Flying in Alaskan Bush Planes

Alaskan bush pilots are the wise owls of the 49th state—they are the first to see it all. They know when rivers are flooding, when glaciers are retreating, when wildlife migrations are occurring; rockslides, mudslides, erosion, first freezes—they see it all first from their homes in the skies over the roadless geography of Alaska. They are uniquely equipped to provide essential search and rescue operations in remote areas and do so willingly even though it is outside of their mandate; and for explorers, they are our passport into the Alaskan wilderness.  

We took 24 flights (and one helicopter) to get into the belly of eight Alaskan national parks this year and wanted to pay homage to the bush pilots who make exploration of Alaska accessible to all of us who wish to see it, while offering our warmest thanks to all of them for keeping us safe while hugging steaming volcanoes, ducking cloud streams, dipping sideways for unexpected wildlife sightings, and altering their flight-plan manifests to show more of it to us than was required.  

We also wanted to extrapolate some of the romance of bush flight into useful information that others due to travel in small aircraft might like to know...

An overview—Bush planes are used mostly in areas that don't have the infrastructure for cars, including the African bush, the Canadian North, the Australian Outback, and on the Alaskan tundra... where roads end, bush flights begin. Typical fleets are comprised of classic mid-century and modern machines alike, including Beavers, Havillands, Cessnas, Gophers, Piper Super Cubs, Otters—and are outfitted either with "tundra tires" (large all-terrain tires equipped for landing on rugged landscapes,) or skis which are used to land on water or ice or snowpack.  

The ride—Because cabins are not pressurized in small planes they must fly low to the ground. Expect near-mountain fly-byes, sharp turns, and bumpy landings. It’s all part of the adventure! You'll wear a headset that enables you to converse with the pilot and other passengers. Some planes seat just two and some gear; some seat up to 16. Cost varies greatly depending on distance of travel and the amount of gear you carry. 

Weather—While weather reports are useful planning tools, most bush pilots can attest that the most useful report is a look into the sky for real-time weather information and to ask around. They make a lot of their decisions based on experience, knowledge of the climate, reports from other pilots, and what is appearing right there and then. 

Security—There is no standard "TSA" operation aboard Alaskan bush flights. It typically goes something like this: put all of your pointy stuff in a pile, including bear spray which the pilot will strap to the external wing... if the bear spray were to discharge inside a plane while in flight, it would essentially blind the pilot subjecting all onboard to emergency landing/crash. Hop on the plane, fly. 

Are these small planes safe? The risk of flying in small planes in Alaska is inherently greater than it is in the lower-48 due to fickle weather, unreliable weather reports, and rugged terrain and landing locations. The good news is that according to reports from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, accidents in the last ten years are on the steady decrease as emergency preparedness measures continue to improve flight safety operations statewide. Truthfully, we didn't research this criteria too heavily prior to traveling through Alaska because we knew we would spend a great deal of time in small aircraft, and lets get real—in some cases, ignorance really is bliss... food for thought if you are planning travel through remote Alaska.     

Who are the pilots? Alaskan bush captains are sometimes referred to as "pilots’ pilots" because they operate planes manually at all times—different from commercial airliners who fly almost exclusively on autopilot. Several of our pilots told us that it is this fact alone that made them select Alaska as a place to live and work. They are a fascinating collective of souls with amazing stories about their voyages in flight, and part of the beauty (and sometimes strife) of this kind of travel is that you never know who you are going to get in the cock pit. Sometimes you will hop aboard with a 60-year old veteran who has been flying the skies his entire life; sometimes, you will get your safety briefing from a pilot who looks no older than your teenage son... sometimes, you might not even receive a safety briefing at all. You can take some bit of solace in the fact that pilot licenses are available to young adults aged of 14 years—two years younger than the legal age of operating a motor vehicle in this country…so that teenager flying? Even at 19, he might have been up there in practice for five years already. In any event, you really don’t have much say in the matter. But it’s not entirely out of your control—you can put yourself in the hands of the best small aircraft operators in Alaska. Here are some companies that we flew with who are regarded as some of the best in the business: 

Wrangell Mountain Air. Based in McCarthy, your jumping off point in Wrangell St. Elias National Park.

Wright Air. Based in Bettles, this is the outfit to bring you to Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic National Parks, both located in the Central Brooks Range north of the Arctic Circle. 

