The Index to Craig's 2008 North American Adventure can be found here.
With a mixture of excitement and trepidation I set off on the long walk from the airport to the Clarion Hotel in downtown Anchorage which acts as the gateway hotel for Trek America's Alaska tours. I had signed up for the company's Alaska & Yukon Explorer trip and was looking forward to being around people again after two months on my own. But how would I adapt to having people around me again 24/7 and how would I cope if the group turned out to be a group of over-excited teenagers who wanted to party all night and sleep all day? I decided that it was too late to worry now and devoted my energies to navigating my way through Anchorage's busy network of roads using the impossibly bad map that I had picked up at the airport.
When I arrived at the Clarion I was pleasantly surprised to discover that - contrary to what I had read online about Trek America's gateway hotels - it was actually a pretty damn good hotel. They let me check in early which gave me the day to go off and explore Anchorage. After enduring an ugly industrial area as I walked across town from the airport I had hoped that downtown would prove to be a modern metropolis with towering skyscrapers, or maybe a quaint little town like Banff, so you can imagine my disappointment when I realised it comprised one street full of gifts stores and dodgy looking bars and very little else. Frustrated at this discovery, I made my way back to my hotel to see if my roommate had arrived. He hadn't and, convinced that I must have missed something, I decided to head out on foot once again.
A couple of hours later I returned with sore feet and a realisation that, with the exception of the nearby mall, I had pretty much seen all of Anchorage the first time around. On my return I did notice that there was now a shiny white van and trailer in the parking lot outside - not something that would usually get me excited but this one had Trek America signage on it - the next instalment of my trip had officially started!
It's a very rare event when you're pleased to hear an alarm clock at 6am so it should be noted here that Wednesday 9th July 2008 was one of those days. After a quick hello to my roommate (who finally arrived long after I'd gone to bed), a shower and breakfast I made my way to the hotel lobby where I found a group of people who seemed to be similarly dazed and confused as to who was who and what was supposed to happen next. I introduced myself to anyone who would listen - including, it later transpired, some people waiting for a Holland America bus tour - and soon learned that our group comprised 12 Europeans, one American and a yet to materialise tour leader. With perfect timing, just as we were starting to look at each other and wonder if they would actually show, in strode Emiko (complete with shades and a huge coffee!) on the stroke of the agreed 730am meeting time.
We were taken to a meeting room at the hotel to complete some paperwork and one-by-one we introduced ourselves formally to the group. Looking back it seems funny that we should have felt nervous doing this as, by the end of the trip, Bridget, Catherine, Chrisitan, Dirk, Donna, Elke, Jolande, Kristina, Mags, Martin, Tom, Rob and I would all have become good friends. But I guess it takes time to get to know each other and to gel as a group.
Paperwork done, it was outside to the van in which we spend untold hours eating, chatting, reading, listening to music, eating, sleeping and then eating some more over the course of the next 21 days. To the accompaniment of the A Team theme we climbed aboard and headed off. The trip was on and 4,000 miles of Alaska, the Yukon and the NW Territories lay ahead of us.
After brief stops at the car rental office and the supermarket it was out onto the open road and, finally, out of Anchorage. It didn't take long for the scenery to change for the better and we soon stopped at the spectacular Turnagain Arm overlook where Emiko herded us together for a group photo. With 13 extra cameras being passed forward she soon regretted her suggestion and I can only remember one other instance of a group photo for the entire duration of the trip!
Kenai Fjords National Park was our first ‘proper' destination of the trip and, after our first lunch together, we headed off up the Harding Icefield Trail. The NPS literature made a real point of stating that the trail is very strenuous and that it will take 6-8 hours to complete the roundtrip but nothing was gonna stop us and, despite not starting until mid-afternoon, we raced up the trail. Well, we raced up until we hit the snow at which point we slowed considerably and soon lost a couple of the group who turned back. They probably made the wise choice but I decided to press on, despite boots that were completely devoid of any grip whatever, managing to slip over a dozen times or more and get thoroughly soaked and cold. This lack of grip would prove to be advantageous on the way down as we soon discovered the easiest - and by far the most fun - way of descending was to simply run and slide down the slope as if we were wearing skis. Dirk, Tom, Emiko and I had a great time ignoring the switchback trail and going off piste. Sliding straight down the thirty degree slope saw us race ahead of the others who had gone the more traditional route but, like the tortoise and the hair, we were passed when we made a faux pas and ended up lost!
