Alaska-Yukon

Cost for June 2012 is $2350; expect to drop by 50% by Spring 2012.  As only four days are at sea, book  inside cabin and save.  Land meal-plan available.

On tour with Holland America, from Anchorage to Denali to Fairbanks (train) to White Horse to Skagway (bus) to Vancouver (ship). 

Bring at least $150 in cash as it will be needed to tip tour guide and bus drivers.  Cash will also be required to tip in Beaver Creek .

  Getting through security at  LGB airport was a matter of a few minutes despite the need to take off, then pull on my hiking boots (which I didn’t really need as it turned out—hiking sandals would have been sufficient).  We land in Anchorage five hours later and take a $40 cab ride to town and the Westmark Hotel.  This latter is part of a hotel chain recently assembled by Holland-America to take care of its tour-cruise guests.  See review at http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g60880-d72958-r113056036-Westmark_Anchorage-Anchorage_Alaska.html

    An information packet awaits us at the desk and we learn we are to have our bags packed and outside our hotel room by 6am the next morning (or 5am PDT).  Our tenth-floor room has a marvelous view of the harbor.

  The next morning, the lobby deserted at midnight the night before is packed with four busloads and we head for the outside just to hear ourselves think.  A Korean woman, her nationality easily recognized by the quilted coat she is wearing, waits with us silently as she had no English.  She is one of a half busload of Koreans all now living in Colorado who will join us on the tour. They are not part of Group 8B, our group which is the last to load and head for the train terminal.

   An earthquake, half a century earlier, has deposited the terminal almost 50 feet below the town proper.  Groups 8B and  the Koreans (8A) share the second floor of a dome car.  The rest room and the dining room where we will shortly have breakfast are on the floor below.

  Coffee and tea, $2 in the train's dining room, are free on the floor above where a bartender dispenses drinks and a running commentary. As I will do for most of  the tour, I listen to an audio book via my noise cancelling earphones, silencing the commentary and the numerous side conversations, and watch the scenery--spruce, pine, beech and poplar, a mother bear and her two cubs,  and the occasional glimpse of a river or a lake till we near the Denali National Park late that afternoon.  The approach to the Park, with the river below running through a steep canyon reminds us of the approach to Arthur's Pass via rail from Christchurch in  NZ's south island.

      Once checked in (to a room without a view), we head for town and acting on a tip  from our tour guide have supper at the Salmon Bake, where we had the best salmon we'd ever tasted grilled on a cedar plank.  See review of hotel at http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g143022-d230207-r113668650-McKinley_Chalet_Resort-Denali_National_Park_and_Preserve_Alaska.html

 

 

The next morning—again luggage must be outside the room by six thirty—saw us boarding a Nature Tour after a buffet breakfast. The tour that took us up into the park through the Targa, home to stunted white and black spruce--the latter limited in size by the Arctic permafrost which forestalls tap roots.; they are also easily toppled by high winds.

      When DeNali came into view, the driver stopped so that we might take photos (“no guarantee that it won't be hidden by clouds ten minutes from now).  While DeNali’s peak is not the highest in the world, the mountain  is the tallest, 2900 M from base to peak.

      Further uphill from the Targa, lies the Tundra, where the vegetation is limited by the altitude to scrub brush.

 

 

   

Keeping the bears at bay. 

    

 

Having checked out of our room before we left, on our return we pass the time in the hotel lobby online before taking an aborted hike, then board a second bus which brings us to a sled-dog demonstration.  Ever take your pre-teen kids for a walk? Nothing can match their excitement except for sled dogs who know they're about to be hitched to a sleigh for a brief run.

      We scorn the bus for the return trip and take a two mile hike through the woods instead.  Saw not a single bear (whom we were supposed to engage in conversation so he'd know we were not a moose) or  a moose (from whom the only escape would be to run like hell—as I was carrying my laptop,  this run would not have ended well.) 

 

 

 

 

   

The afternoon was completed by a four-hour train ride to Fairbanks.  Again we eat on the train, crab cakes, crab salad, and a fish soup, not half as good as our meal the night before. On the way into town, our train passes the University of Alaska (and their experimental gardens). Holding pans on the other side of the tracks are said to still be contaminated with the arsenic used in gold extraction.

Our Westmark hotel room is a suite with a kitchenette, two TV's, and a table. Great news—we will spend two nights in Fairbanks, will have time to do our laundry and needn't pack our bags that evening!

 

 

 

Still, we need to rise early as we've a full day of activities ahead. (This tour-cruise is not recommended for night owls.)  First, a bus brings us to the boat landing. Here, multiple tour buses discharge their passengers and we all board a multi-deck paddlewheel.  Up river takes us past a series of river-side houses, each with a boat pulled up on shore, many with a light plane parked in their back yard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The trip includes a sea-plane demonstration we watch as it takes off from, circles, then lands back on the river’s surface.  At the conjunction of two rivers, our way blocked by a sandbank, we reverse course and pull in to an Inuipat village. By the waterfront, salmon is being set out on wooden scaffolds to dry.   We break up into groups in order to view four different demonstrations.  In one they illustrated the use of a paddlewheel to catch salmon during a run. My favorite was a chance to tour a cabin and see the multiple uses to which dried animal skins were being put. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A salmon appetizer on the boat merely whetted our appetites.  A long bus ride brought us to mining camp, where we lunched on beef stew and biscuits in a large dining hall.  Next, we toured the dredge, now retired that had been used to pull gold out from the river.  (With the price of gold ever rising, it may soon be brought out of retirement.)

