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Alaska & the Yukon – Day by Day

September 13, 2004

Day 1 – On to Alaska

Our most important task for the day was getting to the airport in time for a noon-ish flight, which we did. For some reason, we hadn’t been able to check in online like we usually do but our seat assignments qualified us to stand in the first class line at the counter (not that it seemed to move any faster than the regular line but at least we felt special while we waited). I was glad I’d had the foresight to check that the travel agent had put our frequent flier numbers into the reservation–she hadn’t, but I got them in time to get the “thank you for flying so much” upgrade that we’ve been fortunate to get a lot recently. Though I’m an aisle seat kind of gal, I got as close to Mr. Karen’s window as I could when Alaska came into view. It was stunning–snow-capped mountains and glaciers galore. The cruise ship seemed a little out of place, but I had no grounds to object since I was going to be on one myself at the end of the week.

We met Joan and Dale (Mr. Karen’s parents, for those of you just joining us) at the airport in Anchorage–this trip had been their idea, a way to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary (we also celebrated it on the actual day at this year’s family reunion, but that event got lost in the shuffle as far as this journal goes because that was the same time I had to sew and sew and sew to get the mushroom quilt done to meet the deadline). By the time we got bused to the hotel with some of our fellow tourees, we had just enough time to go find dinner and poke our heads into a few shops before bed. I was sorry to see that the restaurant serving the wanton soup was already closed for the day, but maybe that would have been too wild for a family vacation anyway.

Day 2 – Riding the Rails

This day’s itinerary had us catching a bus to ride a few blocks to the train which took us up to Denali. There was plenty to see even though what I thought was early morning mist never burned off because it was actually smoke from all the forest fires burning in the state. We ate both breakfast–I had mine with reindeer sausage, which I wonder if Alaskans eat or if it’s just something they serve to tourists–and lunch on the train, and I was sad that I wouldn’t be able to tell my dad about the whole experience (well, I can still tell him, but who knows if he’s able to hear me at this point in the afterlife).

We stepped off the train and made our way to one of the many waiting buses to be shuttled to our hotel. The view from our building was beautiful even through the smoke. It felt good to get out and walk around the grounds after being cooped up in buses and the train all day. Mr. Karen and I strolled down to the river, and I took lots of pictures of the fireweed since doing so when it was zipping by the train windows wasn’t all that successful. It must have been really striking when it was all in bloom.

Day 3 – Mes Amis Les Animaux

At 5 in the morning, when we were trudging to breakfast in the dark, I was not very happy. When I found the breakfast buffet had crispy, crispy bacon just the way I like it, I felt a little better. At 5:30, when the bus driver was complaining about our bags which we’d been told yesterday we could bring with us, I was not very happy. At 6-ish, when we saw the first moose, I perked up. Over the next six or seven hours, we saw a lot of wildlife (which I did not have the right camera to get good pictures of but that did not stop me from trying)–moose, grizzly bear, caribou, ptarmigan, arctic ground squirrel, snowshoe hare, raven, Dall sheep. Some people saw a pika, but not me, since I was on the wrong side of the bus. Between animal sightings, the scenery was often spectacular, with braided glacial rivers and fall colors and hills and mountains in every direction. The universe smiled upon us and we were even able to see The Great One, Denali (also known as Mt. McKinley). That made me very happy, especially since I failed to get up and peer out of the windows on the other side of the plane on Sunday when I had the chance to glimpse the top of it above the clouds–I feared that I might have missed my only opportunity but no, here it was, and not just the top, either.

It would have been so nice to go back to the hotel and take a nap after the tundra tour, but since we didn’t have rooms anymore, Mr. Karen and I went shopping instead until it was time to board the bus to get back on the train and head to Fairbanks, where we got on another bus to another hotel, where we’d be reunited with the luggage we left in Anchorage because the train to Denali only allows small carryons. We arrived in our room to find Mr. Karen’s suitcase and Joan’s. It’s easy to see how the bell staff could mix up the bags, especially since Dale and Joan’s tour tags only had “Datname, Party of 2” on them instead of their individual first names like our did. Except it wasn’t that they’d just switched the bags–mine wasn’t in Joan’s room, either, nor was it in the luggage room off the lobby where other wayward bags ended up. So in addition to the other paperwork we’d been given on the bus to fill out for this portion of the tour, I got to do a missing luggage report. Was there anywhere close for me to buy clean underwear and socks? There was not. The gift shop had plenty of awful home accessories but nothing practical, and the hotel was located in the most inconvenient part of town I could imagine–we took a walk and found only a few more gift shops (which weren’t open any of the hours we could get to them) and not even anywhere to eat breakfast the next morning. We did, however, come across some very creative shingling that intrigued me even as I pondered how fabulous I’d be in dirty clothes the next day (did I mention how I momentarily thought I was a Dall sheep and took a tumble in the dirt while walking along the river behind the Denali hotel? no? well, I did, only picking up one bruise in the process). Late that night, after I’d washed socks and underwear (with conditioning shampoo–I bet they wondered why they smelled so pretty and felt so soft) and we’d gone to bed, my suitcase arrived. It had been hiding in the hotel the whole time thanks to a transposition error on the room number.

