Thursday, July 30, 2015

McCarthy B&B is a Great Place to Stay!

McCarthy B&B
Joel and I agree that the McCarthy B&B was our favorite lodging during our Alaska adventure. Located near the end of the 60-mile-long (mostly) gravel McCarthy Road, it’s a welcome sight after a lengthy drive. In addition, it’s the closest lodging to the footbridge that crosses the Kennicott River on the way to the towns of McCarthy and Kennecott (yes, the town is spelled differently than the river and glacier) unless you want to pay to dry camp on a gravel bar, which I didn’t.

I found the McCarthy B&B when researching lodging options for our multiple-day stay in the southern part of the Wrangell-St. Elias Wilderness. I knew I didn’t want to car camp during our time there so consulted my frequent friend, Google. While there are several places to stay in the area, McCarthy B&B was the most conveniently located, most reasonably priced and included a private bath with every room!

See? Our own bathroom!
Prior to our Alaska trip, I assumed indoor plumbing was a given but apparently some people are willing to pay for the “Alaskan experience” – we just don’t happen to be among them. The fact is that Joel has lived that experience and I don’t even want to. And I also don’t want to traipse off in the night to another building or share a bathroom down the hall, so the McCarthy B&B it was.

Making our reservations was easy and done all by email in January. Once scheduled in for our intended dates over Memorial weekend, I was simply asked to confirm around May 1 that our plans hadn’t changed. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

The McCarthy B&B has six stand-alone cabins situated for maximum privacy. It’s quiet and the owner/host is a friendly, unobtrusive fellow named John who seemed to be in constant motion. As the entire McCarthy/Kennecott area is off grid, the B&B runs on solar power with a diesel generator backup and has gas appliances – room heater, cook stove and (I assume) water heater.

McCarthy B&B guest kitchen
In addition to our oh-so-cute/comfy/clean room, McCarthy B&B has a lovely guest kitchen/dining room stocked with simple self-serve breakfast fare. Guests are also free to use the kitchen to store their own food and prepare other meals. How convenient is that? And there’s even a gas barbeque and fire pit out back!

We spent three nights at McCarthy B&B and enjoyed every minute there. I highly recommend it and if we ever get back up to that area, you can bet I’ll be contacting John again to make our reservations.

McCarthy B&B – 5 stars - Not fancy but clean, comfortable, reasonably priced and allowed us to really relax and save money and time by preparing all our own meals (well, except for a delicious lunch at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge the day we toured the mill building).

And here's more pictures from our stay:

Inside our cozy room
Another view inside our room

Complimentary toiletries await guests

Outside our cozy cabin

Moose track left right out front during our first night
Guest dining area

Guest kitchen/dining cabin

More info:

McCarthy B&B website
McCarthy-Kennecott Lodging Comparison - several years out of date and some broken links but good general comparison

Friday, July 24, 2015

Sleeping Around in Alaska

Lake Creek Campground (first car camping morning)
Ok, I admit it – I stooped to using a purposely misleading post title. But it’s not technically inaccurate, right? Just gives a false impression. Mostly I wanted to see if Joel is paying any attention whatsoever to my posts about our trip, but now that I have your attention…

Our road trip to Alaska provided the opportunity to see if sleeping in our car was a workable lodging option for us. Although we’d been planning this trip for 15+ years and even bought a Jeep Grand Cherokee in 2001 specifically so we could sleep in it while traveling, we’d only put the idea to the test once, and it wasn’t good. So I just wasn’t sure that what sounded doable when I was 15 years younger was still doable today.

Based on the uncomfortable night we spent in the Jeep way back in 2002, we knew we needed a comfortable bed. So we measured the Outback and bought a full-size inflatable mattress and 12-volt pump. Wanting to mimic a real bed as closely as possible, I also bought a fitted mattress pad, two sets of flannel sheets and a down alternative comforter. Then Joel got worried it might still be too cold so we put a 1-inch layer of foam on the mattress under the pad.

