Our Once-In-A-Lifetime RV Road Trip to Alaska

Jan 27, 2017

We crossed a major item off our travel bucket list last summer: we drove our RV to Alaska from the lower 48 United States!

We spent two full months exploring Alaska, plus a couple additional weeks traversing western Canada en route. It was an epic journey in every sense — mind-blowingly gorgeous, awe-inspiring, humbling. At times, it was also exhausting, frustrating, and a lesson in patience. Overall, an extraordinary adventure worth taking, and we’ll cherish the memories from it of the rest of our lives.

Since this will be a loooong recap post, I’ll break it out into some easier-to-digest questions and answers. I’ll also sprinkle in lots of photos, to hopefully keep your eyes from glazing over at my wall o’ text. Ooh, look: cute doggies in Alaska!

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South Rolly Lake Campground in Willow, Alaska

Why one long post, and over a year later? Slackers!

I am indeed slacking, and happy to admit that. I’m also breaking the travel blogging mold by not writing a series of detailed posts about what we did and where all we went. I love reading those posts by other people — making me a total hypocrite, I know — and benefited from them immensely when planning our own trip.

Most of my reasoning for not going into extreme detail ourselves is because our version of visiting Alaska was quite a bit different (and to be honest, probably much more boring!) than most peoples’ experience was, or will be.

The glamorous life of digital nomads! Working in the laundromat.

The glamorous life of digital nomads – working in the laundromat!

Uh huh. What makes you so different?

We were oddities compared to most Alaskan RV travelers, because we worked our full-time online jobs during our entire visit. The only exceptions were some vacation days taken during parts of the drive to and from Alaska, when we were without any cell phone service or internet access — about a week and a half total for both long drives, since there were a few cities along the way where we could work a day or two (Prince George, Whitehorse, and Tok) before going ‘dark’ again.

Our experience was more like we were working seasonally in Alaska for the summer, rather than being tourists there. We still had a few hours free to play every day, plus weekends, but we couldn’t spend more than a couple days’ time offline or away from work at a single stretch without taking vacation days. We don’t have a set number of vacation days, thankfully, but we couldn’t take the whole summer off, either. 😉

That made for a lot more time camping in cities than most people are looking for on their Alaskan RV trip. Luckily, we usually don’t mind the cities – the cultural differences there can be as fascinating to us as the natural world just outside them.

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Parking-lot camping with some of our fellow working nomad friends at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks – it isn’t glamorous, but the cell signal’s solid, and we got to walk to lots of things going on nearby for the summer solstice!

Given that working full-time while traveling is somewhat rare among RVers in Alaska, we would rather ours not be taken as the end-all-be-all advice for anyone else’s vacation planning. I will share some highlights that we’ll recommend for anyone to do if you’re there, though. If you’re more like us and plan to work online while you’re there, we’re happy to offer our experiences and advice on the matter — feel free to ask any burning questions you may have!

Was it worth the time/money/stress?

We’re so glad we did it, even with the restriction of needing to work full-time. There was some inevitable frustration and FOMO (fear of missing out) at times from not being on a ‘real’ vacation, but the opportunity to go to Alaska at all was a dream-come-true. We’re rarely willing to gamble on having a chance to go somewhere again “someday” if the opportunity strikes sooner. Not to be overly morbid, but no one is guaranteed that time.

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It may be a cheesy tourist photo, but we love that we now have a picture of us bundled up in winter gear, in July, next to a glacier

Our summer may sound like a drag if your passion is being mostly in the wilderness, away from it all — and sometimes it was a bit of a bummer, when we wanted to do that and couldn’t — but we love our jobs, they pay us well, and allow us the flexibility to work from anywhere in the world that we can find a decent internet connection. We don’t mind the small sacrifice of not being off-grid all that much if we still get to travel for extended periods. We’re happy to take advantage of the flexibility for now, while saving up enough money to hopefully retire a bit early someday and enjoy unencumbered travel. After all, the rest of the world still beckons, far beyond where we can drive!

Knowing what you know now, would you recommend others do it?

Well, that depends.

We had a great time…for the most part. Like any trip, it had its ups and downs — and I don’t just mean the elevation changes! While it had its stressful moments, in our opinions the rewards still outweighed any sacrifices.

