Alaska and the Yukon
Alaska and the Yukon
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After visiting most of the US states and Canadian provinces in the last couple of years, it was time for something else, so last year I went to China and the plan for this year was to go to Australia. But plans are just plans and they can change quickly. An advertisement in a travel magazine for a luxuoury cruise from Vancouver to Alaska was enough to awaken my interest for Alaska. As it turned out, a cruise complete with extra excursions was going to be way too expensive, so I had to find an alternative. In the excellent travel story 'Travels with Samantha' by Philip Greenspun, I read about the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS): "the poor man's Alaska cruise". That seemed just like the alternative I was looking for.

So with the help of the AMHS website I planned a ferry trip from Prince Rupert to Skagway that would take us through the Inside Passage, a narrow waterway in between all the islands of Alaska's coast. My travel companion and best friend, Rien, could go for no more than two weeks, so that limited the possibilities. There would not be enough time to start in Vancouver, go all the way to Alaska and back, and see anything but highway. So this meant that we would have to start our trip in Anchorage, Alaska. No trip to Alaska is complete without a visit to Denali National Park, so that would definitely have to be included and also Kenai Fjords National Park was on the wish list. All the rest would just be filling in waypoints along the route from Denali towards Prince Rupert and back from Skagway to Anchorage.
With the above in mind I came up with the following itinerary:

Map from Microsoft Streets & Trips 2007
DayFrom To
01.Amsterdam Anchorage
02.Anchorage Denali
03.Denali NP Denali NP
04.Denali Fairbanks
05.Fairbanks Tok
06.Tok Whitehorse
07.Whitehorse Dease Lake
08.Dease Lake Pr. Rupert
09.Pr. Rupert Ferry PR-Jun
10.Ferry PR-Jun Ferry PR-Jun
11.Ferry PR-Jun Juneau
12.Ferry Jun-SkgSkagway
13.Skagway Tok
14.Tok Seward
15.Kenai NP Kenai NP
16.Seward Anchorage
17.Anchorage Amsterdam
Next step was booking the flights, the AMHS ferry, a rental car and accomodation for the first night in Anchorage and the following two nights in Denali. For the remainder of the motels we would just go and see along our route where there was vacancy. The flights and rental car were taken care of by a travel agency and the rest I booked myself using the internet. Even though we booked the flights almost three months in advance it took the travel agency nearly one and a half hours before they had found an airline that still had seats available. So thanks to the persistence of First Management Travel at ESA/Estec in Noordwijk we were able to go to Alaska.
Day 1: 27 May 2000
As always a trip to the United States has to start with a flight to get to the other side of the Atlantic ocean. In our case we even have to take three flights to get to Alaska. First a flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta, then from Atlanta to Salt Lake City and finally from Salt Lake City to Anchorage. A very long 22 hour journey, but as it was the only flight left available and because there are no direct flights from Amsterdam to Anchorage, we had no choice.

In Europe we have an information system on our television sets called Teletext, it brings us the latest news and weather updates, but also flight information. So when I woke up this morning I noticed that the Delta Airlines flight coming in from Atlanta had a 90 minute delay. This would most certainly lead to a delay in our departure time from Amsterdam airport as it was the same plane we would take. We went to the airport on time anyway, because you never know how fast they can prepare an airplane for the next flight. So when we arrived at Schiphol Airport, the tv monitors showed an one hour departure delay, 11.15 instead of 10.15. We checked in, said goodbye to my parents and Rien's girlfriend and went through the passport and security check into the tax free area.

Boarding would start at 10.00, so when we went to the gate at that time, we found out that not much was happening. Then at 11.00 Delta airlines announced that there was some hydraulic problem with the plane that would have to be fixed first. The delay was going to be at least another two and a half hours, so we were told to return to transfer desk T9 at 13.30. The business class passengers were taken care of seperately and we got a lunch voucher of 32,15 guilders each.

We weren't really hungry at the time, so I decided to use my KLM frequent flyer card to get into the KLM business lounge. We stayed there for about an hour and then we went for some lunch in Cafe Amsterdam. We both had a delicious Ribeye steak with fries.

At 13.30 we arrived at T9 and there was a huge queue of people waiting to get information. We stood in line for two hours before it was our turn at the transfer desk, only to find out that for today there were no more seats available on other flights. However there was a slight chance that our plane might leave at 17.00. At 16.30 they announced that the plane was indeed fixed and that we would have to board at 17.00 hours. We found out that all business class passengers did get seats on other flights. Of course it would be a shame to leave all those fine business class seats empty, so we asked for and got an upgrade to the Business Elite class.

