Friday, October 18, 2019

A Week in Interior Alaska for $500

I had such a great, cheap trip to the Alaskan interior that I thought I would share some tips.

First of all, why so cheap? First, hotels in Alaska tend to be quite expensive for what they are. Second, I wanted to go on this polar bear tour that was almost $2000, just for one day. But on the other hand polar bears aren't going to be around forever maybe? Also I had learned some cheap travel tricks and wanted to challenge myself to use them. And I didn't want out time there to be limited by how much money we were spending on hotels.

I flew into Anchorage on a late Wednesday night and slept in the airport rather than leave or rent a car earlier. My new sociopath friend Arthur turned me on to this strategy -- save money by taking really early flights or really late flights and just sleep in the airport. There's even a website, The general rule is as much as possible be on the inside security side, because the sleeping and other opportunities usually exceed that of the public side of airports and with less harassment from cops, etc.

My goal was to not spend a single night in an actual lodging, and we actually did make it the whole week sleeping in the car, which was a lot of fun. Alaska is a great place to do what a lot of people call boondocking, or dry camping, or sleeping in cars. The only place that has any sort of limitations on it is in Anchorage, and there are plenty of places just outside Anchorage to stay. You can sleep at rest stops. You can sleep at pull outs. We slept at a Wal-Mart twice. I suggest picking a place that already has someone there for safety or if you need to jump the car or something in the morning. For showering, we showered at campsites at places that we were already going to, like Denali National Park, and we paid $15 each to go to the Chena Hot Springs Resort just outside of Fairbanks, which had showers. I guess you can also often find showers at laundromats. Dry cabins or dry camping is an Alaskan phenomenon and it is well suited for it.

That morning I woke up, brushed my teeth, and picked up my rental car. I had booked a car originally for the week for something like $450, but I got free cancellation and just kept that browser tab open on my laptop to periodically check if prices went down. Every time they went down, I re-booked another car. I got supplier's choice because I figured I was probably going to book a small car anyway, so I had nowhere to go but up. Me and my traveling companion hit the jackpot when we got a minivan. We were really hoping for anything on the big side, SUV etc. But worst case scenario we had brought this off of Amazon:

The reviews suggest that it doesn't last long, and it started dying the last night of the trip. I never did get a chance to use it like it's mean, i.e. in the back seat of a car. But it was about the size of a twin bed plus 20%. Not a full size mattress, somewhere in between. You could probably sleep two people (and some reviewers suggested that they did), but they should be small-ish people who don't mind being all up on each other. In any case, we didn't end up using it this way, just as an inflatable mattress for sleeping in the back of the van.

We flew into Anchorage because it was cheaper than Fairbanks and gas is cheap in Alaska, plus we wanted a scenic drive. And we ended up going down to Kenai Fjords National Park on a very beautiful scenic drive on the Kenai Peninsula.

Being there at the very end of August was  little bit key because that's the beginning of Polar Bear Season, the end of National Park or boondocking season for Denali (unless you want cold and rainy), Grizzly Bears go into a nonstop eating pattern in preparation for hibernation, there were beautiful fall colors that were changing by the day, and there were Northern Lights.

I'd suggest doing the Tundra Wilderness tour in Denali and trying to sign up for a Ranger led hike (you can only sign up in person 1-2 days before the hike, so consider being there for 2.5 days to accommodate this schedule. Buy bear spray on your way up on a Fred Meyer. We also got sleeping bags for $10 on sale there after spending the first night shivering under the thin blankets we had packed and wearing nearly all of our clothes.

Chena Hot Springs just north of Fairbanks is a great place for seeing the Northern Lights. I would set an alarm for every hour and if you see anything, stay up because they can grow a lot brighter and disappear pretty fast. Fairbanks is supposed to be one of the best places in the world for Northern Lights do its latitude and number of clear, starry nights.

A good low key activity between Northern Lights viewing nights is Fairbanks' Pioneer Park and the salmon bake there:

Fairbanks Ice Museum is cheap and surprisingly fun to play with the ice sculptures.

If you can swing the Polar Bear tour, I really recommend it. It's really expensive, but they call up ahead of time to see if there is any bear activity, so you're almost guaranteed to see them. Also you get to fly over Northern Alaska and get up to the Arctic Ocean. If you want to do it on the cheap, the place they go is called Kaktovik and Ravn Air flies there, but they're notorious for leaving passengers stranded, so give yourself an extra day. I believe there is only one inn there, that is also the only public eatery, so pack snacks or plan on eating that the whole time. I think a local tour company is, and they can help you arrange stuff. The nice thing about the package tour I took is that everything ran seamlessly.

I would pass on the Dalton Road. Looked totally boring from the air.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Seeing wolves during Yellowstone Shoulder Season in Lamar Valley

In the third week of September, I was in Yellowstone and thought I would share some travel tips and thoughts.

Traveling to Yellowstone in late September is pretty far into shoulder season, but I had hoped the weather would hold up. The weather was good while we were there, but because it had snowed the weekend before we got there, many of the major campsites had been closed just the day before we arrived. I had been monitoring the supply of campsites online for several days prior to that, but hadn't checked the night before, so wasn't aware about the campsite closures until we arrived when we and dozens of others were all scrambling for the same few available sites. Campsites are pretty important in Yellowstone unless you want to stay in their lodges, which at least for our dates would have been several hundred dollars a night. So our first day in Yellowstone was us driving through the park with no phone reception and campsites not updating their availability on the few times we could log into the website. None of the camp hosts or rangers were helpful. No one seemed to know what was going on. We almost came up completely short when we got kicked out of a campsite that someone said they had reserved with a camp chair set up in the site, but another camper overheard our predicament and offered to share his campsite with him and his wife who were just planning on sleeping in their truck and had extra space. Thanks so much to the couple from Maine who so generously allowed us to share their site.