If we’d stayed “home” and not pushed our limits like we did, our year would have been far less memorable. We may have coasted by with more comfort and less stress, but lacking a lot of opportunities that broadened our experiences. We would have missed out on meeting and spending time with so many amazing people, and marking a ‘must do’ travel destination off our list.

Alaska and Western Canada were stunningly gorgeous in so many places, with dramatically different scenery than anywhere else we’d been, and up-close encounters with wildlife that we’d never seen in-person before, except maybe in zoos. We came home with a renewed sense of wonder at the world around us, a reminder of how small and vulnerable we human beings are, and a newfound appreciation for the modern conveniences and infrastructure we take for granted in the lower states. For nature lovers, so many moments of this trip are pure nirvana.

Alaska humpback whale

This is the actual distance of the whale from our boat! This humpback put on quite a show for our tour group.

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Look at those faces!!

What were the craziest/scariest moments of the trip?

There were several moments that gave us a good scare, like having to quickly (and crudely) convert our 12-foot-and-change RV’s height into meters as we approached our first non-highway tunnel in Canada, with no cell phone service with which to Google it. A change of pants nearly ensued, but we emerged on the other side with our air conditioner still firmly attached to our roof.

We also came face-to-face with adult moose standing in the middle of the road, on two different occasions. We only barely had enough stopping distance to avoid hitting one of them. We watched through the windshield in terror as it pawed at the ground angrily while glaring directly at us — at our eye level! It finally gave up and walked away, but for a minute we weren’t sure that we wouldn’t be adding a moose to our list of indoor companion animals. We also had to brake for bears, eagles, caribou, bison, mountain goats, Dall sheep, a porcupine, and many other smaller animals.

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The craziest moment? Having to slow down to pass a huge grizzly bear that was taking a dump on the side of the road. It didn’t have a very favorable opinion of us, apparently.

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So you drove all the way to Alaska and back? That’s insane!

It’s a very long trip — no doubt about that — but we also have friends who live there just in the summers and do it every year. It’s not as bad as many people make it out to be, or like it was many years ago before road improvements.

I’m not going to sugarcoat the distance factor, though: at times, it felt like an endless number of miles/kilometers to drive, especially if you’re used to slow travel. Maybe it was exaggerated in our case, since we needed to get back to ‘The Grid’ in just a handful of days, and we couldn’t slowly meander our way to and from Alaska like we saw other folks do (who didn’t also have to work).

So much driving!

Nearly 2,000 miles (3,218 km) each way from the Washington state border to crossing to the border of Alaska is a serious haul, even for seasoned travelers — and we did each leg in under a week! We logged another 1,700 miles (2,735 km) just in Alaska, with only a small part of that being day trips in our Jeep. At least that portion was spread out over 2 months!

This happens several times a day. Get a good scrubber/squeegee and take lots of washer fluid!

This would be us pretending we didn’t forget to get our photo with the “Welcome to Alaska” sign until we were on the way home – this sign was more scenic than the one on our way in, anyway 😉

This is not the trip for those who don’t like to drive long distances in a day, unless you have a lot of travel time padded in to get to Alaska and back, or decide to take the ferry one or both ways. It’s also not ideal if you want perfectly-paved roads without many hazards.

Alaska is a huge time and energy investment: it took us several weeks to recover from how physically and emotionally worn out we were upon our return, and even longer to get our enthusiasm for longer driving days back. Pad in a few weeks upon your return to lay low and recover. We spent a couple weeks hunkered down at an RV park to rest after crossing back into the lower states, as did many of our friends. We have no regrets, but probably will not drive up if we return someday, only because it’s unlikely we’ll ever stay for the full summer again and make it worthwhile.

Were you scared about breaking down/did you have a satellite phone?

Unless you’ve ever visited the more remote areas or lived there, the first thing you’ll learn is that British Columbia (the majority of the drive) is deceptively big:

British Columbia overlaid on California. Fantastic perspective on its size, created by BCRobyn: http://www.bcrobyn.com/2012/12/how-big-is-british-columbia/

British Columbia overlaid on California. Image by BCRobyn @ http://www.bcrobyn.com/

Most of BC and the Yukon has no cell phone service, so we had considered getting a satellite phone, or at least a tracking device. We ended up choosing not to, partly because we had a second vehicle we could unhitch and take to get help if needed, and partly because there were a lot of other seasonal travelers (and many of our RVing friends) on the same route for both our drives.

