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The Bentleys

The Bentleys are traveling North to Alaska with two other couples. They departed Southern California in June and are planning to spend two months exploring every nook and cranny (or crevasse and tundra) of Alaska and points north. Though free to go wherever their whims take them, they will most likely head north through British Columbia, make the grand circle of Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula and return via Alberta.

Click on the points on the map to see what we did at each location.






16 Ninilchik

The t-shirts would say, “Where the heck is Ninilchik.” We would say, Ninilchik is a tiny town approximately half way between Homer and Kenai, and a must see stop. There is not much there. Almost everyone and their brother run salmon and halibut charters, and there is a unique General Store with everything for the traveler, from hot fudge sundaes to stuffed ptarmigans. But the best was Deep Creek State Park. For $10/night we parked with our noses right on the beach of Cook Inlet with an incredible view of three, 10,000 foot plus, snowcapped, volcanic mountains across the water. The weather was perfect and the gentle sound of the shore break rhythmically rocked us to sleep.

In addition to relaxing and beach combing, there were a variety of things of things to do. The law states that the fisherman must dispose of their fish remains in moving water. That means that the birds, including many bald eagles, can come down and feast on them. We took a jeep ride up the beach to two beautiful waterfalls and spotted at least nine eagles. Our nice lunch was only slightly marred by having to winch “Barbie” out of a hole in the small river running from the waterfall to the beach.

We had planned to take one of the halibut charters out of Ninilchik. They launched the boats right next to our camp. People would climb in the boat and then a giant tractor would roll the trailer right into the water. Unfortunately, we did not make advanced reservations, so we were out of luck. However, we watched our neighbors, a very nice couple from Fairbanks filet their catch of the day, and we were thrilled when she put some in a bag and presented it to us. There was enough for two wonderful meals for all of us, and we were very appreciative of their generosity.


Kenai and Soldotna
At last, a visit to Kenai during “combat fishing” time. More than 200,000 salmon went through the counters in ONE DAY! They upped the limit twice and fishermen turned out in droves. The traffic was as bad as any big city, as everyone came to get some of the action. We had two of the rainiest days yet on the trip, but still Alaskan residents lined the banks of the outer Kenai River to dip net, an entirely new experience for us. They go out waist deep in their waders and stick their huge nets, on long handles, farther out into the water and scoop up fish. How they muscle them in was a mystery to us.

The surrounding area had several interesting stops. The lunch stop in Kenai was recommended by a local. The Burger Bus tuned out to be literally a bus, that turned out a fantastic burger and fries at a really inexpensive price. Right around the corner, in Old Town Kenai, was the old Russian Orthodox Church, complete with a wonderful old retired priest to tell stories of the church and its history in Alaska.

Along the Sterling Highway, north of Soldotna, we went looking for diamond willow canes to buy, and found the old “Willow Picker” in his shop, surrounded beautiful carvings of all kinds. Some were carved antlers, and he sent us down the road to check out Alaska Horn and Antler, where Tom C. had a great selection of beautiful items. On the way back to Soldotna we stopped to view the amazing winners of a recent chainsaw competition.

The next day we tried to get to the Moose is Loose Bakery, famous for great cinnamon rolls, but missed out when the crowd was too large, and it was closed the day after.


22 Dawson City

The Top of the World Highway was well named. What a view! It even included a couple of caribou that strolled across the road in front of us. The weather was perfect - there had been just enough rain to get rid of the dust. We re-entered Canada, took the ferry across the Yukon River, and entered Dawson City.

The place to start is the Visitor Center. They offer many guided tours that add immensely to the understanding and enjoyment of the town. There are even cruises along the Yukon available, from a paddlewheel boat to a trip to a native fishing village.

A walking tour of the city (either on your own, using the guide from the visitor center, or with a guide) is well worth the time. Many of the old houses remain, some at a severe slant, caused by melting of the permafrost beneath them. The newer houses must be built in the manner of the gold rush days, so the character of Dawson City remains.

A trip up Dome Road, leads to an observation point far above town, which affords great views, not only of Dawson City, but of Bonanza Creek. This is the site of the gold discovery which started the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, and it is still worked today (obviously, with gold approaching $1800/ounce vs. $10 they got back then.). You can also see the weirdly shaped “worms” formed by the dredging operations.

