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My Life as Motorcoach Driver/Guide in the Yukon and Alaska,


by Murray Lundberg

Northern Highways: Alaska, the Yukon & northern British Columbia

Bus & Motorcoach History: Alaska, the Yukon, & Northern British Columbia

Dateline: March 15, 2017

    I've often said that I was born a Northern, it just took me 40 years to realize it. Making the move to the Yukon, though, wasn't easy.

    A bit of background is needed to set the stage for the move and the start of my career as a motorcoach driver/guide. I started work in the Overwaitea Foods warehouse in Burnaby, BC, in 1976, pulling stock for store orders. Three years later, there was a rumour going around that another driver was going to be needed for the Kenworth semi-trailer rig that was used to pick up stock in the Vancouver area. I went out and took the needed training and got my Class 1 commercial driver's licence, and when the rumour tured out to be true, I was the only one in the union who was qualified, so got the job.

    We had a very strong union at Overwaitea. My records show that by July 1988 I was up to $17.34 per hour, and we had an Accumulated Time Off system that worked out to a total of about 1 week off per year of service. On many of my weeks off, I drove long-haul semis, to Alberta and California mostly.

    I had earned my private pilot's licence in 1967, and in November 1983, I went in with 2 other guys and bought an airplane - a 1972 Cessna 172L Skyhawk, registration C-GWDM. I flew it a lot from our base at the Langley airport, with mountain routes and backcountry destinations my favourites. The photo to the right was shot in Revelstoke, BC. In 1985, I headed to the Far North with it, with one of the other partners in the plane, and another Overwaitea warehouse worker. We went right up to Tuktoyaktuk, across to Fairbanks, and to a long list of other places. I posted an article about the flight, 1985 Flight of Discovery, a couple of years ago.

    I had gotten a taste of the North in 1975 when I worked underground at the Granduc copper mine in Stewart, BC, and loved it. The discovery flight - the places we saw and the people we met - really lit a fire in me. Although I loved trucks, I didn't like the business. A back injury received in my back-yard antique car restoration shop in was causing me a lot of problems, and there were rumours that Overwaitea Foods owner Jim Pattison was going to somehow bust the union. In April 1990, I saw a tiny ad in a Vancouver newspaper for a company looking for motorcoach driver/guides in Vancouver and Whitehorse. Within a couple of days, I had applied for a job that paid dramatically less than what I was making at Overwaitea - $100 per day on the highway (plus $18 for expenses) or $9.50 per hour locally.

    Driving tour/charter motorcoaches and buses was never a very dependable job, and it was strongly seasonal. As well as working for almost every bus company that operated in Whitehorse between 1990 and 2013, I worked several other jobs, including driving for Yellow Cabs, working airport security, and working at the Yukon Archives.

    There's a lot about this part of my life that I've forgotten. That's partly due to "selective memory," no doubt - only remembering the good things. I kept fairly detailed journals in 1991, 1992, and 1994, but other than that, I'm hoping that as I write this, one memory will trigger others. That's one of the things that I like most about writing for the Web - an article can evolve with a few clicks of the mouse. Because of that, the "under construction" note at the top may remain for quite some time.

June 23, 1989: This is the 1980 Western Star that I drove for 11 years (the Kenworth that I mentioned in the introduction was upgraded a few weeks before I started as a driver). The truck is seen at the BC Sugar plant on the Vancouver waterfont. This was my first stop most days, driving in from the Overwaitea warehouses in the Lake City industrial park in Burnaby, and later in Langley, in rush-hour traffic.

July 10, 1989: here's one last look back at the pre-1990 period. This was shot on I-5 in California as I headed south with Starliner Transport's Kenworth and reefer trailer to pick up a load of produce. The smudges in the sky were caused when I fell in a creek while trying to cool off while waiting for part of the load at Visalia. My Pentax Spotmatic was okay, but the roll of Kodachrome suffered some damage. These long-hauls were probably part of the reason I moved to long-haul charter motorcoaches a few months later - I loved the highway.

