From Florida To Alaska Via Planes, Trains, Cars, Ferries And Churchill, Manitoba
Oh geez – any frequent flyer knows you can fly from Florida up to Alaska with just one or two intermediate stops. What’s all this malarkey about trains, ferries and Northern Manitoba?!?
Anyone who's read my Trip Reports knows that I like getting there every bit as much as actually being there. Like Robert Lewis Stevenson, I often travel not so much to go anywhere, but rather just to go. The great affair is to move.
This year’s Autumn travels started back on September 18th when I fired up my trusty Mazda Pick-Up – the same one I’ve driven over 473,000 miles since I bought it new on Valentines Day in 1988 – and headed off down the Alaska Highway, bound for Colorado. It was the 16th time I’d driven from Alaska down to the Lower 48, otherwise known as the rest of the United States.
North America is a large and spectacularly beautiful continent. Its diverse network of roads and rails allow for a wide variety of land based journeys unmatched anywhere else on the planet. Nowhere else can you drive so easily over good quality roads through everything from the tropics to mountains to deserts to rainforests. Nowhere else can you travel so safely and inexpensively. Even at $3.00 per gallon, our fuel prices are still quite a bit lower than most anywhere else in the world.
One of my favorite pastimes is driving around the back roads of America. I’m referring to the so-called “Blue Highways” that route through small town America where the stores, restaurants and motels are still owned and operated by local folks as opposed to huge faceless corporations. The pace is a little bit slower but the over all experience is a lot richer than that experienced amongst the shiny but superficial corporate entities that thrive like a bad rash along our interstate highway system.
I keep a map of all the different roads that I’ve driven in my truck. It’s fun to see where I’ve been, but when you’ve covered as much territory as I have, that map is also helpful in showing me where I haven’t been. Over the past eighteen years, I’ve driven my little blue truck through all forty-nine contiguous states as well as most of Western Canada. In the western United States (from Montana down through Wyoming and Colorado to New Mexico and everywhere west), I’ve driven over 80% of all the state and federal highways. And that’s not even counting roads I traveled in my vehicles prior to 1988.
A few years ago, I met an 84-year-old man who claimed to have been in all but four counties in the United States. Four counties! There must be two hundred counties between the Dakotas and Nebraska alone! I was impressed.
Sometime later, I took a look at my roadmap with the idea of seeing just how many counties in the Western United States I’d been to. I’ve neither the time nor the inclination to see every county in America, but the West is where I’ve done most of my driving and frankly, that’s where my real interest lies.
To make a long story shorter, as of September 2005, there were nine counties in the Western U.S. that I’d not yet driven through. Six of them were in Eastern Montana, two were in New Mexico and one in Idaho. Neither I nor my truck are getting any younger, so I decided to knock off those counties this year. This decision was made that much easier by the fact that a few months ago, I’d booked a number of very inexpensive Mileage Runs out of Denver to points in Florida and the Northeast. By having my truck with me down in Colorado, I’d also have a comfortable place to sleep between runs. The precipitous rise in gas prices was a minor annoyance offset by signing up for a couple of days of overtime work.
In any event, I had a great drive from Alaska down to Colorado, traveling just over four thousand miles along roads old and new to me. The weather was generally quite good and the wildlife surprisingly abundant through British Columbia. Particularly memorable was the spectacular Trans-Canada Highway between Kamloops and Calgary. A more beautiful combination of lush mountain valleys, deep river canyons and autumn colors would be hard to imagine. Even the backroads through the broad high plains of Montana’s northeastern counties held a certain appeal, though one perhaps enhanced by a generous speed limit, ten speakers, a big amp and generally sunny skies.
Upon my arrival in Colorado, I commenced the first of many flights back and forth between Denver, Seattle, Chicago and either Tampa, Jacksonville or Ft. Myers. I even took a little day trip on US Airways from Tampa up to Hartford just so I could fly aboard the ERJ-170 and the A321. The roundtrips out of Denver were purchased as early as last March and cost between $140.00 and $183.00 inclusive of all taxes. I am always on the lookout for a good Mileage Run, regardless of whether I’m traveling in a month or six months from now. With the recent rise in fuel prices, I expect it will be somewhat more difficult to find major airlines offering fares so low on similar length routes in the future. As such, I’ve already purchased a six-roundtrip mileage run towards next year’s mileage accrual.
People often ask me if it’s difficult or at the very least tedious doing all this flying back and forth. Aside from the fact that I actually enjoy flying commercially, it’s made a lot easier by my having unlimited access to lounges from Alaska, America West, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways. I’m almost always sat in an exit row or bulkhead seat and on occasion I even get to enjoy a complimentary First Class upgrade on Alaska flights. While inflight, I’ve got plenty to keep me busy. Between projects in my laptop and a never ending supply of books to read, my time aloft is rarely idle. When it is, I’ve got over 2500 songs loaded into the hard drive. Life is good. At least for an unrepentant geek like me, it is.
