Thursday, September 29, 2016

It's A Miracle...

...A cold front has come through, reducing the temperatures from the high 90s to the more comfortable high 70s.  Heck, we even had a little breeze yesterday and today.  Hope it stays like this a while!

...My folks survived their first week of 10 hour days at Amazon!  Unfortunately, there were many hours spent standing around since Amazon currently has more workers than work stations/assignments.  This is status quo for this time of year, when training is ongoing and more new hires arrive every week.   But they are enjoying reconnecting with work-campers from last year like Angie/Ray, Linda/George, Sue/Rodger, and Sandy/Bill as well as meeting new folks.  They were pleasantly surprised to be greeted so warmly by some of the the "Blue Badges" (i.e., full time Amazonians) with whom they worked last year. And we shared more info and laughs when we attended another get together among work-campers residing in our RV park.

...I finally had the opportunity to see a real live copperhead snake slithering in the woods as we hiked within the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge!  Cool stuff!

Owned and operated by the City of Fort Worth, this place is huge, with more than 3,500 acres of land!  There are a variety of ecosystems, including forests, prairies, and wetlands, and more than 20 miles of hiking trails.  And a pretty good value for just 5 bucks/adult ("geezers" and kids get in cheaper).

Some of the trails are closed for ongoing repairs from flooding that occurred last year, but there are still plenty to explore with different terrains and elevations.

In addition to Mr. Copperhead, We saw deer, blue herons, cranes, frogs, lizards, bison, and prairie dogs.

The Refuge also has an educational center.   Despite its small size, we spent a half hour there.  We were just mesmerized by a snapping turtle trying to use the red lure on his tongue to capture a fish.  Unfortunately for the little fish, Mr. Turtle was successful.  Here he is right after he enjoyed his afternoon snack.  The food chain and cycle of life just amazes me.  One species must die so another may live.

I was disappointed that I did not see any armadillos along the trails, even though they supposedly live in the area.  Ironically, they have no known predators, yet all the armadillos I have ever seen were dead.  Apparently they had experienced close encounters with chrome bumpers!

Mom has started researching jobs for the Spring of 2017.  We determine what state we wish to visit and then she seeks out jobs in that area.  The winning state for 2017 is Wyoming.  My parents like to firm up their work assignments in the Fall, although we have found many employers wait until January to advertise/hire.  We shall see how things gel out.

Well, I'm off to enjoy my bedtime snack of cheese and crackers.  Talk to you soon!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Suffering the Post Alaska Blues

It seems our truck, Big Boomer, is suffering the post Alaska Blues.  Dad noticed when he steered, Big Boomer’s wheels pulled to the right.  So Dad took him to the truck hospital, AKA the International Service Center in Dallas.  The doctors there said Big Boomer busted a tie rod.  This was the same diagnosis last year when we left Arizona—but on the opposite side of the truck!  It took another $1,388, but he is feeling better now.  However, the doctors noted he may also need new king pins!  They estimate that will cost another $1,500.  Yeesh!  Advice for those going to Alaska in the future:  Budget in some extra money for repairs!  Almost everyone we knew from the RVillage 2016 Class had some unexpected mishap/repair; thankfully, most of the issues occurred at the end of the trip.

Guess it is a good thing my parents are earning some buckaroos at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Haslet, Texas from September to December.   This is their second season working as Amazon Elves for the peak holiday season.  Last year, they worked in the Receiving Dept.  This season all work-campers are assigned to ICQA (Inventory Control/Quality Assurance).  I won’t lie to you:  working at Amazon is a very physical job, standing for 10-11 hours a day, bending, lifting, etc.  Heck, you can log a ½ mile just walking from some areas of the parking lot to your work station!  But you can’t beat the gig for return on investment.  Not only do you earn decent wages ($10.75/hour) and a completion bonus of $1 for every hour worked, but you get a reduction of your living expenses because Amazon also pays for your full hook up RV site.  And the benefit of the paid RV site IS NOT considered any form of income on your W-2.  Unfortunately, the majority of the Amazon-approved campgrounds are at least 30 minutes from the facility, with some of them requiring driving on I-35, which can be a nightmare during peak drive times.  But you’ve gotta accept the good with the bad, right?

