ALASKA & the YUKON, 2007

˘osmos; aka ˘heap-mos(t)

I had first tried for this trip last year as a prelim to my Cruise West tours which started in Anchorage - one of their tours fitted perfectly with those dates. When we tried to book the tour on the date I wanted, it was supposedly fully booked. Just before I left for the Cruise West trips, I checked again - plenty of vacancies, but it was too late to change my airline reservations. This time I wanted to do the "Barrow Extension" they had last year, but it's not offered now. Growl, Grumble and not the last growl and grumble of the trip.

Day 1, Wednesday, May 30 Anchorage
At least I don't have to get up early this time. Leave home about noon via the new Houston Super-Shuttle for $27 each way - only $54 plus tip. Pick-up at 12:35. Shuttle pickup was right on time - excellent. Quick run to the airport. However the plane was overloaded - too heavy so maybe the wings would fall off. Therefore the flight was delayed while they decided which 10 passengers to dump. After about 25 minutes, they got the plane light enough to take off. Then we bounced our way to Anchorage. Junk food on the flight.

Continental CO 1584Houston - Anchorage3:40P - 7:52 P7:12

Air travel using credit card points. Cost is only $47.20 (over the $500 allowed) and I'm "earning" more "One-Pass" miles. Long flight since it's direct with no stopover in Seattle. At least I've got an aisle seat so I can get up and more around. As a non-stop flight, my luggage should get here.

Since ˘heap-mos(t) is a cheap no-service agency, I'm told to call the hotel for a courtesy shuttle - supposedly available 24 hours. Assuming the plane is on time (it's just a wild hope and no such luck), I should be at the hotel by about 9:30 PM. Arrival 20 minutes late but quick delivery of my luggage and only a 20 minute wait for the hotel shuttle - in lots of wind and a light rain. So I do arrive at the (old) hotel at 9:30 (after Midnight Houston time) so it's a LONG day. Actually I prefer this Ramada hotel (downtown location) to the $heraton that Cruise West uses.

The tour Director (Shirley Mickelson) is supposed to be on hand tonight (if she hasn't already gone to bed) to help with check-in and offer suggestions for my non-existent free time. The rest (HA!) of the day is at leisure (or sleep). Hotel: Ramada (2 nights) Nice enough, just older and could use some refreshing.

There are optional excursions available out of Anchorage, but no time on this schedule.

Day 2, Thursday, May 31 Anchorage (Prince William Sound)
Ho-Hum. Wasted Day. Surprise - the Ramada (not ˘heap-mos(t)) has added a complimentary breakfast. Load up for the day. The morning is wasted, then at 11:00, make a very rainy journey (driver is Barb, excellent) down to Whittier to meet the "Whittiots" and board a deluxe (?) catamaran for a "once-in-a-lifetime" (maybe for others but not for me! Been there, done that - both catamarans and full Prince William cruise twice) adventure. Cruise in the rain to College and Harriman Fjords and view as many as 26 tidewater and hanging glaciers (maybe 12-15). There is a chance we spot whales (none), seals (3), and eagles (1) during the cruise. We do see quite a few sea otters-about the only 'wildlife' except for thousands of Kittiwakes. Hopefully we get back to Anchorage sometime this evening. It turns out to be just a short 4-hour cruise, not an all-day one, but we did get a very nice lunch out of it. Back to the hotel at 7:30, very tired from doing nothing. Ho-Hum. (L)

Day 3, Friday, June 1 Anchorage - Tok
Finally it's the start of the Good Part of the trip. Off at 8:00. Cloudy but no rain as we start. Travel northeast through Palmer in the Matanuska Valley, a lush farming region where cabbages can grow to weigh more than 70 pounds in the 24-hour daylight. Our route takes us up over scenic Tahnita Pass with spectacular vistas of Matanuska Glacier. Excellent lunch stop at Enricho's Roadhouse - build our own (dagwood) sandwiches. Travel along Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest park in the United States. The area boasts glaciers larger than the island of Manhattan and is home to nine of the 16 highest peaks in North America. We make an extra unscheduled stop at the new Visitors Center - very nice extra. Finally to the Tok Lodge (oops, its now the Tok Motel since the lodge and restaurant part burned down a couple of years ago - about Motel 5 level but nice enough, and may turn out to be my favorite motel-which it does.) We get to the motel about 7:15. As a special convenience for guests, it does have electrical outlets so that guests can plug in their car engine heaters overnight during the winter, Its been a long day and we are all tired. We spend the night in Tok, the "Dog Sled Capital of the World." Note: as we get to Tok, don't blink since it is a one-stop-sign town. Hotel: Tok Lodge, er, Motel.