Rather amazingly we all made it safely back to the van and headed off to nearby Seward where we checked in to the Breeze Inn for the next two nights. Having had a nice hot shower and warmed up ended our first day in a nearby restaurant and bar - a perfect end to a very enjoyable day. Those worries of the previous day had long since disappeared.
Over the coming days we would do a mix of hiking, cycling and even sea kayaking. There were various extras which we could do, such as whale watching cruises, but I was glad that there was no pressure to do them and, being on a lesser budget than some of the others, I would usually end up doing a hike somewhere or other. My doctor would have been proud of me. Until the evening, that is, when I would usually end up amongst the group ‘closing the bar', as it became known!
After leaving Seward we headed out to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which proved, for me, to be one of the real highlights of the entire trip. We then clambered back in to the van and headed off to the unique combined rail/road tunnel which led us to the equally unique town of Whittier. From Whittier we took an eight hour ferry ride along Prince William Sound to the town of Valdez. A few people, myself included, were not particularly looking forward to such a long time on a ferry but the US Forest Service had rather thoughtfully provided us with a guide by the name of Jim who provided a fascinating commentary and constantly scanned the shoreline for wildlife. He also spoke passionately about the Exxon Valdez disaster - twenty years after the event he was still emotional about it and you couldn't help but like the man.
We didn't reach the campground in Valdez until around 1030pm and it was past midnight by the time we finally got all the tents assembled for the first time and sat down around the campfire to toast marshmallows and chat. After such a manic first few days we were enjoying our first night of camping together - a little too loudly it turned out - and had to be reminded of the time by Emiko... this midnight sun business was sure gonna take some getting used to!
A couple of days later, after a brief stop at the old Valdez town site, we settled into our seats in the van for our first long drive of the trip. Destination: Wrangell St Elias National Park. Unlike the other Trek America group which we hooked up with in the park we had the luxury of staying in the fabulous Ma Johnsons Hotel in ‘downtown McCarthy'. Now I would find it hard to explain to anyone who has not been the town of McCarthy so I will not even try - I will just say that, if you are even remotely in the area, you absolutely must add it to your itinerary. Simple as that. Ignore the fact that you must drive the long unpaved McCarthy Road, ignore the fact that you must leave your car in a parking lot - the same parking lot that the other Trek America group were camped in - and walk a couple of miles into town and just do it. It will provide an unforgettable experience - it was certainly one of the most popular destinations of the entire trip.
Whilst we were staying in McCarthy we took the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Kennecott which was once the site of the world's most productive copper mine but which now lays wihin the boundary of the national park. Whilst in Kennecott we were able to do a guided glacier walk and go ice climbing on the Kennicott Glacier, as well as take a fascinating tour of the old Kennecott Mill.All of these activities were enjoyed by everyone but the most memorable experience of the day was probably the speed at which we managed to upset the staff at the bar in Kennicott. We'd not even finished walking through the door before we were getting attitude from the server for no reason whatever. I think it's fair to say, by the time we left half an hour later, the attitude had been returned in spades. I still have no idea what that was about but, hey, what can you do?
After a night camping in the town of Tok - where our arrival on the campground was greeted with a rumour amongst the other campers that we were a band on tour! - we crossed the border into the Yukon. Up until this point we had enjoyed fantastic weather but, after a long hike in nearby Kluane National Park, we returned to the campground on the shores of Kluane Lake where Chirs managed to anger the gods by going for a swim in the icy water. A huge storm blew up minutes later and the weather didn't improve again until a couple of days from the end of the trip. I am not sure which was worse: the change of weather or his near streak from tent to lake and back. I think I'll have to go with the latter!