Big Boomer isn’t the only one suffering the Post Alaska Blues.  Mom and I miss the cooler Alaskan weather, having endured 2 solid weeks of 95F+ temperatures, which feel more like 100F+ when taking the dew point into account.  This is especially true when we are out doing our 4-mile walks.  Welcome to Texas! 

Since my parents started working on September 14, I try to keep busy and find fun things to do.  Like on Monday, I participated in “International Talk Like a Pirate Day.”  Too bad our pet cockatiel died last year—Sweet Cheeks would have made a great prop for my pirate costume!

"Arr, ye maties, Po-Po Sparrow here t' wish ye all a great Talk Like a Pirate Day!  So all ye Swashbucklers best be talkin' like a Buccaneer today or ye be findin' yer way t' Davey Jones Locker!"

Sometimes I go to work with them, too, and ride the roller coaster!

I’ve met some of the doggies in my neighborhood in Azle, Texas, like Rocky Balboa, Chewey, and Lucy.  Rocky Balboa, a miniature pinscher Chihuahua mix, is a tough nut to crack, but I think he’s starting to take a liking to me.

I particularly like chatting with the cows and goats from the nearby fields and, of course, the roadrunners who reside in the area.  Some of them seem to remember me from last year!

I’ve been on a nature hunt as well.  Check out these pics of some cool insects I’ve discovered!

This one has an egg sac on its back!

I'm also sharing photos of some pretty Texas weeds.  (Funny, when we saw these types of plants in Alaska, we called them wildflowers and marveled at their beauty!)  

Jeffrey and Donny visited my family on September 15.   Formerly from New Jersey, they moved their families to South Carolina upon retirement.  (Like most of us from the Northeast, you work like a dog, make your money, then get out of Dodge to retire).   They were in the midst of a motorcycle trip to Arizona and made a point to stop and visit us in Azle, Texas.  They had a long, rough ride, hitting some nasty weather along the way.  So they were so appreciative of Mom's home-cooked meal of grilled halibut, zucchini/mozzarella casserole, and my personal favorite, mac and cheese.  How wonderful to  spend time with old friends!

My family attended a Meet and Greet hosted by Susan and Rodger, our next door neighbors for the last two Amazon seasons, which gave us a chance to speak with friends from last year as well as work-campers who are first-time Amazonians.  It was great fun for all of us!

Well, I’ve gotta run—I’m helping Dad grill  Alaskan halibut for our dinner!  And it is an early to bed night since my parents have 10 hour days starting tomorrow!

Talk to you soon!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What We Would Do Differently--A Retrospect of our Trek North to Alaska

Overall, we were genuinely pleased with the way the trip turned out.  After all, this was our first trip to Alaska and the first time we would be on the road for such an extended period of time (47 different stopovers over a 4-month period).  But hindsight is a wonderful thing, so here is a retrospect of our trip and a summary of what we would do differently.

If we were traveling by ourselves as was our original plan from December 2014 to September 2015, we definitely would have boondocked more and we certainly would not have made all the advance reservations.  This is especially true now that we are aware of all the roadside pull-offs in which we could fit our set-up with no problem.  And we learned that although a campground will allow you to make a reservation, it doesn’t mean they actually keep a site aside for you in which you will fit, despite you giving them your length and sending photos!  Furthermore, only a couple of the hook-up sites had 50 amp electric, and a few offered no sewer connections.  Most had NO or EXTREMELY limited Wi-Fi as well.  Ironically, it seemed the more we paid, the worse accommodations/amenities we received overall. We found we had easier access and larger sites while boondocking in Canada’s Provincial Parks!  We also found that although some campgrounds displayed the Good Sam logo, they did not offer Good Sam discounts.  And we did not qualify for any other discounts.  Unlike our traveling companions, we are not military nor eligible for the senior rate yet.

Another thing we noticed was that many campgrounds did not take a deposit at the time we made the reservations in 2015.  We realized afterwards that this was probably done intentionally so that we incurred the 2016 rate increases.

Once we agreed to have traveling companions and began trip discussions with them, we realized we would need to alter our original plans.  Like us, they had a very long rig.  We figured a campground might be able to accommodate one large rig on a walk-in basis, but were concerned most places would not be able to accommodate two of us.  More importantly, they were not as experienced or adaptable to boondocking as we are.  (At that time, their boondocking consisted of Wal-mart one-night stops getting from one planned location to another.)  So Dad reserved/booked hookup sites at campgrounds at most planned stops for both rigs starting in November 2015.

