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Bob and Joanne's Alaska motorhome adventure

What happened when a trial attorney and a police detective put their jobs on hold for three months for a motorhome trip to Alaska? Arguments and danger, of course.

Joanne Sommer, 55, and her husband, Bob Potts, 58, of Doylestown, Pa., squabbled over directions, had a close encounter with a black bear, and survived a precarious drive along the Top of the World Highway.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

'Incredible beauty'

“Overall it was a dream-come-true trip,” Joanne said. “We saw some wonderful sights, met some nice people, missed our friends and family and got to commune with nature."

She still gushes with enthusiasm about the journey, which lasted from May 20 to Sept. 5, 2006.

Whether driving, hiking or on board a sea cruise, the scenery washed over them in escalating waves of beauty, engulfing them in one jarringly beautiful site after the next.

"Seeing the incredible beauty of nature was a chance to renew a connection with the more elemental parts of life; a reawakening if you will," Joanne said.

Keeping in touch

Their laptop computer, cell phone and Verizon Wireless' national wireless Internet service enabled them to stay in touch with family and friends. (In remote Alaska and parts of Canada, cellular coverage and Internet connections often weren’t available.)

Using MyTripJournal.com, they created a travel Web site containing photographic images and map points so folks back home could follow their journey.

Joanne used her Nikon D50 digital camera, with assorted wide-angle and telephoto lenses, to capture gorgeous images of wildlife, wildflowers and glacial landscapes.

For anyone who saw the posted images, it had to trigger a deluge of Alaska envy.

Goals fulfilled

Joanne and Bob, FMCA members since 2004, set three goals for their 109-day trip:

• Stay married while cooped up in a 40-foot motorhome.
• Have great fun and wonderful adventures.
• Return safely.

When they pulled their motorhome onto its concrete pad behind their home in suburban Philadelphia on Sept. 5, they had traveled 13,147 miles in their motorhome and an additional 3,500 in their towed vehicle, a GMC Sierra pickup truck.

And they had satisfied all three of their goals.

“It was a renewing experience,” Joanne said. “I’d go again tomorrow if I could.” That might not be feasible now, but Joanne and Bob are fairly certain their maiden voyage to Alaska won’t be their last.

'Young and fit enough’

To make the trip, they took three-month leaves of absence from their jobs. Bob is a detective with the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office. Joanne is a partner with the firm of Eastburn & Gray, P.C. She specializes in education and employment law.

Joanne, who earned her law degree from Temple University, often litigates employment- and discrimination-related cases. With clients to serve, legal briefs due and the firm’s financial requirements to meet, it wasn’t easy for her to take a hiatus.

“But we decided we wanted to go while we were young and fit enough so we could do the kinds of things we like to do,” Joanne said.

They like hiking and kayaking, although the rivers in Alaska were much too wild for the latter.

Joanne runs and walks nearly every day with Dixie, their 7-year-old Australian shepherd, who accompanies them on all their motorhome trips.

In fact, Joanne vowed to friends that she would run/walk at least 30 minutes every day during the Alaska trip. Except in bad weather, she and Dixie did just that.

Departure day: a Wal-Mart memory

Joanne and Bob’s hometown of Doylestown is located in southeast Pennsylvania, about 50 miles north of Philadelphia.

They bought a 2004 Newmar Dutch Star 4010 in July 2004. “We went from a tent to a motorhome,” Joanne said.

The diesel-powered motorhome has two slideouts, but the king-size bed is Joanne’s favorite feature.

The couple departed for Alaska on May 20, their sixth wedding anniversary.

Joanne laughs when recalling that “romantic” night, spent at a Wal-Mart parking lot in Clarion, in western Pennsylvania. “We had shrimp cocktail and filet mignon by the lights of the Wal-Mart Supercenter, then watched a DVD.”

There was a playful bet in their neighborhood as to whether they’d still be together following the trip.

They had taken one- and two-week motorhome trips together, but never one this long. Were they ready to spend all that time together in a 40-foot motorhome, making decisions on where to go and where to stay?