Day 4, Saturday, June 2 Tok - Whitehorse (Canada)
(Passport needed today.) Optional continental breakfast served in the laundry room at 6. Off at 7 for another long day. Also, as it turns out, after an almost cold Anchorage and very cool Tok, it's time for 'summer.' We find the Yukon very warm to hot. Join the Alaska Highway and follow along the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge making a brief stop there. Stop at the border for pictures. At Customs, only UK and Aussie passports are checked (about 2/3 of our tour members). Skirt the shores of Kluane Lake, once a meeting place for crews constructing the Alaska Highway. Behold the spectacular vistas of the rugged mountains of Kluane National Park, home to 19,625-foot Mount Logan, Canada's highest peak. This is our lunch stop - about 3:45. The next two nights are in Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon and the territorial headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It has been a nice weather day but getting to the hotel about 8:30 doesn't leave any time to look around or go to see the Frantic Follies. Whitehorse basically shuts down by 8. Hotel: High Country Inn (2 nights) Nice room but its really hot and there is no a/c. With the window open it does cool off some by 4AM.

Day 5, Sunday, June 3 Whitehorse (Canada). Visit to Skagway (US)
(Passport needed today.) Our Tour Director will suggest an optional (Growl, grumble. All the good stuff is optional - it lets ˘heap-mos(t) offer a "cheap" trip with many extra charges) train trip on the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Railway to Skagway. Off at 8 for what sounds like (in the propaganda) an all day train ride from Whitehorse to Skagway, They lied. The train doesn't start in Whitehorse; it starts in Carcross and goes 67 miles to Skagway - but ˘heap-mos(t) doesn't even do that. We have to ride for hours all the way to Fraser. We get only 27 miles and a measly 85 minute train ride but the scenery IS nice. (We did get a bus stop at a beautiful emerald lake and at the Carcross Desert.) Follow the Trail of '98 over the same mountains that thousands of determined gold seekers scaled on foot in the dead of winter while heading for the Klondike.

Stroll the wooden sidewalks past charming (?) (not original) false-front buildings and colorful saloons (lots of saloons). Very nice lunch at the Bonanza Bar and Grill, but other than a couple of museums, and several bars, Skagway is just one tourist shop-trap after another. Return to Whitehorse in the late afternoon - make that early evening about 7:40 so after a brief bus tour, back to the hotel for the night - after all its about 8PM on a Sunday night. The town is almost totally shut down until tomorrow. There is time to walk down by the Yukon River (still with some ice) then over to the Frantic Follies but otherwise, that's it. Based on the bus tour, we didn't miss too much. The Follies is a longer and better show than the one in Dawson City but of course ˘heap-mos(t) won't include the Good show - only the cheap one. I go anyway and am glad that I did; definitely the best of the three shows.

Optional: White Pass and Yukon Railroad. Travel back in time and re-live the Gold Rush. Follow the original route of the hopeful stampeeders in comfort aboard refurbished train cars. This three-hour (????) fully narrated railroad experience travels between Whitehorse and Skagway over a 3000' pass. View cascading waterfalls, spectacular mountains, valleys, and the Lynn Canal. ($72.)

