SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE ROAD TO ALASKA
Returning from Alaska for the 4th time in 1995 we spent a lot of time discussing our perceived need for a truly useful source of information for the trip. The shortcomings of available resources were obvious. The most popular guide, in the hands of most travelers (as attested to by our observing the person in the passenger seat usually reading the guide rather than enjoying the scenery), was complete to a fault. Describing every microwave tower and emergency turnout might give an air of authenticity, but the things really important to travelers were lost in the details. Where can we get gas or diesel? Where can we dump? Where can we eat? What are the roads like? What's the weather going to be? Where are the RV parks and campgrounds? These are some of the basic concerns that we agreed that, left unanswered, made the difference between an unforgettable adventure of a lifetime and a nightmare of worry and uncertainty.
Other sources of information had their own limitations. Visitor centers are packed with information, but most of the knowledge of the staff members is confined to a very limited area. This is not because they are uninformed. The job of any visitor center is to keep visitors in the area they serve, patronizing the businesses that ultimately pay to keep the center open. In the racks are hundreds of brochures and free maps. Each serves only the businesses or business who pay to appear. The guide mentioned above is just an extreme example of a common problem. There is a wealth of information about any place willing to pay for the advertising.
Regarding maps, it's as if some guys got together over a few beers and decided to get rich in the advertising game. Sometime in the conversation it was decided that a map would be the best vehicle to carry the ads, so a source was located, permission to use paid for, and yet another "free" map was born. Trouble is, most things that are free are crap.
One more example of the careful hoarding of information. For several years the main visitor centre in Alberta north of Sweetgrass (the one with the dinosaur) sold our Yukon and Alaska maps. But they wouldn't sell the British Columbia map because, I was told, they wanted tourists to stay in Alberta as long as possible on the way to Alaska. So east of Jasper there is a sign saying to turn right for the "most scenic route" to Alaska. Trust me, it most decidedly is not, and while the route may have many virtues, spectacular mountain scenery is not one of them.
Anyway, at some point we decided to stop whining about the resources and create our own. Our book and maps have always been works in progress as we struggled with putting our core concept to paper. First, we wanted to include all of the RV parks and campgrounds, public and private, whether they paid for an ad or not. Eventually about 2/3 did buy ads, but over a period of many years. Second, we wanted to be an Internet centered business with advertising on our web site, not pushing aside useful information in our book. We wanted to sell retail exclusively on line because we planned a product that could be changed as required to provide the most up to date information. Third, we wanted to be a publishing company, not an advertising company, with an emphasis on improving our product, not boosting our ad sales.
Remember, this was 1995. When we first approached people along the Alaska Hwy about our product in 1996 most had no knowledge of the Internet or E-mail. Two places, one in Dawson Creek and one at Delta Junction, were actually on the Internet. Most people thought that they would never get Internet where they lived and that they couldn't have an ad on the web unless they had their own computer connected to the web. So we had a lot of explaining to do. Another problem we walked into was that someone had come through in 1991 selling ads to go in a book commemorating the 50th anniversary of the highway. The book never appeared and many people were ripped off. Added to that were doubts about our ability to compete with the best selling guide (which was not our intention) since it enjoyed a virtual monopoly with the support of US and Canadian government at all levels. Worst, from our point of view, was the prospect of competing with all of the free stuff, including and especially free maps provided by the governments. From our point of view our maps have very little in common with a highway map, but we soon learned that for many people a map is a map is a map. (By the way, we are still connected to the Internet via a dial-up modem, while most places along the Alaska Highway have high speed.)
So there were plenty of good reasons to forget the whole idea, but then something really exciting happened! The first RV park owner we stopped at wanted an ad. And the next. And 23 more that first year. That may not seem like a lot, but it spelled success to us. That first year we had a webmaster building our site. He was very good, and wanted to do our site to have a place to send prospective paying clients to see his work. Problem was, as he got busy we got pushed aside. In 1997 we returned with 60 more ads and his attitude was that since the RV parks would be closed until spring there was no hurry to get their ads on line. So we invested in a scanner and $40 worth of software that we continue to use to this day, along with our original Canon copier. The scanner has gotten rather dusty as we have evolved from taking film photos, developing, and scanning to taking and uploading digital, getting E-mail attachments from clients, or simply pasting in photos from their other sites.
We have been able to realize some of our ambitions, but others have eluded us. Right now we are uncertain about our future. In 2009 we decided not to make the trip to Alaska for the second time since 1992. In 1993 it took a devastating flood to keep us home. In 1999 we made the trip 5 months after Karen's six-bypass heart surgery, and two months after angioplasty. Last year it was Karen's dad's health that kept us close to home as we traveled almost every weekend from April to September across the state to visit. We did manage to take some of the grandchildren to the Black Hills, and in August drove out to see our son in San Francisco with stops at most of the Colorado and Utah National Parks on the way out and back. A couple weeks after we returned from that trip Karen's dad took a sudden turn for the worse and died. Now her mother, age 91, has our attention.