Lake Clark Air. Based in Port Alsworth, your gateway to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve

Wings of Alaska, the top company flying from Skagway to Glacier Bay National Park

PenAir, service to Brooks Falls in Katmai.

Andrew Airways, based in King Salmon, your jumping off point to the Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Our bush pilot Willy Fulton from Andrew Airwaysone of the most experienced pilots in the business. You might recognize him from the Werner Herzog documentary film "Grizzly Man" which documents the life of Timothy Treadwell's experiences in Katmai National Park & Preserve. Willy was one of the regular resuppliers to the area where Timothy Treadwell, AKA "Grizzly Man," lived and filmed. Sadly, he was also the one to find the remains of his friend in 2003. 

Holiday Gift Giving for the Outdoorsmen

While we will be sitting out the holiday season in traditional fashion this year, we know that many of you are starting to consider what to gift during the holidays. In that spirit, we wanted to share with you what we think are some really smart ideas of what to give the outdoorsmen in your lives. Full disclaimer: many of these products have been provided to us by our project sponsors, however, know that if it is included in this list we have determined it to be a piece of gear we don't want to live without. We’ve done our best to address a broad price range. Happy holidays everyone! 

Some of the awesome gear we've been lucky to use this year.

 

For the digital outdoorsmen & the constantly connected...

Anker device chargers (Amazon $55.00)

Anker 6-port USB wall charger (Amazon $30.00)

Vinli mobile wifi

 

For the picture takers...

For the social shutterbug:

Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 (Amazon $94 not including film)

Fujifilm Instax Mini (Amazon $55 not including film)

 

For the serious photographer:

Fujifilm X-T1 Mirrorless Digital Camera ($1,300)

Really Right Stuff tripod ($720 - $1,480)

LaCie Rugged external hard drives (Amazon: $70 - $230)

ThinkTank Photo gift card (selecting a camera bag is a very personal decision!)

Go Pro Hero4 Silver (Amazon $279)

 

For the outdoor artist!

Apple Pencil ($94) for iPad Pro ($814 for 128GB)

Kayti Fan Design stencil tote ($28)

 

 

 

For the adventurer seekers...

 

For paddlers

Oru Origami Kayaks ($1,175)

 

For hikers

Danner hiking boots (REI $360)

REI trekking poles (REI $29 - $220)

 

For backpackers

Mountain Hardwear Ozonic OutDry waterproof backpack for her ($199)

Mountain Hardwear South Col OutDry backpack for him ($300)

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Sky 3 Tent ($530)

Mountain Hardwear 5-20 degree sleeping bags ($82 - $195)

Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus sleep pads (REI $90 - $120)

Cacoon sleep pillow (REI $27)

Black Diamond Apollo Lantern (REI $50)

 

For campers

Mountain Hardwear Optic 6 tent (a true 6-person tent! We like to call it "the gymnasium") ($299)

Stanley coffee thermos (REI $33-$50)

Coleman National Parks Edition electric lantern (REI $149)

ENO Hammocks (REI $69)

 

For the indoors outdoorsman...

Pendleton National Parks themed blankets ($149 - $259)

USAOPOLY National Parks Edition Monopoly ($31)  

Hitting sunset with a National Park themed Pendleton blanket! 

 

For the Airstreamers...

Airstream themed gifts

 

Stocking stuffers!

National Park Service Annual Pass (NPS $80)

Petzel headlamps (REI $20 - $499)

Neck gaiters (REI $9 - $45)

Little Hotties hand and foot warmers (Amazon $10)

Motorola Walkie Talkies (Amazon $65)

Backpackers Pantry dehydrated food ($7 - $17)

5 Hour Energy (Amazon $50 for a 24-pack)

La Colombe Cold Brew Draft Coffee ($12)

Books about adventure!

If you give only one gift this year, make it a really good gift!

Whether you #OptOutside for Black Friday this year or kick-start your holiday shopping right away, we have the same message for holiday shoppers—gift this in 2016: Fujifilm Instax Wide 300

After spending nearly one year with this camera, we are certain that it is a gift that anyone would want to receive. It’s affordable, costing somewhere between $90-$105 depending on its sale price. It's really easy to usejust load the batteries, film, and then press one button to capture and release the photo. It is an ideal ice-breaker. Have nothing to say to someone but want to connect? Take an Instax of a moment and give it to them. You'll miss the 75 cents it costs in one slide of film less then you will the value of sentiment that it provides. It produces instant gratification and tangible memories that you can give and share with loved ones and people you don't yet know. And most importantly, Instax photos are just super cool, especially for sharing on social media and for creating retro-inspired spaces (see footer photo.)

