
Our first gas stop was in the town of Claresholm at a Shell station. The diesel was 89 cents a liter and the station took American Express. That’s great because with our Amex Gold card we have no transaction fees of any kind in Canada. Our Visa has a 3 percent transaction fee so we are going to try to use that as little as possible. The visitors center was right down the road but at half full no way we were getting in there. We wanted to stop at the visitors center and eat lunch but the parking lot was very tight for a big rig. The Milepost will tell you if there is big rig parking, but if it says nothing assume it might be a tight fit. So, we ended up stopping next to a defunct truck inspection station right out of town, ate some quick lunch and switched drivers.
The roads here in my estimation have been fine by the way. They are like the secondary highways in northern Minnesota, Maine, and Vermont. No big pot holes, and signs showing frost heaves so you can slow down for them. The route was boring, with only tantalizing glimpses of Candian Glacier in the distance, but it was a relatively easy drive. The closer you were to a town better they were but even the more remote section were OK and mainly we went 62-64 mph all the way to Grand Prairie. I did get to practice another steep grade at one point which was NOT marked by a steep downgrade sign. I took it a little fast because the GPS notified me on the late side, but Lee talked me through it though and it went OK. Right before the hill I saw a pulloff for trucks to put on chains and should have known. Going forward I will slow down when I see those. We also completely bypassed both Calgary and Edmonton using South Trail 201 (the outerbelt) for Calgary and 216 Anthony Henday for Edmonton. Both routes were wonderful, with minimal traffic and multiple lanes and I HIGHLY recommend them despite what the Milepost book and GPS may say. They are easy to find and your GPS will self correct once you are on them.
The only nightly stop planning I had done was a Passport America site in Edmonton for $19 a night, which was too far for us to drive the first day. This turned out to be a huge mistake. Only a few of the Milepost entries included prices, so without the internet it was impossible to comparison shop. Boondocking was even more problematic, since we weren’t sure where we could take on water for the night. Since we are still concerned about the weight issue, we didn’t want to drive the roads with full water tanks and not all campgrounds here have potable water, you really need to check. Plus we were traveling long days and the last thing we needed at our stops was complications. This is where the Milepost really let us down. The campgrounds that advertise with them have good information (including exit numbers and addresses usually), but the others (if even mentioned) have minimal info. We stopped at Red Deer the first night and were looking for a Lions Club campground and got completely lost. We couldn’t find the visitors center, the campground signs directional signs were unclear and no address. Finally we put the Pilot address in and through sheer dumb luck (or providence, God does watch out for idiots) we stumbled across the park I wanted to try. Thankfully they had sites available and although they are pretty tight they at least have full hookup with 30 amp. What they didn’t have was Wifi, and at $40 Canadian ($32 for us) it wasn’t a bargain. But we had a place to stay and since I was still pretty sick, we set up quickly and I collpased. Oh yes, I dealt with all that and was super sick on top of it, but we powered through. Overall Day 1 was was pretty disappointing. No great views, lots of hurdles navigating, and on the expensive side. Still we learned a lot and I was hoping with more Nyquil I would start to feel better the next day.
We got out on Tuesday by 8:30 and the cold had moved into my chest. A double dose of NyQuil and 10 hours sleep had helped but still feeling kind of rough. I looked at my cold medicine but was nervous about taking anything in the day time because of driving, so I put tons of Vicks on my chest instead. Going north towards Edmonton the landscape started to change. More rolling hills with some water and trees and more woods. Still it wasn’t the stunning vistas we were expecting, so at this point we are just trying to get to the Alaskan highway as expediently as possible. (As a side note if you have the time you could try The Rocky Mountain route. Just research the driving because it is more challenging.)
At 11:30 we stopped at a little trading post. They didn’t have any information and the small museum was closed. We did go ahead an eat in this huge empty gravel parking lot despite my concerns about the etiquette. Next, we stopped at the visitors center at Whitecourt and that was very nice. Going northbound the visitors center is before the town on the left side. Again, the signage isn’t great, but look for a large building up in the trees. There is no exit, just a left hand turn. It had a little museum that we wandered through and we picked up some info from the nice girl working there. Right across from the visitors center is also Lions Club campground that looked decent. And I finally got to take my first pictures of the trip so that cheered me up some.
We kept going and found the flying J on the west side of town, again on the left side of the highway. Our GPS was telling us to go Hwy 32 but all the maps said Hwy 43 so Lee asked a trucker. Turns out the guy runs Anchorage to LA three times a month and was super helpful. He said definitely take 43, the road gets prettier after Dawson Creek, and watch out for bison because they do wander in the road. Alright then 😄 Super nice guy so once more we were on our way feeling a bit better, plus the weather was absolutely beautiful…sunny and 70 and finally my cold was easing a bit.
Next up was Grand Prairie, a pretty big town in this area biggish town that 43 runs right through. They really should build a bypass on that one since it was tiring driving the rig through town and I ended up doing it towards the end of my shift. Still I did OK and about 15 Minutes later found a giant parking lot to pull into with a giant Beaver statue. Oh yes, now I was excited, good to know we can find roadside attractions even without an app!!
We switched drivers and even though it was 4:30 decided to push on to Dawson’s Creek. I wanted to get some pictures there and Lee said he had another shift in him. Plus we had lost another hour to time zone change. Three time changes in a few days, yikes. We landed at Dawson’s Creek and found the Mile O’ campground on the far side of town. For the first time in days we unhitched the truck and then drove into town and got our pictures. We also stopped at WalMart and even got some Canadian Pizza Hut, which was yummy. Two medium pizzas for $20.60 (our price) was so worth it.
Next up the Alaska Highway. We slow the pace, reset our trip odometer to zero to try to take advantage of the Milepost book, and see what happens.
- Have an game plan for the border crossing and be on the same page
- Listen to what folks say but unless it is a credible, first hand account don’t give the information to much credence
- The Milepost Book is not the end all, be all of northern travel navigation
- Make sure your GPS works in Canada!!
- Get a Pilot paper book with gas stops and use it, but be aware it might not be 100% accurate.
- If you see a pull off for trucks to put on chains slow down, a steep downgrade is coming up and it won’t necessarily be marked.
- Take South Trail 201 to bypass Calgary!!
- Take 216 Anthony Henday to bypass Edmonton!!
- Comparison shop on campgrounds prior to going into Canada. Have a general idea of where you will stop at night and have a couple of campgrounds in the towns that are in your price range.
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