Here’s part 2 of a yet-to-be-determined part series on our migration from Minnesota to Alaska. Before I jump into the actual drive itself, I feel the need to share a little bit more about the prep, as it’ll provide a bit of context around my comments/opinions after we arrived at our destination.
Preparing for the Journey
Having never experienced the Alaska Canada Highway (affectionally called the Alcan) or the roads to/from it, I tried to prepare as much as I could for the unknown. Having read countless horror stories of all the things that could go wrong, and how disconnected from the world you’ll be, I was a bit apprehensive. I didn’t know what to expect. The image I had in my head was a trip for only the most seasoned road warriors. You might pass 2 gas stations a day, the road would be in miserable condition, and god help you if you have mechanical troubles along the way or worse, if you hit a moose. You better be able to fix whatever problems you encounter yourself. I was told the Alcan eats windshields like a child does candy. That’s all if you’re able to make it through customs without any issues.
With all that in mind, I prepared as best I could for the wilderness. Little B was about 14 months old at the time of departure, and Mama B was 11 weeks pregnant. As much as Mama wanted to drive along, we agreed that a) it was a lot of time to make Little B sit in a car seat day after day, and b) anything could happen – best to keep the child and the pregnant lady near civilization. While I drove up with the guys, Mama B was going to take Little B on a short trip to Seattle to visit some friends, and then on up to Anchorage where she’d meet our pickup that was being delivered.
I called the insurance company and let them know I was traveling from MN to AK. I wanted to make sure my plan would cover me in Canada, and I added comprehensive coverage with a $0 glass deductible in case the Alcan really did destroy the 3 panes of glass that make up our windshield. I picked up an RV-equivalent to AAA roadside assistance through Coach-Net. Should problems arise, the last thing I wanted was a multi thousand dollar towing bill. $159 bought me remarkable peace of mind. Mama B diligently read the Canadian customs requirements to make sure we weren’t inadvertently bringing contraband through America’s northern neighbor. I collected a folder with the printed route, customs declarations items (essentially a complete inventory of all of our belongings), Coach-Net phone numbers, insurance company phone numbers, etc. I bought a Milepost book, the quintessential Alaskan travel guide.
Mechanically, I kept an eye on the big items. Before departing, I had a spectacular mechanic fix some items on the brakes/suspension. I’d like to shout out to Dick Lorntson at Precision Frame & Alignment in Elk River, MN. That man is amazingly talented, exceptionally honest, has fair prices, and is all around a great guy. I couldn’t recommend him enough! I also had the Detroit Diesel dealer look over the engine/transmission. Nothing bad came out of that, thankfully. I’m sure that’d have been a budget buster if they uncovered anything. I packed extra engine oil, transmission fluid, coolant, plenty of windshield washer fluid, heavy duty jumper cables, flares, flashlights, reflective vests, a spare air spring/bag, spare mud flap, a 20 ton hydraulic jack, some pressure treated 4x4s I’d been using for cribbing, and a few sandbags for wheel chocks. I made sure the generator was accessible and we had fuel for that too (it runs on gasoline, while Eugene runs on diesel). The tool chest, air compressor, electrical tools/parts, and the pneumatic tools/parts box were all strategically located in easily accessible locations.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Next, I wanted a means to communicate with the outside world no matter where we happened to be. I spent a good amount of time looking at satellite phones and pricing out options there. At the time (and I believe to this day) the only satellite network that offered truly global coverage was the Iridium Network. Others like Inmarsat have coverage in many places, but Alaska’s on the edge/fringe of their satellite coverage. The trouble with Iridium is that they’re expensive. Very expensive. Phones were $1000-1500 for a new phone, $300-800 for a used phone. Service plans are very reminiscent of early cell phone plans; $1-2 per minute with minute buckets that expire every month. Rentals were available, but those weren’t cheap either. I eventually decided that while communication was important, phone calls weren’t.
I purchased a DeLorme inReach Explorer instead. DeLorme had a promotion at the time, and I ended up buying it for $305 after a mail-in-rebate. The inReach has a few notable features that sold me on it:
- It runs on the Iridium Satellite network, and works anywhere you have a view of the sky.
- It can be configured to send location “pings” to DeLorme which can be viewed online from a Google Maps-like interface. The pings can be sent at intervals ranging from 10 minutes to 4 hours.
- It supports two-way communication via text messages.
- It has an SOS capability that connects you to GEOS, a worldwide emergency response center that will reach out to the correct emergency response authorities no matter where you are. The two-way communication means I could actually have a text-based conversation with the response center. I can provide more details about our emergency, and they can tell me when help will arrive.
- It’s affordable – contract plans start at $11.95/mo. Non-contract plans start at $14.95. Our entire trip could be one month’s worth of billing. Or, with more outdoor activities in our future we could bring it with for emergency response access for only $12/mo. There are far more places in Alaska without cell coverage than there are with it. Having a satellite communicator is valuable.
The location pings were both a safety measure – Mama B could keep a daily eye on our progress and know if we were stuck somewhere – and a cool, neat, shareable component. Our friends and family were very intrigued by our cross continent move. Some (most? ha!) thought we were nuts, some were jealous, and others were probably in both categories. By setting up location tracking through the inReach, those who wanted to follow along, could. From the road, I could send updates via text that would show up on the map. Neat!
The last measure of preparedness centered around who was going to be making the trip (contrary to who was not going to be making the trip, as I described above). For a trip this long with a fairly constrained time limit, more drivers == better. Two would’ve been doable, but three seemed like a far better number. I recruited a great friend from college, Tree Guy. He used to hold a Class A CDL for his work as an arborist and has a lot of experience behind the wheel of heavy vehicles and big trailers. He’s never afraid to jump in on a problem, and he always has a positive attitude in the face of adversity. At least adversity that affects my pocketbook anyway. He’s also a guy I can have meaningful, substantive conversations on real topics like religion or politics. There are plenty of areas we disagree, but the conversations are always respectful and thoroughly enjoyed by both parties. If you’re stuck in a vehicle for someone for a week, you better enjoy (or at least not mind) his company.
My second driver was my brother-in-law. Again, he’s a stand up guy, an excellent problem solver, and maintains his cool under pressure. He’s fun to be around, has a great sense of humor, and had volunteered many, many hours of his time helping me get Eug ready for the drive. Oh, and he’s also a mechanic, which earns him the title Mechanic Guy. At this point you might be asking yourself, “Was Papa B in the Boy Scouts? He seems to have taken the Be Prepared motto to heart.” Well, that’s a reasonable guess but the answer is no, I wasn’t. I’ve just been caught with my pants down enough times to know it’s an experience I do not enjoy. A certain amount of winging it is enjoyable, but there’s something to be said for having a plan ready, should the unexpected come upon you. As a family friend once said, “Life is Plan B.” For whatever reason that stuck in my brain. We all do our best to plan what’ll happen next in our lives and then life throws you a curveball and you change course. You throw away Plan A, and start on B (or C, D, E… as many as it takes to get where you’re going).