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By Motorcoach Through the Yukon & Alaska
July 2006

by Murray Lundberg

    I've just returned from my final trip as driver/guide, for a motorcoach tour that took us from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Seward, Alaska, where my group boarded the Celebrity Summit for a cruise back to Vancouver. This was about the 8th trip I've done for W. P. Maher Tours of Wellington, New Zealand, and I was looking forward to seeing Kevin Maher again (we've become good friends), to travelling with another group of Kiwis (always fun), and to doing my final trip after 17 years of it for 3 companies (Atlas Tours, Northwest Stage Lines and Norline Coaches).

    The photojournal that follows will, I hope, be of interest to people looking for information about this route, people wondering how a tour like this actually runs, and those who wonder what being a tour driver 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 12, 2006: Group arrives in Whitehorse, Yukon, on an Air Canada flight from Vancouver.
Went on a short city tour including a tour through the restored sternwheeler S.S. Klondike, then checked into the Westmark Klondike Inn.

July 13, 2006: Whitehorse to Dawson City - 335 miles
Our animal count got off to a good start with a brief but fairly good look at a beautiful young cinnamon-coloured black bear as he crossed the highway in front of us just south of Carmacks. Unfortunately nobody was quick enough with a camera. Arriving at Dawson, we checked into the Downtown Hotel for 2 nights. We had requested rooms in the annex across the street, as it's the best place for a group due to the tables and a hot tub in an enclosed courtyard - as is often the case at the Downtown, our request wasn't honoured, and we were in the main building.

July 14, 2006: Dawson area tour morning, with the afternoon free to explore.
While returning to town on the Bonanza Creek Road, we had another good animal encounter, this one a skinny fox who trotted along the shoulder of the road beside the bus for a half-mile or so.

This picture of the river freighter Amelia Lupine was taken at 3:50 p.m. as she was being towed up onto the shore, I assume for hull repairs. I usually find that the Dawson waterfront has something interesting going on, and there are unique watercraft to be seen. Behind the Amelia Lupine is the ferry George Black, on which we cross the Yukon River tomorrow.

July 15, 2006: Dawson City to Tok, Alaska - 187 miles.
As I was having breakfast at the hotel, an ambulance arrived. The waitress checked with the desk and came back to tell me that it was one of my folks. My passenger was taken to the health centre with breathing problems but once on oxygen she recovered quickly.

I got the bus ready for the day, then wandered around town with my camera for an hour. This photo of the side of the Westminster Hotel (the oldest operating hotel in the Yukon) was shot at 8:15 a.m. I love Dawson, and it's mostly because its still genuine, in stark contrast to Skagway, Alaska, which I generally describe as "Walt Disney's version of the Klondike Gold Rush."

At 9:00 a.m. we pulled away from the hotel and in a couple of minutes were at the loading area for the George Black ferry. There was no lineup, but I'd gone to the Departmment of Highways yard and picked up a priority boarding pass (specifically for motorcoaches) last night just in case. For many years there has been talk about building a bridge here (last year it looked very much like it was going to go ahead), but I really like the ferry - it's rather unique in a world where travel experiences get more homogenous year after year. It only takes 4-5 minutes to cross the Yukon River, and then you're driving steeply up the first of many hills on the Top of the World Highway.

At 10:50 a.m. we came upon the scene to the left - a young grizzly bear calmly grazing on grasses right beside the road. He appeared to be a 2-year-old, so had probably been on his own just a few days.

The car above pulled away just after we arrived, and we stayed with the bear for almost 10 minutes. This photo was shot at at 10:56, just after a motorhome and a truck camper had gone by at high speed - those are the sort of people who will get home and complain that they spent a month in Alaska and saw no wildlife at all.

After a typical quick, friendly crossing into Alaska, we stopped for lunch at the Chicken Gold Camp & Outpost. As always, everyone was very pleased with Mike and Lou's operation - an excellent lunch in quaint, spotlessly clean surroundings. I gave myself a present in the Outpost gift shop - a beautiful 30x48-inch grizzly-design quilt created by Sarah Lord, a summer resident of Chicken. I looked at it carefully when I was through a month ago, and it was an easy decision when I saw it this time.