At 17.39 the plane left the gate and we headed for the runway, but before we even attempted to take-off, the pilot announced that the hydraulic problem still existed and we would have to return to the gate. So now the only option left was to go home or to stay in a hotel. We decided to do the latter and that way we ended up at 21.30 in the Holiday Inn hotel in Utrecht, 50 kilometers away from the airport.

Of course this will mess up our scheduled trip through Alaska and also the hotel reservations and car rental. So the first thing I did when we got in our hotel room was to call Denali Cabins to annouce our cancelled flight. I managed to reschedule our reservations for one day later and the Denali Cabin lady will also take care of our bus trip reservation at the Denali National Park so that's really nice of her.

After that we shared a table at dinner with Monique and Jeroen from Rotterdam, on their way to Denver, who we met earlier in the day. And after that we had a couple of drinks in the hotel bar at the 21st floor. We finally went to bed at 1.30.
Day 2: 28 May 2000
Our wake up call was at 6.30. This was the first time ever I didn't have a jetlag the first night of an America trip. Too bad we're only 75 kilometers away from home. We took a shower and put on the same clothes as yesterday, because our suitcases were still inside the plane's holds. After we had breakfast we boarded the bus that would take us back to Schiphol airport at 8.00.

When we arrived at Schiphol, we noticed that the plane was scheduled to depart at 11.00, so we checked in and waited for what would happen. This time all signs were on green, so boarding of the plane started close to 11.00. As there probably were no gates available, we had to board a bus first that took us to the platform where the plane was parked. Twenty minutes later we were finally up in the air.

The first part of the trip in the Business Elite class was really luxureous. Last time I had this much legroom, was on an Amtrak train in 1996. The seat can be adjusted electronically in sorts of ways, so that's really cool. Dinner was really good too, no plastic food containers, but real plates and glasses.

Almost nine hours later we arrived in Atlanta at 14.00 local time. Our next flight to Salt Lake City leaves at 15.55, so normally that would be enough time to get through immigration and customs. But never underestimate the American Immigration and Customs officers to delay your arrival into the United States of America. At 15.25 we finally arrived at the Delta desk to re-check in our suitcases and we found out that we had to get from the E concours to the A concours. On an airport the size of Atlanta's that's a long way. Meanwhile we heard that Jeroen and Monique missed their 15.35 flight to Denver so they had to wait again for the next flight. We said goodbye quickly and literally had to run to catch our flight to Salt Lake City. With only a couple of minutes left, before departure, we arrived at the gate. For the remainder of the trip we're back in cattle class, so that's a big difference to Business Elite.

We arrived on time in Salt Lake City at 17.45 local time. The flight for Anchorage was scheduled at 19.05 so we had some time to eat and buy some magazines at the news stand. Our last flight also left on time, so we finally arrived in Anchorage at 21.40, almost 48 hours after checking in at Schiphol airport!

We already went through immigration and customs in Atlanta, so it's only a short time from the gate to the luggage belt. We pick up our luggage and take the shuttle bus to the South terminal where Alamo car rental is located. We had made reservations for a full size car, but they had a special, we could upgrade for only $6 a day to a Chevrolet Blazer 4x4. So we end up with a huge 4x4 car, which I had wanted all along, but had I reserved one to begin with in the Netherlands, it would have cost a couple of hundred dollars more. So we now have a real bargain.

At 22.30 we are on our way to the Rodeway Inn, where we had reservations last night, but we try to get a room anyway. Outside the sun is still shining, although it's about the set. Rodeway Inn has a room available, so that's great, we finally can get some rest after this long trip.
Day 3: 29 May 2000, Memorial Day
I should have known that I would get jetlag after all. I lay awake for most of the night, while Rien is sleeping like a baby. At 7.00 when Rien also wakes up, we take a shower, put on some clean clothes and try to use the internet account with Altavista that Rien signed up for. That all worked out just fine, so after sending a couple of emails we log off and check out of the motel. First we have to find out whether there will be any shops open on Memorial Day, but that doesn't seem to be a problem. The girl at the motel frontdesk called a nearby grocery store and they were open as usual. So we headed off for the nearby Carrs store and bought breakfast and supplies for the next couple of days. By the way, we saved a lot of money by becoming a member of the Carrs/Safeway shopping club!

We ate our breakfast in the Carrs parking lot and next we drove around a bit in Anchorage where we soon located one of the Walmarts I had searched for on the internet. So we do some more shopping and after that we decide to say goodbye to Anchorage and drive to our next destination: Denali National Park.

The weather is very good today, blue skies all over, with just a couple of clouds in the distance. Because of that we get a good view on some of the huge mountains in between Anchorage and Denali Park. One of them is probably Mount Mckinley, the highest peak in North America, but we don't know which one. Maybe we will find out afterwards when we have a look at the photos we took.