As an Elite level flyer earning a 100% bonus on all my flights, my total cost per earned mile for this autumn’s trips comes out to 0.0113 cents. Double that amount for status mile costs.
Regardless of whether one’s flying in First Class or Economy, inflight service on domestic flights within the US is no longer worthy of review. At least, not as the primary subject of one of my Trip Reports. I will say however that I was very impressed with Embraer’s new ERJ-170. The aircraft I flew upon was operated by Shuttle America on behalf of United Express. Seating was a very comfortable 2-2 in Economy while up in First Class the configuration was 1-2. That’s right - First Class – on a regional jet! The First Class seats were surprisingly large too – about the same width as the First Class seat I’m presently sitting in aboard Alaska’s 737-800. Regardless of mixed or single class layout, I think Embraer has got a winner in this jet, especially since the cabin is wide enough to offer seats that are every bit as comfortable in width as what you’d enjoy on a larger jet.
The past two weeks have been chock full of travel, starting with a drive down to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in Southern New Mexico. On the way down, I passed through Harding and Lea counties. Now, only Idaho’s Power County is left to see. Following a quick visit to the spectacular caverns, I continued on south to Guadeloupe Mountains National Park, home to the highest mountain in Texas and certainly one of the prettiest parts of Texas. The mountains reminded me very much of the landscape outside Utah’s Zion National Park.
Continuing on north, I spent a day in Durango, Colorado before returning to Denver for a quick mileage run out to Tampa and back. Then it was on to Jacksonville where I picked up a car and sped off to a really good time at the 16th Annual Magnolia Fest. The Magfest is a four-day music festival set amidst the live oaks, sugar pines and Spanish moss along the banks of the Suwanee River in Suwanee Springs, Florida. The music tends towards jambands, jazz and newgrass with a healthy deference towards the improvisational spirit of such pioneering jambands as the Grateful Dead, Santana and the Allman Brothers. Plenty of good accommodations are available in the forest, i.e. in your tent, van or under a makeshift lean-to. Alas, no Starwood, Hilton or Hyatt properties were anywhere in the vicinity. Mainstream America was definitely not in attendance at this festival and as you might imagine, I did not see anyone sporting a FlyerTalk pin or T-shirt.
I was scheduled to depart from Ft. Myers, Florida on Monday the 24th, but with Hurricane Wilma bearing down on Southwest Florida and projected to make landfall nearby Ft. Myers on Monday morning, I decided to move my reservation up a day and depart on Sunday, the 23rd. That morning dawned clear and calm, and I enjoyed smooth flying all the way back to Seattle and Denver. Less than twenty-four hours later, Ft. Myers airport was shut down. Following a free day in sunny Colorado, I flew back down to Miami (via Seattle and Chicago, of course) and spent two days visiting friends in Biscayne and Everglades National Parks. Aside from minor damage to trees, the parks appeared to fare pretty well. Now it’s time to head back to the Last Frontier.
Following is the tale of my journey from Florida to Alaska covering 12,000 miles aboard four airlines, one railroad, four ferries and one eighteen year old pick-up truck. Now then, let’s head on out to Miami International Airport and get this trip underway.
DISCLAIMER: This report, like all my others, will focus mostly on getting there rather than being there. If you’re looking for a report about being there, enjoying suite upgrades at a Starwood resort or dining with the beautiful people at one of the city’s finer restaurants, just hit the back button on your browser and I’m sure you’ll find a wide variety of Trip Reports more to your liking. We have some fine writers here at FlyerTalk and many of their reports are quite good, not to mention detailed.
October 28, 2005
Miami to Dallas AMERICAN 737-800 Coach Class 903a – 1102a
Dallas to Seattle AMERICAN 757-200 Coach Class 1234p – 247p
Seattle to Denver ALASKA 737-400 First Class 600p – 933p * Snack
The morning commuter traffic into Miami was quite heavy, so it was a good thing I got an early start out of Florida City, located about thirty-five miles south of Miami. Despite getting on the highway at 6:15am, I didn’t present myself at the American Airlines ticket counter until 8:10am. Alas, there’d be no time to visit the Club America, a very nice Miami only airport lounge affiliated with the Priority Pass lounge access program.
Down at Gate 32, bedlam was the order of the day as hordes of passengers jammed the entrance to the jetway. Finally, the agent shut the jetway door and re-announced – in both English and Spanish – that boarding would be by group number ONLY and that passengers in groups four, five or six were only delaying the boarding process by trying to board now. I heard three different languages in my immediate vicinity, so I wonder if it was her announcement or her tone that ultimately provided some relief. I love to fly, but such anxiety to board an airplane I will never understand.
Once onboard, I settled into my non-reclining exit window seat and enjoyed the sights as we pushed back and taxied out for takeoff. Amongst the more memorable views were bright yellow DC-8s, DC-9s and 767s from cargo carrier DHL along with a handsome blue, green and white DC-10 from Arrow Air. Also noted was a fleet of winglet equipped Amerijet 727-200s resting quietly at the far end of the cargo area.