It may look familiar—most of us who are 30-years and older recall instamatic photography from the dawn of our youth. We then called it "Polaroid" after the brand that produced it; today we call it "Instax", created by Fujifilm. Click the button, watch the photo dispense, then wave it in the air as if helping to expedite the development process (this doesn’t really work by the way)... it the most nostalgic form of photography for Gen-X'ers. It is clear that these cameras are becoming more and more popular with younger crowds as well, proved by countless conversations we have had with people of all ages from all over the world while exploring our national parks this year... "You have the Instax Wide? I have an Instax Mini!"  

During our 2016 travels we've been geared-up to the nines and have plenty of gift recommendations for the outdoors-people in your lives... that list is available in a separate post. In the meantime, we wanted to suggest one stand-alone item that will inspire those who are difficult-to-shop for and/or “have everything and need nothing." So, here you go! Instax, for the best possible price on Amazon. And don't forget to buy film

For more information about the Instax Wide 300, head to the Fujifilm official site. To see more Instax photos from our adventure this year, check out our Instax gallery page.

This is what we are doing with our Instax photos... decorating the Airstream, our home on the road! 

Exploring & Staying Safe in American Bear Country

A boar plunges into the Brooks River to catch a fish for dinner. 

It would make little sense to write about all eight of Alaska's National Parks (as well as parks in Montana and Wyoming) without a special section on this website devoted to the bears that roam free there. After all, it is for their protection that some of the national parks were established in the first place.

The atmosphere of bear country is one of the most popular topics of discussion brought up to us in the context of our Alaskan travels. "Weren't you scared?!" and "Did you carry bear spray?" and "How did you prepare to camp in the backcountry?" are some of the most commonly asked questions. We had many of the same curiosities ourselves before we wandered off into the Alaskan bush for the summer.

Attacks on humans are rare, but they have happened, so clearly it's important to know some of what to do before getting out there. Let's start with these two important things: 1.) most likely, an experienced guide will be with you the entire time (unless you choose to jet off into backcountry); and 2.) it is perfectly rational to be timid about exploring a landscape where bears wander freely. With that out of the way, you can rest assured that having a bear encounter is most often exciting and wonderful as opposed to terrifying and dangerous. The key to having a great experience is in knowing how to act and what to do if you see a bear. 

In this article, we'll discuss general information about bears including their diet and habitat, behavior, how to interact and what to do during an encounter, miscellaneous factoids, and a bit about the species itself which is an important distinction, so we'll start with that.


Types of bears found in Alaska: Black bears; polar bears; grizzly, Kodiak, and coastal brown bears. The latter three are all one species of brown bear, differentiated by geography and diet which affects their size and behavior. 

A sow black bear in Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. 

Black bears – These are the smallest of all bears living in Alaska. Their color is typically black, you may also see black bears with lighter, cinnamon-colored coats. While their habitat in most of North America is commonly associated with high-elevation and thick forested areas, they are roving creatures that can be found anywhere on the Alaskan landscape – on river banks, coastal beaches, in meadows, on tundra, and in valleys. Their diet consists mostly of berries, sedges and other grasses; they also eat fish, clams and other shellfish, moose calves, and other small mammals to pack on weight before winter hibernation. Black bears don’t generally commingle with brown bears, so if you see a black bear, you probably wont see a brown or grizzly in the immediate vicinity.

Where you will find them: From Sequoia and Kings Canyon in California to Shenandoah in Virginia to the Kenai Fjords in Alaska, black bears live throughout North America can be found in too many of our national parks to count! 

 

A sow polar bear near Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Polar bears  These bears live only on the far reaches of the northern polar coastlines (you wont see a polar bear in interior or lower coastal Alaska.) As polar ice caps melt and their habitat dwindles, food sources become more scarce and as a result, they are considered to be the most dangerous species of bear to human beings. Unlike brown and black bears who generally aren't bothered by humans unless humans bother them, polar bears will hunt humans for food. 