The old log homes of Robert Service and Jack London has been preserved as they were when they spent time in Dawson City, but one of the most impressive homes was that of the Commissioners Residence. Beautifully restored and featuring actual furniture of the day, it is well worth a visit, and the video on the Commissioner’s wife, Martha Black, tells the story of an amazing woman. Too bad it was only used for a few years. The problem? It took 240 cords of wood to heat it for a year.

Of course, a visit to Dawson is not complete without a trip to Diamond tooth Gerties, where Bobie taught us the fine art of 21. Three shows a night (progressively more risqué) feature the can-can girls, a form of entertainment apparently never seen in early Dawson City. The Palace Grand Theater (as well as others) had many kinds of entertainment, but not that.


Jasper National Park

Our first view of the magnificence of the Canadian Rockies was Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the range. We were concerned we would not be able to find a campsite, when we saw the number of vehicles entering the park, but we got into Whistler, closest to the town. We explored downtown Jasper and ate dinner at Earl’s, on a second story balcony, overlooking the street.

The next day we headed for the Jasper Lodge and decided, when we became millionaires, we would definitely spend a week there. What a beautiful lodge on a gorgeous blue lake, with a full size golf course. If it’s good enough for Bill Gates (who had been there the week before,) it’s good enough for us.

We then took the drive to Maligne Lake. A herd of friendly mountain sheep blocked our way for a while, so we joined the crowd enjoying them. A stop at Maligne Canyon treated us to the roaring sound and vibration of rushing water, coursing through narrow rock chasms, grinding out giant potholes in the rock. This contrasted with the quiet blue beauty of Medicine Lake, with the mountains behind. Strangely, almost the whole lake disappears in the winter months, flowing underground through a natural labyrinth of rock tunnels, faster than it can be replaced.

Maligne Lake was impressive, surrounded by several huge mountains, but it was very crowded. Many people rented canoes and kayaks to explore the lake. Others took a boat cruise around the lake. Another lodge provided food, rooms, and shopping. A deer put in a brief appearance before disappearing into the woods.


Banff

We left jasper and headed down the Icefields Parkway toward Banff. The entire length was filled with views of the massive Rocky Mountains and aqua blue lakes and streams. Just after leaving the park we caught sight of a black bear for an instant. We pulled off at Athabascan Falls, a much wider river than Maligne Canyon, and walked the trails to view the water crashing downward through narrow channels.

The next stop was the Icefield Visitor Center and a sight of the Athabascan Glacier. You could take a huge tractor right onto the glacier, hike on it with guides, or hike to the base from a parking lot near the glacier. We didn’t do that, but we did eat at the cafeteria. (Don’t bother!)

We arrived at the north end of Banff National Park and stopped at the Lake Louise Campground, and headed immediately to Lake Louise. The sun had been in and out of clouds all day, but as we approached, it clouded over completely. The lake is an incredibly intense aqua color, but it does require good lighting for the best viewing. It was quite crowded, but we enjoyed wandering through the lodge.

The next morning we had breakfast in town and headed out to Moraine Lake. The sun cooperated and the lake was gorgeous, with bands of gray–blue, aqua, and deep marine blue, depending on where the shadows fell. We decided to try Lake Louise one more time before we left the area. We were rewarded with a view of bright red canoes paddling across the awesome green-blue lake.

We packed up and headed to south to Banff Townsite in the lower end of the National Park. Banff is much larger than Lake Louise and we enjoyed walking and driving the city streets and neighborhoods. The most incredible sight, however, was the Banff Springs Lodge. Built in the late 1800s to attract tourists to the Canadian Rockies, it has been added on to and developed into a massive structure, well worth the visit.


27 The End of the Trip

After being on the road for almost three months, our trip together draws to a close. We left the beautiful mountains, lakes, rivers and glaciers of Alaska and British Columbia, and drove toward Calgary and the flatter prairielands of eastern Alberta, and then south to Montana.