Flight time to Dallas was announced as two hours and thirty-eight minutes, a prognostication that ultimately was off by only three minutes. Service consisted of a couple passes with the beverage cart and a complimentary granola bar. Also available for $3.00 was American’s “Silver Box”. This box is offered for sale on flights prior to 10:00am, so it would seem reasonable to assume that it would contain breakfast type items such as yogurt or a breakfast bar. My seatmate purchased one and it contained:
During the flight, I had an enjoyable chat with my seatmate. Our conversation started when he noticed the book I was reading – Michael Crichton’s State of Fear – but soon drifted toward his job and travels. He worked for Boeing auditing parts suppliers for Boeing jets. Although most of his travel was in North America, he was very much looking forward to an upcoming trip to Korea. I got the sense that what he was really looking forward to was a big wide seat across the Pacific in Northwest’s World Business Class.
Our arrival in Dallas was right on time. My onward flight to Seattle was to depart from gate C-29, right next door to the SkyLink inter-terminal train station. With a little more than an hour to go before the Seattle flight would begin boarding, I decided to pay a quick visit to Continental’s Presidents Club over at Terminal E.
Last year, I would never have been able to do this because it would have involved exiting the terminal, waiting for an inter-terminal bus, then going back through security over at the E Terminal. That entire procedure would be repeated upon my return to Terminal C, so there’d be little if any time to enjoy the lounge.
DFW’s new SkyLink train allows passengers to quickly and easily travel between all terminals without ever leaving airside. For those making inter-terminal connections between American flights, the SkyLink is a huge improvement over the ancient and rickety old TRAAIN.
Boarding was just wrapping up as I arrived back at C-29. Today’s ex-TWA 757-200 was completely sold out, leaving some disappointed stand-by passengers to mill about DFW for another two hours until the next Seattle departure. I was thankful to have snagged a spacious exit row seat, even if it was across from door 2R where there was no window.
Back in the good old days of commercial air transport, this four-hour flight from Dallas up to Seattle would have featured American’s Flagship Service in the forward cabin and a choice of hot entrees in the back. The ticket price would have been higher however and First Class passengers would have actually paid a higher fare for those First Class seats. Back then, the only way to upgrade was to pay the First Class fare.
These days, First Class gets a choice of hot entrees while those sat behind the curtain get a bag of pretzels and the option of purchasing the “Red Box” for $3.00.
The Red Box’s collection of junk food is fine if you live in an alley but if you want something halfway decent to eat onboard, you really must bring your own food. DFW offers a good variety of take away food outlets, including all the usual franchises such as McDonalds and Taco Bell. There is also some local flavor with a barbecue place and a burrito shop. My personal favorite however is the Manchu Wok outlet. I stopped by there before today’s flight and shelled out $6.50 for a big container of steamed rice topped with Sesame Chicken and Chicken with Mushrooms. Add some hot sauce along with a fortune cookie and I’m in seventh heaven. As for my fortune:
You will make a big impression on everyone you meet this month,
particularly the Asian women on the jury.
Flight time between Dallas and Seattle generally runs close to four hours. After finishing my Chinese feast, I had hoped to put in a bit of work on this Trip Report. Unfortunately, since today’s aircraft was an ex-TWA machine, there was no laptop powerport for my laptop. The inflight movie was Young Frankenstein, one of my favorites but one that I watched on another American flight just a couple of days ago. Good thing I still had another 437 pages to read of Michael Crichton’s latest thriller.
Meanwhile, the guy sitting next to me just stared at the wall in front of him for four hours. I’m always amazed how anyone can show up for a four hour flight and not think to bring a newspaper, magazine or book along. Then again, I’ve come across plenty of people who hardly ever read unless they have to. Maybe this guy was meditating…
Approach to Seattle was from the north. This is always one of my favorite approaches into SeaTac - when I have a window seat, that is – because it affords such a great view of the downtown area as well as overflying Boeing Field and the Museum of Flight with its 707, 727, 737, 747 and Concorde all parked in fleet formation.
Faced with a three hour layover in Seattle, I decided to pay a rare visit to Delta’s Crown Room, located just three gates farther down the A Concourse from American’s area. In terms of overall ambience, I think Delta’s Crown Room is the nicest looking lounge at SeaTac. I love the dark woods, warm fabrics, nicely lit seating areas and big windows overlooking the gate area below. Now if only this lounge had free wireless access like Alaska’s Boardroom and Continental’s Presidents Club.
Later, I headed over to Alaska’s Boardroom and languished over a pint of Alaskan Amber and a plate of veggies with dip before heading up to Gate D-6 for my flight down to Denver. According to my flight log, this would be the one hundred and twenty-seventh time I’d flown the Seattle – Denver route. Oh Boy! Although Alaska has surpassed United as the airline most flown on this route, I’ve flown SEA-DEN with Continental, Frontier and Wien Air Alaska as well.
