Alaska Adventure: driving 700 miles

The Drive from Anchorage to Whitehorse, Yukon (700 miles/
1,100 KM)

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Once you get off a cruise ship in Seward, Alaska, you need to shake off the remnants of relaxation and being pampered… It is a rude awakening to having to make your own decisions again. The first one: how to get anywhere from here?

Hopefully, you’ve planned ahead.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we planned this trip, the cruise itinerary listed Anchorage as the last port of call. But it doesn’t get anywhere near this city. Seward is a good 2 hours on a bus from Anchorage. It can also be reached by train. Being the thrifty, budget travellers that we are, I spent time searching for the most economical way to get from the port of Seward to the Anchorage airport where we would pick up a rental car. It turned out to be Alaska Cruise Transfer (https://alaskacruisetransfer.com) The one way ride was $50 per person, considerably cheaper than the transport offered by the cruise line or other companies. The bus was very comfortable, we had a good driver and the best part was the informative, and humorous, commentary audio track. It gave us stories of the area’s history, colourful characters, politics, events, wildlife and more.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Kenai Peninsula is absolutely gorgeous and you could easily spend a whole holiday here, exploring, hiking, fishing and seeing beautiful scenery. The highlight for me was learning about Turnagain Arm – a wide arm of the Gulf of Alaska reaching inland from Cook Inlet. The arm got its name from British explorer James Cook, who was forced to “turn again” when the waterway didn’t hold the fabled Northwest Passage during his 1778 voyage.

The bore tide here, a wave of water that rushes down the arm, can top six feet tall and is an unusual, awe-inspiring sight. Formed by the area’s huge tidal range and focused in the narrow channel of Turnagain Arm, the bore tide tops speeds of 20 mph. We heard stories of near drownings because the bottom here is quick sand and when the water comes in at that speed, it is very dangerous.

You can see the tidal bore coming in here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VY-qekro1dI

The best thing was seeing many Beluga whales who hang out in this Arm. Beluga Point, a rocky outpost jutting into the waters of Turnagain Arm, is just south of Anchorage along the Seward Highway. Belugas are often seen from mid-July through August when salmon are running in Cook Inlet where their numbers have hovered between 300 to 375 whales since 2000. Belugas use sonar to find their way and catch fish in the silty waters of the inlet. Beluga whales are relatively small, often measuring less than 16 feet. Younger whales look blue-gray in color and then turn white by age five or six. Belugas are the only all-white whale and have no dorsal fin.

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We reached the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, and were dropped off at the airport where we picked up a rental car. What can you expect when driving across the vast expanse of Alaska? The highway was flanked with many, many signs warning us of moose and cariboo. But for all of the 700 miles (1,100 KM) from Anchorage to Whitehorse, the only wildlife we saw was a handful of chipmunks and a few ravens.

There is still very much a ‘last frontier’ feeling here. Towns have few services and buildings still have the gold rush type fronts. There are about as many saloons as there are churches. The main streets are often paved but side streets are full of potholes. Our rental car was not allowed on dirt roads so we had to change our plan of driving the Top of the World highway to Dawson City, Yukon. Gas prices are the same as down south but gas stations are far and few between.

The most beautiful view was overlooking the Matanuska Glacier, lower than the highway, as it creeps out of a southern valley on blue icy toes. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We spent the night in Tok, Alaska. There are several motels and RV Parks with cabins along both the Alaska Highway and the Richardson Highway (it is interesting to note that highways in Alaska are referred to by name in addition to the number). It costs at least 100.- for a room. The place most recommended for meals is Fast Eddy’s. We had fun sitting in this bustling truck-stop atmosphere and watching big burly hunters, truck drivers with long bears and pony tails, and an odd mix of tourists from all over the world. The great food was reasonably priced: https://www.fasteddysrestaurant.com

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe highway got noticeably worse once we crossed the border into Canada. But we were very lucky with blue skies and sunshine that set the golden trees ablaze. Early September is definitely one of the most gorgeous times to see this area as aspen and other deciduous trees turn bright yellow, orange and red, dotting the evergreen hills like a fluffy quilt, framed here and there with the first white powder on mountain tops. Especially the drive along Kluane Lake is gorgeous. It inspired me to write a poem:

Fall’s soldiers
In their golden uniforms
Stand guard
Between summer and winter,
Marching south
One tree at a time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the return trip from Yukon back to Anchorage, we were lucky enough to see a large flock of snow white Dall sheep in the Kluane Range. Then two curious coyotes walked across the road and peeked at us from the brown grass. The sun was out part of the time, turning the hillside brilliantly yellow for most of the way. In fact, it was so gorgeous that we kept on driving. Instead of spending the night half way, in Tok again, we drove all 12 hours back to Palmer. We saw a large moose up close and even saw our very first caribou.