McCarthy B&B (3-night reservation)
I still wasn’t convinced that car sleeping was for me so I made room reservations where I knew (or at least thought) we’d be on specific dates and researched lodging possibilities several other places. I made sure that all my reservations were cancellable and had the phone numbers and cancellation deadlines handy – and it’s a good thing I did as Joel changed our whole route on the fly!

From the time we got off the ferry in Skagway on May 18 until we drove back across the Canadian-US border in Idaho on June 5, we stayed in Yukon Territory fee campgrounds two nights, parked our car free six nights, and paid for a room 10 nights. Although I’d originally made reservations for eight nights in Alaska, due to spur-of-the-moment route changes and some misadventures, we cancelled four but added six. Good thing I’d padded the budget!

With the exception of an end-of-trip splurge in Lake Louise, AB, our paid rooms were comparably priced ($83-$133; average $108/night) but ranged from mediocre to WOW! I plan to do a review of each in future posts but for now, I’ll just summarize our car-sleeping experience by saying it was great (but four nights in a row is about my maximum).

  • Lodging budget = $3,000 
  • Actual lodging cost = $1,155 
  • Money left for another trip = $1,845!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cost of Driving to Alaska

End of ALCAN-Delta Junction, AK
First off, let me clarify: We didn’t actually drive to Alaska, despite our intention for about 15 years to do so. Our plan was always to drive the ALCAN start to finish, all 1,365 miles (current distance according to Google) from Dawson Creek, BC to Delta Junction, AK. Then we figured we’d drop south through British Columbia on the Cassiar Highway on the way home.

Well, here in far northern California, we’re about 1,405 miles away from Dawson Creek, BC. For some unknown reason (age maybe?), driving 1,405 miles so we could drive 1,365 just to get to Alaska sounded a lot less appealing than it did 15 years ago. Then we heard all about the ferry (thanks, Dad!). Turns out the M/V Columbia runs the Inside Passage from Bellingham, WA to Skagway, AK each week and with Bellingham only 687 miles away, we decided to go to Alaska by ferry instead. But the ferry is part of the Alaska state highway system so that still counts, right?

M/V Columbia loading at Bellingham, WA
After recalculating our intended mileage based on ferrying our car to Skagway but possibly “dropping by” North Dakota on the way home, we checked Alaskan gas prices online and padded the numbers some. Then we reduced our estimated mpg, from the usual 30 to 25, to account for slower roads and rougher driving conditions. Our final fuel budget was an even $1,000 calculated as follows: 7,000 miles/25mpg x $3.50/gal.

Our car (third forward on left) squeezed in!
We actually only spent $736 on fuel from the time we headed for Bellingham until we returned to the lower 48. And although I don’t have the exact mileage driven, I’ve calculated it at 6,210* and I think I’m pretty close. How I wish now that I’d thought to write down the odometer reading every day! But I didn’t. Instead, I was just calculating our daily distance based on mileage on a map, which is not an accurate strategy to say the least. And we even had a GPS that would have told me all I needed to know but…

Ketchikan had the lowest fuel prices we saw in AK
Anyway, at the time we were there, fuel we purchased in Alaska averaged exactly $3.50/gallon but the prices in Canada were a little higher, even with the favorable exchange rate. So gas to Alaska and back averaged out to $3.56/gal but our car got its usual 30 mpg and we drove close 800 fewer miles than originally estimated** – so we came in under budget. How cool is that?

  • Fuel budget = $1,000 
  • Actual fuel cost = $736 
  • Money left for another trip = $264 

*Total mileage calculated as follows: $736/$3.56=207x30=6,210 (i.e. total fuel cost divided by average cost per gallon equals total gallons consumed multiplied by mpg equals total miles driven). In using the same method to calculate our travels in the lower 48 and then adding that to the Alaska trip miles, I came up with very close to the 12,360 that we know to be the total mileage for our full 7-week trip.

**We actually drove about 1,200 extra miles in Alaska/Canada but didn’t drop by far eastern North Dakota after all, which saved about 2,000 miles.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Alaska Road Trip Food Less than $20/Day

Split lunch at Fast Eddy's in Tok, AK
$13.49 + $5 tip = $18.49
When planning our 2015 trip to Alaska, we budgeted $3,000 for food. We’d heard that prices were much higher there and knew we’d be gone at least three weeks, so figured $100/day for both of us for 30 days would be sufficient.

