Talkeetna

Talkeetna: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

“Talkeetna radio, Navajo 27633, Denali direct, one hour 30 minutes, nine souls on board, with information Hotel.” With the camera and oxygen mask in my lap, that’s what I heard as I sat in the co-pilot seat of a twin-engine Piper Navajo ready to depart from Talkeetna airport for a flightseeing trip to view Denali from high above.

But the story really begins a few days earlier.

Midway between Anchorage and Denali National Park, off the main highway and on its own spur, sits the historical village of Talkeetna. It is full of log buildings, a railroad depot, a general store, various food trucks, cafes, and restaurants. It looks like a mining and gold prospector town right out of the 1800s, with a modern artsy twist. And the best part–the best part of all–is the buzz of all the flightseeing airplanes and helicopters overhead.

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Homer

Wasilla to Homer

Just north of Anchorage is the town of Wasilla. Maybe you’ve heard of it? The former mayor, Sarah Palin, and her family still live in town. Thanks to Google, I noticed their house was just down the road from my campground. I had to go check it out! I drove up to the driveway expecting to find a gate, a security outpost, something. All I found were a few “No Trespassing” signs on a nondescript wooden fence just off the main nondescript highway full of chain restaurants and retail stores. The best word to describe everything would be–you guessed it–nondescript.

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Tok to Valdez

Tok to Valdez

After politely answering all the customs officer’s questions, I entered Alaska again near the town of Tok. And, by “near,” I mean “almost 100 miles.” Other than the border crossing, there isn’t much at all going on in this part of the Alaska Highway. In fact, parts of it are actually a bit boring. At Tok, I turned off of the Alaska Highway with plans to head towards Anchorage. But, as usual, my plans changed.

While spending the night in Glennallen, I happened to notice the sign to Valdez. There is only one road into Valdez and it stops just on the other side of town; it would be a quick round trip. For the first hour or so–with nothing too interesting–I wondered if I had made a mistake. And then I turned the corner to head up Thompson Pass. With a bright blue sky and puffy white clouds, mountain peaks in every direction, waterfalls, glaciers, melting snow and ice, it was an arctic heaven reachable by automobile. Even other travelers I met (who had also driven several thousand miles to reach this place) were in awe of the scenery that day.

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Haines Highway

Haines Highway in the Yukon

To get from Southeast Alaska to Southcentral Alaska, there is a little country called Canada that gets in the way. The Haines Highway (out of Haines, Alaska) and Klondike Highway (out of Skagway, Alaska) both pass through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. And to confuse things even more, there is a time zone change: the Yukon (on Pacific Time) is one hour ahead of the Alaska Time Zone.

To give you an idea of what it’s like to drive in the Yukon Territory, I took some photos as I was driving about 100 kilometers per hour up the Haines Highway. The scenery is incredible, but it is as desolate as the photos depict. Yes, I made sure to stop for gas in both “towns” I drove through. I had a little fog, a little rain, and a little sunshine. There were two 15-kilometer sections that were gravel. It is part of regular road maintenance to repair damage caused by the frost heaves. There were actually sections of the paved road that were in far worse shape than the gravel. You may have heard me yell a few times when the Touareg and Airstream caught some unintentional air.

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M/V Malaspina

Inside Passage: Juneau to Haines

At a very bright and very early 7 o’clock in the morning, I departed Juneau on the M/V Malaspina for the 92-mile, 4-hour sailing to Haines, my last stop on the Alaska Marine Highway System and Alaska’s Inside Passage. As usual, the sights were pretty amazing. But, since I had to wake up at 4:30, I admit I dozed off for about an hour about midway through the sailing.

I know I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating; go see the Inside Passage! It seemed to get better and better as the passage narrowed, the mountains grew, the animals appeared, and the skies cleared. With decent food and alcohol options, observation decks, bathrooms, showers, cabins, and recliners, it was an extremely comfortable ride. I wasn’t on a luxurious cruise ship, but for the price, the ferries were a great alternative. The price is even better if you don’t drive your home on board.

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Juneau

Inside Passage: Petersburg to Juneau

Did you know Juneau used to be called Harrisburg? Two gold prospectors named Harris and Juneau founded the town back in the late 1800s, but Harris “fell out of favor” with the locals and they changed the name.

As is the case with almost every single town in Southeast Alaska, Juneau has no roads leading into it. And it’s the state capital. It took almost eight hours to sail on the M/V Matanuska from Petersburg to Juneau. Finally, finally, finally the seas were calm and the skies were clear. In fact, it was so calm, we had glassy waters for several hours. With snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and icebergs all around, it almost felt as if we were gliding over ice.