Hunting season is now in full swing. I’d hate to hike or camp in the bush. We see huge numbers to trucks parked along the road where hunters have taken off into the bush. At a remote outpost, we stopped at the log cabin country store to buy native crafts, when a truck drove with the large rack of a moose in the back. I could see an enormous cooler and bulging garbage bags of meat. So I walked over and had an interesting conversation:

Me: “Hi! How are you? Nice moose! Can I take a picture?”

Guy: “sure.”

Me: “Wow. It’s huge. Bet that will be all your meat for the winter, eh?”

Guy: “yup. you canadian?”

Me: “Yeah! How’d you guess?”

Guy: ‘eh.

Me: “Ah. I said eh! I guess so. So how much did it weigh, like how much meat did you get? Like 500 pounds?”

Guy: “more.”

I guess by then he had really warmed up to me because he added “maybe double. gonna use it all, bones, sinew, organs”.

Me: “Wow, that’s great. Well thanks a lot. Have a good winter.”

Guy: ” ‘kay.”

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We were still just in time but wouldn’t to go a week later: the US/Canadian Border closes on September 15 on the Top of the World Highway; many hotels and lodges shut down as of September 15 and the first snow was sprinkled on the surrounding mountain tops.

A tool that helps with planning is the downloadable app: http://www.thealaskaapp.com

In our next blog we will take you around Whitehorse, Yukon.

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Just Cruising’ Along – to Alaska

P8300253.JPGWe wanted a short get-away at the end of a busy summer. We run Between The Covers, Booklovers’ B & B and knew that we would not have much time off all summer, so we planned a short trip, relatively close to home.

Having left Whitehorse, Yukon where our children went through elementary school, 27 years ago, we decided that this was the year to go back and see the Yukon again. I have made two short trips back there, but Kees has not been back since we moved south.

Initially we thought we’d just drive the Alaska Highway. We both love driving. But driving it both ways is too boring. Besides, it is not incredibly scenic. I used to love traveling on the Alaska State Ferry. But I nearly had a heart attack when I checked fares on the Alaska State Ferry website and saw that is would cost over US $2000.-. That is one way. On the ferry. Without a cabin.

P8300248.JPGThen I remembered the many tantalizing emails about Alaska cruises and checked these. Orbitz, my favourite travel bookings website, offered a one way cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage. Price per person was about 650.- When all was said and done, including extra fees, taxes, gratuities, etc. we paid on the dot the exact amount as the ferry would have been. But a cruise, of course, includes all you can eat for 7 days….

We got out a map and ended up booking the cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines, via Orbitz. Then we booked a rental car in Anchorage and a flight back using our Alaska Airlines points.

When we boarded the ship in Vancouver, we weren’t sure what to expect. I’m not terribly crazy about cruises since I do not need a casino, I don’t like crowds and I don’t need to be entertained. But I did really want a few days of NOTHING. I couldn’t wait to sleep in and get my meals served. P9020292.JPG

The boarding process was fast and efficient. The paperwork we had received was confusing. I checked in online, printed off luggage tags and selected dinner times. The papers told us, over and over, in bold underlined print that we had to check-in between 2 and 2:30, a time slot we selected from half hour slots offered all day. At some point I realized that the papers also stated that the ship departed at 2 PM. I finally phoned and was told to be on board well before 2 PM. So was the check-in time on board then? When we got onboard, no one knew what that not to be missed check-in was… And none of the dinner times I had selected online, were recorded. But we found our cabin which was just fine. A large, clean bed, a place to sit, a desk, plenty of storage space and a small fridge. Next time I’ll check the price difference with an outside cabin which has a window or small balcony. It would be nice to see daylight and what the weather is doing…

The service on the ship was impeccable. Everyone was friendly, courteous and helpful. The food quality in the main dining room was superb. The ship can hold just over 2,000 guests. It has its own bakeries, one for bread and one for pastries. We rarely got the same little dinner rolls. And the cinnamon buns were out of this world.

Here’s a glimpse at the ship’s weekly shopping list:

  • 15,000 pounds of beef
  • 1000 gallons of juice
  • 15,000 pounds of flour
  • 30,000 pounds of fresh fruit
  • 5,000 dozen eggs!

