This article is more for the adventurous ones that are thinking of throwing caution to wind and heading for Alaska than for those with a well padded bank account or two weeks vacation time. This is for those with an idea in mind, but maybe the details are still a little fuzzy. Okay, really, it’s so that the other dreamers may spare themselves a hardship or two from my experiences. Now, I left for Alaska more or less on a whim. That’s not to say that I hadn’t felt the call of the North for some time, but it just so happened that cicumstances made this last Summer (2009) as good a time to go as any. Let’s start there. My research was possibly a tad short of adequate but it was mid summer, warm and jolly. I didn’t actually arrive in Alaska until the end of September, beginning of October. As I sit here now it’s getting on towards the middle of February and I find myself thinking back to the days leading up to departure and the things that I would have given a bit more thought to in retrospect. I’m not saying that I didn’t touch on these ideas, just that some of them are very difficult to grasp when they are a concept prior to and not a reality.
Alaska’s Road is Really, Really Long
Really, I’m not sure how to express the need to give this some serious thought. I remember writing in my journal at some point: “Dear Alaska, why is your road so long? These are perplexing matters I am not prepared to resolve. Love, Alaska.” The Alaska Highway or the ALCAN itself is in the neighborhood of 1,400 miles (one way) and I definitely understood that, but you also have to take into account that it doesn’t start until you get to Dawson Creek, British Columbia, which is more than 700 miles from Vancouver alone. For my part, I started from New Mexico and had shy of a two thousand drive before I even made it that far (US / Canada Border at Vancouver). And the truth be told, I had just over 4,000 on the ticker before landing at mile 0 in Dawson Creek. Sure, I took the long route, but hey, there is a lot of stuff that’s worth seeing on the way. Sooner or later it starts to catch up to you though, how far you have gone and how far you have left to go and how quickly your expenses are adding up. So…
Be Realistic About Your Budget
What happened to me and I think what happens to a lot of people from the stories I hear around the North Country is that you leave with a budget that you think will get you to Alaska and back or just to Alaska and then you find yourself 100 miles down the ALCAN pondering the realization that if you turned back now and didn’t eat for the next week or two you could probably make it home. 3,000+ miles is a long way from home in a car, period. It’s a lot longer in a vintage VW. And absolutely everything is more expensive North of Dawson Creek. I saw and bought both water and gasoline at prices in excess of $5 US a gallon. You can only imagine the rates at which they’ll steal your pants for food and basic necessities you get caught without. If your sitting in the lower 48 and you think something here will cost you $500 a week, budget $800. It will probably cost you $900 plus tax.
Your Car, Just Getting There
Is your car making even the most remotely awkward sound? FIX IT! And everything connected to it. If you break down on the ALCAN it’s going to cost you, twice as much for parts and then you’ll have to wait a week, at minimum, for shipping, which may land you with an additional charge attached. That’s if your lucky enough to break down in a place where there’s a parts shop or a garage that is planning to be open within the next few days. Losing an alternator put a thousand dollar dent in my budget between eating outrageously overpriced food while stranded, supplies, shipping, parts, etc. I even replaced the thing myself to save labor costs. The whole ordeal took two weeks. Make sure your car is in tip top shape! Tires, too.
Planning to stay the Winter? You are indeed a brave soul. So you aren’t expecting to stay the Winter. That might not be true and you just don’t know it yet. See “Be Realistic About Your Budget” above. I do remember packing my clothes and looking at the three pairs of long johns that I did own and packing two of them. I also remember crossing the Alaska/Canada border wearing almost all of the clothes I had brought with me and a coat that someone who felt bad for me gave me, about the first of October. Alaska cold means a different kind of cold than anything I had previously had a concept of. You can’t even begin to understand what’s it’s like when it’s 35 below 0 until you have experienced it. You are going to need more clothes, different clothes and they’re going to cost you a bit of cash. The moral of the story is, bring absolutely everything you have that is warm; don’t leave a pair of long johns behind. For a more detailed perspective on me experiences with the cold check out The Cold- First Impresssions
Winter and Your Car, A New Relationship
In most parts of the Country cold mornings and driving on snowy, icy roads is an event. This is the normal mode of operation in Alaska and you should plan on $500 – $1,000 to “Winterize” your vehicle if you intend on braving it through to the Spring. Guess what, cars don’t like to start when it’s 30 below (0) and if they do, it’s extremely bad for you engine and transmission. That means if you would like to drive your car and keep it in any sort of operational order you’ll need an oil pan heater, an engine block heater, a transmission heater, a battery warmer and all of them wired to a plugin on the front of your car. Additionally, sliding dangerously on the snow and ice gets old fast and a decent set of snow tires are in order, be warned. Also, air cooled vehicles such as my own volkswagen are pretty much impossible in the interior. Mine is parked until the Spring rolls around, maybe a better option.