Could they handle the stress that can surface during long drives on unfamiliar roads — in all kinds of road conditions?

Codeword ‘puppy’

"The only difficulties between us were over directions,” Joanne said. “My job was to navigate and his was to drive.

Driving the motorhome/towed vehicle combination in campgrounds and on narrow roads with little or no shoulder posed challenges, Joanne said. “You can’t turn a 65-foot motorhome/towed vehicle easily. If we were lost and had to turn around, sometimes we would have to go 20 miles or so just to find a place to turn around or unhook.”

In Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada, they broke off the cellular antenna while trying to negotiate a sharp turn along a tree-lined route leading out of the campground. That mishap also took some paint off the awning cover.

Then there was the parking lot in North Pole, Alaska. “It was not big enough to turn around in, but Bob decided he was going to try it anyway,” Joanne said. The tow shield on their pickup truck fell victim.

Joanne and Bob had a feeling situations like these could arise.

“When getting annoyed with each other, we had a code word — ‘puppy’ — that we would say to each other. When you say that word you can’t help but smile and it breaks the tension.”

Joanne evoked a few “puppies” while passing through Michigan, en route to FMCA’s Great Lakes Area Rally in Berrien Springs. “I read the directions wrong and we wound up having to turn around,” she explained. “Bob was not a happy camper.”

Heading for the Highway

They arrived at the FMCA rally on May 28, enjoyed the many activities and displays, met new friends and had their motorhome weighed.

The states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana were next on their route. After three days at Glacier National Park, they arrived in Alberta, Canada, on June 12. They were headed toward Dawson Creek, in Northeastern British Columbia, and the start of the Alaska Highway.

In Grand Prairie, Alberta, which is about 80 miles south of Dawson Creek, diesel fuel cost about $4 per gallon. Everyone they met was headed to Alaska, and the RV parks were filling to capacity. They phoned in reservations for two days at Tubby’s RV Park in Dawson Creek.

On the way there, they passed through the little town of Beaverlodge, Alberta, home to the world’s largest beaver statue. It warranted several pictures.

At the Dawson Creek Visitor Centre, they picked up information and watched a film about the building of the 1,390-mile Alaska Highway. Then it was outside to take the “official” picture at Mile 0 of the highway.

They traveled north on the Alaska Highway through British Columbia and into Yukon Territory.

In Whitehorse, they were in town for Canada’s Longest Day Street Fair, and a celebration was taking place.

Joanne and Bob left Whitehorse and followed the "Klondike Loop" itinerary, an alternative to the Alaska Highway route into Alaska. They couldn’t resist stopping at Braeburn Lodge, at mile 55 along the Klondike Highway, where the cinnamon buns were the size of dinner plates.

On June 23 they arrived at Dawson City, the last stop before Alaska. It’s a small restored mining town with wooden sidewalks. Joanne and Bob toured a six-story-high gold mine dredge.

By this time, The Milepost trip planner already had begun to prove its worth. “It gives a summary of everything along the highways up North by the kilometer and mile markers,” Joanne said. “It’s invaluable because it not only tells you everything that you are passing but tells you where the pullouts, rest stops, campgrounds and fuel stations are.”

On Top of the World … yikes!

After crossing the Yukon River by ferry at Dawson, their adventure on the Top of the World Highway (Yukon Highway 9) began. This highway covers 79 miles between West Dawson and the Alaska border, where it joins the Taylor Highway in Alaska.

On the Yukon side, it’s known as the 60-mile Road. Alaskans refer to it as the Taylor Highway. To most travelers, it’s the “Top of the World Highway.” Joanne and Bob, no doubt, have other words for it.

“I cannot describe what it was like to take a 40-foot motorhome with a towed pickup truck, across and over the Top of the World Highway and the Taylor Highway,” Joanne said.

The Alaska Highway in British Columbia and Yukon Territory had sections of narrow, winding road without shoulders, but it was paved an in fair condition, she said. The Top of the World Highway was another story.