While having reservations gave us a certain comfort level, it also became a hindrance, particularly if we wanted to make changes to our plans.  For example, we lost money when we departed early from Denali National Park and when we were detained from arriving at Laird Hot Springs Provincial Park as scheduled.  Additionally, we had booked 5 nights at Copper Center on the premises we would spend considerable time at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Dad would fish to his heart’s content, both on a charter and from the campground riverbank behind our site.  Unfortunately, we already paid a non-refundable deposit for the campground and the charter by the time we learned salmon fishing was prohibited.  And we learned that most of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is wilderness and inaccessible to the average tourist (despite what the tour books and tourism agents may tell you).

Of the 30 days we did spend boondocking, 6 of them were inside Denali National Park (Teklanika Campground) and 6 were one-nighters as we traveled home by ourselves from Washington to Texas.

I should note that we are well equipped for boondocking.  We have solar energy, wind energy, generators, a 150-gallon water bladder, a 32-gallon blue boy, and a triple-canister filtration system, so we could be (and have been in the past) “off the grid” for considerable time.  Furthermore, we have our own Mi-Fi and have no qualms about not watching TV (we were in Alaska to indulge in its beauty, not sit in our rig and watch the boob tube), so having internet and cable amenities at campgrounds is not a top priority for us.

Our wind and solar set-ups in Quartzsite, AZ.

Our water bladder sits nicely within Big Boomer's garage.

Yours truly with the stinky blue boy.   To quote Cousin Eddie in "Christmas Vacation, "the shitter is full!"

Therefore, next time around, we would boondock at some Alaska State Campgrounds.  For example, instead of staying in Big Bear RV Park in Wasilla, we would opt for Eklutna Lake Campground within Chugach State Park ($18/night).  It was quite lovely and had sites that could accommodate us.   Denali State Park would have been a fine alternative to paying $52/night at Denali RV Park and Motel.  We also would boondock at Pioneer Village in Fairbanks for $15/night in lieu of paying $47/night at Riverview RV Park.  And while our $50/night waterfront site at Baycrest RV Park in Homer was lovely, we could have enjoyed a similar view for far less money boondocking on the Spit.  Similarly, we would trade our $43/night site at Stony Creek RV Park outside Seward for boondocking at one of the City-operated waterfront RV parks.  We would also partake of more of Canada’s wonderful Provincial Parks.


As you know, Dad had some disappointments with his dreams of fishing in Alaska.  They shut down the ability to fish for salmon early on in our trip, and it resulted in the cancellation of the salmon fishing charter he reserved back in December 2015.  Now that we know the fishing regulations can change dramatically in a matter of days, Dad would not have purchased his annual fishing license ($145) immediately upon entering Alaska.  In hindsight, it would have been more economical to just buy daily licenses, based on the limited number of times he was actually able to fish.  Furthermore, he certainly would not book a charter 6 months in advance!  Thankfully, he didn’t buy his annual King Salmon stamp in advance ($80/annual).

Itinerary Changes

After experiencing that blizzard outside Fort Nelson, we can safely say we would not cross the border into Canada until late May next time around.  This would also give us access to places like the Tea House at The Fairmount in Jasper and Waterton Lakes Lodge, which were still closed for the winter season when we visited these areas.  And seemingly, we were always one week ahead of an upcoming festival or event everywhere we visited (although the tour books we used as reference in planning the trip never gave specific dates for festivals—they just listed the month).

For reasons noted in my post of 6/25/16, we most definitely would reduce the time spent at Teklanika Campground inside Denali National Park from 6 nights to a max of 4 nights.  We would tour Denali State Park, Denali Highway, and surrounding areas with these additional 2 days.

Seward hosts various special events for the Independence Day holiday, which attracts tourists and locals alike.  We spent an entire day enjoying the company of our fellow RVillagers, which left us just 2 days to tour Seward.  Next time around, we would either avoid visiting Seward on July 4 or add a day to our stay.

Similarly, we would avoid Jasper on Victoria Day Weekend.  Because our visit fell on the holiday, we could get reservations only for 2 nights instead of our preferred 3 nights.

