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Ready for Alaska by George Bruzenak and Jaimie Hall-Bruzenak

George and Jaimie Bruzenak are heading to Alaska this summer, looking forward to breathtaking scenery and wildlife sightings in both Canada and Alaska. It's their first trip to Alaska together, but they are experienced RVers, and they know that preparation is key to a safe and enjoyable trip.

Oak Lake

The start of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia

1 of 6


Photo by George Bruzenak

Many RVers consider Alaska to be the trip of a lifetime. It is a long journey, both in terms of time and miles. In fact, if you plan to pick up the Alaska Highway at its start in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, you'll have to traverse about 2,000 miles of Canada just to reach the Alaska border from the Lower 48. By the time you've made the inevitable side trips and explored the whole of Alaska you may find you've put 10,000 miles on your vehicle and been away from home eight to ten weeks!

Preparing your RV - whether it's a Class A, fifth-wheel or trailer - for a trip to Alaska should be no different from preparing for any extended-mileage trip in the Lower 48. But keep in mind one thing: On the Alaska Highway you are always within one fuel tank of the next gas pump, but you could drive for several days with no cell phone coverage. Verizon, for example, has no coverage north and west of Fort Nelson in Canada, and large sections of Alaska have no cell phone service at all.

Your Vehicle(s)

Before leaving, do a thorough check of all your vehicles.

1. Engine. Engine maintenance is critical. Have a reputable mechanic perform a complete check of the entire drivetrain. Change the oil and all filters - air, oil, fuel and transmission. Don't forget the differential. Include your toad (towed) vehicle in this checkup if you drive a motorhome.

2. Tires. When was the last time you measured the tread depth on all your tires? Any tire with a tread depth of less than one-eighth of an inch should be replaced, and that includes the spare. If your tires are more than 3 years old, consider replacing them all. If you'll be driving the Dempster Highway to Inuvik or the Dalton Highway from Livengood to Deadhorse, close to the Arctic Sea, it's recommended that you carry two mounted spare tires for each vehicle along with all the necessary lugs and lug nuts.

3. Brakes. Make sure your brakes are in good condition.

4. Weight. How heavy is your RV? Carrying excess weight not only wears tires faster, it's also dangerous and illegal. Leave all the unnecessary stuff home or store it. Remember, you'll be buying gifts for your grandchildren and some mementos for yourself, so leave room for them, too.

5. Jacks. Do you have a working tire or rig jack and do you know how to use it? Does the maintenance manual for your rig show the lift points? If not, figure out the proper procedure now. Hydraulic jacks do lose fluid, and the wrong time to discover that is when you need it! While you're checking the jacks, check your other safety equipment, too.

Resources

Travel guides. There are many travel guides for Alaska and the Alaska Highway. Among the best are these two:

1. "The MILEPOST: Alaska Travel Planner." Get the current edition and use it. It describes the entire journey, kilometer by kilometer, in incredible detail - including every pullout. The maps alone are worth the price ($29.95 U.S.).

2. "Traveler's Guide to Alaskan Camping: Alaska and Yukon Camping with RV or Tent ," by Mike Church and Terri Church. 978-0974947167

For discounts, purchase a "Great Alaskan TourSaver" coupon book, which has 130 buy-one-get-one-free coupons for tours and lodging. Available at Carrs, Eagle and Safeway stores in Alaska or online from the TourSaver Web site.

Current travel document requirements, including passport alternatives for frequent travelers, can be found at the government's GetYouHome Web site.

Crossing the Canadian border. Go to the Canadian Border Services Agency Web site to find out what you need to know about crossing the international border. British Columbia also has an informative Web site on border crossings.

Re-entry into the United States. Before you leave the U.S. read the rules and regulations applying to U.S. citizens returning to the U.S. from Canada. You will have to declare the value of items purchased in Canada and pay duty if the value exceeds a certain amount. Certain foods, like citrus fruit, are restricted as well.


Border Crossings

You will cross into Canada and the U.S. each at least twice on your trip. Before you leave, check the Web sites for each country to find out what restrictions apply (see "Resources" in the box on the right), and make certain you carry all the necessary documentation.

1. Identification. You must now show a passport (or acceptable alternative, see "Resources") on your return to the U.S. from Canada. Have it ready, along with your driver's license, when you approach a border crossing. If you are traveling with children, make sure you carry all the necessary documentation for them, too.

2. Vehicle papers. Have your vehicle's registration and insurance information ready in case the customs agent asks for them.

3. Pets. If you travel with pets you will need a veterinarian's certificate of health and proof of current rabies shots for dogs. Make sure that the vet's certificate is dated less than 90 days before your last crossing back into the U.S.

4. Weapons. Make it easy on yourself -- don't carry any weapons. Most are illegal. If you do transport weapons, be sure to declare them at the border, and be ready to have them inspected. Sprays like Mace must be labeled for animal protection rather than for personal protection; Canadian products are properly labeled.

5. Plants and food. Live houseplants cannot be brought into Canada, nor can certain fruits and vegetables. The requirements change often and vary from province to province so check with the official sites (see "Resources"). On this trip we were not asked about food items, but in the past we've had to discard fruit we had in our RV.

Driving

The Alaska Highway, the Cassiar Highway and other highways across Canada sustain damage from the long northern winters, so expect to encounter construction work and road repairs as you go along. Slow down to the posted speed -- give the workers and your vehicles a break. Fines for speeding through the zones will empty your wallet faster than any fuel purchase.

1. Lights. Check your headlights or daylight running lamps. All Canadian provinces require that you drive with them on at all times. You will be cited for noncompliance.

2. Metric system. Canadian signs and speed limits all use the metric system. Many electronic dash panels allow you to switch from miles to kilometers, making speed control easier. Remember: 60 km/hr is not 60 mph, a fact the Royal Canadian Mounted Police will tell you as they write the citation. It is also helpful to know your RV's length and height in meters.

3. Pedestrians. In every town, pedestrians have the right of way in crosswalks.

4. Fuel. Know your RV's fuel economy, and make it a point to drive on the top half of your fuel tank. Fuel stations in Canada are not far apart but running out of fuel between them can be an expensive and time-consuming affair.

5. Vehicle protection. Do you need a bra? No, not you … but your toad or your fifth-wheel might need a car bra to protect it from flying rocks and gravel. There are gravel stretches on many roads in Alaska and gravel will kick up behind you. In any case, be sure to drive defensively whenever road surface conditions deteriorate.

6. Frost heaves. Frost heaves are inevitable given the weather conditions in the north. Driving over them at high speed can cause great damage to you or your vehicles. Read and heed the signs. Also watch the white line on the side of the highway - if it appears wavy … slow down!

 

Enjoy the Trip!

With trip preparation and border crossings behind you, you'll have plenty of time to enjoy the journey. Remember the following:

1. It's the trip, not the destination. Canadian scenery is some of the most beautiful in the world.

2. Take your time and enjoy what you see. Stop in the small towns along the way. You will find friendly people wherever you stop. The local museums are storehouses of fascinating facts.

3. Take your camera … and use it. Pull well off to the side of the road, or better yet, pull into one of the many pullouts to step out to photograph that scene that left you breathless. Smell the air.

4. Keep a journal of your travels. Write your impressions while they are still fresh in your thoughts. Keeping a log of wildlife sightings and photos will jog your memory later.

Keep these in mind and you'll indeed have the trip of a lifetime!

George Bruzenak & Jaimie Hall-Bruzenak
6/19/09


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