Once sat, I watched with interest as a fellow First Class passenger arrived to find all the overhead bin space above his bulkhead seat taken. This despite the fact that both 1A and 1B were as yet unoccupied. The man behind me in 3C chimed in to make it known that a passenger from Coach had placed his stuff in there and then headed back to his seat. A sign on the bin door over row one clearly states that this bin is reserved for bulkhead row passengers only. The offending baggage was quickly removed and replaced with the bag from the rightful tenant. I never did catch what happened with that Coach passenger’s bag, but I think it was gate checked to Denver. I sure hope so. If one is traveling in Coach, their baggage has no place in the First Class cabin unless there’s absolutely no other place aboard. At the time I’d boarded, the plane was only about half filled, so it was evident that this coach passenger simply didn’t want to carry his bag to and from his seat in the back.
Alaska’s website indicated that a dinner would be offered in the forward cabin on this two and a half hour flight to Denver. Alaska calls it a dinner, but it’s really a snack – essentially the same food they serve on all First Class luncheon and short dinner flights systemwide. The choices this month are:
Italian Salad Highlighted by turkey slices with black beans, tomatoes and Asiago Cheese
Served with Caesar Dressing
Warm Chicken Sandwich Accented with Marinara sauce and Monterey Jack Cheese
I’m not kidding when I say the choices this month. Alaska used to cycle its meals every week but with the Draconian cuts to meal service instituted last year, Alaska has now gone to a monthly menu. I’ve had the chicken sandwich a couple of times this month on the Chicago to Seattle route. It’s garnished with three canned mushrooms, a cherry pepper and an olive. That’s it. No longer is there a side dish such as the little serving of pasta or rice salad. On longer flights where Economy also gets fed, this First Class sandwich is essentially only about 15% larger than the chicken and cheese sandwich served back in Economy. But those canned mushrooms are really awesome…
I opted to go with the salad and was not disappointed. Most of Alaska’s salad entrees are quite good. Now if only they would see fit to offer a dressing better than the Naturally Fresh® brand…
Interestingly, drinks were offered with dinner rather than before dinner. To me, this is just laziness on the part of the Flight Attendant. Unless you’re eating a hotdog or a burger, who wants to drink beer or scotch with their meal? Were this just a one hour and thirty minute flight, I could understand, but on a two hour and ten minute flight, there was plenty of time to get out a round of drinks and then serve dinner. Believe me, with over 1500 First Class flights to my credit, I’ve seen it done too many times before. That said, most of Alaska’s Flight Attendants do a pretty nice job so it’s a bit of a shame to see the occasional indifference of one potentially tarnish the higher level of service provided by so many others.
We landed in Denver right on time and parked next to an America West CRJ-900. I look forward to seeing US Airways’ new colors on this and other aircraft in the months ahead.
Many people are put off by the great distance to be driven between anywhere in the Lower 48 and Alaska. I love the drive. It is one of my favorite travel experiences, if only for all the beautiful scenery I pass through along the way. It also helps that my truck is outfitted with ten speakers, a quality amp and an equalizer. The front coaxials will handle up to 350 watts alone with a custom built bass, mid-range and tweeter box behind the seats. No, my truck is not one of those annoying ghetto cruisers with loud bass booming gangsta rap music to insult the sensibilities of anyone with an IQ over 50. Only an anti-social moron feels a need to inflict that rubbish on his fellow citizenry. Essentially, more power properly applied means more clarity. All the better to enjoy the sweet tone of those mandolin strings or the whisk of that cymbal complimented by the beat of a warm, full bass. My stereo provides concert hall quality sound that makes driving anywhere, even the 120 miles up to Fairbanks for groceries, a pleasure to be anticipated.
Now I’m sure that few if any of you want to read a mile by mile account of my 4000-mile drive back home to Alaska. After all, this is FlyerTalk, not AAA. I will provide commentary on a few points of interest however.
‘Tis indeed a privilege to live in the American West and an equal one to drive through it. Even some of the interstates have their pretty spots. A good example of this is along I-70 west of Denver. The highway starts climbing right at the edge of the city and continues its uphill heading through the Rockies until it summits at the Eisenhower Tunnel, 11,015 feet above sea level. At this point, it passes under the Continental Divide and begins a long and gradual descent down the Western Slope to Utah. Highlights include the climb out of Denver, the descent into Vail Valley and Glenwood Canyon. I stopped to briefly visit friends in Grand Junction before continuing on to one of my favorite places in Utah – Deadhorse Point State Park. It was a beautiful evening when I arrived and it seemed like I had almost the entire park to myself as I saw only five or six people during the entire length of my stay. There were only two other vehicles in the campground – both motorhomes – and I never did see or hear anything of the occupants.
The next morning I slept in, cooked breakfast, hiked out to the overlook point, and then continued on a northwesterly heading through Salt Lake City and up into Idaho. At Pocatello, I made a left turn on Interstate 86. This took me into Power County, the last and final county of the American West that I’d not yet driven through. It was tempting to pull off and have a celebratory beer somewhere but it was getting dark and I had a lot of territory to cover still ahead of me. I turned onto Idaho 27 and made my way back to the northbound lanes of Interstate 15.