The change in weather also coincided with us arriving to tackle the 730km long Dempster Highway. If, like me, you were thinking that the weather outside wouldn't matter when the plan was to spend two days in a van driving let me explain that the Dempster is an unpaved. Whilst it would surely have provided a test of endurance in the dry, it proved to be a real challenge in the wet weather. With the top surface having turned to mud it gave Emiko ample opportunity to hone her rally driving credentials and quickly earned her the nickname McRae.
Apart from a number of ‘exciting moments' on the mud the only real moments of note during those six days were stumbling upon a grizzly and her cubs, the flight to Tuktoyaktuk where we were able to swim in the Arctic Ocean and the ‘team building exercise' when we attempted to build the gazebo in the middle of a huge rainstorm. My favourite memory from the Dempster though was when we finally turned off the Dempster towards Dawson City and back on to the billiard table smooth tarmac. You know that polite round of applause that sometimes goes around a plane when you land? Let me tell you that this round of applause was entirely spontaneous and thoroughly genuine. The local tourist board issue a certificate to anyone who travels the length of the Dempster but, whilst it went nicely with the other four I received for various other silliness, I think we deserved a greater reward than that. Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boarman had a TV series to follow their exploits - I think we deserved that at the very least!
Seriously though, we were lucky that our group were able to deal with the challenges of the Dempster: I could imagine it causing mayhem amongst a less mature group.
One of the downsides of buying a pre-packaged trip such as this is that there will always be something that you don't enjoy but at the end of the trip we all had a chat about our best and worst memories and we were collectively at a loss to explain why Trek America retain the Dempster' as part of the trip. Whilst I would have had the time of my life driving it in a rental car, it is a thoroughly different beast when you are crammed in the back of a van with 13 other people. The only visible signs of damage were a chewed up tyre, a damaged lighting cable and dust-filled locks. But, under the surface, it must surely have done untold damage to the van. Not to mention the sense of humour of those on board.
Dawson City. What can I say? Apart from a few problems when we arrived and half of us ended up foregoing the camping for a couple of nights in the Downtown Hotel (the closest we actually came to any of us falling out which was quite an achievement given the amount of time we spent in the van) it was precisely what was needed at precisely the right time. Some scumbag had stolen our beer cooler a couple of days earlier in Inuvik but this was soon forgotten as we hit the town with the mission to make up for a night without alcohol!
The majority of us decided to become members of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club - an exclusive club open only to those brave enough to neck a shot of their choice containing one unusual addition: a human toe! Induction into the club is a long drawn out event which the ‘toe master' milks for all he is worth before finally uttering the words, "you can drink it fast, you can drink it slow... but the lips have gotta touch the toe!" The deed done (and another certificate collected!) it was time to head off to Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall to consume vast amounts of alcohol, eat pizza, gamble and watch the dancing girls. A cross between a school disco, a working mans club and a small-town casino, Gerties is thoroughly tacky but great fun nonetheless... like the rest of the town I couldn't quite put my finger on what I liked about the place but like it I did.
Next morning all that alcohol didn't seem such a great idea when - having started the day with a spot of gold-panning nearby - I joined a few of the others to hike up to the top of the mountain that overlooks Dawson City. By the time we reached halfway I was convinced that I was going to die but we finally made it up to the top and I swore there and then that I would never again let another drop of alcohol pass my lips - a promise I kept for a whole two days.
Sadly, after two fantastic days in Dawson City, it was time to get back in the van and hit the road once again: this time we had a mammoth 425-mile drive and a border crossing ahead of us. It didn't start off well with a hairy drive up the muddy road leading out of Dawson City. Apparently this is a spectacularly beautiful road but, thanks to the still-angry weather gods, all we got to see was thick fog and heavy rain.
We approached the border a little nervously - each of us having had our fair share of hassle from US border agents over the years - but, rather amazingly, were through and back into the United States in less than five minutes. "How many people are on board?" the agent enquired. "Fourteen", came the reply, to which he muttered a stunned "what? In THAT?!" before taking our passports away for inspection, shaking his head as he walked. When he returned he was still in disbelief and simply handed back the pile of 'freshly-stamped passports before waving us on, still shaking his head.