Where you will find them: Polar bears do not live in any of the U.S. National Parks. In Alaska, they can be found only on the northern coastlines. 

 

A grizzly roaming the tundra in Denali National Park.

Grizzly – Grizzly bears are found in interior Alaska (as well as Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, the Yukon Territory, and British Columbia.) They are the smallest of Alaskan brown bears due to a more scarcely available food supply found inland, and also to the greater exertion they spend on obtaining essential calories. They feed on berries, grasses, root bulbs, insects, small rodents, and tree nuts; and when they can find a kill, moose, caribou, sheep and goats. The name “Grizzly” was coined because they tend to be the most aggressive of bears, as they have to fight harder for food sources. They can be found on the Alaskan tundra, in meadows, by streams, and in forests. 

Where you will find them: In our national parks, grizzly bears can be found in Denali, Wrangell St. Elias, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic (all in Alaska); and Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming. 

 

Kodiak bear at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Photo credit: Wikipedia.  

Kodiak – With a tremendous food supply of protein-rich fish always available to them, Kodiak bears are the largest of all brown bears. These are the heavyweights—some have weighed in at 1,500 lbs. They are found only on Kodiak Island, an amazing wilderness habitat, the second largest island in America next to Hawai’i’s Big Island. 

Where you will find them: Kodiak bears do not live in any of the U.S. National Parks; they only live on Kodiak Island. 

A coastal brown bear sow and her three, 2-year cubs looking for shellfish on the shores of Glacier Bay. 

Coastal Brown Bears – As the name suggests, coastal brown bears live in the coastal areas of Alaska. With a wealth of food sources at their disposal—mainly fish and shell fish unearthed at low tide—these bears are known to be relatively docile towards humans so long as they are eating abundantly. Coastal brown bears are also known to provide the best viewing opportunities for travelers to Alaska as they frequently meander the shores (which can be viewed easily from the safety of a motorized boat or kayak.)

Where you will find them: In our national parks, coastal brown bears can be found in Katmai, Lake Clark, Glacier Bay, and Kenai Fjords (all in Alaska).  

 


Two large boars feed on salmon at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. 

Gender and age: Adult female bears are called sows. Adult males are called boars. Baby bears are called cubs. Young bears who have just separated from their mothers (this typically happens in their third year) are called juveniles

 


With expert bear naturalists from the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge in Lake Clark at our side, we are able to sit among coastal brown bears for days at a time watching them in their natural habitat. Stay tuned for more on that experience (park #37, coming up!) This bear sow is named Crimp Ear, a very social bear and a favorite to many who live in that area. 

Bear viewing etiquette: Seeing a bear in the wild is an awesome and unforgettable experience. Outlined below is some general etiquette to observe while bear viewing: 

Never approach, clap or shout at, or crowd bears to get their attention... and never forget that in the wilds of Alaska, you are a guest in their home. Observing their comfort and space (for your safety and theirs) should be your first priority.

Trails in established bear viewing areas were created for a reason. Stay on them whenever possible. 

The National Park Service advises that humans stay 100 yards away from bears whenever possible. In some cases, like in the picture shown here taken in Lake Clark, Alaska, they might approach you and enter into your space. It should be acknowledged here that situations always vary, and as such, adaptability to your surroundings is necessary equipment while bears are near. 


This bear, with its scowl and drool, is displaying stress as our boat nears its environment on the Katmai Peninsula. We quickly moved away!

Bear behavior and aggression: It is essential to have an understanding of bear behavior before exploring in bear country. Outlined below are some common behaviors to watch for. 

When a bear stands on its hind legs, it is most likely trying to determine what you are—bears have poor eyesight.

Bears do, on the other hand, have very good sense of smell—they can smell humans from three miles away when positioned downwind. 

If it is popping its jaw, snarling, growling, breathing heavily, coughing, sneezing, or drooling, it is experiencing stress—and indication that you are agitating it and are too close. 

Sows with cubs in tow are likely to be aggressive toward humans, as sows are extremely protective of their young. If you see a sow with cubs, maintain an even greater distance. Never get between a mother and her cub.

Bears tend to be at their most aggressive near the time that they hibernate, during late October and early November, when they are vying for every calorie they can to see them through the long winter sleep. 