We caravanned with Lynn and Clark of ‘Tales From the Mutiny’ through most of British Columbia, and that made us all feel a bit more at ease on the trip north. On the way back, we had a better idea what to expect, and did the drive alone.

In the shoulder season or off-season (see more about making that drive in the shoulder season here and here), we’d have definitely invested in a satellite phone for peace of mind. If having no connection to emergency services or family while traveling makes you nervous, you don’t have a second vehicle as backup, are traveling alone, and/or don’t have anyone caravanning with you, it’s a wise idea. Just do your research and be sure you’ll have coverage there with whatever provider you choose – due to the latitude, our satellite radio didn’t work at all once we were about halfway north in BC.

BC cell phone coverage

Purple = cell phone coverage at the time of our trip. Not very widespread!

On the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, an over-500-mile scenic route through an isolated area of northwest BC, we sometimes went an hour or more without passing another car — and when we did, it was often a logging truck. Towns along the route have only a few hundred people in them typically, and usually limited services for travelers.

Buy the Milepost Alaska travel guide early to do lots of learning, plan your gas stops well ahead of time, then have a backup plan if one is closed or out of fuel. We arrived in one town on the Cassiar and their cellular service was down, so no credit card transactions. We had just enough Canadian cash for gas to get to the next town, but we rolled in with our gas gauge firmly on ‘E’ (lesson learned: take more Canadian cash, and a siphon if you have a second vehicle!).

Planning is tiring, but worth it to be prepared for the unexpected

Planning is tiring, but worth it to be prepared for the unexpected

Ardent Camper, some good friends of ours, had RV mechanical issues and were lucky to have some very kind locals who were driving by stop to help them. In a more urgent mechanical situation or medical emergency, you wouldn’t want to have to rely on there being other motorists passing, so a satellite phone is probably advisable.

How much damage did you have to your vehicles?

You will (at minimum) come home with some new rattles, squeaks, and paint chips. About half our friends who went last summer ended up with a broken windshield (which is often repairable rather than needing to be replaced), headlight cover(s), a mechanical issue, flat tire, or similar. Our only damage, other than some minor paint chips to the front, was to our interior. We had a lot of screws loose (haha) from the road vibration, and a few interior pieces of trim work break or rattle off. We got a lot of use out of a roll of clear waterproof repair tape (we love the Gorilla brand tape).

I wouldn’t let the threat of damage to your RV keep you from going, however — many people we know have had the same problems or worse in the lower 48! We did take the precaution of purchasing extra windshield insurance through our insurance company, and already had roadside assistance through CoachNet. Many people buy a good air compressor and fix-a-flat kit, and an extra tire if they don’t already have one. Ordering a new tire in many rural areas can take a while, whereas it can be easier to get someone to help you put a new one on that you already have.

How much of Alaska can you see in a couple months?

Alaska is monstrous in size. Despite driving almost 2,000 miles around the interior of it, we barely made a dent in seeing the state, though we saw most of the easily-accessible areas. Most people don’t get to see much of it, though — there just aren’t that many places connected by roads. If we return again, we hope to do so by cruise ship, then take some plane and boat excursions to see more of the coastal areas of the state — especially the islands.

Alaska overlaid on the lower 48 states. Public domain image credit: https://www.usmarshals.gov/district/ak/general/information.htm

Alaska overlaid on the lower 48 states. Sorry, Texas, you look small! Image credit: https://www.usmarshals.gov/district/ak/general/information.htm

What about the roads themselves? I’ve heard horror stories!

The roads were overall not as bad as the tales we heard, except for a few random spots, where there was seemingly never-ending construction and random frost heaves capable of launching you airborne. Our towed vehicle probably caught some air at least once!

By far the worst conditions in our entire drive! The road looked like a lasagne noodle.

By far the worst conditions of our entire drive! Closely-spaced frost heaves are brutal.