Another change that makes our future uncertain is changes in the printing industry. We have always provided our printer with camera-ready copy to print 500 to 1000 maps at a time, depending on demand. Last year all of the area printers went digital, and the cost to convert would be prohibitive unless we printed a lot more maps at a time. This would put us in the same league with map publishers who print tens of thousands of maps and sell them over many years. Our maps have so much information that they are made obsolete by changes on the ground as soon they come off the press. So we have started to revise our maps into a format that we can reproduce in house in a 11x17 format, have dropped our wholesale business, and intend to proceed to produce our maps as we do our book, on demand. Regardless of the future of our publishing activities, we have no intentions of closing our web site short of a catastrophe.
Finally, there have been a lot of changes in technology since we started. All these years we have relied on a dial-up modem with a local number, but that company changed hands and dropped our local number, so in order to change our web site we have to use a very slow long distance connection, plus pay a phone company data charge. Why not change? We did. Last spring (2010) we bought a new lap top and switched to an Internet connection via our Blackberry. Trouble is, our software and thus our site can't be moved to the Windows 7 platform, so we're stuck with the dial up and notebook until it crashes, at which time we will no longer be able to update the site. No, we're not interested at this stage in our lives to sitting down and switching everything to different software. More likely we will launch a Facebook page and direct people there for updates. Hopefully it will not be a problem any time soon.
I commented above on the skepticism of people we approached in the early years. While some people were, and continue to be, very supportive, many required years of visits to reach the point where they thought we were for real. And often we would make a stop expecting to be greeted by an old friend to find that he had retired to the south and a new owner was in place, meaning the whole process of trust building had to begin anew. In 1995 we estimated that there were about 360 private RV parks and campgrounds in our area of interest and assumed a modest growth in the industry with the improvements to the Alaska Highway making the trip long, but not necessarily difficult. We were wrong, and we have seen a net decline in the number of RV park businesses over the years. A quick survey of the John Hart and Alaska Highway in BC, using our map and truthfully not being particularly careful, yielded the following results:
Seven businesses offering RV facilities have opened; eighteen have closed. Twenty-nine have changed ownership or management. Five are still open but no longer offer RV sites. Twenty-one, or about 1/4, are still open under the same management. I'm sure the same trends apply through the Yukon and Alaska, meaning we can guess that about 270 RV park owners are people different from those in place during our first business trip in 1996. I mention this only to point out the severe impact of skipping just one year. We have always estimated a 10% turnover in ownership/management every year.
Because we are no longer doing business in Canada and Alaska on the wholesale level any future trips will be fact-finding only and we don't believe our mileage and per diem will be a deductible business expense. So our trips may become briefer, with fewer stops to chat and more drive-by observations. Right now we're planning an August trip, but things can and probably will change.
There are some things we really haven't done a very good job of keeping up with. Mostly these are things that don't lend themselves well to our format. One is the exchange rate, which has swung widely over the years and has an impact on the cost of the trip that many people don't appreciate until it's too late. Another is gas prices, another volatile commodity. All we can say is that gas will always be cheaper in the US, so saving a few miles by going through Winnipeg doesn't save any money. And Canadian gas prices will not fluctuate as widely as the US because so much more of the price is taxes. We also had some problems with the whole passport thing, trying to keep up with the government's whims. The Alaska Marine Highway is another problem. They shift ferrys around at will, retired a few and built some new. Almost every year a ship will go out of service, throwing schedules into chaos. One year we expected to board a ferry at Haines to go to Skagway only to discover it was surrounded by protesting Canadian fishermen in Prince Rupert! Highway construction is another thing that changes literally overnight. The good news is that most of the highways have been reconstructed over the last 20 years and any construction will be upkeep and repairs rather that rerouting. The bad news is that any highway project is subject to funding and it is impossible to state that a planned project will proceed as advertised.
One final topic. Over the years we have explored dozens of approach and escape routes. For a couple years we crossed into Canada north of Flathead Lake in Montana and skirted the west side of the Rockies to Golden or Radium, then entered the National Parks through Yoho or Kootenay. After starting the business we settled on Sweetgrass, MT, as our port of entry and found it's best to stay consistent as there are customs and immigration questions to answer. At first we crossed Montana on US2, the High Line. Later we settled on picking up 200 near Glendive and ending up at Great Falls. One year we deviated to follow Lewis and Clark from Bismarck and visited Fort Benton as I researched my scratch-built model of the steamboat Far West. We have also crossed the state on 12, and connected N-S using 89. When our son moved to San Francisco we began to include that city (our home in 1972-73) in our return itinerary, meaning crisscrossing Washington and Oregon and exploring the California coast. Relatives in Cheyenne died or moved away, while one brother moved to western Nebraska, another to the Colorado foothills. And a third to Arizona. A cousin settled just west of Denver, and Karen discovered the shopping opportunities in places like Georgetown. We used to hurry home on I-80 to Omaha, then north through Iowa. More recently we have fell in love with the Great Basin and cross Nevada on 50, 6, and the Extraterrestrial Highway. Still to be explored are areas south of the Black Canyon, although we did visit Arizona in the early 70s on the way to living three years in Corpus Christi, TX. Commenting in detail on all of our lower 48 routes would fill another book, but we are always willing to share our experiencess via E-mail.
We hope you find our webs site, maps, and book helpful. We, more than anyone, are aware of the shortcomings of our products and understand that it is impossible to answer everyone's questions and concerns in one publication. So we encourage anyone, whether or not they buy our product, to E-mail us if they have any specific questions or concerns.