Avoiding unwanted bear encounters: They say that “one of your best defenses against bears is your brain.” In other words, the more you know, the better the chances of you have of having an amazing experience among bears in the American wilderness. Some ways to minimize close bear encounters include:

Hike in wide open areas where you (and the bear) have clear visibility of the landscape.

Hike in groups of two or more. The sound of voices and the reverberation of foot traffic helps to alert bears of your presence, which will usually drive them in another direction. 

IGBC-approved bear-storage containers...we're decorating ours with stickers from places we've used them. Snazzy!

IGBC-approved bear-storage containers...we're decorating ours with stickers from places we've used them. Snazzy!

Maintain constant conversation, and/or sing on the trail to alert bears of your presence with the sound of your carrying voice.  

Observe proper food storage at all times while in bear habitat by using bear cans; and freeing tents, cars, and your general surroundings of food and scented items. Never sleep in clothing that you cooked in. 

Always stay "bear aware" when traveling in bear country. Know that they could be anywhere... you should always be ready to react. 

 

What to do if you have an encounter: If you are exploring the North American wilderness, there is a likelihood that you may see a bear...and it is a wonderful experience to have. Here are some general guidelines of what to do and how to behave if you see a bear: 

Remain calm and stand still.

If you have children with you, pick them up. 

Slowly step aside of the bear's path and stand firmly in one spot, speaking in a calm but firm voice something like “Okay bear, I’m just going to step aside and allow you to pass…”

If the bear is laying down, start to back away slowly and at a sideways trajectory, keeping your eye on the bear until you are a safe distance away. 

 

What to do if it mock charges you: Bears may mock charge humans, running straight at you aggressively if they feel threatened. Scary! If you run - never run - it will be more likely to attack you. If you stand your ground, it will most likely stop about 10 feet from you. It might be the scariest moment of your life, but mock charges are actually a somewhat common response during a close encounter. So what to do? Stand your ground. DO NOT RUN. Running will turn you into prey in a bears eyes. This is a good time to have bear deterrent handy and ready to use. 


What to do if a bear attacks: Bears do not want to brutalize human beings, an attack typically occurs when it is surprised, and/or protecting a kill (a food source) or cubs. Black bears and brown bears have different behaviors during an attack, and your response (heaven forbid you should ever find yourself in this situation) will be different for each. If attacked by a brown bear, PLAY DEAD. If attacked by a black bear, FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE. In detail: 

Brown or grizzly bear: Lay on your belly, spread your legs wide apart to make it more difficult for the bear to turn you over, and place your hands behind your neck then play dead and do not fight back unless the bear continues to attack. If it does, fight for your life. 

Black bear: Do not play dead, instead, try to escape to safety and if that is not an option, fight for your life by kicking and punching the bear's face and muzzle.  

  


Bear deterrents: "Deterrents" are items carried on your person that are used for self-protection in the case of a bear attack. The deterrent that you should first use during an aggressive bear encounter is your brain to determine its behavior and to act accordingly. If that fails—bears are wild animals and wild animals are unpredictable—it is wise to have a second line of defense. The following deterrents are useful in different scenarios, though you don't need to carry them all. Just choose the right one for you and the environment that you are in. And of course, learn how to use them. 

Stef taking off into bear country in Lake Clark Alaska with a can of bear spray, also known as "a can of confidence." 

Spray: The most popular and well known bear deterrent is casually called “bear spray”—Alaska guides call it a “can of confidence.” Bear spray is like mace, its aim is to stop a bear from attacking you by blinding it. If you are standing downwind when you spray it, it will blind you, so learn how to use it. It is imperative that you buy EPA approved bear spray they can be sold in most national park visitor centers.  

Bells:  "Bear bells"—sometimes called the "afternoon snack alarm" are simply jingle bells that you fasten to your pants that make noise while you walk. Noisemakers. It is our understanding that the sound of bells isn't unfamiliar enough to bears to act as a deterrent, and recent studies conducted in Katmai showed that the majority of bears weren't fazed by the sound. They also interrupt the peaceful environment for everyone else there, so we are not huge fans... but, to each his own. 

Flares: Flares are a popular deterrent with naturalists because the sound (like fireworks) will scare the bear without causing them harm, and they are lightweight and easy to carry.