We really appreciate the Alaska Travel Industry Association choosing us to share our adventures with you. As we end, we would like to share some of what we have learned about traveling in the north:

1. If you come in June (and for much of the summer in the north), it really is “the Land of the Midnight Sun.” The sun “sets” around midnight, but it never gets really dark. Some kind of black out drapes really improves your chances of getting a good night’s sleep.
2. We always wondered what good sofa pillows were. We found some uses. They fit very well into the fan vents to block out the light coming in at night, and also in the cupboards carrying rattling pans on the bouncy roads.
3. Our group of three vehicles got a total of 5 rock chips, mostly from gravel thrown by approaching vehicles. Though slowing down helps, you can’t really do much about it. A change in the window deductible on your insurance policy would be advisable, although chip repairs are usually fully paid with insurance. For the tow vehicles a full size cover helps a lot. The smaller “bras” just get dust down the edges and wear the paint. On the jeeps, extra protection on the lights is beneficial.
4. The cost of living is somewhat higher in Alaska, but much higher in Canada. (Ex. Rum that cost $20 in the US is $67 in Canada. No wonder they monitor the amount you bring in!) Prepare accordingly and try to stock up on what you need to get from the lower 48 into Alaska.
5. The weather is a major factor in being able to really appreciate the beauty of Alaska. If clouds cover the snow-capped mountains, there isn’t much left in some areas. If you have the luxury of time, try to be flexible in your travel plans. If you can wait out bad weather, you may be rewarded.


21 Valdez to Chicken

We drove the whole 250 miles from Valdez to Tok in one day, skipping the old copper ghost town of Kennecott and McCarthy (too concerned about tire damage), and the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (too cloudy to see much.) We did take a quick lunch stop at the Visitor Center at the park and were rewarded with a great film, showing what the area looked like under better conditions. The whole trip just emphasized how lucky we have been to have had the time (and good weather), to really “see” Alaska, rather than just “drive” Alaska, as so many people must do.

Our arrival at Tok completed the grand loop of Alaska, and we lost John and Gayle, who had to head home. Tim and Diana had missed the Top of the World Highway while getting his detached retina fixed, and apparently the road was not too bad, as Bill and Bobie agreed to repeat the trip. They were rewarded by having beautiful weather; just enough rain to keep the dust down, but clear enough to enjoy the incredible views.

Our one day at Chicken expanded into three, as we toured an old dredge, panned for gold, ate at the local restaurants, and, of course, drank at the saloon. We watched an 88 year old woman celebrate her birthday with a muffin loaded with 88 wooden matches, curious to see what would happen when it was set ablaze. We hiked up to the big chicken on the hill and learned that it had been a high school metal shop project and was made from recycled Homer school lockers. And we shopped Beautiful Downtown Chicken and The Town of Chicken (two buildings, across the street from each other.)


Stewart-Hyder

Our trip from Whitehorse to Stewart presented us with more beautiful scenery. After cutting south on the Cassiar Highway, the spruce forests gave way to more lush vegetation with fields of flowers. This made a gorgeous foreground to the awesome, snow-capped Cassiar Mountains in the distance. We stopped at a pull out on Blue Lake and had the quiet place all to ourselves, except for a couple of loons and their young. It was a pleasure to hear their eerie call again.

We took the cut off to Stewart, BC and lunched at Bear Glacier, which descends almost to the road. Stewart was celebrating Bear Fest so we participated in the fair, and saw one of three movies offered, each of which had been filmed in the area. Early the next morning, we headed a couple of miles across the border, to the last part of our Alaskan visit, the small town of Hyder. The highlight of the area is the bear viewing platform in the Tongas National Forest. Fish Creek loads up with spawning salmon at this time of year, and the bears come for an easy meal. Unfortunately, the bears had just left as we arrived, and after an hour we still had seen none. We went to breakfast in Hyder and halfway through, several people came in and said the bears had come just after we left, and then had gone again. Frustrated, we were going to wait another day, but Bill and Bobbie decided to check it out that afternoon. They were rewarded with a mother brown bear and her year old cub frolicking in the water. The next morning Tim and Diana returned to find the same pair, as well as the male, who walked by, right below the boardwalk. What a sight!

Our last day, unfortunately, continued with the rainy, overcast weather we had had for several days. This made our trip to the Salmon Glacier far less spectacular than normal. One viewpoint showed the toe of the glacier with the aqua colored pools or kettles at its base, but the massive body of the glacier was lost in the fog.


