Go North–to Alaska and the Yukon

In 1865, Horace Greeley said, “Go west young man.” Greeley was enamored of Manifest Destiny and American expansion to the west. We, in 2016, were excited about going north to the Land of the Midnight Sun. There to see Denali in all its glory and abundant wildlife. To take a cruise through Glacier Bay. To go even to the Yukon–Canada’s far north. The experience turned into one of our most memorable and rewarding vacations. Full details will have to wait for a travel feature in the September Eagle Peak Quarterly. There we will offer many more photos and some recommendations on what to see and do. For now, here’s some highlights.

We traveled by air, by rail, by motorcoach and bus (the former a more luxurious version of the latter, of course) and finally by cruise ship. It all added up to lots of money, but you’ve seen those bumper stickers that say, “We’re spending our kids inheritance?” Not quite that extreme, but the money turned out to be well spent. Alaska is twice the size of Texas and larger than all but 18 sovereign nations so for the first time ever we took a package tour vacation. We had exceptional weather, with only a few sprinkles here and there. Most days were in the mid 50s at the low end and as high as 70, although if you were out early enough it could be chillier and the wind could be brisk on occasion.

  • June 5/6–Anchorage. We arrived a day early before our tour would start. Anchorage has a great museum not to be missed. Historical stuff of First Nation people, explorers, settlers, miners and more–like this contemporary art by the indigenous people.Word piece from Anchorage Museum
  • June 7–On to Denali, via the McKinley Explorer, a domed rail car with great food and views of the scenery between Anchorage and the national park. The railcars are owned by Carnival, which owns Holland America, Princess, Cunard, Seabourn and Costa cruise lines. We were on a Holland America package (we liked them; few news reports of problems like some of their sister lines).
  • June 8–a Tundra Wilderness Tour (7 hours or so) on basically a large school bus operated by Aramark–the predominant vendor of food and services at most of America’s national parks. We were fortunate to have a driver with 24 years of experience at the park who could tell us about its history, its flora and fauna, its ecology and more. Along the road, which is closed to private vehicles except for occasional photographers with special permits, we saw the many snow capped peaks. We also saw caribou, moose, a nesting gyrfalcon AND a mama grizzly with two cubs–just 150 feet from the road. Here’s mama by herself.

adult female grizzly bear

    • June 9–to Fairbanks via motorcoach. Great views along the way. Our first encounter with the Midnight Sun. Sunset at 12:30 AM; sunrise at 3 AM. Room darkening shades essential.
    • June 10–a visit to Gold Dredge 8, an historic site with a monster machine that floated in a pond it kept enlarging as it gobbled dirt at one end and pushed out processed ore from the other end. There we tried our hand at gold panning, learned how miners in the 19th and early 20th century dug 50 feet or more into the permafrost to extract gold-bearing ore (in 50 below zero winter) which they waited to process the following summer. Also saw a segment of the Trans Alaska Pipeline which currently carries an average of about 535,000 barrels of oil per day the 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. It’s about 5 feet and diameter on the outside with lots of insulation and 11 pumps to keep the oil moving.
    • June 11–We took an hour-long flight to Dawson City, Yukon on an aging 737 charter plane. There we landed on a gravel/hard packed dirt runway (have to contend with permafrost; no paving). Dawson is a quaint little town with a maximum population of 1,900 year round (probably less). All the streets are dirt. In the 1890s it was all about mining the Klondike. Today it’s mostly tourism, although there still is gold mining going on. While there we saw a Highlands Game–including that ever popular “caber toss.” We also took a trip on the Yukon River via a paddlewheeler and caught a performance of “the Dangerous Days of ’98.” The latter chronicled the escapades of William Jefferson “Soapy” Smith whose goons robbed would-be miners on the Chilkoot Trail and whose saloon took much of what remained. Tourism? Judge for yourself by the picture of downtown Dawson, a hotel from the Gold Rush with (yes) mannequins in the window. So no, there are no women of negotiable affections available in 21st century Dawson.

The Flora Dora Hotel from 1890s

  •  June 12–on the road via motorcoach again, this time to Whitehorse. A town just a tad larger than Dawson and now the capital of the Yukon. A bit more to see and do here, but let’s save that for the travel feature. The big deal is travelling  the next morning to Frasier, where we board the Yukon and White Pass Route for the trip to Skagway. We stopped for lunch at this tiny place along the way called Minto. There I tried on for size some moose antlers. Moose must have some serious neck muscles–this was only a modest sized set but in the 30 pound range.

antlers cropped

  • June 13–White Pass and Yukon Route. A wonderful train ride along the canyons, passes and a couple tunnels that follow, for a time, the Chilkoot Trail (you can search the web for that or wait for the September feature), a treacherous route that thousands of gold seekers took in 1898 to get to the Yukon. The views from the train were magnificent and the ride smooth on the narrow gauge rail.