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Petersburg

Inside Passage: Ketchikan to Petersburg

Petersburg, nicknamed “Little Norway,” is the next stop on my journey through Alaska’s Inside Passage. Founded by a Norwegian, Peter Buschmann, back in 1910, the streets today are still filled with Nordic flags and decorative paintings called rosemaling. Imagine an island with snow-capped peaks, glaciers, inlets, bald eagles, longliners, seiners, trollers, gillnetters, crabbers, harbors, seaplanes, friendly people, and a road that ends just outside of town. It easily makes my top five list of best isolated towns in America.

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Totem Bight State Park

Inside Passage: Prince Rupert to Ketchikan

If you’ve followed along at home, you know Alaska (the 49th state in the Union) is my 49th state in the Airstream. I think it technically counted when I passed through U.S. Customs and boarded the M/V Matanuska (a ferry owned by the state of Alaska) in the waters off Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada. But I didn’t count it until I rolled off the ferry into the port of Ketchikan, Alaska and onto dry land.

And I’m not even to the main part of Alaska yet. I’m in southeast Alaska, a part only accessible by sea or air. In fact, to get to the rest of Alaska, I will have to hop on another series of ferries, and then drive through another part of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory before reaching the main Alaskan border. From Ketchikan to Anchorage: 1,120 miles.

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IMG_0786

Three Seasons in Three Weeks

“So what’s your favorite state?” That’s the question I get asked all the time. My answer is always, “The states along the coast are pretty amazing!” Well, I spent the last three weeks in a pretty amazing state along the coast; it’s called Oregon.

I saw plenty of fog and clouds in Eugene, drove in a snowstorm over Santiam Pass, gazed at stars in the clear, cool nights of Bend, walked through snow on Mt. Hood, felt the wind and sideways rain along the Pacific coast, and even turned on the air conditioner in the surrounding countryside of Portland.

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Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway

There are about 4 million miles of public roads in the United States. 120 of those public roads are considered National Scenic Byways. And 31 of those byways are considered All-American Roads because they have features not seen elsewhere in the U.S. With 20 million annual visitors, the most popular All-American Road is the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway through Virginia and North Carolina.

It has no stop signs or traffic signals, no interchange ramps, no commercial vehicles. With no straight section–well, anywhere–and two lanes the entire length, the speed limit is 45mph. But no one is in a hurry. Around every corner is a turnout with panoramic vistas galore. Elevation is as low as 650 feet MSL and goes up to 6000 feet MSL. The roller coaster of a ride probably averages about 2000 feet MSL. The Touareg definitely got a workout pulling the Airstream all week.

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Niagara Falls

ILOVENY

On my way to Vermont, I stumbled upon a little place called upstate New York. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Niagara Falls, Finger Lakes, Thousand Islands, the Adirondacks. Waterfalls, vineyards, orchards. Mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, log cabins. Ballooning, soaring, skiing. Ivy leaguers and manufacturers. Who knew? I didn’t.

I spent the first several days in the Niagara Falls region. I think every kid in America has heard of Niagara Falls, so I figured it was probably worth checking out. The falls are on the Niagara River, part of the border between Ontario, Canada and the state of New York. On the U.S. side, Niagara Falls is a state park (actually the oldest state park in the United States). T-shirt stands, food trucks, gaudy signs, your run-of-the-mill tourist traps inundate the several blocks surrounding the state park, but once you make it into the park part of Niagara Falls, it is actually pretty impressive. The sheer power of the falls are hard to describe unless seen in person. It’s one of those places every person needs to see at least once.

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N601CF

What’s Our Vector, Victor?

So this is the last night of my three-week stay at Cushing Field, a grass airstrip on the outskirts of Chicago airspace. Why park the Airstream at a grass airstrip for three weeks? Well, they let me stay here as long as I rent an airplane every so often. I think I can handle that. Along with the obligatory refresher of take-offs and landings, and the scenic tours of the Illinois Valley with an occasional passenger, I did two pretty cool things during this stay at Cushing.

I have always wanted to take my golf clubs in the airplane and find an airport right next to a golf course. So I did it! Blackstone Golf Club is a course I have played several times. It just so happens to have a nearby private grass airstrip used mainly for gliders, appropriately named Sky Soaring Airport. Along with permission to land, I got the unlisted radio frequency and local flight rules in use at Sky Soaring. Water bottle, muffin, iPhone, iPad, golf shoes, golf bag, and flight bag in hand, I loaded up the SportCruiser and took off for a distant speck of grass. I can’t believe it, but I actually found the airstrip, entered left downwind at 45 degrees, and landed on Runway 27 just as my friend pulled up in his black SUV. I believe his first words to me went something like, “You just landed in some guy’s backyard, and left the airplane sitting there. You know you look like a total drug dealer.” It was pretty cool to land in “some guy’s backyard” and then immediately go golfing. And the woman at the pro shop thought it was pretty cool that I flew in for my tee time. As cool as that was, I think what I did tonight was even cooler.