Yellowhead Highway

We left Stewart-Hyder on a rainy day, and continued down the Cassiar Highway until it met up with the Yellowhead Highway – Canada 16. Instantly we were aware of more traffic than we had had all summer, then towns, and houses, and fields filled with rolls of hay, and COWS! We stopped at Gitwangak to look at an old church with an interesting bell tower, and some very old totems, and then spent the night at the Shady Rest RV park in Houston. What a treat! It was a beautiful park, with flowers and baskets everywhere, green grass and gravel spaces with no dust. Then we discovered very fast Wi-Fi and Direct TV for the first time in months. Now we truly knew we had once again reached civilization!

We continued on the Yellowhead, through Smithers, then to Prince George, where Bill tried to get a door handle for his coach. When we got out we noticed it was WARM! We stopped for the night at the beautiful Purden Lake Provincial Park. Happy hour around the campfire was interrupted by some light showers that sent us under the awning for the most incredible thunderstorm ever. The thunder rolled across the entire sky in continuous rumbles lasting upwards of 30 seconds. The next morning we were treated to the sight of a bear cruising the camp, looking for breakfast. (Well, I guess we aren’t completely back to civilization.) We left to continue our trip, but got as far as the park exit when Bill discovered his ride control was not working. Luckily he had a replacement valve, but it took most of the day to replace it, so we spent another night there.


Seward

Along the whole length of Seward, right next to Resurrection Bay, lays a series of city parks, open to camping. This area used to be part of the city, until the ’64 earthquake dropped the level of the land by 6 feet. Residents now call the long line of RVs parked along the water’s edge, the city’s “first line of defense” against another tsunami. Our RV park was at the base of Mt. Marathon, site of a grueling July 4th run straight up the 3000 foot mountain. (Well at least 60 degrees up for part of the distance.)

Our activities in Seward focused on the sea and glaciers. We started by buying and barbecuing fresh halibut and red snapper. Then we hiked to one of Alaska’s most accessible glaciers – Exit Glacier. And lastly we took an incredible Major’s Wildlife and Glacier Tour (another one of our Alaska TourSaver two-for-one coupons.) We explored the beauty of the Kenai Fjords National Park, saw whales (humpbacks and orcas) and birds of all kinds, and got close enough to Holgate Glacier to hear the “rifle shot” noise of cracking ice and see showers of ice plummet into the sea (though no real “calving”.) After delighting our eyes at every fjord and island, they then delighted our taste buds with a delicious salmon and prime rib buffet, followed by great desserts as we returned to Seward.

The next day took us to an interesting stop at the Alaska Sea life Center, where they study and rehabilitate all kinds of rescued ocean critters, and give the public a chance to learn about them too. A great hands-on room included a dissection of a halibut and a seven year old “docent” explaining how to handle a bowl of live crabs.




Ahhh! The adventure begins - and what a beginning! After an easy border crossing into Canada (it helps to know your regulations – and a pleasant officer doesn’t hurt either), we stopped just 50 kilometers north at Vedder River Campground in Chilliwack, BC. The soothing sounds of the Vedder River and wind in the trees replaced traffic and freeway noise. We decided to stay an extra day to visit two local sites – Minter Gardens and the Othello Tunnels. It was well worth it! Even though it was early in the season, the grounds of the gardens were awash with color. Water walls, vegetation sculptured into shapes, and vibrantly colored flowers greeted your every turn. We almost lost Bill, who wanted to stay on as a volunteer.

Then it was on to Hope, BC (filming site in 1982 of Rambo: First Blood, for you movie buffs) where unique wood sculptures adorn many street corners. The Othello Tunnels are just out of town. This series of 5 abandoned train tunnels, connected by bridges, allowed passage of the silver trains through a rugged gorge of the Frasier River, and was an engineering marvel of the early 1900s. A short walk takes you through the tunnels and over the gorge, for incredible views of the rushing, snow-melt swollen Frasier River below. The awesome power of the water, crashing into the cliffs far below, actually vibrated the bridge beneath our feet. Further up the Frasier is Hell’s Gate Airtram, a very popular tourist destination. Othello Tunnels are a little more remote and fewer visitors, but they definitely rival Hell’s Gate in beauty. A jacket and flashlight are helpful, but not absolutely necessary.

If you’d like to see more pictures of the area and our trip, go to our Alaska Travelers Picasa web album at https://picasaweb.google.com/105922292795547562533.