We would reduce the time spent in Stewart, BC/Hyder, AK from 5 nights to 3 nights.  Once you see the glaciers and view the bears at Fish Creek, there are limited tourist attractions, including shopping.  Hyder has only one gift shop nowadays, despite tour books touting 5 of them.

We spent 2 nights in Tok as we entered Alaska.  If it weren’t for the fact we had to pick up a parcel at Three Bears Outfitters, we would not have stayed here at all.  Instead, we would do what we did on our return trip:  Spend time at Discovery Yukon Lodge in Beaver Creek, Yukon.

Knowing what we know now, you can be sure we would never eat at Big Daddy’s in Fairbanks!   And we would forfeit taking that snoozer Talkeetna to Hurricane Alaska Railroad Train Ride, opting instead for the more exciting Mahey’s Jet Boat Tour (both were B-O-G-Os offered in our Tour Saver Book.)

Between long traveling days and an effort to be inclusive, we did not log anywhere near the hiking miles we normally would.  So more hiking would definitely be in a future itinerary.  I have to keep my trim figure, you know, especially if I want to visit the "Clothing Optional" community in Quartzsite next year!

Next time around, we would love to stay at the Lake Clark National Park Lodge, thereby giving us more time to trace the steps of Dick Proenneke and relish in his simple life “Alone in the Wilderness”.  We were disappointed we did not have the opportunity to visit more remote areas like Kennecott Mine in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Telegraph Creek in British Columbia for fear of damage to vehicles.  Perhaps next time we can accomplish these things by renting a truck camper rather than bringing our huge full-time set-up with us.

We brought $1,400 Canadian with us for use over a 7-week period, making about 25 cents on the dollar due to favorable exchange rates in February 2016.  (We wish we did this in December 2015—the rates were more like 45 cents on the dollar).  We also used credit cards, but incurred a 2% foreign exchange transaction fee.  Bear in mind that Cottonwood RV Park and Canada’s Provincial Parks do not accept credit cards.  We found one of the grocery stores in Stewart, BC, would not accept credit cards.  They would take U.S. dollars, but change received would be in Canadian currency, thereby costing you more for your groceries.  One campground, Mountain View in Iskut, offered a discount for cash.  Knowing these tidbits now, and assuming the same favorable exchange rates, we would have brought more Canadian currency.  

Trekking to Alaska is a long and grueling trip for everyone, pets included. Planning the trip is time consuming, with many factors to be taken into consideration.  Every RV has different fueling, heating, and energy requirements and every owner has different usage.   Each RVer has a different living schedule and driving tolerance.  Coordinating every aspect of this trip for two rigs and planning mutually-convenient timelines was a big responsibility and became somewhat burdensome.  We learned one thing:  we would never want to work as Wagonmasters of a Caravan!  So although things worked out fine, we would refrain from traveling with others on a long-term basis in the future.

Again, we feel blessed and are eternally thankful for the opportunity to see The Last Frontier and Land of the Midnight Sun, fulfilling a “bucket list” dream!    My hope with this post is to provide assistance to others in planning their own Treks North to Alaska. 
May you have as much fun as my family did!

PS:  If anyone has any specific questions about traveling to Alaska, you can email me at

Sunday, September 11, 2016

New York City, Shanksville, Washington D.C.

15 years later, our hearts still ache,
But our spirit and resolve will never break.

Remembering those who perished
in the tragedy of September 11, 2001
and the families they left behind,
and paying tribute to all First Responders, many who have died subsequently
from diseases/conditions attributed to
their heroic actions that day.

Always in our minds, forever in our hearts...

Mural on American Legion Post 629, Cold Springs, TX

Thursday, September 8, 2016

By the Numbers

Well, folks, here is the long awaited recap of our Trek North to Alaska!

Number of Days on Trek:  137
(50 in Alaska, 47 in Canada, 40 in various lower 48 states along route).  We started from Quartzsite, AZ and ended in Livingston, TX.