My first suggestion for Yellowstone then is that if you plan on getting campsites that are first come first serve, even during late shoulder season, book a reserved campsite for your first night and try to get to your campsite of choice definitely before 10:30 a.m. (and even sooner if you can swing it) to be sure you get a site. Because it takes at least an hour from anywhere outside in the park to get to any of these first come first serve campsites, everyone that's already in the park will have a competitive advantage. My second suggestion is that apparently some National Park Service campsites require a tent, so if you can make friends with an RV person and you have a tent, you could maybe arrange to share a space to your mutual benefit.

If you're interested in wildlife, I suggest asking rangers and even approachable tour guide operators or people who look like they've been here at least a few days early and often where the best places and times are to see wildlife. The last night we were camping there, a camp ranger told us that you can see wolves in Lamar Valley pretty predictably for the first few hours after sunrise (she said until about 9:00 a.m.) My understanding is that the wolf parents are coming back from an evening of hunting, reunite with the rest of the pack for some family fun, and then find some place to sleep. My ranger said that this is as much of a guarantee to see the wolves as you can ever make with wildlife. She said that if you don't see the wolves on the main road going through the valley, Highway 212, (if you're coming from most places in the park, you can make your destination Pebble Creek Campground and it will route you through Lamar Valley), you should drive up the little road associated with the Slough Campground. We had other places to be in the morning, so we never did go up to the valley in the morning to see the wolves, but I wanted to let other people know so they could plan better than we did.

Also in Lamar Valley are many herds of bison and people also report a lot of other wildlife sightings in this area. But get here early for wolves (or people suggest getting here in the late afternoon for other wildlife sightings).

Some thoughts on wolves, both here and in other national parks in the United States. If you haven't had a chance, maybe take a look at this video on how wolves can change the shape of a river.

I was in Alaska's Denali National Park this past August (beautiful, and I may do a quick follow up post with tips for traveling there) where the rangers dutifully told us that the National Park was established not for the highest mountain in North America (Denali aka Mt. McKinley) or for the Grizzly Bears or the moose or caribou or other myriad animals that we might be more familiar with, but rather to protect the Dall Sheep, which were being over-hunted in the early part of the last century. As such, the numbers of Dall Sheep were being carefully watched and in the early years of the park's history when there was a decline in the population, the common wisdom was that something needed to be done, and that something to be done was to start culling the wolf population -- the sheep's major predator. At the time the National Park Service thought of themselves as needing to be the caretaker for preserving nature. Since predators were considered destructive, no one really thought about preserving them. Instead, their elimination was favored. In fact, famously and as portrayed in the How Wolves Change Rivers video, they were eradicated completely from Yellowstone National Park for these and other reasons related to Yellowstone's rancher and farmer neighbors.

Young scientist Adolph Murie opposed any such wolf eradication measures in Denali. He did a decades long study of the Dall Sheep population and discovered that the wolves actually helped the sheep because the wolves would prey on the very young and the sick or injured, and as a result the strength of the herd as a whole was stronger and had access to greater resources per capita. This is pretty well-accepted science and even common knowledge, but at the time it was revolutionary and very counter-intuitive.

I hope that you have heard the Yellowstone wolves story before. If you haven't, the video is good on this point and I won't belabor it except to give you the TLDR: ecosystems are a lot more complicated and interdependent then we think and consequently to mess around with one part of it for the supposed benefit of another part of it is to play with fire. Despite this, while I was in Denali, a tour guide gave another example of people wanting to completely eradicate another animal -- mosquitos -- not realizing that they are major pollinators in the region for the flora as well as being a food source for larger animals.

The interrelatedness of everything is a great point and I think has a lot of really valid applications to the idea of a society with sociopaths versus without sociopaths. I think the benefits of sociopaths, like the mosquitoes role as pollinators, might be less obvious than some of the alleged harms, like the mosquitoes bites and disease carrying abilities. The outsized influence of the more obvious effects versus the ones that are less obvious to us may people to erroneously assume they'd obviously be better off without sociopaths and that there would be little harm to society from their removal.

This time listening to these stories at both parks, however, I was more struck with how absolutely certain people were about the wolf situation. Adolph Murie was ridiculed and maligned for much of his career. I learned in a fireside ranger talk that when wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone in the 1970's, the U.S. government solicited public comments and got more participation in that debate than any other public comment program up to that point in U.S. history. My European friend who was with me was flabbergasted that American's seemed to care much more about this than any other political topic. To me it's just another illustration of the things we know and don't know, including there are : (1) things we think we know and do know, (2) things we think we know but don't know, (3) things we don't know and realize we don't know, and (4) things we don't know that we don't know.

I think our global society would vastly improve if everyone was just a little more open-minded and intellectually curious without constant appeals to authority or expertise to shutdown a conversation and stifle new ideas. And this applies as much to sociopaths who think and talk about sociopaths as it does normal people who think and talk about sociopaths. What we don't know vastly exceeds what we do know, and we would do well to show a little more intellectual honesty about that.

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