We stayed at the Golden Bear Lodge in Tok - they have a wide range of room types, but the tours I guide always book the centre block, which has the newest/best rooms. A big bonus for groups is the grassy area out back where we get together for drinks. We had our dinner and breakfast the next morning at the restaurant attached to the lodge, called the Grumpy Griz Cafe. I had checked out the new operation back in January, and it was excellent. On this trip, the waitressses tried hard but with 2 tour buses in they were badly understaffed and the service was very slow. That's forgivable, but the quality of the food was very poor, and the owner's attitude just sucked. We got many complaints, and Maher groups will be going to Fast Eddie's, a mile or so away, next year.

July 16, 2006: Tok to Fairbanks - 202 miles
This photo of me and Kevin was taken at Delta Junction at 12:05 p.m., just before our lunch stop at Rika's Roadhouse, which is always popular.

Arriving in Fairbanks, we checked into the beautiful Bear Lodge, the newest section of the Wedgewood Resort (this photo of Room 302 was taken at 10:15 p.m.). Away from town beside the Creamer's Field bird sanctuary, this is an excellent property, with one of the best restaurants in Alaska for both dinner and breakfast.

July 17, 2006: Fairbanks city tour day.

The sign above the Trans Alaska oil pipeline interpretive site says "Canada my ass, it's Alaska's Gas!" - that's one of the slogans used by the Alaskan Independence Party. It refers to the current controversy about building a natural gas pipeline down the Alaska Highway, which will require paying Canada for acccess and property rights. This photo was shot at our first stop on the tour, at 9:25 a.m.

Our next stop was Dredge #8, which concludes with gold panning (this photo was taken at 11:00 a.m.). The quality of the guides there varies a lot, but this year she was excellent.

The couple on the left, Alasdair and Marie, had received word that their son was extremely ill in Australia, but carried on with little hint that anything was wrong. On the day we drove to Anchorage we got word that he had died - I don't deal with death well, and couldn't even come up with any words to express my sadness about it (they, of course, flew home on the next available flight). One of the aspects of long tours that I've always enjoyed is the connection that develops with many of the people you travel with. At times like this, it doesn't feel like such a good thing.

The Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has been highly rated for many, many years. A few weeks ago, a huge new wing opened, and it is simply stunning. This photo was taken in the upper-level Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery at 1:10 p.m. - I could easily spend 2 hours at the museum, and 3 would be better, making the $10 admission very good value. The Gallery of Alaska on the main level among is displays the state's largest public gold collection and many stuffed animals including the world's only Ice-Age Steppe Bison mummy.

The feature excursion of our Fairbanks day was the Riverboat Discovery cruise down the Chena and Tanana Rivers.

Shortly after leaving the dock, a demonstration of bush plane flying is presented - it used to be a modified Piper Super Cub on wheels, but since he crashed into the river beside the boat a couple of years ago, another pilot with this float-equipped 1951 Piper PA-18-125 is performing. This photo, shot at 2:15 p.m., also shows some of the very large homes being built on the hill above the Chena River.

A fairly lengthy stop is made at the riverside kennel of Iditarod veteran Susan Butcher. She is extremely sick with leukemia, and her husband Dave Monson is at her bedside, so another musher (whose name I've haven't discovered yet) took over the presentation. This photo was shot during his introduction at 2:35 p.m. (update - Susan Butcher died on Aug 5, 2006)

Huskies raring to take the musher for a ride, at 2:41 p.m.!

Another stop is made at a fish camp, where Dixie Alexander describes traditional Athabaskan Indian fishing. Then its on to the Chena Indian Village, where everybody disembarks from the boat and attends talks about mushing, hunting and trapping, Native clothing, and traditional shelters. The whole cruise is very professional, well worth the $46.75 price tag - this was about the 20th time I've been on it (at least once a year).

July 18, 2006: Fairbanks to Denali National Park - 125 miles
I dropped my group off at the Alaska Railroad for their trip to the park, while I went ahead with the motorcoach and got their luggage into their hotel rooms before meeting them at the Denali railroad depot. This gave me an hour or so free, and I took advantage of the time to explore the new park visitor center. The Denali park managers have the difficult task of balancing access to the park for a rapidly-increasing number of visitors, with preservation of the wilderness they come to see. The new Visitor Center is a beautiful structure, with room for several times as many people as the old one which is now the Wilderness Access Center where people catch shuttles buses, get backcountry permits and other such things. This photo was shot at 11:35 a.m.