Number of Stopovers:  47
(12 in Alaska, 20 in Canada, and 15 in various Lower 48 states along route)

Number of Days in Campgrounds with Hookups:  107

Number of Days Boondocking (No Hookups, whether in Provincial Parks, Wal-mart, Roadside Pullouts):  30

Miles Traveled:  12,471
(8,261 in U.S.A., 4,210 in Canada)

Gallons of Fuel Used:  1,699
(1,029 in U.S.A., 670 in Canada)

Average Miles/Gallon:  7.34
(8.03 in U.S.A., 6.29 in Canada)


And, if I can have a drum roll, the total expenses for this Trek:  $17,762.25!  This would probably be about $1K higher if it were not for the favorable exchange rate with Canada. 

Now, here’s the breakdown by expense category.  For this, I am rounding off my figures—I hate decimals!

Camping Costs:
Campgrounds with Hookups:  $3,867 (Average/night:  $36)

Boondocking:  $444 (Average/night:  $15)

Total Camping Costs:  $4,311
(Average/night:  $31).

This includes the money we lost at Denali for a one-day early departure to accommodate our traveling companions and the weekly cost for the second site we were encouraged by the reservation representative to pay for to ensure there was a place for Big Boomer (see post of 6/25/16).  It also includes losing one night's reservation fee at Laird Hot Springs due to the blizzard (see post of 5/30/16).

Camping represents 24% of our total expenses.  Wow, that’s a big chunk of my cheese wheel (I use this instead of a pie chart)!

Diesel Fuel Costs:
U.S.A.:  $2,477
(Average cost/gallon:  $2.41)

Canada:  $2,078
(Average cost/gallon when converted from liters:  $3.10)

Total Diesel Fuel Costs:  $4,555
(Average cost/gallon:  $2.68)

This represents 26% of our total expenses.  We felt Big Boomer performed nicely for us, and we were grateful that overall fuel prices were lower in 2016 than in 2015.

Food Costs:
Actual food purchases:  $2,759

Dining out:  $1,029

Total food costs:  $3,788
(Average/day:  $28)

This figure would have been much higher if we needed to do more purchases within Canada and Alaska.  As our friends who work-camped in Alaska can attest, prices on everything are astronomical.   But Mom was diligent in stocking up on goods, including meat in our freezer, before leaving the Lower 48.  Furthermore, we did not dine out with much frequency.  We were selective on where to spend our money.  In many of the places we visited, their idea of restaurants consisted of food trucks.  With Mom trying to watch her weight (and she didn’t want to watch it grow!), she preferred to cook dinners for us all.  When my family did dine out, the bill usually ran $100+, but we were delighted with the majority of our dining experiences.  Food represents 21% of total expenses.

Entertainment Costs:   $3,250

This includes all tours, entrance fees, flightseeing, tips for guides, U.S.A. and Canada National Parks Passes, and all Dad’s fishing expenses, including charters, licenses (AK/Yukon/British Columbia) and fishing tackle he purchased.  It excludes dining out.  Entertainment represents 18% of my cheese wheel.

Miscellaneous Costs:  $1,878

This includes gasoline for our motorcycles and payments to our traveling companions for half of the gas used when we joined them in their car for touring. It also includes propane, wood, tolls, parking, the few souvenirs we bought, vehicle repairs/maintenance (windshield chip repair/new blades for wipers, etc.).  And a big chunk of it ($465) was associated with shipping of firearms to and from Alaska, a cost most other folks will not incur.  These miscellaneous costs are 11% of our total expenses.



We did not have a detailed budget established for the trip.   However, Mom, our family’s financial advisor, put a figure of $15,000 in her head.  So, we spent a little more than intended, but she is not complaining.  After all, it was her “bucket list” trip to Lake Clark National Park to visit the “Alone in the Wilderness” cabin that accounted for nearly $1K of the overage! 

Besides, if we did not take this trip, we still would have living expenses.  I would need my cheese products to eat, Big Boomer’s belly would need to be filled with fuel, “home” would need to be parked somewhere, and we would still spend money having fun!  With this is mind, we took our analysis further, comparing the costs of this trip to our normal monthly budget for these line items over a 137-day period.

Budget for camping fees, fuel, food, entertainment, miscellaneous:  $10,606

Total of these fees for Alaskan Trip: $17,762

So we are over budget by only $7,156!  Don’t you just love creative accounting! 

Well, my head is spinning from all these numbers, so I’ll sign off now.  Talk to you soon!