   Finally, a brief ride on a miniature train brings us to a gold-panning demonstration after which we’re given the opportunity to pan for gold ourselves.  Dorothy and I using two pans pull up $35 worth at the then price of gold.  The experts in our group pull in $50 to $85 worth.

      The driver gives us a tour of Fairbanks on our return (though I confess I’m perhaps too sleepy to enjoy it) and then we are back at the hotel.  On our arrival the previous evening, we’d encountered several gardeners planting annuals by the hotel’s front door.  Miraculously, those very same plants now appeared to be almost a foot taller.  Is this really the Far North’s secret—making every hour of sunlight count?

We had dinner at a Korean sushi restaurant:  http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g60826-d935029-Reviews-Wasabi_Bay-Fairbanks_Alaska.html

Our luggage went outside our hotel room at 11pm the night before in preparation for another early-morning start.  A time-wasting stop at Santa Claus Village is followed by morning coffee and pecan pie at a delightful recreation of turn-of-the-century Rika’s Roadhouse.  The interiors hold the games and other objects I remember from summer vacations of my own youth (circa the 1940’s). 

 

We stop in Tok for a gourmet lunch and then it’s off to the Canadian border. 

 

 

 

 Things might have gone smoothly at the border had not the Canadian officials chosen to select one of our number—me—for a detailed questioning.  It seems their interest was aroused by a report from the FBI—an FBI report had been provided to the Canadian officials for each and every member of our party—as to why, some 55 years before I had been obliged to make a voluntary deportation from the USA.  The  explanation, which, thankfully, they believed as nothing the Yanks might do could amaze them anymore, was that while I was hitchhiking home from college in California years before, a bored U.S. border guard had hauled me in so that he might spend the last half hour of his shift inside a warm office drinking coffee out of the rain and, having no real reason to detain me, had “allowed” me to take a voluntary deportation across the border to Manitoba in the direction I was going anyway.

 

We stop for the night at Beaver Creek in the Yukon.  Going for a hike before dinner, we soon discovered that our hotel was located at one of the few solid pieces of land in the surrounding tundra, every other off-road location being in a swishy shallow swamp.  The not particularly memorable meal was followed by entertainment, alas, the nature of which will be familiar to any parent who has attended elementary school or camp performances.  Each busload got to present a song with lyrics especially written for the occasion. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luggage out by 11pm; breakfast and on the road again by eight the next day.  It’s to be a long, long bus ride through scenic wilderness.   The first half takes us alongside the Yukon Intermountain Range.

   

We stop   for a box lunch in a small town near Kluane National Park and tour a nearby museum run by the Park Authority. Great place to pick up pamphlets on alpine wild flowers.

 

 

Just a few miles from White Horse, we stop at a sled-dog kennel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spend the night in White Horse.  A delightful walk along the river brought us to a far-from-delightful over-priced Mediterranean-style supper.  Pack, pack, pack for it’s an early-start again on the final morning of the bus tour.

   

The blue-green color of the lake is created by sunlight reflecting off a white layer of  “marl” on the lake bed.

   

We stop in Carcross for coffee:

 

 

 

                                                                                       

 

Just before noon, we board the coal-powered train that will take us over the mountain and into Alaska.  Thankfully, our luggage remains on the bus to  catch up with us again in Ketchikan.

 

Oops, five minutes from the station, a wheel bearing overheats and we stop till the fire is put out and the wheel is repacked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All too soon, our train ride is over and we pull into the station in Ketchikan.  In minutes, our tour-cruise goes downhill. Sensible persons would have taken their luggage and walked to the ship at this point.  Instead, we wait with the others for a new bus to take us.  We wait and when we finally arrive at the pier, we wait some more.  Attempts to get out and stretch our legs are quickly thwarted by our perky tour guide.  Finally, we are permitted to join a queue making its lengthy way aboard.  At the reception desk, a newbie attempts several times to take our picture but fails, possibly because in her haste she disconnected the webcam. I am hungry, covered with sweat, tired, and complain loudly. 

     Our tiny inside cabin, equipped with a king-sized bed leave little room for maneuvering.  We eat quickly in the ship’s cafeteria; then, computer in hand, we head for town in search of wifi and beer.  The town library has both computers and wifi.  Beer is not sold by the grocery but by a liquor store.  Dorothy spies a bracelet in a window and once inside the jewelry store, I almost make a fatal mistake.  They are haggling over the cost of the bracelet.  I hear the word “thirteen,” then “twelve.”  “Eleven-fifty,” I announce to Dorothy’s surprise.  Only after I am given my bankcard slip to sign do I realize that we are talking $1150!  We return to the ship without the bracelet; but we do have beer.

 

 

   

The next morning, we bundle up and head out on deck to watch our passage through Glacier Bay.

 

 

 

Landing in Skagway, I join the crew on the pier and shelter from the chill breeze while taking advantage of the town's free Wi-Fi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 We take a free shuttle into town, enjoy the river walk, and traipse from store to store so that Dorothy might collect a free gift from each one. Nine trinkets in all!

 

     

 

 

We lunch on fish and chips on the pier, then walk back to our ship.  Next morning, we land in Vancouver, disembark, take the shuttle to the airport and fly home, exhausted.