When we reach Cantwell it's time to refuel our car, so we stop at a local gas station and we are pleasantly surprised by the fuel prices. We had expected prices near the 2 dollar range, but it was only $1.60. From Cantwell to Denali is only about 30 more miles, so we soon arrive at the Denali National Park visitor center. Since we failed to see Denali Cabins, our accomodation for the coming two nights, along the way, we ask one of the park rangers where it is. Apparently we have passed it about 10 miles ago, so we have to drive back a bit. We also pick up our bustickets for the Denali bus tour we reserved for tomorrow.

Finally around 16.30 we arrive at Denali Cabins. The lady behind the frontdesk is the same one I had spoken to a couple of days ago when we were in the hotel in Utrecht. So we thank her for taking care of rescheduling our reservations. We end up in cabin number 17, a very nice cabin with 2 beds, a table, 2 chairs, shower and toilet, but.... no phone line, so we can't connect to the internet from here.

Since it's almost dinner time we decide to drive to Healy, a town about 20 miles further up north. But when we arrive there, we only find a couple of houses along gravel roads, but no restaurants what so ever. So we drive back to McKinley park where we did see a couple of restaurants. We end up eating a huge pizza in the Lynx Creek restaurant.

It's just over 21.00 when we are finished with our pizza. It's still very much light outside, so we decide to drive into Denali Park up to mile 15 of the Denali road. Which is as far you can go with a private vehicle. The park ranger guarding the road over there said that there were a couple of Dall sheep nearby along the canyon walls. So we park the car and try to walk in the direction of the sheep. But that was not that easy, there wasn't really a trail, just a lot of big rocks and rain puddles to jump over. So when we spot the sheep through my binoculars we decide it's not worth the effort to go all the way over there on such harsh terrain. We return to the cabin just after 22.00 and decide to catch some sleep because tomorrow morning we have to get up at 6.30 to catch the 8 o'clock bus into Denali Park.
Day 4: 30 May 2000
I finally got some decent sleep, I woke up just before the alarm clock would go off. We take a quick shower and leave the cabin on an empty stomach around 7.30. I had expected to find a grocery store in between the cabin and Denali Park, but no such luck, so we have a really nutricious breakfast of Muesli bars and Snickers when we are inside the bus. The bus is almost full, there are about 30 people on board and Darlene Huss is our driver for the day. We are only just a couple of miles from the visitor center when we see our first wild life. Warned by a passing RV from the opposite direction we see a caribou with two calves walking along the river bank. For the next couple of miles that is about the only wild life we encounter.

After mile 15 it get's better, although it's all very small wild life, like snowshoe hares, rabbits and Tundra Chickens. It isn't until the second scheduled rest stop, that we see a couple of Dall sheep. One of them is actually coming our way on the parking lot, so one of the busdrivers there moves us out of the way, because they are very precise here on not disturbing the animals in their natural environment. After that we continue our way to the Toklat end point, and along the way we see a moose in the distance but too far away to take pictures.

When we arrive in Toklat (mile 53) we are warned by another busdriver that there are three bears along the service road. So Darlene takes our bus there and indeed there are three bears digging in the ground for food. Gradually they come closer to the bus, so we get some excellent photo opportunities. After about an half hour it's time to return to the visitor center, so we leave the bears behind. On the way back we spot one more bear, a lot more Dall sheep and a couple of other animals, but after seeing the three bears that's just minor stuff.

It's just after two o'clock when we return to the visitor center, so we still have a lot of time to spent today, We decide to see how far we can get to the artic circle. The plan is to see how long it takes to get to Fairbanks and then decide if we go further towards the artic circle. We arrive in Fairbanks around 17.00 and then drive along the highway towards the artic until we see the first distance signs that will give us an idea how long it will take to get there. That's a bit of a disappointment when we find out it will take at least another 4 hours to get to the arctic and then we have to drive back all the way to Denali. So we decide not to go up north.

Instead we stop at an Alaska pipeline view point which also has a visitor center. We take some pictures and talk to Steve, the information guide of Alyeska Oil. He explains some things about the pipeline and its construction. For example, the cooling ribs on top of the vertical beams are there to make sure the permafrost soil stays frozen. Otherwise the pipeline would sink into the ground. Steve also directs us towards the Food Factory in Fairbanks to have dinner.

The Food Factory is located on a mall with a Sam's club store, an Office Max and a couple of grocery stores. First we do some shopping to find a PCMCIA adapter for Smartmedia so we can load the pictures from Rien's digital camera into his laptop, but no such luck. I do end up buying the Being John Malkovich DVD and the Microsoft Streets & Trips 2001 tripplanner. After eating a steak sandwich with cheese and steak fries at the Food factory, we fill up our tank with gas and we drive back to Denali Cabins. We arrive around midnight, but that's no problem now, because it never gets dark this time of year.
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© Copyright 2000 Raymond de Hilster