Working in Canada as a US Citizen
It is possible to work in Canada as a US citizen, but if you’re considering this as a possibility to sustain your travel Northwardly, take this handy tip into account. Make preparations to work in Canada BEFORE you cross the border. I hadn’t really intended to work along the ALCAN, but two breakdowns and two weeks twiddling my thumbs and emptying my wallet changed the ball game a bit. I was able to find three employers in Whitehorse for various jobs, but the bureaucratic red tape of obtaining a work permit once you’re actually in Canada is almost impossible to navigate. You would have to first find an employer that was willing to hire you. They would then have to conduct a labor market opinion poll to assure that there are no Canadians available and qualified to fill the position. All of the paper work then needs to be submitted to customs for processing and if all goes well this could be completed in as little as five weeks. Good luck if you’re halfway up the highway rubbing your good looks and thirty cents together hoping for a miracle.
Working Under the Table in Canada
If you are anything like me you’re saying, hey, I could just work under the table and this is true, but from my experience under the table jobs, while available, are unreliable. I did have week long under the table gigs as both a bouncer and a lumberjack of sorts, and they helped tremendously. For the long term, however, I got the feeling that small business owners were wary of causing trouble with the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) by keeping foreigners without a work permit on staff too long. All of the towns along the way are small towns and people know who the outsiders are. Furthermore, one manager explained that RCMP officers are required to spend time in a remote town before they are eligible to serve in their own towns. This means that while they’re out in your bush town, they’re bored and they’re rookies. All of the above makes for a bad combination for travelers trying to hold up or Winter out somewhere on the ALCAN, but a reasonable situation for those not trying to stay too long.
Border Crossings and Exchange Rates
So, it would behoove you to have something nice to say to the Customs folks as you enter into Canada. I would reccommend against telling them you’re just coming to Canada to have a look around and that you don’t have a particular destination. Normal citizens are apperently not supposed to frollic about. If they do, the must be smugglers and are subject to three to four hours of search and interrogation by young kids with bald heads in big, black boots. Have a good story that adds up and spare yourself the trouble at the border. As far as exchange rates, if you’re working in cash exchange only as much as you need in Canada and do it as you go saving some US currency for when you cross back into Alaska, if possible. Canadian banks only charge a $5 service charge to change US currency. After you cross back into to Alaska you’ll get stiffed for about 20% at both the gas stations and the banks. Heads up.
So, Why Did You Want to Come to Alaska Anyway?
Adventure? Great! Right answer. This place is chalked full of a lifetime worth of adventures. Was it making a small fortune fishing the high seas? Umm, well, let’s talk about that and other coveted high paying Alaskan jobs for a second. First, they do exist. That’s the good news. The reality is though, that there is no bulliten board up in the middle of town where those jobs are posted. I checked. If there were they would certainly be snatched up quickly by the local labor pool. Alaska is sort of like an Arctic verion of the South’s good old boys network. Getting a GOOD, adventurous job here will happen by means of networking with the right people and finding yourself in the position of knowing someone or by being extremely lucky in the right place at the right time. Of course, if you’re in it for the long haul, you can work your way into one, but it’s going to take some time and you’re going to be in Alaska for a while, years possibly. I think the best story I have stumbled up so far is from a couple of fellas who came fishing here. The long and the short if it is that they may a modest living not a fortune, but had a hoppin’ good time doing it. And that would be a realistic expectation. Also, easy, fun, outdoor jobs in the summer are a dime a dozen, but they won’t make you rich.
Driving to Alaska is one thing that I think everyone should do at least once in their lives. All of the above is not intended to scare anyone off. This is easily the pinacle of driving adventures in North America. It’s beautiful and breathtaking every step of the way and more than justifies navigating the obstacles above, just be prepared for what’s on the horizon and realistic about your expectations. So what are you waiting for? Put some new belts on your car and head on up!
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