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By Motorcoach Through the Yukon & Alaska
July 2007

by Murray Lundberg

    I love traveling! (you may have noticed that theme here :) ) Today I began a new gig as a tour escort - after many years of having an escort handle the details of my groups’ tours while I drove the motorcoach and talked a lot, now I have a driver while I take care of the details (but I still get to talk a lot!). I was afraid that it might be just too weird, but I’m really enjoying it, at least partly because my driver is both very good, and an Alaskan (a real Alaskan) who I’ve known for a decade or so. A big part of the enjoyment also comes from the fact that I’m working for a New Zealand tour company (and their BC partner) that I’ve worked with for 8 years as a driver - the people I’ve met in that time are the main reason that Cathy and I are going to New Zealand next February.

    The photojournal that follows will, I hope, be of interest to people looking for information about the route from Whitehorse to Seward via Dawson City, Fairbanks and Anchorage, people wondering how a tour like this actually runs, and those who wonder what being a tour guide is like. It includes many links to other sites for more information about communities and the specific hotels, tours and issues being discussed.

Click on each photo to greatly enlarge it.

July 5, 2007: On Day 1 my group of 18 New Zealanders arrived in Whitehorse on an afternoon flight from Vancouver. They'd had a busy day in Vancouver and many of them were tired, so we just did a tour of the SS Klondike and abbreviated city tour and took them to the Westmark Hotel.

July 7, 2007: Yesterday we made the long trek down to Dawson City. We arrived after 6:00, so today is the real “Explore Dawson” day. This photo was taken at Dredge #4 this morning while on our goldfields tour. I never get tired of Dawson, so while the other folks were doing their own thing this afternoon, I saw a film about the last voyage of the sternwheeler Keno, then took a tour of the boat itself. Doing things like that helps me keep some things in perspective. On that last voyage in 1962 (from Whitehorse to Dawson), a young man named Henry Breaden was First Mate on the Keno. Over the past 3 years, that same Henry and I have sent scores of emails back and forth, discussing the Yukon’s boats and rivers. Henry’s mind was sharp, and he was extremely enthusiastic about sharing his love of steamboating. The stories, however, ended a few months ago when he died on Vancouver Island. I never met him in person, but having seen him in the film, I miss his emails a lot right now.

This evening we all met at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Casino - as usual on these tours, it wasn't a long night, but it was fun.

July 8, 2007: It was cloudy in Dawson City this morning, but was clearing nicely as we left at 11:00. It took a few minutes to get on the ferry across the Yukon River - last night we heard of 3 hour waits for RVs yesterday (due to the fact that they insist on all leaving town within a few minutes of each other - duh!). We stopped for a last look at the town and headed up the Top of the World Highway.

At the summit of the highway, just before dropping down to US Customs to cross into Alaska, there’s a pull-out where you can always find lots of wildflowers as well as a fabulous view. Across the road is a hill that’s about 50 feet higher (roughly 4,600 feet), and most of the group hiked up it. It’s one of those things that seems to just take one person to start, then everybody thinks it’s a good idea. The visibility today was excellent - while I don’t like rain, I sure like having no forest fires!

As usual, the border crossing was quick and pleasant. After the official part of the process, I took everybody’s passport in to the office and added the great “Poker Creek, Alaska” caribou stamp to each.

I had planned to stop at the “Welcome to Alaska” sign for a group photo, but it was jammed with RVs and we could neither get into the parking lot nor near the sign for a photo, so we continued on to our afternoon tea-and-sweets stop at Chicken. If there was ever any question about which place in Chicken is the best for groups to stop at, the beautiful new deck at The Chicken Gold Camp should provide the answer. What a great spot to get together to enjoy the sunshine. As you can see in the background, there are a lot of RVs on the road right now - this was one of the busiest days I’ve ever seen on this road.

As we sat there on the deck in Chicken, we could see (and hear) a massive storm approaching from the west, and a mile down the road we got hit by torrential rains and some hail. It only lasted a few minutes, but the noise of the rain/hail hitting the coach was deafening. We passed by some incredible fields of fireweed in the 2003-2004 forest fire areas today, but were never able to stop due to either the rain or having no place to get the coach off the road.

We stayed at the Golden Bear Lodge in Tok tonight. It’s pretty basic, but provides a really nice spot to get together for a drink before dinner. While most of us partied, Doc was 100 feet away cleaning the coach. I am so pleased to have him with us - he’s proven over and over again that he’ll do whatever it takes to make this a great trip. While my new position has its own set of challenges, I love it, though having a driver instead of being a driver is an odd feeling that I can’t yet find words for - not a bad feeling at all, just an odd one.