I should note here that normally I try to stick to the smaller roads, but the fact that I had already driven all the secondary highways in this region coupled with the increasing darkness made taking the interstate up to Montana a more logical choice. I drove another 150 miles before calling it a night at a rest area just above Dillon, Montana.
My original plan had been to take Montana 43 over to Lost Trail Pass where it meets up with US-93 at the Idaho border. From there I’d head north up the Bitterroot Valley to Missoula and on to Kalispell for the night. Alas, it had snowed heavily on the high passes the night before – I woke up with an inch of snow on my truck this same morning – and the dubious road conditions atop the passes forced me to continue north along the interstate until I got about fifty miles north of Butte. There I turned onto US-12, then west on Montana 200 until I hit one of the prettiest roads in all of Montana, state highway 83. This is like the back way up to Kalispell and the eastern entrance to Glacier National Park. The route travels through the Swan Valley and is heavily forested with some beautiful lakes along the way.
In Kalispell, I was disappointed to find that the nice motel I remembered staying at about ten years earlier had been torn down and replaced with a bank. None of the other motels in town looked particularly inviting – or they were too expensive – so I continued 15 miles further up the road to Whitefish. I’d ridden Amtrak’s Empire Builder through Whitefish often enough, but I’d never stayed there. Whitefish sits at the base of the Big Mountain ski area and so it definitely has that ski town feel to it – kind of Tyrolean with lots of little shops and warmly lit pubs and eateries. I found a decent motel, cooked up some pasta and veggies, and enjoyed a warm bed and a shower for the first time this drive.
I spent the next two days winding through the mountains and valleys of southern British Columbia. There are no straight roads in southern BC – the area is very mountainous and there are some incredibly long lakes to be gotten around or over. Across Kootenay Lake, I rode aboard the Osprey 2000. This was a pretty good-sized open deck car ferry with a small café and an nice passenger lounge. The crossing took half an hour and was billed as the longest free ferry ride in the world. Later that day I crossed Lower Arrow Lake on an old fashioned rope pulled ferry. All day long I drove back and forth between autumn in the valleys to winter in the mountains. It was quite a day, but one I’d gladly do all over again. Southern BC is certainly a beautiful part of the world!
I pulled into Kelowna at about 6:00pm. I’d driven 1,860 miles since leaving Colorado five days ago and was looking forward to letting WestJet and ViaRail do the driving for awhile. Since my flight didn’t depart until 9:35am the next morning, I figured I’d indulge myself and get a motel for the night. Kelowna’s got plenty of them but as I was soon to discover, they’re all pretty high priced on the weekends. The best deal I could find was $54.00 per night at a so-so looking place that had tiny rooms. I decided to pass and instead purchased myself a nice chicken dinner in town before heading out to the airport where a night in the Economy Lot goes for just $5.00.
Now I know that for many people, their pride would never allow them to sleep in their vehicle unless it was specifically designed for that. Me, I could care less. Lord knows, I’ve slept in many more dubious locations, especially in my hitchhiking days. But the reality is I’m just as comfortable in the back of my truck as I am in most beds. I’ve got a full bed mattress in the back, not one of those awful inflatable things. It’s soft yet firm and I actually like it better than many regular beds I’ve slept in. There’s plenty of room and I can stretch out fully and then some. Add to that a couple of pillows and a couple of good sleeping bags and I’m more than comfortable. By the way - I never get in sleeping bags. They’re too restrictive that way. Even on backpacking trips, I just unzip them and get under them, like a big down comforter. With a Thermarest pad or a mattress underneath me, I’m plenty warm.
November 6, 2005
Kelowna to Vancouver WESTJET 737-700 Coach Class 935a – 1030a
Vancouver to Winnipeg WESTJET 737-700 Coach Class 1125a – 400p
This morning dawned clear and cold – frozen droplets of rain all over my truck were testament to last night’s sub-freezing temperatures. Nonetheless, I slept comfortably through the night under my trusty –5° rated sleeping bag and awoke refreshed and ready for the day’s adventures. That today would be a sunny day was an added bonus.
Kelowna International’s Economy Parking Lot is located next to the terminal building whereas Close-In parking is located right in front of the terminal. Unless you’re parked way out in the back forty of the Economy lot, the difference in walking distance is negligible. The difference in price is substantial however, as Close-In parking costs double that of Economy.
Following a speedy clean up in the deserted baggage claim area washroom (The first flight of the day wasn’t due to arrive for another hour yet), I presented my freshly attired self at the WestJet ticket counter where I was assigned exit row window seat 12A for both of my flights.
Awright! Exit row window seats on a web special ticket on a low cost carrier! I must be livin’ right!