As we thought we’d likely eat in a restaurant once or twice each day and didn’t want to waste food or deal with leftovers, we decided we’d share one meal instead of ordering two. We also wanted to avoid the weight gain so common when traveling – and saving money would be like the icing on a cake! We didn't want to scrimp on tipping, however, so we figured we'd make the math easy and always tip $5. We arrived at this amount based on at least 20% of a maximum bill of $25 if we ordered separately (yes, we're both cheap dates!).

For our non-restaurant meals, we envisioned relaxing around camp in the evening, grilling steaks and slicing avocados and experimenting with the Jet Boil. Breakfast would sometimes be included with our lodging or be a simple affair in camp. Other than that, we’d have fresh fruit, string cheese and other nutritious snack foods handy. 

Frying steak for our first car-camping dinner
What really happened? Well, we did share restaurant meals and it was great! We usually had plenty of food, but not too much. And if we’d still been hungry, we reasoned we’d have us an excuse to order dessert – but that never happened. (Note: Dessert temptation overpowered us a couple of times, but not because we were still hungry.) With very few exceptions, our restaurant meals in Alaska were a good value, providing plenty of food for two with just one dish, and no more expensive than what we’d expect here in the lower 48.

In contrast to comparable pricing in restaurants, grocery store prices in Alaska and Canada were higher than at home, especially in smaller towns. Considering what it costs to transport goods clear up there, however, I was pleasantly surprised the prices weren’t higher. Not knowing what food prices and availability would be, we spent about $100 on non-perishables and fresh fruit before we boarded the ferry, which got us nicely through to our first grocery store stop in Whitehorse, YT.

As for how our visions meshed with reality, we did enjoy many simple breakfasts and wholesome snacks (peanut M&Ms are good for you, right?) just like we’d planned but never had one single relaxing evening meal around camp as we envisioned. We did prepare many evening meals, just the relaxing part was missing – but that’s another story.

All together, we spent $888 on food for and during our Alaska/Canada trip, starting with groceries and meals out en route to the ferry in Bellingham, WA and ending with afternoon snacks in the car before we crossed the Idaho border 24 days later. So our daily food cost averaged just $37 for two, which comes to less than $20/day each. Spending less than 40% of our food budget, I’d say we done good!

  • Food budget = $3,000 
  • Actual food cost = $888 
  • Money left for another trip = $2,112! 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Every Girl Should Own a Dress!

About 30 yards of cotton prints destined for Dress a Girl.
In my quest to simplify and declutter, I just sent this box of floral fabrics to the Northern California Dress a Girl Around the World ambassador for use by her group at their regular sewing events. I found out about Dress a Girl from my mom in OR, who found out from my aunt in CO, who is sewing dresses now that she's newly retired. Sewing dresses isn't something I can devote time to right now but I figured I could still help the cause.

When choosing which fabrics to send, I held my hand and arm between the layers in front of a window and rejected any that were too see through. Although I wanted to send some beautiful pastels, I found they were just too sheer. I tried not to go too dark beings most of the girls likely live in hot, sunny places but did try to choose fabrics that wouldn't show dirt between washings. By the time I finished, I'd rounded up about 30 yards total, which weighed close to 12 pounds. I'm just so happy to release all this beautiful fabric to a new home and a good cause!

According to the website, "Dress a Girl Around the World is a Campaign under Hope 4 Women International (a 501 (c) 3 organization) bringing dignity to women around the world since 2006. Hope 4 Women International is a nondenominational independent Christian organization." If you'd like to get involved, just check the website for a local group - or start your own! Yes, every girl should own at least one dress.

Friday, July 17, 2015

How to Live in Your Car

In researching ways to make our car camping even more comfortable and convenient, I've discovered there's a whole live-in-your-vehicle movement that I knew nothing about. And I'm not talking about folks with no other choice - no, these people are choosing to live in a vehicle, usually at least a modified van.

