KEARNEY — If Ken Mumm hadn’t been born in Seward, Neb., perhaps he wouldn’t have wanted to spend his 75th birthday in Seward, Alaska.
But he was, and he did, so for that milestone birthday June 5, he and his wife Bonnie drove 4,135 miles to Seward, Alaska, to celebrate among puffins, seals, sea otters and fishing boats on a windy sightseeing cruise on Prince William Sound.
The trip was a year in the making. Planning for the 9,150-mile, seven-week adventure started right after Ken’s 74th birthday a year ago. “I’m a planner, a researcher,” Ken, a retired educator, said. “It was fun.”
He and Bonnie, a retired administrative assistant at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, were not strangers to Alaska; in 2012, they’d visited Fairbanks, Anchorage and Seward and sailed down the Inside Passage. They wanted to go back, but this time, they would drive.
First, they bought an RV, a novel item for the Mumms, who once were avid tent campers. Doing research online, Mumm was stunned at the “unbelievable” selection of campers he found online. After extensive research and talking to an RV expert in Longmont, Colo., they found a 2015 Winnebago in Lincoln and tried it out for two nights last fall at Fort Kearney State Recreation Area. They hoped to camp in it again this spring, but bad weather prevented that.
Then they pored over The Milepost, a 768-page Alaska travel planner, published annually, that is the bible for motorists bound for Alaska. It shows every gas station and motel on the 1,390-mile Alaska Highway — nicknamed the Alcan Highway — from Dawson Creek, Yukon Territory, to Delta Junction, Alaska, just southeast of Fairbanks.
They’d hoped to pull their new Winnebago with their SUV, but they ended up buying a pickup for that.
Hitting the road
They took off May 15. With no firm itinerary, so they could stop whenever and wherever they wanted.
Their first stop was Chamberlain, S.D., where they toured the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center. Next came Badlands National Park near Interior, S.D. It was clouded by fog, but they stayed for a few days.
“From then on, it was how far do we want to go tomorrow?” Ken said. They had hoped to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, but 33-degree temperatures and snow changed their minds. They stopped there on the way home instead. “The weather was cold, but our camper was warm,” Bonnie said.
Instead, they headed across Montana to the Canadian border. This early in the travel season, they encountered little northbound traffic. “Our goal was to get up there before everyone else came up,” Ken said. They worried about crowds in Banff National Park and Lake Louise, but found both “feasible.” Lake Louise still was frozen.
At Dawson Creek, British Columbia, they picked up the Alaska Highway. The scenery was jaw-dropping. “Every turn in the road was a picture opportunity,” Bonnie said. “The clouds were gorgeous. Sometimes we just took pictures of clouds.”
There was so much to see. In Skagway, they saw five docked cruise ships. “It was wall-to-wall tourist stores, but the history was fascinating,” Bonnie said. “The road to Chilcat was the take-off point for the Gold Rush folks.” They saw Haines, too, then got back on the Alcan Highway through Tok to Delta Junction, went on to Fairbanks, then turned south.
Talkeetna, they said, was “a cool historic town,” where Denali-bound climbers begin their treks.
The town of Chicken boomed with gold miners a century ago, but just seven people live there now. The biggest tourist attraction is an enormous chicken statue topped with signs pointing to places with chicken-themed names around the globe, like Chickabooga, Australia; Roosterberg, Belgium; Barnyard, Ky., and Cluck, N.M.
The Mumms camped just seven miles north of Denali National Park. For six consecutive days, a rarity, they were able to see Denali, North America’s tallest mountain at 20,320 feet. Due to Alaska’s frequent rain, many visitors to Alaska don’t get to see it at all. “They told us only 33 percent of tourists see it, but we saw it six days in a row,” Ken said.
They took an unforgettable sightseeing flight from Talkeetna to Ruth Glacier, inside Denali National Park.
In Soldatna, they camped in a provincial park along the Russian River. By then, well into June, tourists were flocking to the state, but the Mumms realized they needed to start back so they would reach Longmont, Colo., by July 1 for their grandson’s 7th birthday. With regret, they gave up plans to drive north to the Arctic Circle.
Driving home, their route took them through the vast plains of eastern Alberta and Saskatchewan. “We could see as far as our eyes could see. It was beautiful, too. We were fascinated by the big cumulus clouds. They were always there, and they were beautiful,” Bonnie said. The plains of North Dakota were memorable, too.
They got a bit road-weary as they headed toward the U.S., but as they stopped at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, then headed through South Dakota and Wyoming toward Longmont, they talked about all they’d seen.
Take Alaska’s size, for example. “You think of Alaska as huge, and it is, but when you look at maps you can’t imagine how big it is, and how far it is to get from one place to another.” Bonnie said. On the trip, they had seen a picture of Texas superimposed over a map of Alaska. The sign said, “‘Say hi to our little friend Texas.’”
At one point during the trip, their pickup and camper were so caked with dirt that they stopped to wash it twice. In some places, “we used the only paved road. We’d go one way and have to backtrack,” Ken said. No wonder 70 percent of Alaskans have a pilot’s license, he said.
“We were surprised at how easy it was to get around. We expected more road problems, but other than slowing down on gravel, it was not a big deal,” he said.
The Northern Lights
Other pluses: The trailer had no mechanical problems. Ken worried about needing a new battery and propane on the road, but they brought propane home.
Their biggest snafu was when the TV tumbled off the shelf and fell to the floor when they went over a rough patch of road, so they strapped it down. “We knew we wouldn’t get much TV service, so we took DVDs,” Ken said. Wi-Fi was unreliable, too, preventing Ken from writing the blog he’d planned. They quickly adjusted. Bonnie read 15 books. They cooked most evening meals and breakfasts in their RV.
“This was truly an adventure, maybe because we’d both tent-camped when we were younger, but it was easy,” Bonnie said. It was peaceful, too. There was no stress and no obligations.
The couple are avid travelers. They’ve been to all 50 states and several foreign countries. This trip’s only drawback was lack of time.
“We thought we’d spend 30 days up there, but we ended up spending 53 days and could have stayed a month longer,” Ken said. They’re already talking about going back someday. They want to see the Northern Lights.