July 1990: a house-buying tour in Richmond for Hong Kong investors

July 1990: getting a blown tire replaced at Burwash Landing. See Historic Alaska Highway Lodges & Roadhouses

July 1990: my first tour across the Denali Highway

The view from the Atlas Tours drivers' aprtment in Dawson City in 1990 August 29, 1990: at least from 1990-1992, Atlas Tours had enough motorcoaches on the road in the Yukon and Alaska to justify having drivers' apartments in Dawson, Fairbanks and Anchorage rather than putting us in hotels. A local manager took care of the apartments, and often did step-on guide service for our local tours as well. This photo was taken from our kitchen window in Dawson.

August 1990: Silver City

August 1990: a tour of the Whitehorse power dam

February 23, 1991: Manning Park, BC. With 2 other coaches, I had picked up this group of about 100 Rover and Venturer Scouts in Vancouver the previous day at 4:30pm, took them to the park and then I went home to Chilliwack (118 km) for the night. We were back at their camp at Cambie Creek at 08:00 on the 23rd to take them to the Gibsons Pass ski area, where this photo was taken. That evening, I drove back home, returning on the 24th with my kids to take the Scouts back to Vancouver and the ferry.

We had some pretty bizarre runs at Atlas. Here's a series of notes from my 1991 journal, describing my first trip of the summer (I had been in Germany from March 19th until May 24th):
"June 3: 1800, leave Vancouver. Stop at Chilliwack 1 hour. Sleep in coach at Cache Creek - only 4 hours, cold as hell.
June 4: Deadhead Cache Creek to Dease Lake. Sleep in coach - cold as hell.
June 5: Deadhead Dease Lake to Whitehorse
June 6: Deadhead Whitehorse to Tok
June 7: Deadhead Tok to Anchorage
June 8: 07:30, pick up Pfeiffer fireman's group"
That was a 5-day tour, then I deadheaded back to Whitehorse over 2 days. This is a good example of why my journal says on June 18 that "Atlas is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy."

July 1991: a champagne toast at the Arctic Circle on the Dempster Highway with a Maupintours group escorted by Bill Newton.

July 1991: Harry Waldron, "Keeper of the Arctic Circle"

July 10, 1991: Snow on the Dempster Highway. We carried tire chains all the time.

July 19, 1991: the old interpretive centre on the Dempster Highway.

August 1991: We had some interesting old coaches in the Atlas fleet, like this MCI MC5B, #2141. Motor Coach Industries built 350 of the MC5B model between 1971 until 1977 - they were 96 inches wide, 35 feet long, and 10 feet high.

These photos were shot behind the Atlas Tours dispatch office and shop in Whitehorse at 101 Copper Road.

August 18, 1991: on board an Alaska Railroad train at Whittier. Until the railroad tunnel was upgraded and opened as the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel on June 7, 2000, the only ways to get a vehicle to Whittier were by ferry from Valdez, or by driving your vehicle onto a railroad flatcar at the Portage siding. Whittier wasn't a common destination for us, but I got to take an MCI on a train ride 3 times. In those days, most coaches were 96 inches wide - once 102 inches became the standard, they would just barely fit on the railcars, and driving a 102-inch-wide coach onto a railcar was too dangerous.

September 19, 1991: I stopped along the Alaska Highway near Destruction Bay to get this photo as I dead-headed back to Whitehorse from Anchorage after dropping my last tour of my second season.

September 21, 1991: The end of my second season of tour bus driving in the Yukon, shuttling the fleet of coaches back to Vancouver for winter work. This was shot overlooking the Stikine River on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. As fast as we could get a bus to the yard in Richmond, we'd be on a plane back to Whitehorse to get another.

October 1991: Atlas Tours took delivery of a new MCI 102C3 and numbered it 4511. Atlas owner Joe Becker had heard that I was pretty good with a camera, and asked me to take the coach out and do some promotional shots around Vancouver for brochures. This one was shot in Stanley Park with a Pentax 6x7, on Kodachrome.

The 102C3 coach series was built between 1988 and 1993 - it was 102 inches wide, 40 feet long, and came in either 11 foot 6 inch or 11 foot 9 inch heights.

November 4, 1992: A note in my journal says that Princess has seized 6 of Atlas Tours' Vancouver coaches (2 MC-8s and 4 MC-9s) and rebuilt them for their own use. All the leased coaches have gone back to McMynn Leasing, leaving about 3 coaches in the Vancouver yard and 3 in Whitehorse. In the late 1970s, Atlas bought a few MC-7s and MC-8s from United Trails Inc., and some of those ended up at Princess.