It wends along ridges and crests the tops of hills overlooking the valleys below. Narrow and plagued by potholes, it is open only in summer.

In retrospect, Joanne understands why some RVers unhook their towed vehicle and drive the highway separately, or avoid it altogether.

It’s nerve-racking, but scenic

Soon after crossing into Alaska, the Top of the World Highway ended and they headed south on the Taylor Highway (Alaska route 5) toward Tok. “The road was worse in Alaska — if that’s possible,” Joanne said. “It had more hairpin turns, no pullouts, and by this time more traffic, including tour buses. And there was no place to pull off for a break or to let other traffic go by. I couldn’t look half the time.”

For approximately 115 miles, they had driven on a gravel road barely two lanes wide. “It took us 6½ hours to go 115 miles. It was worth doing it once but I would never go that route again.”

Traveling above the tree line afforded them expansive views in all directions. Joanne snapped more than 100 photos of snow-streaked mountains, abandoned mine dredges from the 1890s, lemon-yellow arctic poppies and more. “The road was awful and the contrast with the beautiful scenery is what made the photos so good,” she said.

After stopping for lunch in the town of Chicken, along the Taylor Highway, they set out again. Now the road was seal-coated stone with some gravel spots. “But by this time poor Bob had had it. I finally peeled my hands off my eyes and convinced him not to try to drive the rest of the 75 miles to Tok.”

They took a break, spending the night at a delightful Bureau of Land Management campground. “It had no hookups,” Joanne said, “but the sites were more than large enough to accommodate us and there was a gem of a lake along the back of the campground.”Also, the price was right — $4 per night — because they had a National Parks Pass, which precluded them from paying an entrance fee.

Alaska, ho!

On June 26 they reached Delta Junction, the official north end of the Alaska Highway — historical milepost 1422. At the visitor center, they picked up a certificate of completion, which they framed and mounted inside the motorhome.
They had enjoyed the drive from Tok to Delta Junction, with the massive, snow-covered Alaska Range towering in front of them.

From Delta Junction they stopped in North Pole, Alaska, where street names include Elf Way and Reindeer Circle. They mailed some postcards to their folks.

Fairbanks: salmon and sled dogs

In Fairbanks, on June 27, they finally did something “touristy” that had been recommended by fellow travelers. Chena River RV Park and Marina reserved a ride for them aboard the Chena River Discovery III, a sternwheeler steam riverboat.

It was worth the money, Joanne said. “Our friends were right. First we saw a bush plane land on the river right next to our boat and then take off again. Then the pilot, an Alaskan native, spoke to us through some sort of intercom system. It was an impressive sight.”

That same day, they visited Susan Butcher’s home in Fairbanks. She’s a four-time winner of the Iditarod sled dog race who passed away in August 2006 after an eight-month battle with Leukemia.

Joanne and Bob watched Butcher’s assistants hook up a team of dogs to an all-terrain vehicle. “You should have seen them take off running around a half-mile track,” Joanne said. “Those dogs were overjoyed to be on the harness running. When they returned and were taken off the leads, they all jumped into the river.”

On a tour of an Athabascan village in Fairbanks, they watched Eskimos tan the hides of animals, sew beautiful fur clothing and make smoked fish.

To cap off the day, the couple dined at the Pump House Restaurant and Saloon, which re-creates an 1890s Gold Rush motif and atmosphere. The reconstructed restaurant is a national historic site overlooking the Chena River. Joanne ordered Alaska salmon and Bob had musk ox meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

“We will never be able to eat store-bought salmon again,” Joanne said. “Alaska salmon is so wonderful — not at all fishy tasting and a beautiful color.”

Denali National Park — board the bus

Several days later they traveled south from Fairbanks toward Denali National Park and Preserve. The road from Fairbanks to Denali was “the best so far,” Joanne said. It was a 120-mile trek along the George Parks Highway (Alaska route 3).

They passed through the towns of Nenana, Anderson and Healy. In Nenana they had lunch at the Two Choices Café, which had two choices on the menu: “take it” or “leave it.”