Guns: Guns should only be handled by experienced gun owners and operators, and those who are familiar with bear behavior. Shooting a bear could easily go really wrong... It could also land you in hot water with the State while leaving you with a mountain of paperwork to fill out explaining why you shot a bear. Most top guiding companies in Alaska equip their guides with a gun, as well as training on how and when to use it.  


Keeping bears wild: We as humans are very lucky to be able to observe bears in their natural habitat in America's national parks and elsewhere. It is essential that we do our part to minimize impact on bears so they can continue to roam our planet. Here are some ways that each of us can do our part to help keep bears wild:

Respect a bear's space. Use binoculars or telephoto camera lenses to "get closer." The National Park Service advises that humans stay at least 100 yards from bears if they can help it. If a bear shows any change in behavior when you are near then you are too close. 

NEVER feed a bear. Ever. "A fed bear is a dead bear." When black or brown bears begin to associate food with people, they start to get aggressive; when bears become aggressive with park visitors, they are captured and exterminated.

Drive slowly on our wilderness roads. In the last two years in Yosemite National Park, early 60 black bears have been killed by road traffic. We always try to practice defensive driving, keeping in mind that any animal of any size could bolt in front of our car at any given time. We've not had a collision yet and hope to get through this year (and lifetime) without one! 

Black bear sow and her cub in Yosemite National Park in California.


Miscellaneous Facts:

While the weight of brown, grizzly, and Kodiak bears differ greatly, they are all born as 1-lb cubs.

Black bears live to an approximate 20 years of age and can run 30 miles an hour. 

"Hyperfascia" is a period brown bears go through late in the season just before hibernation when they eat nearly everything in sight in preparation for their long winter snooze. 

When bears hibernate, they’re not asleep. The heart rate of a bear slows to about 10 beats per minute, rendering them in a comatose state. They lose 40% of their body weight during that time. Boars (adult males) are usually the last to go into hibernation because they need to pack on the most weight. 

According to the National Park Service, there are more bears estimated to live on the Alaskan Peninsula than people. 

More people are killed by moose than bear each year in Alaska.

Bears are not social animals within their species, but are tolerant of one another so long that everyone has enough to eat.

Bears are actually very good swimmers but they tend to avoid it unless making a water crossing, like this coastal brown bear is doing at Katmai. 

Bears are good swimmers but it leaves them vulnerable. They typically avoid it unless they need to make a water crossing. 

Bears' only real predators are other bears. 

Sows (mother bears) need to eat enough to be able to nurse cubs in their first couple of years, as well as to survive herself through hibernation. This is why, when food is scarce, they become more aggressive with humans and other animals. 

Bear cubs stay with mama for three years then she chases them off. Young siblings who are newly are their own are called "juveniles," and they usually pal around until they figure out how to manage  then they break apart and go out on their own.

When bears come out of hibernation, they take some time to reintroduce food into their diet, eating quite slowly. It's similar to a human fasting  you don't go straight for a cheeseburger, you start with some broth.

Bears birth their cubs while hibernating in January or February.


 

As always in the American wilderness, your safety and livelihood is your own responsibility and yours alone. It is vital to learn the area that you are exploring and also how to act while there to ensure a safe and enjoyable time in the U.S. National Parks. 

The Alaska Highway

The road to Alaska as seen on the Alaska Highway, once known as "The Alcan" (a mesh of Alaska-Canada.) This main vein travels from Dawson Creek in British Columbia and ends in Fairbanks, Alaska. And then, there's the everything that's in between... 

To begin the Alaska leg of our journey, we first needed to get there. We could fly, though that method isn’t in keeping with our goal to experience the Greatest American Road Trip. We could ferry Wally the Airstream from Washington State northbound through the Inside Passage, a very popular option for the beautiful scenery along the northern Pacific Coast that it provides. Or we could travel the Alaskan Highway—a highway of dreams for road trippers. The two-lane highway winds 1,520 miles from Dawson Creek in British Columbia (about 825 miles northeast of Seattle) to Fairbanks, Alaska. It is perhaps one of the most beloved routes to take to get into the great state of Alaska, also known as The Last Frontier.

The roadway is widened in 1942 with a caterpillar tractor. Credit: Wikipedia.