Late August 1993: Always looking for a bit of variety and a few extra dollars, I took a group of German canoeists up to Quiet Lake for Kanoe People, on a day off between Atlas tours.

November 1993: I took a winter job with Gerry Fincham's North West Stage Lines, running mail, freight, and passengers north and west from Whitehorse. We went as far as Ross River to the north and Beaver Creek to the west, using a van and this propane-powered GMC combi (a bus with a separate freight compartment).

34 Macdonald Road in the Porter Creek industrial area of Whitehorse
July 15, 1994: my first trip for Norline Coaches (Yukon). It was just a 6-hour transfer to Midway (7:30pm - 1:30am), which paid $150. I had heard that Norline's owner, Ron Swizdaryk, treated his drivers well. Norline owned this shop at 34 Macdonald Road in the Porter Creek industrial area of Whitehorse - this photo was shot in March 2017, but it looks much the same.

September 1995: Riverboat Discovery in Fairbanks

November 1999: Sullivan Arena in Anchorage with the Yukon Junior Claim Jumpers hockey team

September 16, 2000: Carcross

November 16, 2000: I was the driver for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien for a visit to Whitehorse. It was great fun - under very heavy security, and working around protestors who were at the Gold Rush Inn because Chrétien wanted to change the name of Mount Logan to Mount Trudeau. On the way back to the hotel to pick Chrétien up afer his meeting, the head of security said not to worry about the protestors because they would be gone due to the cold. I replied, "No they won't, they're Yukoners." They were still there. The school bus behind my coach was for the media. We used our old coach because a kids' hockey team booked the new one first and Ron wouldn't change it - even being the Prime Minister doesn't pull any weight here.

September 12, 2001: The Whitehorse airport after 2 Korean 747s were forced to land following terrorist attacks in the US.

December 2001: Beaver Creek

April 28, 2002: Atlin

June 10, 2002: The Downtown Hotel in Dawson

June 14, 2002: Seward

July 2002: Poker Creek, Top of the World Highway

July 2002: Parks Highway, Alaska

August 8, 2002: Claim 33 in the Klondike gold fields

Red Feather Saloon in Dawson in the winter
October 21, 2002: It was as cold outside as it looked when I took this shot of the Red Feather Saloon from my room at the Eldorado Hotel at 9:45 p.m.

December 2002: Fairbanks

May 23, 2003: Fraser

July 12, 2003: Yukon/NWT border on the Dempster Highway

July 18, 2003: Poker Creek, on the Top the World Highway

July 19, 2003: Breakdown in Tok

Tour bus in Dawson in the winter
November 23, 2003: Here's my bus in front of the Downtown Hotel again - this time at 3:30 p.m. as I was about to head south to Whitehorse with a kids' volleyball team.

November 30, 2003: Haines Junction

February 11, 2004: Richardson Highway

February 12, 2004: Thompson Pass, Richardson Highway

February 14, 2004: Valdez, Alaska

March 15, 2004: Liard Hotsprings Lodge

April 25, 2004: Muncho Lake viewpoint, Alaska Highway

July 1, 2004: Forest fire smoke on the Taylor Highway

July 2004: I wonder how many thousand windows I've washed?

July 16, 2004: Forest fire smoke on the Top of the World Highway. This would turn out to be the worst forest fire season on record in Alaska, and it still holds the record. By the end of the season, fires had consumed 6.6 million acres of forest in the state.

July 20, 2004: my mascot

July 28, 2004: Kluane Lake viewpoint, Alaska Highway

July 30, 2004: Paxson, Alaska

July 31, 2004: tour of the edge of Denali National Park by "monster truck"

August 2, 2004: Anchorage

November 7, 2004: Dawson

May 1, 2005: Grande Prairie, Alberta

June 12, 2005: Portage Glacier, Alaska

June 24, 2005: Kathleen Lake

June 24, 2005: on the Dalton Post road, almost back to the Haines Highway after dropping a group of rafters heading down the Tatshenshini/Alsek rivers system. This road goes to the launching point, and I always enjoyed people's reaction to taking a motocoach down it. The Milepost says about it: "Narrow, winding, dirt and gravel road with some washboard, deep ruts and a short but very steep downhill section. Not suitable for RVs."