With a couple of hours to burn before flight time, I walked down to the Skyway Restaurant for a bit of breakfast. It’s a cafeteria really – the days of fine dining in North American airports are for the most part gone – but I thoroughly enjoyed the plate of Eggs Benedict I purchased for just $5.50 CAD. The coffee wasn’t bad either and, like the eggs very affordable at just $1.30 CAD with unlimited refills. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Eggs Benedict offered at an airport cafeteria. In the US at least, a cup of typically bland coffee will usually run you close to $2.00 with no refills. Very reasonable prices here in Kelowna.
I’m sure at least a couple of FlyerTalk’s more well heeled readers must be snorting in derision at this point. (That’s assuming they’ve even deigned to read a report such as this). That Seat 2A is such a cheapskate! Niggling about coffee prices and sleeping in his truck… How gauche!
Well it’s true - I don’t have a six-figure income, I’m not on a company expense account and I’m not heir to any large sums of money. (My father left me a black hat and a stuffed owl.) In order to travel as much as I do, I’ve really got to watch my budget. As it is, I’d rather spend my money on getting there rather than blowing a bundle just to catch a few hours sleep in a hotel room. That’s fine for business travelers or vacationers who can afford to pack a lot of expense into a short, two or three week trip that they only take once a year. I’m not on vacation. This is my life. Just think of me as a well to do hobo and pray I don’t show up bumming unfinished drinks and half-smoked cigars at any FlyerTalk get-togethers.
Boarding of flight 77 to Vancouver was pretty simple. Passengers needing assistance were boarded first, followed by everybody else. Not one, not two but THREE gate agents helped scan boarding passes and then directed passengers to either the front or rear door of the aircraft. No jetways were involved and boarding was accomplished relatively quickly. I especially enjoyed walking out into the bright morning sun and climbing up the stairs to that shiny new winglet equipped 737-700. There’s something about walking out to and around a big jetliner that really allows you to appreciate what magnificent machines they truly are. The impact is considerably less when boarding via a jetway.
WestJet 737-700s are outfitted with 136 gray leather upholstered seats offering decent legroom of 32” pitch. In the back of each seat is a 5” PTV with controls located in the armrest. Twenty-five channels of television (including a flight progress map) are available along with pay-per-view movies from Disney and Fox. There is no charge for the television programs, but headphones will set you back $1.00.
The Flight Attendant making the pre-flight safety announcements was unlike any non-ramp airline employee I’ve ever seen. Specifically, he sported a goatee and had his long hair tied back in a ponytail. Most airlines would never allow this image in a public contact position, so hats off to WestJet for hiring this guy as is, because the great job he did throughout the flight had everything to do with character and nothing to do with appearance.
Flying time to Vancouver was planned for thirty-seven minutes. Due to the short flight, a scaled back service of orange or apple juice was all that would be offered. I had an apple juice and was happy to help out when the crew asked us to separate the juice cartons from any other rubbish we might have so that they might be recycled. Good job, WestJet!
I had an hour layover in Vancouver and, with no lounge access, decided to head over to a small café where a coffee and a Biscotti assisted me in my ongoing efforts to bring this report up to date. I paused briefly to watch as an Air North 737-200 was towed into the gate and prepared for its departure up to Whitehorse. Air North really needs to come up with a better livery for this ex-Piedmont 737. The all-white fuselage bears a small north-pointing compass on the tail and the title “Air North – The Yukon’s Airline” in thin blue print on the forward fuselage. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were just leasing this airplane for the short term until something more permanent comes along.
Hard though it may be to believe, the 737 first entered service with Lufthansa thirty-eight years ago. The first 737-300 entered service with US Air twenty-two years ago and some of the early examples of that aircraft are now starting to show up in the used aircraft market. How time flies… It seems like only yesterday that a friend and I drove down to Stapleton to have a look at one of the new –300s. US Air even let us onboard to have a look around the airplane. That would never happen these days!
The flight to Winnipeg was fairly full but once again my seatmate du vol and I enjoyed an empty middle seat. Following the lengthy safety and flight service announcements (Because Canada is officially bilingual, all announcements must be made in both English and French. I can’t help but wonder about if we were in Quebec, whether the authorities would insist that the French announcements be spoken 40% louder than the English ones, much as they do with the size of the lettering on their signage…) we roared off down the runway and quickly climbed to 38,000 feet for the two hour and seventeen minute flight to Winnipeg.
WestJet got its start back in 1996 flying three 737-200s between Vancouver, Calgary, Kelowna, Winnipeg and Edmonton. They’ve certainly grown since, now operating a modern fleet of 737-200s, 600s, 700s and 800s from Vancouver in the west to St. Johns, Newfoundland in the east. Foreign destinations include the usual winter hotspots in Florida, Arizona, Nevada, California and – starting soon – Hawaii! They also fly charters to Mexico. Check out the route map.