Chilliwack to Dawson Creek (3 days)

We traveled Highway 97 north, from the lush, green Frasier Valley, nestled between snow-capped mountains, to Cache Creek - the “Arizona of Canada.” Being in the rain shadow of the coastal mountains, this area is distinctly warmer and dryer. Still, rivers and lakes abound (along with the mosquitos that accompany water.) A great stop along the way was the Caribou Wood Shoppe with unusual wood products, great fudge, and some beautiful lilacs in bloom in the yard.

Stops along the route included everything from a farmer’s market in Quesnel (too early for many veggies and fruits,) to the Railway and Forestry Museum in Prince George. But our favorite was the chainsaw carving capitol of the world in Chetwynd, BC. Their annual competition was going on, and there were more than 100 whimsical creations by previous winners scattered around town.

Dawson Creek is the start of the famous Alaska Highway, built in 1942 in around 8 months by 10,000 Army Corps of Engineer personnel. Of course, everyone stands in the middle of the main street at the Mile 0 marker and has their picture taken. They probably don’t flag down passing motorists to take the picture like Bill did for our group. It is fortunate that there are so many friendly people along our route.

And speaking of friendly people, we asked at the visitor center for a place to have a drink. The staff said The Alaska Hotel and Pub was the oldest building in town, but the clientele was “sketchy.” Naturally, we made that our first stop. The bar tender was a pretty, super friendly woman from Newfoundland, who regaled us with stories of the area. Of course, the fact that there were only two other people in the place helped.

(Quick thoughts: Dawson Creek campgrounds were filled with gas line workers. Call ahead for lodging. We got stuck at a dirty, dusty RV park with marginal services. Workers worked all day Sunday and then left again early Monday morning. Canada must have full employment. Also saw lots of pretty, blond women with pony tails working the tractors and heavy equipment along the highway.)



Top of the World Highway to Dawson City – The Road Less Taken

We left Whitehorse by way of Highway 2, north to Dawson City. An abundance of multicolored wildflowers lined the road, making it look like an English rock garden; and vast vistas loomed ahead, with no one else around and no signs of human habitation for miles. We stayed at a state park and a jeep ride took us to a river walk (267 steps down), and an overlook that took our breath away. The road got rougher toward Dawson City, but going slower left time to see the beaver lodges and dams, and a bald eagle at the top of a pine tree.

After settling in at Dawson City we took the jeeps out and found some old mines and lots of old machinery. Way back in, we came across a beaver pond with a large beaver swimming with a piece of wood. When he saw us he slapped his tail and dove under. The guys had some fun in the streams and the jeeps were covered in mud. We later explored the old buildings around Dawson City, marveling at what it took to live here in the winter. We enjoyed the can-can show that night and again ran into some travelers we had met along the way.

The next day we crossed on the free ferry, and set off for Chicken (so named because the residents didn’t know how to spell ptarmigan, a local bird.) Our first introduction to Alaska was some more rough road, but the views of the mountains, valleys, and rivers went on forever. Chicken has a funky little bar, with all sorts of tourist memorabilia tacked all over the walls and ceiling. The evening was shattered by a loud boom, and we discovered a kid had set off an old cannon. Shortly thereafter, there was the sound of gunfire, and someone came into the bar and said they had finally gotten a pesky bear that had been breaking into camps.

It rained on the trip down to Tok, so the coaches got slimed with mud. Be sure to check road conditions before attempting the Top of the World Highway. We heard from some other adventurers after we had passed, that the road had washed out about ¾ of the way across. It did not take the highway department to get it repaired, though.


For you Jeepers traveling Alaska (or for hearty souls who want to go on a guided ATV ride, there is a fantastic experience available in Palmer, Alaska - an ATV/Jeep trip to the foot of the Knik glacier. We all set out for a morning Jeep drive, with a few snacks to tide us over until a noon lunch at Burger King. Eight hours later we finally got back to civilization, with an incredible trip under our belt. We wound around a mountain outcropping, bounced over holes and washboard, and squished through glacial mud holes. But the most fun was trying to find our way through the “braided river.” Around every corner there were tributaries to the large glacier-fed river that skirted our path. Some were shallow, but most were cloudy so you could not tell how deep they were. With John in the lead, we crossed several streams and then squeezed through one last narrow forest tunnel (that I never thought a jeep would fit,) through some more water, and made it to the final washboard, but clear, run toward the glacier. As we would catch a glimpse of it, it somehow seemed to fade further back as we traveled, and we were beginning to wonder if this trip was worth it. Then we crested one last steep mound, and there it was in all its glory – an incredible view - Knik Glaciier!!! A lake had formed at the base, so we thought our goal to touch a glacier would be thwarted, but some of the glacier had calved off and John fished it out of the water so we could all hold ancient ice, formed maybe thousands of years ago. What a day!