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1956 de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter seaplane

The Keys Disease

Looking for a laid-back atmosphere in a frost-free climate with 1,700 islands of coral reef no more than 20 feet above sea level? Oh, and you want to drive there from the continental U.S.? Then head to the archipelago just a few hours south of Miami commonly known as the Florida Keys.

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3-2-1 Liftoff!

Imagine a nine-year-old kid who, in 1984, was so fascinated with the first launch of the Discovery space shuttle, he painted the space shuttle for a summer art class. Fast forward nearly 27 years and imagine that same kid watching the final launch of Discovery--in person--with his very own eyes.

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Charleston

Old South

I have always had this fascination with old and new, a vintage look in a contemporary world. Why do you think I chose an Airstream as my home? I have been lucky enough to visit historic cities like Montréal, Québec City, Williamsburg, St. Augustine, Savannah. Add Charleston, South Carolina to that list and put it right near the top!

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OBX

Three Letters: O-B-X

The Outer Banks (OBX), a strip of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, was my home for almost a week. It is most famous for Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, the area where the Wright brothers first took flight in their Wright Flyer back in 1903. As a pilot, it was pretty cool to stop at the Wright Brothers National Monument to see firsthand where this magical moment took place.

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Artwork along Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island

Tha Gaol Agam Ort, Alba Nuadh!

The second province on my tour of the Canadian Maritimes is Nova Scotia. As much as I loved Prince Edward Island, I think Nova Scotia is my new favorite. Technically a peninsula, mainland Nova Scotia is nearly surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. As such, everything seems to revolve around the sea. (Hence, all the photos of boats!)

While PEI was incredibly rural, Nova Scotia has many more urban areas, particularly Halifax. I was pleasantly surprised by this capital city. The geographical location alone makes it noteworthy. Add the historical culture, the friendly people, and the vibrant downtown; I could easily become a Haligonian. (Yes, a Haligonian. I don’t make these things up!) Halifax is in the middle of the province, along the southern shores. This was probably my favorite section of mainland Nova Scotia. The southern shore is one non-stop Rorschach inkblot test full of bays and inlets with small fishing villages around every corner. Peggys Cove, Chester, and Lunenberg are ones that caught my eye. From there, I left mainland Nova Scotia to check out Cape Breton Island.

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Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal

Je me souviens

Not only is French an official language of Canada, it is the only official language in the province of Québec. As such, French is extremely prevalent in Ottawa (Canada’s capital city), Montréal, and Québec City; three of my favorite cities in all of Canada. The many dialects of Canadian French are different from traditional Metropolitan French in France, but it all sounds the same to me! With my rediscovery of the French language, I understand much of the written word, but it is next to impossible for me to speak it or understand the spoken dialogue. No matter, for the Québécois–in fine Canadian fashion–are equally friendly to anglophones.

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Some of the "Ten Peaks" at Moraine Lake

Bigger IS Better, Eh!

OK, so I know what I said about Yosemite, and I know what I said about Yellowstone, and I know what I said about Glacier. Forget it all! None of them can really compare to the unparalleled size and beauty of the Canadian Rockies, specifically Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.

I spent most of my time in the towns of Banff and Lake Louise. Banff is a trendy town about an hour west of Calgary, Alberta. Why is it called Banff? It comes from Banffshire, Scotland, the birthplace of one of the major financiers of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Lake Louise (named after the daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta) is about another hour up the Trans-Canada Highway. Downtown Banff is full of energy, while Lake Louise is more tranquil and serene. Both have absolutely stunning scenery in every direction. Both are on my “Top Ten” list. From Lake Louise, I took the Icefields Parkway up to Jasper National Park and the Columbia Icefield. It is considered one of the most scenic drives in the entire world. I agree!

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How to Live Full Time in an Airstream

Last updated on June 11, 2015

I often get asked for tips and tricks to live full time in an Airstream–and still live a half-way normal life. Now that it has been several years on the road, I guess it is time I write about everything that helps me live that half-way normal life. Who knows? Maybe you will learn something! Even you full-time RVers.

Tow Vehicle

My 2008 23-foot Airstream International CCD weighs around 5,500 pounds full of all of my stuff. With a tow capacity of 7,700 pounds, the Volkswagen Touareg is an outstanding tow vehicle for me. From 2009 to 2014, I towed over 100,000 miles with a 2009 Volkswagen Touareg V6. Then I upgraded to a 2014 Volkswagen Touareg TDI Clean Diesel. With diesel, I get about a 30% increase in fuel economy, and I don’t have to put in the more expensive premium gasoline that the V6 craved. I also notice the increased torque and decreased number of shifts while climbing the steep mountain passes. While descending, I can manually shift to one of eight gears to reduce braking. While every single Touareg offers the same tow capacity, the benefits of diesel would make it tough for me to ever go back to gasoline. Oh, and to get just a bit more storage capacity, I have an Inno Low Profile 15 Cubic Foot Shadow Cargo Box on the roof.