The exterior of the Denali Visitor Center, at 11:44 a.m.

My group's train arrives, at 12:35 p.m.

Kevin on his balcony at the Denali Bluffs Hotel at 3:45 p.m., with Mount Healy behind (there's a great hiking trail up the mountain, though it doesn't go right to the summit).

July 19, 2006: Denali wilderness tour (124 miles) and Denali to Princess McKinley Lodge (107 miles) - 231 miles total
At 6:20 we boarded the Tundra Wilderness Tour bus, which picked us up at the Denali Bluffs. This shot, taken at 8:13 a.m., shows the video monitors which are new this year. The driver has a video camera with a huge zoom lens (he told me 100x) that he uses to pick out distant wildlife that passengers are having a hard time finding or want a better look at. Also in these new busses are comfortable fabric-covered bucket seats instead of the vinyl bench seats that have been standard. Between them, these improvements make a huge difference in the trip.

We stopped at the Toklat River (Mile 53), and I fully expected to turn around there, as is the normal case when Denali (still Mount McKinley to some folks) isn't visible due to clouds. However, our driver had gotten a message on the radio that the clouds were thinning and she just might come out of hiding, so we continued on towards Stony Hill at Mile 60. A few minutes after leaving the Toklat we had our first grizzly sighting - a sow and 2 cubs down in a ravine close to the road. Not a good photo op, but a good sighting regardless. Another mile brought us to this sow and cubs - this photo was shot at 10:21 a.m.

Denali wasn't visible from Stony Hill, so we just had a coffee break and turned back. A mile back down the road we met this sow and 2 cubs (at 10:50 a.m.) - the driver just stopped the bus and let them amble peacefully past.

The cub seen above, at 10:51 a.m.

When we got to the bears who had been down in the ravine, they were up relaxing on the tundra - 10:57 a.m.

The bears seen above, at 10:57 a.m.

The south side of Highway Pass as seen from our grizzly-viewing spot at 11:00 a.m.

Polychrome Pass, Denali Park, Alaska Polychrome Pass, one of the major stops, at 12:02 p.m.

Polychrome Pass, Denali Park, Alaska The term "Denali wilderness" takes on an unusual definition at spots such as Polychrome Pass when several busses congregate for a toilet break. This photo was also taken at 12:02 p.m.

Princess McKinley Wilderness Lodge After the Tundra Wilderness Tour, we had to drive south for a couple of hours, as the Denali Bluffs wasn't able to accommodate us for 2 nights. We went to the Princess McKinley Wilderness Lodge (this is Room 502, seen at 5:52 p.m.). That night, 2 couples joined Kevin and I for drinks and an excellent dinner in the just-opened Twenty,320 Alaskan Grill, with Denali (which for many years was thought to be 20,320 feet high) visible in a clear sky from our table by the massive windows. Despite backlighting on Denali which made for relatively poor pictures, I took a few "insurance" photos just in case the forecast for clear skies in the morning didn't turn out to be correct.

Mount McKinley (Denali), Alaska July 20, 2006: Princess McKinley Lodge to Anchorage - 138 miles
I got up just after 3:00 a.m. to see if I could catch the first light on Denali, but was a bit too early, and the light wasn't good. This shot was taken at 5:50 a.m., with a fog bank over the Chulitna River adding some interest.

The breakfast buffet in the Cub Café this morning was quite poor in terms of both selection and quality, and grossly expensive at $21.75.

The Mooses's Tooth, Alaska The Mooses's Tooth at 9:25 a.m.

We were supposed to depart for Anchorage at 10:00, but nobody had told the bag crew, so we were delayed by an hour. Nobody minded - having to spend another day at this beautiful property wouldn't have been a disappointment!

Historic Anchorage Hotel An easy drive (with a stop at the Iditarod sled dog race headquarters in Wasilla) brought us to Anchorage, where we checked into the historic Anchorage Hotel. This is one of my favourite hotels in Alaska - a charming "boutique" property built in 1936, with exceptionally friendly and efficient staff. There's no restaurant, but each morning, Kathleen's Creative Catering brought in an extremely good breakfast - very high quality and great variety that was different each day. This picture of the hotel was shot at 8:35 p.m.