July 9, 2007: It started raining heavily about 3:00 this morning, and continued coming down in buckets through breakfast and for 100 miles or so up the Alaska Highway. Although the rain lessened, it continued for most of the day, finally quitting just before we reached North Pole. If we have to get a day of rain, this was the one we wanted it to happen on, as it’s the one that has the fewest views and activities that are affected by it. Doc has a good selection of DVDs and music on the coach, and a film about the Alaska Highway followed by some “easy listening” music made the day pass easily.

Once in Fairbanks at the Wedgwood Resort, I invited everybody up to my huge room for drinks (there’s easily room for the 20 of us), then we all went out for an excellent dinner at the hotel restaurant. It’s wonderful when a group “gels” like this - what could have been a dull day turned out to be a lot of fun.

July 9, 2007: Sunday was our “Explore Fairbanks” day. This is a city that takes some research if you’re travelling independently - it certainly doesn’t look like much at first glance, but there are some excellent things to see if you take the time to look. The biggest problem is that one day just isn’t nearly enough. We made a short stop at a Trans Alaska Pipeline interpretive center north of town on the way to Dredge #8, a gold dredge that still sits on the spot where it quit working in 1959, the year Alaska became a state. Following a tour of the dredge, everybody got to try their and at gold panning - here, our tour escorts Mary Stuart and Dale Renouf look for some nuggets.

I’m sure that Doc tells his wife, Monika, about how much pressure he’s under as a motorcoach driver, so I just had to include a photo of him hard at work at the dredge! Seeing only 2 other coaches there reinforced my feeling that tourism is way down this year - though there are some bright spots such as Chicken being busy, our hotel is nearly empty.

Our major excursion was a cruise on the Riverboat Discovery, a 3-hour tour down the Chena and Tanana Rivers, with a stop at a reproduction Indian village. The photo below shows the floatplane demonstration that’s put on shortly after leaving the dock. Despite a rather cool and cloudy start to the day, the weather forecast of sunny with temperatures in the low 80s was quickly becoming true.

Huskies and mushing play a large role in the Riverboat tour, with a stop at Dave Monson’s kennel along the Chena, and another talk at the Indian village. Having a sled dog acting like a big baby on her lap is certainly a cute way for the musher to show people just how gentle these furry athletes are. Other talks at the village show people about reindeer, and about various aspects of Athabaskan Indian culture including hunting and trapping, and making clothing.

This was a very full day, but even though some people were really tired, our get-together before dinner was lively.

July 10, 2007: I was up at 05:00, and there was hardly a cloud in the sky - a gorgeous day to relax on the Alaska Railroad to Denali National Park!

At 08:20 we departed from Fairbanks for the 4-hour trip, in one of the luxurious McKinley Explorer cars on the Alaska Railroad. This was one of the things that my groups have done for many years that I could never join them on, as the driver goes ahead to Denali so that everything is ready when the train arrives. Our car manager, Ben, did an excellent tour en route - not too much talking, just good information when it was appropriate. Most of the route is very pleasant but not exciting, and a few people slept through part of it. Once we began our crossing of the Alaska Range, though, all eyes were open, and the Nenana Gorge section is simply stunning. This photo shows the view as we passed the hotel area, a couple of miles from the Denali station.

There’s a small gift shop on the train (of course! :) ), and I bought a Bachmann AKRR train set that I’ve been eyeing for a few years. I’m not quite sure yet what I’m going to do with it, but having it run around my office just above eye level is appealing.

The Denali park gate area gets uglier every year (people in the tourism industry call it “Glitter Gulch”), and I have a hard time even trying to absorb all the new crap so I can answer whatever questions might arise. To add to that commercial ugliness, the park concessionaire, Aramark, gets more ignorant each year. This year (to make a long story very short), we got bumped from our booked-months-ago hotel at the last minute, and ended up at the Crow’s Nest Cabins. They’re very basic, but clean, away from the hustle and bustle, and they have great views, as you see here. Everybody seemed to be pleased with the property. Instead of spending 2 nights here as we do normally, though, we have to move to Talkeetna tonight, as no suitable hotel had 2 nights available on short notice.

It’s now 0430, the sun is just hitting the summit of Mount Healy across the valley, and it’s looking like a spectacular day for the Tundra Wilderness Tour!

July 10, 2007: The Maher group was yet again blessed in Denali National Park today - the variety of animals we saw was wonderful, and some were in unusual places compared to my last 25+ trips into the park. We left the McKinley Chalet hotel on the Tundra Wilderness Tour (TWT) bus at 6:30am and got back at 2:15pm - in that 8 hours we saw 3 moose (2 cows and the bull seen here), 3 grizzly bears, several distant Dall sheep, a black-coloured wolf (from 2 locations along the road), several caribou (including an opportunity for excellent skyline-silhouette photos), a harrier hawk, a gyrfalcon, a cross fox and lots of smaller animals and birds.