The Alaska Highway was built in 1942 as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor the year before. The American government and military feared an overland invasion by the Japanese of the Aleutian Islands, which sits just 1,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean from Japan. American engineers planned and constructed the Alaska-Canadian Military Highway to provide a main vein from the contiguous United States into Alaska if Japanese forces entered in on foot. It was then called the Alcan Highway – The Alcan, a conjunction of Alaska-Canada.  

Rugged beauty aligns the entire path along the Alaska Highway. 

The highway is known for its ruggedness—at one time the unpaved road had wild turns, steep grades up to 25%, and dirt and gravel breaks that would kick up thick clouds of dust, quashing visibility and revealing cracks in car windshields after the dust had settled. It is still rugged (sure enough, we got a crack in our windshield that remains today); though times have changed for the storied highway. Engineers have been working to improve it continuously since the mid-20th century to benefit travelers, and to improve the time-distance continuum for truckers bringing supplies into Alaska. Today, it is today almost entirely paved. 

American Bison on the side of the road. Talk about wild. Driving this highway was like being on safari. 

It took us four days driving 12-hour stretches to make our way from North Cascades National Park in Washington to Skagway, Alaska, from where we would fly by bush plane to hit our first park in Alaska: Glacier Bay. For most, traveling the highway and exploring the vicinity is the adventure itself and endures on average seven to ten days. At waypoints, there are museums, restaurants, historic gold rush sites, and wilderness areas ripe for fisherman, paddlers, hikers, and campers.

As mentioned before, we pushed through the area quickly… but there is no love lost; we experienced many amazing things along the way. We saw countless black bear, bison (the most beastly of all animals, they are huge!), caribou, moose, stone sheep and incredible bird life. Vast rivers roll right alongside the highway, impeccably clear and vibrant in color, and all around is this incredible wilderness totally unique to the region. And best of all for us during this very long and logistically intense adventure: there are no off-ramps, no choices to be made of which way to go, the road just travels on endlessly through beautiful stretches of western Canada, the Yukon Territory, arriving finally in Alaska. People often ask us when we get to enjoy off-time this year, and we really don't to be perfectly honest – but on long drive days we have a chance to talk, listen to music and podcasts, and read about upcoming parks on our itinerary.

So with that, onto Alaska! With eight of the most remote national parks in the system, it's about to get wild. First up: Glacier Bay

Giving Wally the Airstream the ride of his life! 

"Yield to Bison" – this sign and what it represents is reason alone to travel the Alaska Highway!

Tips for travelers on the Alaska Highway:

·      MILEPOST is considered the bible for road trippers traveling the Alaska Highway. It is the most comprehensive tool for planning and navigating that there is, offering four basic routes as a starting point to work from, and providing details on everything in between. 

·      There are nearly 2,000 kilometers (kilometers, remember, half of the road is in Canada) between the starting point at Dawson Creek and the end point in Fairbanks. The best advice we got and can pay forward is to fuel up nearly every time you see a gas station – even if you are full 3/4 of a tank. You never know when gas stations along the route will be closed for any number of reasons, as we found to be true on our overland journey.  

·      Make sure you have a full tank of wiper fluid. While the highway is mostly paved, there are still gravel breaks that will cloud up your windshield in an instant. Not only is this a hazard in seeing other motorists, but wildlife is everywhere – and you don’t want to be the person to hit an endangered bison or any other wild creature. 

Wally strikes a pose near the start of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia. 

Wally strikes a pose near the start of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia. 

·      Because there are few services on the highway, including emergency services, stopping to offer help to failed motorists is generally the right thing to do if you are in a position to offer assistance. Karma baby!

·      Even with big advances improving the highway, bringing not one, but two spare tires is still recommended as services along the highway can be fleeting, and it is doubtful they will pop up exactly when you need them.

Stef is dwarfed beneath a collection of some 30,000 road signs that can be found at the Sign Post Forest in the Watson Lake area of the Yukon Territory.

·      If starting your adventure at the official starting point in Dawson Creek, B.C., make a stop at the symbolic sign post. When we were there to catch photo ops with Wally the Airstream, a car packed with locals drove by and shouted “welcome to Dawson Creek!” It was awesome to receive such a warm welcome before starting out this very intense leg of our journey.

·      Another great stop on the famed Alaska Highway? Check out the Sign Post Forest in the Yukon Territory. With 30,000 signs from all around the world, it one of the finest road trip stops for road sign aficionados.