    July 21, 2006: Low tide (0.2 feet) and high tide (27.4 feet) at Ship Creek, in downtown Anchorage (these 2 photos were taken from exactly the same spot). Although the fishing for silver salmon was said by some to be "hot" this evening, I saw a great deal of fishing going on but very little catching.

This fellow, one of the few successful Ship Creek fishermen this day, had a fine strut on with a pair of nice silvers on his hip. 1:36 p.m.

For those who would like to give Ship Creek fishing a try but don't have their own gear, Riverside Adventures will rent you all the gear you need and sell you a license. A rod and reel with all the lures and such that you need is only $5 an hour - rod, reel, lures, boots and net will cost $12 an hour. They're very helpful, and are located at the far end of the bridge beside The Bridge restaurant.

I really enjoy watching industrial activity, particularly at places such as the Anchorage docks where things are a little unusual. This barge that I shot at 7:44 p.m. is carrying slings of lumber for the village of Selawik, a new rescue boat for Barrow, a large campground-style outhouse, a mobile home, several trucks, and heaven knows what else.

A wide range of transportation types, seen at Cook Inlet at 7:52 p.m.

July 22, 2006: Anchorage to Seward and back - 266 miles
This was the only day of the entire trip that we had bad weather. At the Portage Glacier we were greeted by very heavy rain and strong wind. Though it abated once out of the Portage Valley, the rain continued almost all day. This is the Seward Highway as I was northbound back to Anchorage at 3:26 p.m., after dropping my group off at their ship - for much more information about what that experience is like, see YourAlaskaCruise.com.

July 23, 2006: Anchorage to Whitehorse - 735 miles
Getting ready to leave Anchorage, at 2:10 a.m. That may seem odd (it certainly did to the hotel desk staff), but that's when I need to leave to get home at a reasonable hour. A couple of bonuses are that I get the often-wonderful morning light, and more animal sightings (only 3 moose this trip, though). This shot was taken at 1/3.3 sec, f3.5 and ISO 400, steadying myself with a seat back.

The Matanuska River as seen from the viewpoint at Mile 59 of the Glenn Highway at 3:27 a.m.

The dramatic outcropping of rock known as Lion Head, at Mile 115 of the Glenn Highway, was still in the shadows at 5:10 a.m.

Looking back down the Glenn Highway at Tahneeta Pass (Mile 122), at 5:25 a.m. - this is the sort of light that photographers cherish!

Taking a short break along the Alaska Highway at Mile 1285 at 11:24 a.m.

Along the Alaska Highway at 1:42 p.m.

The Donjek River bridge at 3:24 p.m.

After cleaning the bus for the last time, I got home just after 8:00 - 17 hours after leaving Anchorage. That's an hour and a half longer than normal, but the weather made it much more difficult to not stop for pictures!

July 24, 2006: Whitehorse to Skagway and back - 224 miles
The timing of the cruise that my group is on makes it easy for Cathy and I to take our huskies to Skagway to meet them when they arrive there. The reaction is always wonderful (I have no doubt that most of them think I'm kidding when I tell them to look for me at 10:00 a.m. as they get off the ship). This year there was an added incentive for us to be there, as we wanted to take Kevin to the cabin to show him that part of our world. It turned out to be about as perfect an ending to not only this trip, but the entire 17-year-long adventure, as I could have hoped for. I joked several times that somebody on the bus was truly blessed to get us both weather and wildlife - now I think that maybe it was me, and I feel extremely lucky.

The total distance travelled in 14 days was 2,503 miles (4,005 km). Total number of photographs taken was about 600 - there are 551 left after editing.

Now, Web sites, photography, writing, working on the construction of a new house at Carcross, and planning a trip to New Zealand in 2008 are the focusses in the short term, with other tourism opportunities available in the longer term (likely with the White Pass & Yukon Route railway that runs 100 feet from our front door in the picture in some way). Whereever it all goes, I hope that you continue to travel with me through the pages of ExploreNorth!