Day 6, Monday, June 4 Whitehorse - Dawson City
Late start scheduled - not until 9 though we have to have bags out at 8. For the most part, this is just a long driving day. There is a problem with our planned lunch stop - they can't take us so we can get box lunches at this hotel before we leave. We head northwest through the town of Carmacks, once an important supply station for gold seekers on their way to the Klondike. Lunch stop at a provincial park with our box lunches. Another OOPS. The nice box lunch idea doesn't work for me. The sandwich is loaded with mayo so is inedible. We make a stop at the Five Finger Rapids (not much of a rapids any more), a major obstacle to the hordes of fortune seekers that passed this way. In the late afternoon (6:30), we get to Dawson City, the main center of excitement after the first gold strike in the Klondike in 1896, which led to the world's largest gold rush. By the summer 1898, Dawson had a population of over 30,000 people, making it the largest city north of San Francisco and west of Winnipeg. I choose to have dinner tonight at the Jack London Grill and it's very good. Tonight we have reservations for the high-flying (?) entertainment of Diamond Tooth Gertie's Saloon (the cheap version instead of the Frantic Follies in Whitehorse) featuring ragtime music, can-can girls, and an old-fashioned casino. The doors open at 7 and the first show is at 8:30. Unfortunately I get there a bit after 7 and can't get a good seat. It's not as good as last night. Very hot hotel room and no way to cool it off. No sleep at all tonight. Hotel: Eldorado (2 very hot nights. Groan.) Another hotel and another fire. Last April a fire destroyed the lounge, the restaurant, and 13 rooms. Only the lounge part is complete. The rest is still under reconstruction. As a result, 6 of our group were sent to another location.

Note: there is a requirement that any buildings constructed now from originals must be not only (re-)built/reconstructed as they were 'back then' but also with the same or very similar use and name... it's called re-activation.

Day 7, Tuesday, June 5 Dawson City
After a miserably hot night with no sleep (I find out later that there was supposed to be a fan in every room, but some rooms got missed; I guess it's too early in the season for them to be fully set up. I was planning to find a hardware store and buy one...but Barb got me one this morning. I go out early while it is still 'cool' to walk the town for two hours between 6:45 and 8:45 and get about 125 pictures of the 'reactivated' buildings plus others of interest. Today is a full day to soak up the "exciting history" of this gold rush town. The tour starts at 9:30. Highlights on our morning tour include Bonanza Creek, site of Claim #1, where the first gold strike was made; a stop at 'Claim 33' to pan for gold (I do a bit better than most with 5 decent sized flakes) in gravel from the upper Bonanza Creek; stop at Gold dredge number 4, the largest wooden hull dredge built for Alaska; Robert Service's cabin; and a photo stop at the SS Keno, the last sternwheeler to run between Dawson and Whitehorse. I have dinner tonight at Klondike Kates, but last night was better. Suggestion for the evening: optional (˘heap-mos(t) strikes again - more $$ to grumble about) attend the Gaslight Follies, a variety show and melodrama typical of the entertainment enjoyed by the turn-of-the-century miners. This may be too much like last night to be worth while. It's a different show from Diamond Tooth Gertie's ... semi-professionals, but is fun anyway. I'm glad I went.

This is a really interesting town and my favorite part of the trip. If it had just been cool on that first night.... Use any Canadian money today since there's no place to use it tomorrow.

Day 8, Wednesday, June 6 Dawson City - Chicken (US) - Fairbanks
(Passport needed today.) Bags out at 6, on the bus at 6:45 so as to be ready for the 7AM ferry. We need to be at the border when it opens at 9. As we leave, we get a nice box breakfast to go compliments of the hotel (NOT ˘heap-mos(t)) in order to save time. A long day ahead of us, but the scenery is supposed to be magnificent if you like heavy overcast, clouds and rain. After several warm days in the Yukon, it's back to cool and rainy. Drive over the "Top of the World Highway (Cloudway)" and re-enter the state of Alaska. Travel through the village of Chicken (really) - supposedly the early inhabitants wanted to name it Ptarmigan after the bird which later became the State bird, but they couldn't spell that. Next continue west along the Alaska Highway. Lunch in Tok at Fast Eddy's. Make a stop at an authentic Alaskan roadhouse (now a state park) and later at (the) North Pole (there really is a town named North Pole) before our not-so-early evening arrival (7:20) in Fairbanks, Alaska's second-largest city. Hotel: Bridgewater (2 nights) which is very nice and has a/c but we don't need it now that we finally have it.

As a result of changes and undesirable scheduling, there's nothing new to really look forward to seeing for the rest of the trip.

