Camping through Alaska with four friends in an RV
04/27/2014 12:00 AM
04/24/2014 4:58 PM
We stood shivering before Worthington Glacier, bundled into every piece of warm clothing we had packed — four women of a certain age, camping through Alaska, in an RV, for 2 1/2weeks.
On this late summer day, frigid mist coated our glasses. A phone weather app showed 81 degrees back home in Boston. (Resolved: Stop checking weather apps.)
Before we left, reaction to our plans had been pretty uniform: Raised eyebrows, pause, comments something like,“Wow, that sounds like [pause] fun.” The implication was, I guess, that we would drive each other nuts in our cramped quarters for such a long period without ready access to blow dryers — or that we would get lost in the woods.
Turns out, it was fun. Every day at least once, we laughed hard enough to double over. (At the Worthington visitors center, one of us shouted that the outhouse seat was, “the coldest I ever sat on!” “You sit?,” shot back another. “You don’t?” Convulsions all round.)
It was also sobering. We paused on a ridge in the country’s largest single wilderness, within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, and contemplated 13.2 million acres of solitude. We shared the pang of being cut off from family for days.
The itinerary was a 1,420-mile loop starting down the scenic Seward Highway toward the south-coastal city of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula, across Prince William Sound to the port of Valdez, into the interior hub of Fairbanks, and back around via the Denali National Park and Preserve, named for the highest peak in North America, 20,320-foot high Mount McKinley (Denali).
Our visit to Worthington Glacier was day nine of the journey. Day one began by flying into Anchorage, dropping down over mountains with snow-covered peaks looking like perfect meringue — even in August.
Among us, we were a doctor (the trip planner, chef, camp guitarist, and fearless RV driver), two musicians (violin and piano; sadly, neither portable for fireside performance), and one musical Globe assistant arts editor (have flute, will travel). We have been friends in various capacities for years.
First up: a day to catch our breath and poke around Anchorage, a city easy to navigate on foot, with just a few streets downtown.
We drank great Alaskan beer and ate reindeer sausage, marveled at bright patches of cartoon-oversized flowers and vegetables (“amazing what a 24-hour midnight sun will do to a cabbage,” as one promotional blurb pointed out), and took in the frontier feel of a place with street-corner stores buying and selling furs.
Then it was time to get the Winnebago.
A 31-foot Great Alaskan Holidays RV rental would be our home and main transportation for the duration, and one of our early stops was the Russian River, a tributary of the Kenai. There we witnessed a salmon run in water the color of aquamarine, with scarlet fish churning bank-to-bank, desperate to swim back to the riverbed where they had hatched.
And there we experienced, as on more days than not, mottled gray skies with a persistent threat of rain, if not outright downpours. Alaska is not the place to go if your idea of a vacation is a fruity drink under cloudless skies.
We turned to coffee for comfort.
You won’t find many Starbucks — or CVS, Staples, or any other chain stores — driving through Alaska’s coutryside. What you will find, almost everywhere, though sometimes after a hundred miles of nothing but two-lane road and wilderness, are drive-up espresso shacks.
With names like Buzz (in thick black letters on bright yellow background), Hopped Up, and Jitters, they are about the size of parking lot attendant booths, and they ensure that every pickup-gunning backwoodsman can grab a timely hit of cappuccino with a double vanilla pump.
We didn’t have a bad cup of coffee the entire trip, which probably helped maintain our peaceful coexistence. The fact that our foursome tended to break amicably into pairs was another plus.
Two of us travel often together and had camped in Alaska several times. The other two, myself being one, were along because — well, we were invited.
Two were early risers. (Apologies to our RV-mates: My pianist colleague and I tried to be quiet pulling on jackets and heading out for morning constitutionals. Funny how crinkling plastic can sound like fireworks in a silent camper.)
The two of us tenderfoots learned there are two types of RV campgrounds. State or national park spots are reliably lovely and rustic. Toilets are in huts; they rarely flush. Private campgrounds tend to feature gravel parking lots and hookups to electrical and water outlets — and toilets that flush.
Our campground in Homer, on Kachemak Bay, was one of the latter, with a stunning view (beyond the gravel lot) of the jagged Chigmit Mountains. We grilled steaks beside the camper, drank martinis out of plastic cups, and watched the skies clear for a spectacular sunset. The next day we caught the Homer Trolley (ride all day for $12) to visit artists’ shops along the 4 1/2-mile-long Homer Spit, the second-longest natural spit in North America, with the world’s longest road into ocean waters.
A drive through the longest railroad-highway tunnel in North America (Alaska is full of things that are the maximum of something), the single-lane 2 1/2-mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, and a ferry ride across Prince William Sound, brought us to our next destination: Valdez.
The Alaska veterans in our group went for a day of salmon fishing, while the other novice and I explored on foot. There are two small museums in town and not a lot else: the Valdez Museum and Historical Archive, with exhibits about the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and, in a separate location, the“Remembering Old Valdez” exhibit, tiny dioramas representing every street and building in town before the 1964 earthquake that leveled it; and the Maxine and Jesse Whitney Museum at Prince William Sound Community College, with taxidermied bears, moose, and more.
Our counterparts pulled in six silver salmon, yielding 23 pounds of filleted fish to ship home. Clearly, fishing was the more exciting choice that day.
From Valdez we went on to check out the Gold Rush town of Fairbanks, including a night in nearby Chena Hot Springs Resort, with a natural hot springs pool we hoped would ease the aches of fishing and marching around museums (it did) and an ice museum we thought would be hokey but was entrancing.
Finally it was time to head for the true heart of the trip, a stay in Teklanika River Campground, the farthest campground you can reach with an RV inside the 6-million-acre Denali National Park.
Wildlife there includes Dall sheep, caribou, moose, and grizzly bears, to name just some of the animals we saw. Park buses traverse the 92-mile-long unpaved road connecting campgrounds and visitors centers, and they stop immediately when anyone on board announces an animal siting by shouting “Stop!” or “Bear!” Then it gets quiet, as cameras and binoculars are raised.
Our Teklanika campsite came with a fire pit, and with the mountains around us, and other campers not too close, we broke out the guitar and flute. Kisses Sweeter Than Wine floated away with the smoke, badly out of tune but good enough for a camper one site over to offer to join us with a bottle.
Seasons change suddenly in Alaska. “This year, summer came on a Wednesday,” said the office attendant at our Fairbanks campground. We witnessed the flip to fall in Denali. In the space of three days, the banks of magenta fireweed we had admired throughout the trip were blanched into ivory wisps. As our mud-caked camper wheeled out of the park, the green tundra that had greeted us was gold and cranberry.
On the road to return the RV, we took inventory of memories: the “NO SHOOTING” highway signs, always pocked with holes; getting to pat members of the Denali sled-dog team and see three new puppies; waging Bananagrams at the RV “kitchen” table in the not-quite-dark Alaskan night.
We didn’t drive each other crazy, or get lost in the woods — for very long.
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