July 24, 2005: One of the most memorable couple of days of my career occurred when I got stopped on the Taylor Highway by the massive Boundary forest fire. The Boundary Creek fire was the fastest-moving fire I've ever seen, even when it moved up from the forest into the tundra, seen here at about 7:00 pm. I had dropped my group in Eagle and they were taking the tour boat Yukon Queen back to Dawson, where I was supposed to meet them. I was caught at that spot in the middle of nowhere for 7 hours, though, and when I reached the border to get back into Canada a couple of hours after getting through the fire, it was closed. I had to spend the night (10 hours) in the bus at 35° F, and finally reached Dawson about 10:30 the next morning.

July 27, 2005: Alaska-Yukon border

December 12: 2005: Fairbanks

February 13, 2006: Grande Prairie, Alberta

February 13, 2006: Grande Prairie, Alberta

February 13, 2006: Grande Prairie, Alberta

April 14, 2006: Haines Summit. I posted more photos and stories from that weekend on my blog at Destination BC.

April 25, 2006: in the first post in my new blog, I commented: "This past weekend, I took a judo club down to Prince George, BC, in the charter bus that I've been driving for the past few years. I love traveling, but it's become too disruptive, so I'm retiring from bus driving in August. The Prince George trip was the last sports charter I'll be doing (the people were great, though)." It didn't actually work out that way, though.

June 15, 2006: from the blog again - "It's 06:04 and I'm sitting in my room at Young's Motel In Tok. The air conditioning in my bus died a few hours after leaving Whitehorse and it's been hot as hell. The itinerary for this tour is one of the type designed for people who want to spend as little as possible but still see Alaska - not until they get here do they find out that they have no free time so don't see some of the things they want to. There have been a lot of complaints about poor rooms, no free time and of course the hot bus. This is a good trip to stongly confirm my decision to quit. I'm looking forward to seeing this country a lot more - but from my Subaru, at my own pace, with a whole lot of hiking, and preferably with Cathy beside me. One woman asked me last night if she could get a cab to go downtown - I told her that there are no cabs in Tok, and no downtown to go to anyway. This motel is as good as it gets. The highlight of the trip for most of them so far seems to be the extra excursion up the Midnight Dome that I took them on at Dawson."

July 23, 2006: 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). I noted in my photo-journal of this tour that this was shot at 1/3.3 sec, f3.5 and ISO 400, steadying myself with a seat back.

July 7, 2007: Two days previously in Whitehorse, I began a new gig as a tour escort. After 17 years of having an escort handle the details of my groups' tours while I drove the motorcoach and talked a lot, now I had a driver while I took care of the details (but I still got to talk a lot!). A big part of the reason that this opportunity came up is that no bus operator in the Yukon would upgrade their coaches, and some tour companies just won't put up with old coaches. Premier Alaska was chartered for this tour, but the tour operator wanted my guide experience. I was afraid that it might be just too weird, but I really enjoyed it. On that first tour, that was at least partly because my driver was both very good, and an Alaskan (a real Alaskan) who I'd known for a decade or so. This was before I was blogging the way I do now, but I posted a photojournal of that tour as well.

July 11, 2008: southbound on the worst stretch of the Taylor Highway, above the Walker Fork River (Walker Fork of the Fortymile River).

July 14, 2008: Riding the Alaska Railroad to Denali National Park with my group

July 15, 2010: Chicken

July 11, 2011: SS Klondike

July 10: 2012: SS Klondike

July 12: 2012: Dawson

July 14: 2012: Tok

August 22, 2012: Minto Landing

May 28, 2013: Skagway

April 18, 2014: Duffey Lake Road, BC

June 5, 2014: Muktuk Kennels

July 4, 2014: Rogers Pass, BC

February 4, 2015: SS Klondike

February 9, 2015: 33 Mile Roadhouse on the Haines Highway

In August 2014, I took delivery my own "tour bus", a 2007 Fleetwood Terra LX 31M, a 31-foot-long Class A motorhome. I bought it in Phoenix, Arizona, and took 8 days to drive the 3,400 miles to Whitehorse. This photo was shot on the Denali Highway on August 13, 2015.

February 1, 2017: SS Klondike