Day 9, Thursday, June 7 Fairbanks
Another rain day. I had been told that this is a desert, but it isn't acting like one. At least it's cooler. Morning sightseeing starts at 7:45 and features the sights of this historic Alaskan city (waste of time) and includes an up-close visit to the Trans-Alaska pipeline. First though, board the sternwheeler riverboat Discovery III (OOPS, since this is ˘heap-mos(t), we're demoted to the older, smaller Discovery II) this morning for a leisurely cruise on the Chena and Tanana Rivers. Listen as the ship's guides discuss the wildlife, history, geology, and customs of the region. No need to do all this again, it's a repeat, but .,.

OOPS. This was originally listed as (and I booked it as) an all-day drive and fly tour. Now its only an afternoon and early evening trip ... which I have done before. Cancel out and save $400. This evening (don't) take the optional outing to Alaskaland, a pioneer theme park, featuring early 20th-century buildings or the way overpriced salmon-bake. Dinner at Big Daddy's BBQ.

Arctic Circle Adventure: Optional I'm booked (cancelled out of) this alternative from Fairbanks on day 9 of the tour. DESCRIPTION ALMOST TOTALLY WRONG - CANCEL OUT. This is described as an award-winning, full-day, guided roundtrip journey by land and air to the Arctic Circle. The adventure begins early in the day with a ground tour north along (Note the 'all day' and 'start early.' Instead start after noon and fly both ways.). (pre-paid - cancel out for a cash refund.)

Sample daylight note-sunrise 3:12, sunset 12:28 AM not counting pre- and post- twilight which effectively gives a full 24 hours of 'daylight.'

Day 10, Friday, June 8 Fairbanks - Denali NP
Rain overnight but clearing very nicely now. Off at 7:15 for the 5 minute ride to the station to catch the 8:15 train to Denali (which doesn't leave until 8:30). Board the world-infamous Alaska Railroad for a journey through untamed wilderness. Sit back in only fair comfort and enjoy (over-rated) spectacular (bah, humbug!) scenery (trees and more trees interspaced by less trees or an occasional river view) through (dirty) wide windows (do you get the idea that I've done this before?). Be sure to take advantage of the domed roof car, but it's been taken over by another group so there's no space. Only the last 25 minutes when we are going through / alongside Healy Canyon and the Nenana River are worth much as scenery. Today's ride ends, finally but not soon enough, in DENALI NP. We get to the hotel about 1:00. The weather has changed a bit for the worse, but Denali makes it's own weather and it changes frequently. North America's highest peak, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, dominates the park's six million acres of glacial streams, river valleys, and expanses of multicolored tundra - except that we don't get a chance to see it unless we do one of the expensive flight-seeing tours. Some of us did sign up for helicopter flightseeing, but the flights were cancelled ... or something. The afternoon is free for exploring so I walk the trails around the Lodge.

Tonight join our optional "Wilderness Banquet" at an Alaskan cabin, where colorful characters tell tales of Alaska's past. It's the same place as before and the picnic benches have no backs, NO thanks.

Hotel: McKinley Village Lodge 8 miles south of the park. (2 nights) (Same hotel as my trips with Cruise West and I'm 3 for 3 getting a river view room.)

Day 11, Saturday, June 9 Denali National Park
A free day for independent (˘heap-mos(t) strikes yet again - more $$. Growl, growl, growl) activities - so just visit the nice new Visitors Center to see their great new film, and go hiking with a Park Ranger guide. Beautiful weather - clear and cool. Nice day for hikes.

Optional full day bus ride deep into the park (included with most tour companies. Grumble.). Or take advantage of several of the usual optional outings, but I've all the good ones already.

Optional: Tundra Wilderness Tour. Full day (6-8 hour) trip into the park. ($100) More ˘heap-mos(t) OOPS. Instead of a nice morning tour from about 7AM until 3PM, ˘heap-mos(t) strikes again and they have us scheduled at the (cheaper maybe) time of 3PM which means that we wouldn't get back until "night" - about 10 or 11PM and they are probably not yet going far enough to see McKinley - still bit too early in the season just as on my first trip. So...No thanks. Since I have done all the decent optional trips on my two previous trips, I stick to the NP Visitors Center area and some of the walking trails. Bah, humbug. More or less a wasted day other than the film and guided walk. I'm locked out of my room when I get back to the Lodge; someone coded many of our key cards for only one night rather than two.