On June 29 they arrived at Denali Riverside RV Park, about 2 miles from the entrance to Denali National Park. Their campsite, on a cliff overlooking the Nenana River, unnerved Joanne, who is not fond of heights. “We didn’t see any land beneath us — just air and water.”

But she was grateful for the park’s pet walking service, because dogs are not permitted on the trails or tour buses in Denali National Park.

In Denali National Park, private vehicles are allowed only up to the 14-mile mark along the park’s main road. This is to ease traffic congestion and protect the park's natural resources. Joanne and Bob decided to explore the park by shuttle bus.

During an eight-hour, narrated bus tour, they saw sheep, caribou, grizzly bears, snowshoe hares, an arctic fox, eagles and hordes of wildflowers. “If you are going to Denali, take the bus tour!” Joanne said. “It’s really worth it and the time flew by.”

They regretted that the weather wasn’t clear enough for them to view the 6-million-acre park’s centerpiece, Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak.

Still, the lighting on other mountains in the park was incredible, Joanne said. “It was as though an invisible stagehand were shining the spotlight on one mountain or another, as if to highlight a particular performer. Photos could not do it justice.”

Glaciers galore

The next day, while driving along the Seward Highway en route to the Kenai Peninsula, they could see 5,000-foot-high, snow-covered mountains that appeared to be rising from the Gulf of Alaska. “There were 38 glaciers cascading over the mountaintops and down the sides," Joanne said. "I thought Denali was spectacular, but this … was breathtaking.”

They were planning to stay at Williwaw, a U.S. Forest campground about 55 miles south of Anchorage. It was full, but a hostess there referred them to a gravel pullout along Portage Glacier Road, off the Seward Highway.

When they reached the pullout they couldn’t believe their eyes. “Right behind where we put the coach was the most spectacular set of mountains and hanging glaciers either of us has seen,” Joanne said. “They were blue and white and absolutely beautiful, especially in the late afternoon light.”

At 10:30 p.m., they were able to take a hike into the glacier and walk through huge crevasses at its terminus.

On July 4 they embarked on a Kenai Fjord National Park cruise around Resurrection Bay, on a 110-foot boat with a national park ranger narrating. Sightings of sea lions, a humpback whale, sea otters, bald eagles and bird colonies — and a salmon buffet dinner — highlighted the voyage.

Better than the Philadelphia Eagles
The Kenai Peninsula was one of the best parts of their trip — for Joanne because of the eagles, for Bob because of the boats.

On July 6 they walked down to a state recreation area where the Ninilchuk River flows into the Cook inlet. There, fishermen filleted their catch and tossed the remains into the water. The remains ended up on the beach and attracted eagles and gulls.

“The Kenai peninsula was awesome,” Joanne said. “There would be 10 bald eagles just standing on beach, eating salmon. Others were flying or sitting in a tree that jutted from a cliff — everywhere you would look, you would see more. I was so close to them … it was absolutely incredible.”

Meanwhile, from the beach, Bob spent the afternoon watching the boat launch and recovery process. Because the tides had such a wide swing, a giant tractor would pull a boat into the water and let it float free of its trailer. Later, when folks were ready to come in, the tractor driver retrieved the corresponding trailer and towed them out.

“Even Bob stopped looking at the tractor long enough to be wowed by the eagles,” Joanne said.

Cruise ship rocks

A July 14 visit to the fish hatchery and dam at Allison Point in Valdez also created a lasting impression. They saw water bursting with salmon trying to get above the dam.

“While we were watching," Joanne said, "all of a sudden we saw a large shape in the water and a big, stellar sea lion burst up in the middle of the salmon. It was like watching a National Geographic TV special.”

The next day, a 10-hour Prince William Sound cruise proved memorable. Rain, fog and heavy winds characterized the 130-mile excursion. Rough seas made many passengers seasick, and the rocking of the boat made it difficult to take good pictures.

“The boat could hold about 100 people, but there were about 50 on board — only hardy souls like us,” Joanne said. “The captain was informative and you could go up to the wheelhouse and stay there with him while he piloted the boat.”