On the way back we came across another Jeep totally bogged down in the muddy river bottom, with the back end submerged. A truck was trying to winch him out, but didn’t have enough power. Bill hooked up his winch and did just about all the pulling to free him. There were 4 young people in the Jeep and they all said no problem. They had brought food, had sleeping bags (sopping wet), had matches (they were all smokers so I guess they kept them dry,) and were sure they could get the jeep started (after being under water for an hour.)



After one last stop at the Saturday Anchorage Market and Festival, an excellent craft and food market at Ship Creek, we headed south along the Turnagain Arm. Tides here run +/- 40 feet and you can watch a tidal bore (wave) come in. We got as far as Girdwood and used that as a jumping off spot to get to Portage Glacier and Whittier. For $10 we overnighted at the Alyeska Resort and took the tram to the top of the Chugach Mountains for a great view of the area, and a drink at the luxury Seven Glaciers Restaurant. (Wish we could have afforded dinner there!)

The next day it was off to Portage. A stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center was well worth the visit. You could get up close and personal with rescued animals of all types. Next was the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, with a great view of Portage Lake, and movies and ranger talks about glacier formation. Portage Glacier itself had retreated back around the bend, and so was not visible. A one hour boat tour could take you to the base. A few ice bergs accumulated in the lake during our visit, so I guess the glacier was calving. There were several nice forest camps in the area.

The trip to Whittier involves a trip through a 2 ½ mile, straight-as-an-arrow, train tunnel. Autos pass through only one way at a time, so you must time your passage, especially if you have a boat tour scheduled at the other end. A tour of Whittier took about 10 minutes, and then we stopped for lunch. A couple of good spots had outdoor dining right on the harbor, but unfortunately we didn’t pick the one that had rhubarb crumble for dessert.


Fairbanks! Where to start. Actually we started at the Safeway customer service window, where (as suggested by a fellow traveler) we picked up a Special Olympics Alaska Tour Saver two-for-one coupon book for $99. In addition to accommodations and museums, it has a lot of activities (flight seeing, river rafting, helicopter glacier landings) that you might not otherwise consider. We were more than half way to paying for the book with our cruise on the paddle wheeler, Discovery III. The trip down the Chena River included a float plane demonstration, watching a performance at Susan Butcher’s sled dog kennel, and a stop at the Chena River Village. You could wander the island seeing how the native people would catch (with a fish wheel) and smoke fish, and make warm winter clothing with furs, as well as view the sled dogs, garden, and housing.

Our second coupon was used at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, with great wildlife displays and art from the area. We viewed a movie on the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. We are tempted to come back in winter to see this unique display (flying, NOT driving the RV!)

Of course a visit to Fairbanks would not be complete without a trip to the North Pole. (North Pole, Alaska that is.) Just a little east of Fairbanks, you find not only a great Christmas shop, (which will mail your kids/grandkids letters postmarked North Pole, either now or at Christmas time) but Santa and his live reindeer too. Great fudge also!

We dry camped for $15 in the parking lot at Pioneer Park. The price even included discounts for the all you can eat Salmon Bake and the music and comedy show at the Palace Theater in the park, both of which we enjoyed. Entry to the park itself is free. Old homes from the area have been collected, and some turned into interesting shops selling Alaska items (diamond willow canes, carvings). The largest paddlewheeler, the Nenana, is being restored there. An old steam train takes visitors for a ride around the perimeter. If you want to pay an additional $8, you can even see what 40 degrees below zero feels like.

We were disappointed to find Verizon does not have a presence in Alaska, even in the cities. We can, once again, use the phone free, but it is extended service. Even so, we do, occasionally, get Wi-Fi on our modem.