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Lone Tree Hill overlooking Lake Champlain

Fall in Vermont

Do you like apples? Do you like apple cider? Do you like apple cider donuts? Do you like small towns? Do you like friendly people? Do you like small towns full of friendly people? Do you like rolling hills, mountains, and change in elevation? Do you like?… yeah, yeah, yeah, you get the point!

Vermont is an interesting state. It is the second least-populated state; it has the smallest capital city; and no other state has its largest city as small as Burlington (around 40,000 people). This small town atmosphere is refreshing. Vermonters are just some of the nicest people I have ever met. (more…)

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Sunset at Harris Beach State Park

The Goonies, Gastronomy, Golf, and a Goose

I am writing this near the shores of the Pacific Ocean — in front of a campfire — at Harris Beach State Park, easily my favorite of all the campgrounds in Oregon. It is a fitting way to end my exploration of the great state of Oregon.

Oregon, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. First, one of the best movies of the ’80s, “The Goonies,” was filmed in Astoria and Cannon Beach. Who doesn’t love that movie? Second, fresh, local, incredible food is available from undiscovered vendors at farmers’ markets in downtown Portland. Pair it with a bottle of wine from any one of the hundreds of vineyards and wineries in Oregon, like Yamhill Valley Vineyards. So good! Third, the same temperate climate that makes great wine is the same temperate climate perfect for lush, green golf courses playable year-round. The best one I played was Langdon Farms Golf Club in Aurora. Finally, Howard Hughes’ famous airplane, the “Spruce Goose,” is at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville. I was so happy to stumble upon this museum — like “kid in a candy store” happy!

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Downtown Victoria, B.C.

O Canada!

I just spent the last week in British Columbia, Canada, and absolutely loved it! With the metric units, a little of the French language, “loonies”, “toonies”, and “.ca” web addresses galore, it was an exciting adventure. It all started with a checkpoint at the U.S./Canada border in Douglas, B.C., just north of Seattle on I-5.

According to the “real-time” digital sign, the wait was supposed to be “up to 5 minutes”. Clearly, the sign lied. I waited in line with hundreds of other motorists for almost half an hour until reaching a pair of border patrol officers ready to ask me dozens of questions like, “Where did you stay last night? Where were you before that? How long have you been on the road? How much money do you have in the bank? How much money do you have in your wallet? How do work out of an Airstream? Why are you coming to Canada? Do you mind pulling over there and emptying the contents of your pockets on the hood of your car?” You know, the usual. Obviously, I had absolutely nothing to hide, but I must have looked suspicious, so they asked me to wait inside with the other “degenerate failures” while they searched every square inch of the Touareg and the Airstream – for an hour. They apparently took everything out of the back of the Touareg because the gate wouldn’t shut correctly when I finally got back from my “time out” corner. I noticed they also looked at the photos on my digital camera and even looked under my mattress. And, get this, someone from the border patrol looked up my blog, read a few of the posts, and browsed through a few photo slideshows! I only realized this after I noticed several server log entries from “The Government of Canada” at the exact time I crossed the border. So, in a way, this blog totally helped prove my legitimacy. The officers were very official the entire time, but for the rest of the day I was annoyed that I had somehow “failed” a test. That annoyance soon subsided, because the rest of my time in Canada was awesome!

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Glacier National Park

Home, Sweet Home

There is nothing quite like going home, especially when it is as beautiful as the Flathead Valley in northwest Montana. I grew up just outside the town of Bigfork, a “picturesque and charming place”–Chamber of Commerce words, not mine–on the shores of Flathead Lake, the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi. With well over 10,000 miles logged in the last three months, it was time for some much needed rest and relaxation, time off the highways, and time away from the “ExxonMobils/BPs/Shells/Flying Js” of the world. I have filled up with gas exactly once since I got here over two weeks ago!

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Big Sur area

Big Sur to Sonoma

Pacific. Coast. Highway. Drive it. Seriously, it has to be the most scenic highway in all of America. My plan is to eventually drive all of Highway 1 from Canada to Mexico, but that is for another time. For now, I found plenty to do and see along the P.C.H. from Big Sur up to Sonoma. I had an outdoor dinner with impressive views at Big Sur, hung out with great friends in Carmel and Monterey, golfed at the famous Poppy Hills Golf Course along 17-Mile Drive, made it over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, drank some of the wonderful local wine in Napa Valley, and took in the natural beauty of the Sonoma Coast. Not a bad way to spend a week!

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