Beings I have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, I can borrow up to 10 books at a time so usually knock myself out speed reading through everything that looks interesting and pertains to whatever I'm researching. Of the several ebooks I've read on this subject so far, the most helpful has been How to Live in a Car, Van or RV by Robert Wells.

So if you might be interested in trying this alternate housing option (often known as VanDwelling) or are just curious about how anyone could even think it's a viable alternative to a real house, check out what Mr. Wells has to say on the subject. I'm certainly not prepping to permanently hit the road but did get some interesting insight into a previously unfamiliar way of life.

So... What do you think?

Note: Image is an Amazon affiliate link.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Alaska Road Trip Cost

Somewhere in Alaska...

Our epic 2015 road trip included 3 weeks in Alaska, British Columbia and Yukon Territory. Since it seems commonly assumed here in the lower 48 that everything is oh-so-expensive in Alaska, I thought I’d share the details of what we actually spent in four basic categories and how we kept the trip under budget – well under budget.

And just what was our budget? 


First, keep in mind that we’ve been planning this trip for 15 years (180 months) so had plenty of time to save up. Secondly, we usually avoid tourist attractions and don’t enjoy activities such as shopping, golf, fancy dinners, nightclubs, etc. So basically, it’s not too difficult for us to be frugal.

For this trip, we had $10,000 budgeted.

Wait a minute! $10,000?!? For a road trip?!?

Yep. But divide that by 180 months and it’s less than $56/month, which is less than $2/day. Many folks spend more than that at Starbucks (hint, hint).

Anyway, our original Alaska budget was super simple and looked like this:
  • Food: $3,000 ($100/day x 30 days)
  • Fuel: $1,000 (7,000/25mpg x $3.50/gal)
  • Lodging: $3,000 ($100/night x 30 nights)
  • Misc: $3,000 (everything else) 

Did we think we’d actually spend $100/day on food? No, but we wanted to be prepared just in case Alaskan prices were super high.

To estimate fuel costs, we checked Alaskan gas prices on the internet and then went a little high on the cost per gallon ($3.50) and low on our car’s miles per gallon (25) since we didn’t know how driving conditions would affect our usual mileage (30mpg).

Did we really plan to pay for lodging every night? No. Our plan was to camp in our car at least half the time but I wanted the option of getting a room if I found that car camping just didn’t work for me and I was making the math easy. (Our Alaskan lodging w/tax actually ranged from $83 to $133 and averaged out to $109/night.)

Did we need that $3,000 cushion for everything else? No, but I sure felt better having some extra money available in case of emergency or unexpected expenses.

What did we actually spend?


As I said, we came in under budget, even after adding the cost of taking the ferry from Bellingham, WA to Skagway, AK instead of driving both ways. We initially planned to drive the ALCAN from Dawson Creek, BC to Alaska and then take the Cassiar Highway back down through British Columbia, but chose to go up by ferry instead – and I’m so glad we did! Our final expenditures by category for 24 days were:

See? Under budget in every category! How cool is that?
So stay tuned for future posts and I'll share how we did it.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Trip of a Lifetime!

Blue pool on the Root Glacier - Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, AK

Joel and I recently completed a 7-week, 12,360-mile road trip that took us through 12 US states (including Alaska!) and three Canadian provinces. During our travels, we visited 11 national parks, two provincial parks, a few state parks – and saw a whole lot of beautiful country in between! In fact, some of the most spectacular scenery wasn’t even designated as such in any way and I’ll be highlighting those little-known gems in future posts.

Glacier on the way to Stewart, BC and Hyder, AK

This trip has been in the works at least 15 years. In fact, we wore out the Jeep Grand Cherokee we bought in 2001 specifically for our car-camping drive to Alaska and replaced it with a Subaru Outback in 2012. Our plan from the beginning was to sleep in our car so an SUV/wagon type was the only way to go.

Somewhere in the Yukon after our first car-sleeping night

Sleeping in our car was a huge success and I’d recommend it to just about anyone but we did learn a few things along the way that I plan to share here on The Best 50 Years. So if you want to do a road trip a cheap and easy way, stay tuned!

See? I survived the first night of sleeping in the car just fine!