White Pass & Yukon train ready to round a bend


  • June 13–arrival in Skagway, Alaska. A tiny museum, an interesting bronze sculpture and flower garden and a gazillion jewelry stores, among other retailers, hawking their wares to the 3-5 cruise ships docking at this town of less than a 1,000 people. Still, Skagway has its virtues. Far easier to navigate than the larger Ketchikan. Even with a few thousand people per ship, many are onboard dining, shopping or doing other things. After 6 pm the streets are a ghost town as those who were there return for dinner to their respective cruise ships.
  • June 14–we checked out of room in Skagway and into our room on board Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam (WOW, that’s some boat!), got lunch and headed back into town for a “shore excursion.” The ship wouldn’t leave until 8:30 PM so we had a leisurely day to tour those local sights.  Again, there’s more here, but this post is for highlights. The next big one coming on board. Just a little more about the ship. About 1,900 passengers and half as many crew scattered among 11 decks. We were midships on deck 5, the first of the veranda decks, on the starboard side. That means we had a balcony to sit on. A king sized bed, a small sofa, a 32″ TV on the wall (we weren’t there to watch TV : ;-)) a mini-bar/fridge and closets for the luggage. Great selection of places to dine and plenty of activities, had we wanted to participate (for those who like cruises that’s important; we weren’t there for that).

The wife on the veranda taking pictures

  • June 15–Glacier Bay! Yes, lots of glaciers. With ship the size of the one we were on, we stayed a couple miles or so from the nearest one. Still, quite a deal.

glacier calving

  • Her camera and my cellphone take good pictures, that’s her’s above. This is us by someone else, at the foredeck on our cabin level.

on the deck in Glacier Bay

  • June 16–we traveled to Ketchikan overnight from Glacier Bay, arriving at around 6:30 AM. Unfortunately for us, a Celebrity cruise ship hit one of four berths at the harbor on June 3rd. Thankfully we weren’t on that ship, which encountered 45 mph winds before doing $2-5 million damage to the dock. The ship got a gouge in the hull which welders repaired and it went on its scheduled way the same night. WE, on the other hand, had to go ashore via a tender–those lifeboats you may have seen in the movie where Tom Hanks played Captain Phillips. Three other ships got a berth; we didn’t. Each tender holds 120-140 people so it worked well enough. Once ashore, we took a nice tour of the famous Creek Street and then to Totem Bight State Park where replicas of famous totems have been erected.

A totem pole

  • June 17 and 18–We cruised all day on the 17th, sightseeing on land all done. We had to have our luggage outside the door by 12 midnight on the 17th, making for some logistical complications. We arrived early the morning of the 18th in Vancouver for a series of transfers and passages through Canadian customs, American Customs, airport security, etc. The fun was over; back to the world of airport hassles. Complicated just a bit by a cold caught perhaps in Skagway or Ketchikan–meaning ears remaining unclear on descent for the first stop in Phoenix.

Look for much more on the trip in the September issue of Eagle Peak Quarterly.


10 thoughts on “Go North–to Alaska and the Yukon”

  1. Wowza! What a fab trip. Did you find any gold? Lol. And OMG that train on Yukon route looked terrifying! Holy smokes, I hadn’t heard about the Celebrity ship incident. That’s my cruiseline. It’s a fabulous fleet, I’ve been on several, and until now never heard of any problems except the few times Norwalk Virus was rampant, and I caught it twice! 🙂

    1. Actually we did “find” gold in the “poke” (a little bag of dirt they give you) through panning. Less than $20 between the wife and I. Of course the counter where your gold is weighed is happy to sell you a gold chain and a locket to display your gold flakes–which conveniently exceed the value of the gold you panned. Hahaha; but we did it anyway. Try Holland America; I’m sure you’ll like it. Don’t know if the captain or another crew member was responsible or how much the weather contributed to the collision–maybe a mechanical malfunction.

      But the trip really was fantastic!

      1. Sounds like a fantabulous trip. And I’ve heard good things about Holland America from fellow cruisers. Maybe one day. For now I’ve reached Elite status on Celebrity. I love that cruiseline, and we get so many perks paid for now with the status. 🙂

        1. Well that makes sense! Doubtful we’ll become regular cruisers like my sister-in-law–who has gone on at least one per year over the last decade or more! So I guess she must be getting lots of perks too.

          1. Oh yes, especially if she’s sticking with the same cruiseline, or at least sister lines such as Celebrity and Royal Carib are sisters, therefore points and perks are shared between.

    1. You’re most welcome! We just loved it. I’ll post more on this in my quarterly in September. Canada is definitely a great place to go. What struck me about people on the trip is how many came from the UK, Australia and New Zealand. I guess if you live on an island nation you eventually run out of new places to see. 🙂

Comments are closed.