Here is one of the best-kept secrets in the Yukon… or maybe I was just the last to find out about it: The best month of the calendar year to visit our large and beauteous western neighbor in an RV is April, specifically the last two weeks.
And here are 10 reasons why:
1. No mosquitos. They know there is very little yummy tourist blood around in April and most of May so they stay in their breeding swamps making billions of babies until D-Day on June 5-6, depending on tides, moon phases and bug-munchies. My aerosol Muskol dispenser went untouched in April, a complete waste of money.
2. None of the campgrounds, both government and private, are open yet, but they are clear of snow and easily accessible, which means free of charge too. Even the ones set up for the honour system have snow covers over the pay boxes, making it impossible to buck up.
Of course, that also means all of the washrooms are locked. But the inventive camper can find ways to solve that problem if your RV is not self-contained, the best place being a tidal flat at low tide, which is what dogs and other animals do. Be mindful of alligators and sharks with legs.
3. Generally, April campers are the first tourists the locals have seen since the previous September so some are actually happy to greet you. Summer tourism is the second most lucrative industry in Alaska, behind only oil and gas, so you can be the inaugural ambassador and official representative of huge amounts of money, enough to support most of the non-industrial economy.
They are even willing to discuss hockey with Canadians in April and are very complimentary about our 2013 decision to do away with pennies but still seem unable to understand our brilliant system of medical care. If you show them a penny and tell them it is more than enough to pay for your upcoming hernia operation in Canada, they will smile, wish you a good day and probably call you a “Commie” to their friends when you are out of earshot.
4. All the places that charge big bucks in June, July and August to do things like theatrical shows, sightseeing charters, guided hikes, museums, native dancing, flower tours, tundra interpretations, aquatic jailhouses and poetry readings aren’t open yet, so you don’t have to do them. However, the mountains, lakes, ocean and sky are always open for business… and 10,000 coffee shops.
5. The bears are fresh out of hibernation in April and not yet interested in red meat. Their stomachs shrink up over the winter, and their first craving in spring is for a good salad. They like greens, nature’s appetizer, to get the old digestive system lubricated for the summer and autumn feast to follow. They are basically dopey and harmless in April, unless you stumble on a sow with new cubs. And if that sow has a large hump between her shoulders, it means she is a grizzly and your chances of having a good May just shrunk like her belly.
Do not play dead or you could be. Best is to touch the bill of your cap respectfully, say “Good morning, Madame, lovely cubs you have there,” in a calm voice and walk briskly in whatever direction the wind is blowing until she knows you’re just a goober and not a predator. Don’t run! If you feel no fear after such an encounter, drive straight to a psychiatrist’s office and ask for help. Alaska has many.
6. Cigarettes are cheaper and better in Alaska, in any month, especially if you smoke Lucky Strikes.
7. Beer is cheaper too, and tastes like beer instead of maple syrup watered down with vinegar.
8. The food is a marvel. I paid $22 for a fresh ‘But on a Bun’ (halibut on a huge burger bun with a side of coleslaw) in Homer, “The Halibut Capital of the World,” which made me want to stay there for the rest of my life. I will never again insult my stomach with battered Canadian frozen fish and chips. Ever. If you can’t see the body of water your meal came from, don’t eat it!
9. The west coast of the Kenai Peninsula has virgin beaches that look nearly identical to the coasts and sand dunes of Washington, Oregon and northern California, with Ring of Fire extinct volcanoes clearly visible like sentinels across Cook Inlet. You won’t believe you are in Alaska in April.
10. iPhone service works everywhere in Alaska through AT&T, if you are willing to pay roaming charges. I turned mine off for the whole two week holiday, but it was reassuring to know I could contact family and friends instantly if I needed to. I didn’t.
It was also fun to imagine them worrying about me, but when I got back and asked if they did, my son said: “Why? Did you go somewhere?” They thought I was ice fishing at Kluane, which was my excuse to get out of Whitehorse, but I decided to drive to Tok to get some Luckies and one place led to the next.
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The classic tour around Alaska is called the “Big Loop,” which means Whitehorse to Fairbanks, then south to Anchorage via Denali and on to the Kenai Peninsula, which is justifiably called “Alaska’s Playground.” On the way home, you take the road from Wasilla via Palmer to Tok on the Alaska Highway, which saves the best for last. That road, called the Richardson Highway, goes right over the top of the St. Elias mountains and has the best close-up views of glaciers of any road in North America, including Canada’s renowned Icefield Parkway, named by National Geographic as one of the top 100 must-see journeys in the world. The most spectacular, of many, is the Matanuska Glacier, which is so close, it feels like you could touch it.
But the highlight of the whole loop is Denali. North America’s tallest mountain, at 20,320 feet. You need some luck to see her. Denali means “The Hidden One” and is socked in with coastal clouds 80 per cent of the time.
I got lucky on my April 2014 excursion and could clearly see her for about 50 miles, until the road dropped sharply back down to tidewater.
The first half of May is probably just as good, but I was back in Canada on May Day cursing the Yukon roads, which are goat trails compared to Alaska. They even fix their annual frost heaves over there (shock busters) which is an art form not yet practiced in the territory.
That was my only whine after April in beatific Alaska on 21st century roads and the Yukon government wasn’t even serving cheese with their potholes at the welcome home party.
But don’t try to take any firewood across the border in either direction. Big time no-no. Those without a passport will be directed to make a U-turn.
If you wait long enough in early May, you can come home on the Little Loop, which is Tetlin Junction to Chicken and Boundary, then on to Dawson via the Top of the World Highway, but that can be dicey. The Yukon government has to open the Canadian section of the road first and get the ferry into the Yukon River.
It is, however, a nice little three-day trip in mid-summer if you don’t have time to do the Big Loop, which requires at least a week, two if you want to do things other than driving and gawking.
And if they ever build a road to Nome in my lifetime, I’ll be the first RV on it and may never come back. People come from all over the world to see Alaska, and all we have to do is go for a short drive.
Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.