As always, we had an excellent driver/guide. Lisa Frederics, who has run the Iditarod, has endless stories about huskies and mushing, and her knowledge of the park and its inhabitants is very good. Her book, Running With Champions, is available at Amazon and other retailers.

Some people recommend taking the NPS shuttle buses into the park because they’re substantially cheaper than the Tundra Wilderness Tour. Certainly the box lunch on the TWT isn’t worth the extra $50, but they do have more comfortable seats, more legroom and a great video camera / monitor system that lets people get a close-up look at distant wildlife, or a very close-up look at medium distances.

This group photo was shot at Stony Dome, elevation 4,700 feet. This is where the TWT turns around when Denali (a.k.a. Mount Mckinley) is or might be visible - at other times the Toklat River is the furthest point. Although it doesn’t show in the photo, we could just see Denali through the clouds. She started to clear as we pulled away, and a half-hour later we got a clear view of her right to the summit.

Following the tour we drove 3 hours to the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, a beautiful lodge to relax in. Today, although Denali herself isn’t visible, we have a great view of the Alaska Range and the Chulitna River valley from the restaurants and huge viewing decks, and we’re not leaving for Anchorage until noon. Some members of our group have already taken a shuttle into the village of Talkeetna, a colourful little community that we seldom get an opportunity to see.

July 12, 2007: Everyone seemed to enjoy having the morning to relax and/or explore at the lodge yesterday morning. To avoid getting to Anchorage too soon, I offered the group a chance to go to the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer as well as the scheduled stop at the Iditarod Sled Dog Race headquarters in Wasilla, and as expected, everyone thought it was a good idea - unlike most of North America, New Zealand is still very much agriculture oriented.

At the Musk Ox Farm, we again had a very good guide, 15-year-old Hannah, who was born in Palmer and is both passionate and knowledgeable about musk ox and the farm operation. After modelling a nachaq for me (it’s knitted from qiviut, the beautiful underwool of a musk ox), Gay couldn’t resist buying it, and many raffle tickets on a $6,000 qiviut blanket were sold to other members of our group.

Doc and I gave everyone a few suggestions for dinner as we came into Anchorage, but we all ended up at Phyllis’s Cafe and Salmon Bake, 2 blocks from the hotel. The staff there quickly set up a line of tables for us (the dinner rush was pretty much over), and the food and service was excellent as always.

This morning, we took a 2-hour tour of the city, now everyone is free to explore again. Tonight we have our last land-based get-together in the hotel conference room. For me, the tour ends tomorrow morning when everyone else heads for Seward to board the Summit, one of the top-rated ships on the Alaska run - *sigh*.

The group left for Seward with Doc at 9:00am, to board the Summit at about 2:30. As usual with the Maher groups, I’ll be driving to Skagway with my huskies Kayla and Monty to meet them before they leave on their bus-rail excursion. It’s so much nicer to be able to say “see you in a few days” rather than “goodbye”.

I took advantage of the 3 hours I had before taking a cab to the airport to buy a new suit at JC Penney’s half-price sale. After our first couple of cruises my old suit shrunk a bit - must be the salt air affecting the fabric - but now I’m all set for our cruise next week.

I was able to share the cab ride with a couple from the UK who had just finished an Alaska adventure that included a Brooks Falls grizzly viewing trip. They were also on their way to Vancouver, on the same flight I was. It was a very pleasant encounter, and saved me 12 bucks - an excellent combination.

Being “ship day”, the lineups at ANC were terrible, but in half an hour I was through Customs, heading for the observation deck. Anchorage is a “bird”-watcher’s paradise, with lots of traffic and lots of aircraft seldom seen elsewhere. Heavy freighters in particular are in abundance, and I added 115 more photos to my collection, including many of heavies almost hidden by spray as they slowed after landing in the heavy rain.

The ground vanished shortly after our 2:15 takeoff, and the weather forecast that morning led me to believe that I wouldn’t see it again until we were on approach into Vancouver. A few minutes after the movie I watched ended, though, the mountains and coast just south of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, appeared below. I tuned into XM satellite radio’s country station and watched the world slip by. Even from about 30,000 feet, the incredible cliffs and waterfalls of Princess Louisa Inlet were unmistakeable.

Travel excites me, and air travel is simply a wonder. People who see me taking pictures - lots of pictures - at an airport or in the air probably think that I don’t get out much, but having a record of all the places and events I see is an important part of travelling. The spectacular coast below us as the clouds parted was just vague lines or white spaces on the maps of 300 years ago, and was still causing great hardships to people a century ago - now we can get to any part of it on a day trip from major cities.

I had a 4-hour layover at YVR before catching my flight to YXY. That flight must be odd for people who have never been north - seeing it getting lighter as midnight approaches rather than darker.

Cathy, Kayla and Monty met me in the terminal. Nothing says “welcome home” quite like 2 very excited huskies, and some of the people from Outside seem to really enjoy seeing this Northern tradition.