Certain sections of the construction zones and the narrow and bumpy Top of the World Highway knocked our progress down to 10-20 mph at times. Going slower is the best way to avoid damage to your vehicle(s) in those cases — lots of people who had passed us going quite a bit faster were on the side of the road later on with problems. You definitely want to measure your distances differently there, too: 60 miles may take 3 or 4 hours, not 1! We quickly learned not to try to firmly plan our arrival times.

Couldn’t you have taken the ferry instead and saved yourself a crazy amount of driving?

We seriously considered taking the ferry for one or both legs of the trip, but given the cost for a 27-foot motorhome + a towed vehicle (priced by linear foot), how far in advance reservations needed do be made, pets having to stay in your vehicle below deck for many hours at a stretch (with only quick bathroom breaks here and there), and not being able to sleep with them overnight in the RV (you have to book a cabin onboard), we decided that driving was a better solution for us. For some travelers, the ferry is a great alternative — but you’d also be missing out on some gorgeous inland scenery, especially on the Cassiar Highway, so do consider driving at least one way. You can read a recap of the ferry experience here, from our friends at Tiny House Giant Journey.

Was it hard to sleep when it’s still light outside in the middle of the night?

Yes! For us, at least. Others we talked to had less trouble, and some had an even worse time than we did. We learned that while 20+ hours of daylight sounds awesome — and is when you want to pack a lot of activities into a day when you’re on vacation — it also can really mess up your schedule, much like working night shift does. We apparently needed some indication of night approaching in our surroundings to start to get sleepy gradually. The time of day alone wasn’t enough to signal our bodies “Hey, stupid: go to bed!”

Even with blackout curtains, it meant we were usually still wide awake for an hour or two after going to bed, still trying to get tired. We were unintentionally up until 3:00 am so many times that we lost count, and paid the price by oversleeping or feeling awful the next day. Oversleeping didn’t work out so well when we were already 4 hours behind many of the people we needed to work with, who were in US Eastern Time.

It definitely affected our mood and work, and isn’t something to be taken lightly if you have trouble sleeping already or need to keep a strict schedule. Sleep masks, room darkening curtains or pieces of foil insulation in your windows, and training yourself to go to bed at the same time every day are all good ideas to combat the change in daylight hours.

One of many roadside overnight stops - you can't tell, but this was taken quite late at night.

One of many roadside overnight stops – you can’t tell, but this was taken very late at night.

So…since you had to work, how was the internet situation up there?

It’s amusing now, looking back on what we complained was “slow internet” in the lower 48 before this trip. Alaska and much of western Canada (the bigger cities excluded) are not so digital nomad friendly – that is, if your job requires a steady connection for several hours a day, and/or transmitting larger amounts of data. We were hoping for at least adequate data speeds — a couple megabytes-per-second (Mbps) download speeds can suffice. We researched the carrier maps for Alaska ahead of our trip, saw that they claimed LTE and 4G coverage.

This is a bad day for a digital nomad.

This is a bad day for a digital nomad.

We went in not expecting much, just that internet would be enough to connect to the systems we need for work while in the larger cities and towns. Overall, we were disappointed that it was still slower than we expected. That was true most everywhere, except some areas of Anchorage and Fairbanks. Our jobs require only the occasional video calls, and more frequently voice or text-chat meetings can suffice, but we must access websites via a proxy connection, due to security protocols. That means the stability of the connection is more crucial to us than download and upload speeds. If our connection’s not steady, we lose our proxy connection and can’t access any of our work tools.

Like everywhere, though, cellular coverage and speed is slowly improving in Alaska. As of last year, the stability was bad enough in most places, even with our cellular booster, that we were dropping connection constantly. It really slowed our efficiency, led to a lot of frustration, apologizing to coworkers and clients, delaying projects, camping in parking lots in major cities to be near a good signal, or hanging out at coffee shops instead of in beautiful surroundings. We also had less time and energy for the fun things we wanted to do, because our work took so much more work than usual.

Home sweet home at Cabela’s of Anchorage. Definitely not our first choice of accommodations, but we had more reliable internet here.