Back in 1996, WestJet’s longest flight was probably from Edmonton to Vancouver. Now they’re flying transcons and so the onboard service has evolved from complimentary soft drinks and snacks like cookies and nuts to light meals for sale such as sandwiches and breakfast wraps. Here’s a listing of what’s for sale:
I wasn’t particularly hungry and so settled for a complimentary packet of cookies with a cup of coffee. Meanwhile, I perused the TV selections and found two channels broadcasting NFL football games. I watched for awhile as the Chargers grounded the hapless Jets, then switched to TSN Sports Center for a review of the day’s action. You won’t find this on Cathay Pacific!
Soon we began our descent into Winnipeg. It was a blustery day on the high plains of Manitoba and our approach into Winnipeg International was not the smoothest. Upon landing, the Captain flipped on the thrust reversers followed by an application of brakes so heavy that my water bottle leapt off the middle seat and rolled forward into the next row.
Transportation from the airport into downtown Winnipeg is available via taxi, limousine or the #15 bus. Hmm… I could pay $15.00 CAD for the limo or $1.85 CAD for the city bus that’ll get me downtown in just thirty-five minutes. Fifteen minutes later, I was rolling down Sargent Avenue with transfer in hand for the #55 bus to Winnipeg’s Union Station. Total transit time from airport to train station: Fifty-three minutes.
November 6, 2005
Winnipeg to Churchill
ViaRail Canada First Class
“The Hudson Bay” Car 120, Berth 3
845p-845a +2 Travel Time: 36 Hours
Winnipeg’s train station is a grand old building that was designed by the same architects that designed New York’s Grand Central Station. Winnipeg’s station was completed in 1911 and is one of the largest railroad stations in western Canada.
The bus dropped me off right across the street from the station. It was dusk and I paused briefly to take a picture of the grand old building before heading across the street and approaching the row of double glass doors at the station’s entryway.
Once inside, I found myself in a huge antechamber dominated from above by a magnificent rose colored rotunda. The room was entirely open space save for a small café with tables on one side and the station security office on the other. Double doorways led off each side towards other parts of the building. Straight ahead through a wide entryway was access to the rest of the station – mainly, the ticket counter and waiting rooms. The time was about 5:30pm, three hours before departure time, and the station was virtually deserted save for the two ViaRail clerks and a girl sitting alone behind the security desk. The cafe was closed.
I had reserved an Economy Class (Comfort Class) seat aboard ViaRail’s Hudson Bay up to Churchill and back. The total cost for the thirty-six hour, 1,100-mile journey was $130.00 USD each way - $260.00 round trip. Back when I made this reservation, I really wanted to purchase a bed onboard. A bed means First Class and on most of ViaRail’s long-distance trains that means a private lounge and complimentary meals. Unfortunately, on the Hudson Bay it meant only a bed, and an upper berth at that. I decided it wasn’t good value for money and opted for the economy seat.
Now however, I was having second thoughts. Man… it sure would be fine to sleep in a nice soft bed topped with those large, warm duvets that ViaRail provides. Snow was in the forecast and I could already see myself laying back in that wonderful warm bed with a good book while outside my window snow flurried and Northern Lights danced. So uh, how much more would that berth be?
That would be $179.00 CAD each way, sir. However, did you know you could purchase the berths onboard after 10:00pm for just $40.00 CAD per night? You’ll have to vacate them in the morning and return to your seat, but it’s a good deal if you want to go that route, eh?
Oh, you betcha! That’s a great deal! The risk of course was that there might not be very many, if any berths available and other passengers might beat you out. Had this been the case, I might well have paid the $179.00 extra but after verifying that only two out of twelve berths had been sold for tonight’s train, I decided to take my chances onboard.
I purchased my coach tickets, left my pack with the ladies behind the counter (no charge) and headed out into downtown Winnipeg to look for a bite to eat. I still had over two hours before train time and all I’d had to eat since breakfast were those complimentary WestJet cookies.
I walked about ten blocks and handed out about $1.50 in change to panhandlers before ultimately ending up at a place called The Keg Steakhouse, located just two blocks from the station. What money I’d saved by taking the bus from the airport went towards a fairly decent steak dinner.
I should note here that this is a rail trip I’ve wanted to take since I first became aware of this train back in the early eighties. I’ve always been attracted to these “End of the line” type destinations and Churchill is indeed that. Even the road doesn’t make it from southern Manitoba. The only transportation options to Churchill are via plane, train or ship.
So – why build a railroad to Churchill? Grain shipments. Grain from Canada’s heartlands was traditionally shipped to European ports via Thunder Bay on Lake Superior. From there, it traveled the length of the Great Lakes, up the St. Laurence Seaway and across the Atlantic to Europe. Alternatively, it was hauled by rail to ports on the East Coast and sent out from there.
It was decided in 1910 that shipping grain to Europe would be faster and more efficiently accomplished via the Hudson Bay. Never mind that the navigation season only lasts about two months out of the year due to ice in the bay. Tracks had already been built up to The Pas and, following the completion of a bridge across the Saskatchewan River, construction of the Hudson Bay Railway began in 1913.
