Return to North to Alaska

Taking Stock

1 July 2005

Sea Otter RV Park
Valdez, AK

It may be of interest to some to list the variety of troubles I've had with my rig on this trip, and my experience with what works all the way up to Alaska. And what doesn't.

First of all I have to say that the roads have not been as bad as I was led to believe. I've been on much worse in Colorado, Montana, or even Michigan. The bad roads are just longer up here. I was surprised within 10 miles of getting on the south end of the Cassiar to come over a rise and find a Winnebago stopped dead in the middle of the road, with the whole family outside taking pictures. I slid to a squirrelly stop, and asked if they needed help.

Nope. Just taking pictures.

The middle of a two lane road is the only place there is to stop, generally. In Northern B C, and somewhat less so in the Yukon, turnouts are rare and shoulders are thin to nonexistent, sloping down into a ditch. In this regard, the main roads up here resemble the back roads of Louisiana. The Cassiar is a boring, mosquito infested track through a tunnel of trees, and ill maintained. But the really bad spots are generally marked, and all you have to do is slow down. Traffic is light by southern standards, even with the annual sub-arctic RV migration.

I came to expect impromptu obstacles like that Winnebago. That doesn't mean the practice is safe. The only time I came near to having an accident was on the Klondike Highway, when I decided to stop briefly to pick up a hitchhiker. Note that I did not say pull over. There is nothing to pull over on. A semi nearly took us both out, coming around on the left at speed. In the lower 48 he would have used his horn. Here that is apparently considered waste motion. The trucks, and they are enormous heavy tandem trailer jobs for the most part, just go over, under, around, or through, as convenience dictates. They may not actually have brakes.

But flying rocks are no more common here than elsewhere. That's one of the Myths of the Northern Wastes, down south. It's funny to see the elaborate screens and shields people from the lower 48 have bought or more likely manufactured out of scrap to protect their precious paint jobs. I've seen motorhomes that resemble lightweight bulldozers that have recently churned through an East Texas trailer park. Some pickups look like they ran through the wire shelving department at Home Depot. The simplest and, to my eye, most original arrangement was a motorhome from Oregon that simply had wire screens over the headlights. All the rest of the front below the windshield was covered with bubble wrap and duct tape, with a couple of strategic gaps for the radiator.

I liked it, mainly because I am a Confirmed Deacon in the Church of Duct Tape. Simple, effective, and easy to remove when you come to your senses.

But people that live up here don't load up their vehicles with that crap, and neither should you. It can happen, of course, but I haven't gotten a single ding. Amazingly, the one lens that somehow did break was the porch light high up under the overhang of the fifth wheel, which had the whole truck in front to protect it. Go figure. Five bucks to replace it in Whitehorse. That's four bucks to you, you lucky devils.

Satellite radio is problematic. The incident angle to the satellites is easily blocked by low hills up here. XM shut down like I threw a switch at the Yukon border, and has worked only for minutes at a time since. Down south the digital signal was either perfect or missing, but up here you get a weird modulated soprano effect, as though all the announcers had gone castrati.

Perhaps they have.

Sirius has worked further north than XM. I believe their satellites wander this way a bit. But it's becoming finicky too. I think it's only a matter of time before I'm back in the '50s.

Verizon hasn't worked as an Internet provider since I entered Canada. In 2003 I got a workable connection through Telus in practically every little town south of Prince George, but not this trip. I think the problem is political, not technical. As these companies become larger, they are less willing to pay other companies for borrowed capability. For the customer, this means not all progress is forward. Voice service quit when I turned right onto the Cassiar, and hasn't resumed. I have some scant hope for Anchorage, in a few days.

Because everything depends on politics, I don't believe any cellular advice is likely to be useful from year to year. Cell phones do work up here. Right now the company of choice seems to be Cingular (ATT). I don't know anything about Internet service through them, though.

Wi-fi is everywhere. Most of this access is inadvertent, I believe, the result of people not knowing how to secure their systems. I understand that security of some sort is only a few clicks away, but lots of people are scared of this stuff, and absurdly grateful when it works at all.

This traveler thanks them very much.

The various connections are weirdly variable. Sometimes Windows reports an "unsecured" connection that I can't get out on anyway. Sometimes I can get the Web, but not email. Sometimes I can receive email, but not send it. There are technical reasons for all these things, but the practical solution is just to drive on a block and find another connection. I'm told they only reach out about 300 feet, but they are to be found nearly everywhere there are houses.

I have two GPS receivers. One is an ancient Garmin StreetPilot. The map program that came with it five or six years ago insists there are no streets or highways in the Yukon or Alaska. Microsoft Streets and Trips knows better, and the little GPS that came with that has worked pretty well. Both receivers began to show me a couple of miles to the north of the roads I was on, once I passed Prince George. I think this has something to do with the number of satellites in view. I have often found myself virtually up a mountain or in the middle of a bay, but fortunately automobiles are not IFR devices, and it is still pretty easy to look out the window and determine that you are on a road.

Beyond that, the two receivers report a consistently different altitude, by about 40 feet. And both differ from the road signs in the passes. Close enough for me. I am a child of the sixties, and careless about getting high. Indeed I often take comfort in not knowing exactly where I am. And even when I do, I compensate well.

Geeze. This note is getting waaaay long, and I haven't even gotten to most of the things that went blooie. That's going to take another installment.


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