For a casual internet user or someone who can work primarily offline and then connect to upload work or check in when convenient, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. It wasn’t an issue for some of our friends who work mostly offline and then upload their work, and even for us it was fine sometimes, in the bigger cities. We sadly had to skip camping for more than a day or two in a lot of cool places, and missed getting to see some things completely that were further off the beaten path. We needed to be online 30-40 hours a week, and that meant staying near civilization 4-5 days a week. That’s not much time leftover for side-trips in a very big place like Alaska and western Canada, where the cities are few and far between.

We were still close enough to nature to do things like this as an afternoon workday break, thank goodness!

We were still close enough to nature to do things like walk the beach in Seward as an afternoon work break, which helped our stress levels a lot!

Someday, we may take a couple weeks off to go up on a true vacation, and not worry about being online at all. At least we’ve already done a preliminary trip and know exactly what we want to do next time!

How much did it cost – was everything crazy expensive?

Nearly everything in Alaska is a bit more expensive than you may be used to in the lower 48 or Canada. Gas, of course, and most every food item was more than we were used to paying back ‘home’, unless purchased at a big box store or a chain supermarket in the bigger cities. An extreme example was paying US $8 for a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk in some of the rural areas!

They were also frequently sold out of a lot of things in smaller towns’ grocery stores, depending on the time of week and their delivery schedule, or they had a limited selection to begin with. Fresh produce is quite expensive in Alaska and mostly imported (short growing seasons there), as is meat, other than native animals and fish.

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For reference, these $6.49 bags of Kraft shredded cheese are about $3 in the lower 48. Stock up in the cities if you can – at Costco or Sam’s Club in Anchorage, especially.

Thankfully, most of what we paid in higher prices for gas and groceries we saved in camping fees: in our 6 weeks there, we only paid for a handful of campsites. Free or very cheap ($5-20/night) camping is plentiful along the drive, and in Alaska outside the cities. If you have or were thinking of adding solar panels, your investment may really pay off with the long days for charging — ours sure did!

Fuel was the biggest expense we had to budget for: we spent around $3,500 in three months just on gasoline. Given that we averaged 7-8 miles per gallon in our big RV while towing a nearly 5,000-pound Jeep, that’s a good deal more than someone driving a smaller or more fuel-efficient vehicle would spend. In a class B van like what we have now, we’d have spent about half that. The environmentalists in us still die a little inside thinking about it, but we also lived off-grid for the better part of those three months, making our own power from the sun and rationing our water, and we did offset our carbon footprint a bit. Our primary task for this trip was to test drive the Trek thoroughly, which we did!

What were your favorite things you did in Alaska that you’d recommend?

By far, hitting the towns during their summer cultural events was our favorite way to take in a place. We love doing things that are uniquely local but not necessarily ‘touristy’. It makes for a much more authentic experience.

  • Our favorite local experience was being in Fairbanks for the summer solstice — the midnight sun baseball game (held from about 10pm-1am with no lights needed on the field) and the midnight 10k fun-run/walk were one-of-a-kind activities (see Technomadia’s recap here and Gone with the Wynns’ here).

Some of the best falafel we’ve ever had, at Pita Place in Fairbanks.

  • Sample the beer at various breweries in Alaska — there are quite a few!

We were so thankful that we were not the ones doing the driving of a large vehicle on a narrow dirt road for a change!

  • Head to Seward, Alaska for the Fourth of July — the world-famous Mount Marathon race is a spectacle, as are fireworks over the bay, and the SeaLife center to learn about wildlife rehabilitation. Take a charter out salmon and halibut fishing, and camp on the beaches next to snow-capped mountains.
  • We visited Valdez, Alaska in time for their Gold Rush Days festival, which was a lot of fun, and be sure to do the breathtaking and relaxing Lu-Lu Belle wildlife and glacier cruise. Worth every penny! We looked into the kayak tours as well (you can paddle up to glaciers), but it was a bit too cold and rainy during our visit.
  • Drive the Top of the World Highway through Chicken, Alaska and Dawson City, Yukon, and get a taste of the gold-panning culture there. In Dawson City, catch live music in local bars, Diamond Tooth Gertie’s for the can-can show (it gets more ‘racy’ the later the show is that night – so go to the latest one!), dare to drink the Sourtoe Cocktail at the Sourdough Saloon during Toe Time (but do NOT swallow it – this video will tell you why) and watch the Northern Lights if you’re there at the right time of year (we were lucky we saw them in mid-August, and they were amazing!).
  • Get a license and go fishing, if you enjoy it — we were too busy to fish, so mostly watched others and then helped them eat it (know your strengths!). 😉
  • Natural hot springs! There are quite a few en-route and off the beaten path in Canada and Alaska.
 Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park in Muncho Lake, BC - a great soak, but quite a lot of sulfur smell when we were there, if you're sensitive to that

Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park in Muncho Lake, BC – a great soak, but quite a lot of sulfur smell when we were there, if you’re sensitive to that.

Looking for more in-depth information, or other perspectives?

Don’t just take our word for how amazing Alaska and Western Canada is. Here’s a blog round-up from some of our RVin’ friends we traveled with last summer. Let me know in the comments if you have an Alaskan trip blog, and I’m happy to add yours!

Ardent Camper
Gone with the Dogs (they live near Denali in the summer, and RV in the lower 48 the rest)
Gone With the Wynns
His and Hers Alaska (they live in Seward, Alaska part of the year, and usually RV in the lower 48 in the winter)
JenEric Ramblings
Tales from the Mutiny
Technomadia
Tiny House Giant Journey

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8 comments

  1. Comment by ginaspitzer

    ginaspitzer Reply Jan 28, 2017 at 4:11 am

    You guys are great inspiration! 🙂

  2. Comment by Bellewether

    Bellewether Reply Jan 28, 2017 at 6:28 pm

    This looks like an incredible trip! I wish I could be based in the US and travel around as much… So far I’ve only seen California and bits of Nevada and Arizona, but this has inspired me to add Alaska to the list 🙂

    • Comment by Kristin

      Kristin Reply Jan 28, 2017 at 8:39 pm

      Thanks for reading! While it was great fun to do it as a roadtrip, a cruise or flight to Alaska would be even more enjoyable, so you can relax and enjoy the view. Driving was very tiring! We plan to do a cruise someday to see more of the coastal area that we missed by road. Happy travels! 🙂

  3. Comment by alexis

    alexis Reply Feb 26, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    What were the temps like while you were there? Assuming the dogs stayed in the RV while you took some of the tours… do you leave AC or fans on for them or was it not hot enough to need that?

    • Comment by Kristin

      Kristin Reply Feb 27, 2017 at 10:18 am

      Hi Alexis! It ranged in temperature quite a bit. When we were in Fairbanks there was a heat wave for a few days in June, where it was in the 90s! We were boondocking downtown at Pioneer Park so it was quite uncomfortable without AC, and we could only leave the dogs at night once the sun was down a bit. Everywhere else, temps ranged from lows in the 40s at night to mid-70s during the day and was very comfortable. We were in coats at least most of the time, and the dogs were fine in the RV.

      There are also a lot of pet sitters available, since there are so many tourists by RV up there. We hired one in Valdez to check on our dogs while we did the Lu-Lu Belle cruise for a few hours, and we had a friend near Denali check in on them while we did the 8-hour bus ride there. I’d recommend that you arrange something if you’re doing a longer tour, since something can come up while on tours and cause you to get back later than anticipated. If you need to find someone, you can try BringFido.com, Rover.com, or bulletin boards near or in the campground. Hope that helps!

  4. Comment by Elizabeth LaHoustonian

    Elizabeth LaHoustonian Reply Apr 13, 2017 at 8:54 am

    I’m just in awe! I wish a had a career that allowed me to do this!! Maybe I need to try harder to make it happen 🙂

  5. Comment by Seenorway

    Seenorway Reply Apr 17, 2017 at 6:17 am

    On my blog you may travel digitally throughout Norway. (And it’s all free!) More than 6000 pictures – all in ‘full screen’ – from cities, municipalities, from tourist destinations or just plain Norwegian nature at its best.
    Everything is texted in English as well as Norwegian. Please enjoy!

  6. Comment by ahappyeverything

    ahappyeverything Reply May 3, 2017 at 1:48 am

    Your travel in Alaska is epic.

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