They said Costco loves it when they stop by!P8280237.JPG

I found it fascinating how our daily schedule and priorities changed overnight. On the first night, we sat in the gorgeous dining room and watched two whales spouting against an orange sky. The quiet wake of the ship seemed to drain my aches, my tiredness and my worries about deadlines, about which B&B room to clean, about how much more weeding I should be doing… From then on our main concern was what to order for breakfast… A waiter draped a white starched napkin across my lap and handed me a menu. A menu for breakfast! Choices included 5 different kinds of juice, many options of fresh fruit, yogurts, pastries, breads, eggs, smoked salmon or bacon, porridge or french toast, pancakes, waffles… Enough already! Just bring me one of each 🙂

After breakfast there was nothing to do but wait for lunch and repeat steps 1 – 3 (sit, order, eat). Same at dinner…

Good thing the ship had a pool (for me) and a walking track (for Kees).

The ship also offered bars, two theatres, a library, an observation lounge and many more facilities. It took us three full days before we stumbled upon a casino. How do you hide an entire casino on a ship? You put it between the shop and the art gallery, one deck up from the bars and theatres. We had a ball sitting in a quiet corner and watching people. My favourite times were sipping a drink while listening to a good string trio playing Vivaldi.Of course these cruises are ideal for those who are less mobile. But they obviously also attract people who like to eat. I’ve seldom seen so many overweight people in one place. Good thing the ship doesn’t sink easily. But the guests on this ship were as varied as the books on a library shelf. Young, old, active, obese, classy and not so classy. They came from countries all over the world: Germany, France, Australia, Japan, China, USA and everything in between. The crew alone represented 62 countries.

P9010273.JPGBesides on board entertainment like concerts and shows, we also stopped in beautiful locations:

  • Ketchikan, Alaska is a quaint village clinging to the hillside. It rained – which it often does here. But we found a nice coffeeshop with wifi (even if it was 5.- per hour);
  • Throught gorgeous scenery we sailed to Juneau, the capital city of Alaska. Juneau is more than the gold rush image ofcolorful wooden houses near the dock. It is also a large city with a Costco, schools, university, libraries, and more. We visited the  Mendenhall Glacier and a fun bear viewing boardwalk just above a creek full of spawning salmon. It rained. I think ‘Alaska’ is the First Nations’ word for ‘rain’.
  • Skagway used to be a tiny gold rush village near the beginning of the famous Chilkoot trail. Instead of aging into a ghost town of cracked wooden sidewalks and sagging houses, the town choose opted for a facelift. The saloon type store fronts now host a Starbucks, many jewelry stores and confortable eateries offering wifi. Yet it maintains its last frontier image and offers can-can girls and Soapy Smith shows to its thousands of visitors. Skagway has discovered a whole new kind of gold mine.P9010283.JPG
  • Next we departed for Glacier Bay. Rough grey waves of the Pacific made way for a pristine, blue reflective bay of immense proportions. At the very end, our ship glided toward a crumbling glacier. The mirroring water was dotted with small, white icebergs. The view was breathtaking. The temperaturesdropped drastically since we left Vancouver. Capris and sandals made way for fur coats and woolen hats while we watched the icy beauty of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a United Nations World Heritage Site. Comprised of 3.3 million acres of natural wonders, it is home to magnificent glaciers and snow-capped mountains.P9020349.JPG
  • Next was Hubbard Glacier (I didn’t know that Alaska is home to an estimated100,000 glaciers!). Tall, wide and generally massive, Hubbard Glacier is a mesmerizing natural wonder framed in striking glacial blue. The largest tidewater glacier in North America is a whopping 76 miles long and 1,200 feet deep. Its foot is some 7 miles wide and the exposed ice is said to be over 450 years old. Impressive facts but not nearly as impressive as the sight of being right next to it. Hubbard is nicknamed the “galloping glacier” because of how quickly it’s advancing toward the Gulf of Alaska through Disenchantment Bay. This results in major calving — the dramatic breaking off of chunks of ice at the edge of a glacier. As we stood on deck, we heard sonic booms, followed by long deep rumbles. Large chunks of glacial ice broke off and tumbled into the sea, leaving spray and mist. The sounds and the feel of icy air, made the sights even more impressive. A sight I won’t soon forget!P9020384.JPG

After this natural wonder, we sailed to our final destination of Seward, Alaska – some 12 hours on very rough open water. We had winds of 45 knots and 14’ waves. Even though this was a huge ship, it creaked and groaned as we bobbed on the waves. As if by magic, little barf bags appears on all the stair handrails…

In the next blog, we will continue our Alaska Adventure by road.