Soon we arrived at the tiny town of Chicken for a toilet (and souvenir) stop. Although it was only 11am it didn't stop a couple of the guys toasting our arrival back in Alaska with a couple of bottles of Alaskan Amber - the drink of choice on this trip - at a local bar! All too soon though it was back into the van and onwards. For hour after hour Emiko drove on towards Denali National Park, stopping only to fill up with gas and let us out for toilet and photo breaks. To anyone else it would have been a tiring day but we were old hands at this by now - we're thinking of entering a team in next year's Le Mans 24 hour race.
This was to have been our last night of camping but upon arrival at the McLaren Campground we were offered the use of a cabin for an extra $5 a person which left the group split once again. Personally I thought it was the bargain of the century but others decided that they preferred to camp alongside the river instead. I guess looking back now that it was a shame not to spend one final night around the campfire but I sure don't regret staying in that cabin - after all we were able to keep the heat in and the mosquitoes out... whereas the guys down by the river had the exact opposite problem to contend with!
Denali is huge - no getting away from that - and the discussion of how best to see it had gone on for several days. Now it was finally time to make up our minds. No private vehicles are allowed to tour the one single (unpaved, of course!) road into the park - you must take a long bus ride in - but our choice was between an 8-hour round-trip to Eielson Visitor Center or a 12-hour ride out to Wonder Lake. The latter was said to give you a better view of Mt McKinley but, rather tired of travelling by now, I went for the shorter trip - which proved a good decision as the weather once again played its part and prevented any of us from seeing the mountain!
The weather didn't stop the half a dozen of us who stopped there from doing a hike up a nearby mountain before hopping back on the bus and heading back to meet Emiko who returned us safe and sound to our cabins to freshen up. After a quick freshen up we headed off to the restaurant opposite for our much-requested pizza night. I am still not entirely sure what the problem was but apparently not everyone was delighted to be sitting outside on the terrace, least of all Dirk who launched a somewhat fruitless attempt to get the manager to come out and grovel! Most of managed to enjoy the evening nonetheless...
The following day presented us with more choices - two different flightseeing tours, ATVing, another bus trip, cycling or hiking - and, once again, I was the tight arse of the group and chose to hike. I was glad I did and enjoyed a fun morning hiking with Bridget and Mags before catching the Dog Sled demonstration in the afternoon. Despite the pouring rain I enjoyed them both and had to feel sorry for the guys who had paid extra for the flightseeing only to have their views obscured by cloud. In the evening we headed out for a meal in the town before heading back to pizza restaurant once again to finish the evening off with a few beers. We were even joined by Dirk who, in the spirit of peace, agreed to call off his war with the manager for the night. Or maybe he was just thirsty? Whatever, despite his protests that he hated the place, he was the last one to leave so it couldn't have been that bad!
And that should have been that. The following morning all we had left was a short drive back to Anchorage and we would then be saying our goodbyes and going our separate ways once again. After a early start to the day when I was woken to wave Chris off - he had to be back at the airport early so had to make his own way there by bus - the day got better and better. We loaded our luggage onboard the trailer one final time and headed off around 10am. As we drove towards Anchorage the sun came out and we were finally presented with a view of Mt McKinley which was greeted with some excitement. So unexpected was it that Emiko made the mistake of stopping for a group photo. Once again 13 cameras were passed forward - nothing changes! Although it had - three weeks and 4,000 miles later we had been through a lot together and had turned from a group of strangers to a group of friends. For the past few days we had joked about a reunion in Barcelona next year but now, as the end of the trip neared, you could sense that people weren't joking about it anymore - watch this space!
Eventually we were back where it started - the Clarion Hotel in Anchorage - and unloading our bags onto the pavement. I can't speak for the others but, whilst I wasn't in the least bit worried about saying goodbye to the van, I was a little bit moved to be saying good bye to the other guys who I'd been with for the past weeks and was delighted when it was suggested we meet for one final meal that evening. As usual there was some disagreement over where we should go and, as usual, we drank far more than we should but it was a massively memorable evening in more ways than one (none of which I am going to go into here - what happens in Anchorage, stays in Anchorage!) As people drifted off one-by-one, those that remained got drunker and drunker - somehow it was a thoroughly fitting end to a fantastic three weeks.
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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