Day 4 – Fairbanks

The highlight of this day was the afternoon’s riverboat ride, which I didn’t have really high expectations for (and which unlike the hotel and the gold dredge we visited in the morning was not owned by the tour company as far as I could tell). It couldn’t run the normal route due to some shifting channels in one of the rivers, but we still go to see a lot of stuff, including float planes which fascinate me for some reason I can’t identify–air and water shouldn’t mix, maybe? My favorite part was the sled dogs–we saw some of Susan Butcher’s from the boat and they were very excited about getting to run, then later when we got off at the Indian village recreation we got to see some of Jessie Royer’s dogs up close (and Jessie, too, but she didn’t walk around the fence to check us out or jump up on the top of the dog houses to be petted).

Day 5 – All Bus, All the Time

On this day I learned that it takes pretty much all day to drive from Fairbanks, Alaska to Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory. It would take less long if the bus didn’t stop every couple of hours, but if it didn’t stop every couple of hours people would probably get the vehicular equivalent of cabin fever and who knows what would happen then. Our first stop was North Pole, home of the Santa Claus House and what is possibly the scariest Santa statue in the continent. (The festively decorated barbed wire that surrounded him was a particularly nice touch.) A while down the road we trooped through the grounds of Rika’s Roadhouse, from which we could see the trans-Alaska pipeline for the second time this trip (the first was a quick photo stop in the rain on our Fairbanks day). Lunch was in Tok, where the highway host (that’s what the tour company’s representative on the bus is called) said there might be puppies. There was one, but it was not exactly what I’d hoped for. This part of the journey was as close as we got to the wild fires and we did see a firefighters’ base camp and even a few spots of flame with firefighters working them. Finally, we stopped at the border for group photos. Here we had the chance to walk on the muskeg–I guess because it was right on the border and they wanted to keep that swath clear anyway and so neither country cared it we trampled it–which was surprisingly bouncy. We kept an eye out for wildlife all day but the animals were staying well hidden, except for a family of swans. After we arrived in rustic Beaver Creek (so rustic that the hotel rooms had metal keys with the room number stamped right on them–how archaic) we were treated to a dinner show as part of our tour. I couldn’t decide if the door to our room was trying to make conversation or challenging me when it asked What Do You Do? (it turned out to be the cover of a 12-page pamphlet about what to do in case of fire).

Day 6 – All Canada Day

Back on the bus this day to go to Whitehorse. I think this was the day we saw the bald eagle flying across the road–too fast for photos. We stopped for lunch in Burwash Landing, where the fleet was looking a little ragged. We stopped later in Haines Junction, where Mr. Karen and I hoofed it over to a grocery store, found a burned out cabin, and took a short hike–pent up energy, anyone? We got to Whitehorse in time to explore a little bit–Joan had spotted a quilt shop from the bus as we drove into town and I was excited to find they were still open, so Mr. Karen and I made a stop there before finding dinner. I got three beautiful pieces of hand printed fabric as souveniers–fireweed, ravens, and blackened spruce trees. We also found an internet cafĂ© that offered e-mail access and BBQ; I imagine they have to do a lot of keyboard cleaning there.

Day 7 – No Planes, but a Bus, a Train, a Van, and a Ship

The day dawned rainy, which was okay because that meant I got to see a retriever in a slicker. We had just a little more bus time and a couple more photo stops before we boarded the narrow-gauge railway to Skagway. The weather meant we didn’t have great views of the scenery to start with, but it gradually cleared a little as we got closer to our destination. We spotted the ship from a long way off, what with it being really big and white and all. I thought about my dad a lot on the train; he would have loved to look at all the railroad equipment.

Once we were released by immigration, we got off the train and boarded a bus. How long would you guess it took us to travel the two blocks to the ship and board? Wrong. It took over an hour, closer to an hour and a half. The couple who decided to walk had the right idea. I’d incorrectly assumed I’d have plenty of time to check out the three (!) quilt shops I knew were in town before it was time to go on the shore excursion we’d booked ahead of time, but instead I ended up doing them at almost warp speed. Zoom in, scan the fat quarters and patterns for something that would remind me of my trip, zoom out.