Sightings of sea otters, waterfalls, eagles on ice bergs, and one huge, crackling glacier (Mears) made the 45-degree temperature less noticeable for Joanne, whose seafaring apparel included a fleece turtleneck, sweatshirt, fleece jacket, parka and hat and gloves.

Dangerous curves

Later in July, on their way back to Canada and the contiguous United States, Joanne and Bob paid $235 to take a one-hour ferry ride from Haines, located on a narrow fjord, to Skagway, Alaska. They figured they were saving on camping and fuel costs by not driving the 350 miles around the fjord.

But perhaps more than than that, they had learned that long days on bad roads can be exhausting. Those days weren't behind them, yet.

On July 27 they left Fraser Lake, British Columbia, and headed south on provincial route 97. Unable to find a place to camp, they wound up driving on two harrowing provincial routes on consecutive days.

First up was route 99. "It was incredibly narrow with switchbacks around every corner," Joanne said. "The road was perched on the side of cliffs, with oblivion below."

The next day, a 40-mile stretch on route 12 proved to be, for Joanne, the longest 40 miles of the entire trip.

"There was one section of the road that wound around the knife edge of a mountain and it was one lane — so you had to yield to whoever was on the road first. I simply closed my eyes, held on and asked Bob to let me know when it was over."

Bob, after two months on the road, took it all in stride.

Back in the U.S.

They pushed on through Vancouver and arrived at the Blaine, Wash., port of entry to the United States on Aug. 1.

There was much more sightseeing to come, including Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Grant Teton National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Badlands National Park.

National parks and Alaskan landscapes can be awe-inspiring, rendering other sights of nature prosaic. But motorhoming makes it easy to recognize simple treasures, anywhere, as Joanne discovered while camping in Iowa.

“I was bowled over by the Mississippi River in Iowa,” she said. “We stayed in Bellevue State Park there and it was overwhelmingly beautiful to see how the sun lit up the river at sunset. To me it was as beautiful as anything we saw. ... This earth is an incredible place full of mysterious and fascinating places.”

Reality sets in

Joanne and Bob arrived home on Sept. 9, 2006, only to find that Hurricane Ernesto had dumped 4 inches of rain on their yard and house.

Tall weeds had spread in flower beds, and tree branches had fallen in the storm. The clothes washer was in disrepair. They needed to scrub the basement and shampoo the rug.

“The first night back home, I was totally disoriented,” Joanne said. “A week later, I was still dreaming about motorhoming and feeling like there was too much space around the house.”

Motorhoming is a great escape — precisely what someone in their respective professions needs, she said.

Her area of law practice includes all aspects of public education, from the representation of several school districts to the representation of employers and employees in employment-related matters. She tries cases involving special education, collective bargaining, discrimination and contract issues.

“Bob has been a policeman for 33 years. When you work in law enforcement , you become really cynical and jaded, about the world and people in general. And I spend my days arguing with people — being a litigator is adversarial, by nature. So when we can get away from all that, even for a weekend, it’s very renewing.”

Case closed?

Joanne and Bob intend to continue motorhoming as much as they can.

“We try to go somewhere every weekend,” Joanne said. “A lot of our friends have homes or cabin cruiser boats on the Jersey shore. For us, having a motorhome is the same as having a second home.”

They have spent plenty of time hiking and snow skiing in Colorado, and hiking and camping in New England, so those states are not high on their list of destinations.

But the Grand Canyon, Texas and other southern states are on their agenda, as are the Maritime Provinces.

Of course, a return trip to Alaska tops their travel docket. “And this time, we’d take six months,” Joanne said.

Until then, the slide show and screen-saver images on their computer will have to tide them over.

But with Bob planning to retire in August 2008 and Joanne contemplating a retirement date, they may be Alaska bound soon.Any objections surely will be overruled.

Travel Alaska
www.travelalaska.com

The Milepost
www.themilepost.com

Guide to Federal Recreation Passes
www.fs.fed.us/jhgyvc/passports.html

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