Day 12, Sunday, June 10 Denali NP - Anchorage
Now back to the real Ho-Hum part. Bags out at 6 and on the bus at 7. Continue our exploration of (the road past) Denali NP as we head south towards Anchorage. We stop for a couple of great (very clear weather) photo opportunities of Mount McKinley then pass through Houston (the wrong one by about 3300 miles) and make a stop along the way at the Iditarod Headquarters, home of the great dog sled race. After a lunch stop at the downtown "Saturday (and Sunday) Market", the trip ends at Anchorage International Airport. We get there about 2:30. 3 hours before I can even check in. Eventually I get to board my homebound flight. We were told to schedule flights after 3:30 p.m. but one person didn't follow these instructions so we have to rush and get to the airport early. Thus because of him, I get to wait about 6 hours for my flight. At least I don't have to pay for another night in an Anchorage $heraton, but the price is (no) sleep on the plane. With three time zones difference, the plane leaves just after midnight, Houston time.

Continental CO 1409Anchorage - Houston9:00 PM - 6:48 AM

Day 13, Monday, June 11 Arrive Home
Finally arrive at the airport about 25 minutes late (6:48AM) , then home….after a long (almost as long as a trans-Atlantic), sleepless night. I get home by 9AM and . Then go to the post office etc. for various 'errands.' After 11 nights with no night, it will be nice to actually have a 'night' night tonight.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge




AIRLINES:
1Continental CO 1584Houston - Anchorage3:40P - 7:52 P7:12
2Continental CO 1409Anchorage - Houston9:00 PM - 6:486:48

WHAT ˘HEAP-MOS(T) INCLUDES (not much):

SIGHTSEEING In Dawson City (?), Fairbanks (worthless)

SCENIC HIGHLIGHTS Matanuska Valley, Matanuska Glacier, Tahnita Pass, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Kluane National Park, Trail of '98, drive along the Top of the World Highway, Denali National Park. Diamond Tooth Gertie's Saloon with ragtime music and can-can girls in Dawson City.

TRANSPORTATION Glacier cruise to College and Harriman Fjords (again, boring), Chena River cruise aboard the sternwheeler Discovery III (er, II), journey on the Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Denali (ho-hum, poor).

MEAL(no S) 1 lunch (L) No breakfasts. ONLY ONE MEAL!!!!! Pack lots of "munchies." Just another example of ˘heap-mos(t) "cheap trip" hidden charges … but maybe its better since we won't get socked by high cost included meals. At least two of the motels give us (3) complimentary breakfasts.

OPTIONALS There is a choice of optional excursions at "reasonable prices???" to customize our experience, but I've done almost everything on the Alaska part of the trip and there's not much except the (abbreviated) train ride and a couple of shows in the Yukon.

HOTELS:
May 30 & 31 ANCHORAGE Ramada: Older hotel but nice enough. Very nice complimentary breakfast now included

June 1 TOK Tok Lodge (Motel): Motel 5 version. It was the Tok Lodge until the Lodge and Restaurant burned. Now it's just a motel, but turns out to be my favorite for the trip. Breakfast in the laundry room.

June 2 & 3 WHITEHORSE High Country Inn: Nice enough but due to additions and more additions, they have various 'levels' of rooms. Mine didn't have air conditioning (which was needed).

June 4 & 5 DAWSON CITY Eldorado Hotel: Another fire victim. The Lounge is rebuilt and the rooms are decent. Normally they have fans in all the rooms but this early in the season, some rooms were missed. Very nice location to be able to walk around town. They gave us a complimentary box breakfast. Very nice of them.

June 6 & 7 FAIRBANKS Bridgewater Hotel: One of the better hotels. It does have a/c but we didn't need it. So-so location.

June 8 & 9 DENALI N.P. McKinley Village Lodge: Same place I've stayed before. Very nice and although 8 miles from most of the other areas (Visitors Center, shopping, etc.) they run hourly free shuttles.

June 10 Continental Airlines in flight: Miserable, as expected. I can't sleep in the tight confines of sardine class seats.