But all that rushing was worth it, because the shore excursion was great. Twelve of us piled into a van to go to a summer training camp for sled dogs and I finally got to cuddle the puppies I’d been hoping to see since I first read about them in the brochure. Not only were they fun to hold, they entertained with their puppy antics, including running, wrestling, and chewing on Mr. Karen’s boots. The grown up dogs pulled six of us at a time on a wheeled cart. It was fun to see a team that wasn’t as disciplined as Susan Butcher’s–they stopped once to pee on stuff (including each other) and we had to change leader dogs halfway through because the first set went off the path and into the trees. The surroundings were absolutely beautiful, too, with a mountain stream and a broad valley.

Day 8 – At Sea

This day was much more relaxed. The ship sailed into Glacier Bay which was just awesome. It was hard to take my eyes off the amazing blue of the glaciers lest I miss hearing and seeing pieces break off. The pictures don’t really give a sense of the size–the ship (no small thing itself) stopped a quarter mile away and the glacier still dominated the view; the wall was about 200 feet tall. We saw one really spectacular calving, when a huge section crashed into the water with a tremendous splash. (I was too busy gaping at that and the gigantic pieces that rose up from the water afterward to take pictures.) The other passengers also caught my attention from time to time, like the woman who either didn’t know or didn’t care what DO NOT STAND ON THE HATCH meant (or possibly didn’t know what a hatch was). I was glad I’d seen harbor seals near the ship in Skagway because I missed them this day. I did see the sea lions as we left the bay and glimpses of humpback and orca whales as well. I also started to get sick with a cold, but I didn’t give in to it until after dinner when I stayed in the cabin while the rest of the family went to a show and turned in early instead of joining Mr. Karen up on deck.

Day 9 – Ketchikan

The ship docked in Ketchikan around breakfast time and we could see float planes taking off and landing from our cabin. After straightening out a scheduling issue with our shore excursion, we made a quick stop at a drugstore in town for some fizzy cold tablets for me before boarding yet another bus to take us to the float plane docks. The driver was so entertaining that I was actually a little sad when we arrived; I wanted to listen to her some more. From the description in the brochure, both Mr. Karen and I had the idea that this excursion would involve hiking through the woods to see bears (bears not guaranteed) but it turned out to involved walking down a road next to a salmon hatchery. There were bears, though, which was cool even though it wasn’t the wilderness experience we’d expected.

After we got back to town, there was still time to go to a quilt shop, where I bought a few more Alaska-themed fabrics and talked with the ladies working there. I love that enough people quilt (or at least buy quilting fabric) that there are little local shops like this so many places.

Day 10 – At Sea Redux

I spent much of the day out on the deck, reading. It was a little chilly, sure, but the deck chair had a cushion to block the air from below and I had two wool blankets over me and wore my hood and found a great secluded spot out of the wind. Besides, I already had a cold, so I didn’t need to worry about catching one. This was the kind of day I imagined but didn’t have time for on my first cruise. Seeing orca whales and porpoises (well, their dorsal fins, anyway) was a nice bonus.

Day 11 – Travel Day

We sailed under the Lions Gate Bridge at six-ish, headed for the dock in Vancouver. (In the background of that picture, you can just see the Carnival ship that dogged us all the way from Ketchikan.) There was a long line for breakfast at the buffet so we went to the sit down restaurant and had the most disappointing meal of the cruise–maybe because the staff knew the evaluations were all supposed to be turned in by then? After breakfast it was lines, lines, and more lines as we got off the ship and through the dock building and on to the bus and through the airport. Mr. Karen and I were a little concerned that the screens showed our flight’s destination as Minneapolis–if that were that case, why not go on the same plane as Dale and Joan who were connected from there?–but that got sorted out before we boarded and flew direct to Detroit. Our car was where we left it and the house hadn’t burned down (not that I’d thought about either the whole time we were gone), so that makes it a good vacation right there.

Now that I’m home I’m hoping to go back to Alaska someday when we can do it more at our own pace. Going on a tour was the right choice for this trip but I am just not wired to thrive in that sort of environment. There are good parts to being in a group–other people noticed things and pointed them out, things I might not have seen if I were on my own. On the other hand, sometimes they didn’t point them out but just talked about them later and I felt sad that I missed them. (Of course, I probably did the same thing to other people, so I guess I shouldn’t talk.) I’m glad we went and also glad to be home, where I can decide when to get up (well, within reason–I do have to go to work at some point, but at least my boss doesn’t demand I do it at unreasonably early hours).

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