Northern Manitoba may not be mountainous, but it’s a very difficult place to build a railroad. Permafrost and large rock outcroppings from the Canadian Shield coupled with the twin demons of political interference and inadequate financing led to many construction delays. Although initial plans called for the rail terminus to be Port Nelson, it was decided in 1926 that Churchill would be better suited as a port. Three years later, the tracks reached Churchill.
Early on, poor track conditions resulting from frost upheavals made the going slow and unreliable. For years, the Canadian National hauled the grain in 40-foot boxcars since conventional grain hoppers were thought to be too heavy for the tracks. Add to this the limited shipping season and the Port of Churchill has never really handled great volumes. I was told that only nineteen ships sailed from Churchill this year.
It’s worth noting that from 1997 the tracks north of The Pas have been owned and operated by an American company called Omnitrax. Although the foreign ownership was initially controversial, Omnitrax (now doing business as The Hudson Bay Railway) has made considerable improvements to the tracks and the line is much more reliable as a result.
Limited grain shipments notwithstanding, the Hudson Bay Railroad serves as a vital link to the communities of Northern Manitoba, many of which have no other transportation options. Air service is available to The Pas, Thompson and Churchill but it is very expensive. A one way airline ticket from Winnipeg to Churchill costs over $600.00 CAD whereas a coach seat on the train can be had for about $150.00 CAD.
***** ***** *****
The call to board came without fanfare at 8:35pm – just ten minutes before departure. A ViaRail conductor simply walked over to Door Four, opened it and called out “All Aboard” loud enough for anyone within twenty feet to hear him. Access to the train parked above us was via an escalator, followed by a short walk down the platform. There were only about fifty passengers boarding out of Winnipeg this evening, so the ten-minute advance call was more than sufficient.
Tonight’s train consisted of a baggage car, two unnamed coaches, the dining car “Princess” and sleepers “Chateau Vercherres” and “Chateau Varennes”. All of the cars were stainless steel flat tops built by the Budd Company for the Canadian Pacific Railroad in the 1950s. Unfortunately, no dome cars graced this train. A pair of big F40-PH engines sporting ViaRail’s silver, blue and yellow colors provided our locomotive power.
I was greeted at the door serving both coaches by train attendant Joe Hebert who directed myself and all other independent travelers into the car on the right. The car on the left was reserved for a tour group of thirty. Each coach seated 68 passengers in a comfortable 2-2 configuration. Seat pitch was about 55” – far more generous than anything I encountered on Australian trains. Each seat came equipped with a footrest, a fold out leg rest and a decent recline. Paintings from Canadian artists decorated the front and rear bulkheads of each car. Unfortunately, that 1950s predilection towards pale green interiors for railroad cars had not been improved upon, but the seats were comfortable and, with only about ten people in my car, there was plenty of room to spread out.
At 8:45pm on the dot, the doors were shut, the engineer gave a couple short toots with his horn and dialed up the power in his lead F-40. Two of these big engines combine to generate 6000 horsepower and are a bit of an overkill for only six half-filled passenger cars. Needless to say, we powered out of the Winnipeg yards with considerable alacrity.
The conductor soon came through the car to collect tickets and I asked him about the procedure for upgrading to a berth. You’ll have to check in the dining car with Daniel (French pronunciation) the Service Manager. Given the French pronunciation, I wasn’t sure if I was dealing with a Daniel or a Danielle, but as the dining car was right behind me, I wasted no time in heading back there. As it turned out, Daniel was a very nice guy of Quebec origin now living in Winnipeg with his beautiful wife and five-month-old daughter. He had a few pictures of them both mounted in the window along one of the dining car tables - his makeshift office.
I was told that things looked very good for getting a berth but that I’d need to check back with him in about half an hour when he’d know for sure. If available, a lower berth would cost me $44.00 CAD or about $37.00 USD. Excellent! I grabbed a Sprite and headed back to my seat where I chatted briefly with two Japanese girls sat across the aisle from me. They had managed to get the seats in front of them turned around and now had a very comfortable seating arrangement allowing them to put their feet and legs up and stretch out quite a bit more comfortably. Our conversation was kept to a minimum because it was easy to see that they were a bit self-conscious about their rudimentary English skills and somewhat uncomfortable about getting into anything more than basic greetings. I bid them an enjoyable trip and returned to my seat.
I get the sense that some folks may think I’m one of those people who will just strike up a conversation with anyone. I reckon I can, but that doesn’t mean I do. In fact, when I fly, short of issuing an initial greeting to my seatmate, I won’t generally pursue further conversation unless he or she initiates it. Not everyone is comfortable talking with a complete stranger, even if they are sat next to one for a couple of hours. Many frequent flyers live in fear of getting stuck next to an overly talkative seatmate. Others cherish the opportunity for a little peace and quiet after a long day. Talking with and meeting fellow travelers is all well and good, but forcing the issue is not. I’m perfectly comfortable with using my travel time to read, write, sleep or listen to music. In fact, I rather prefer it that way.
Anyway, a lower birth was indeed available and I was assigned lower 3 in the 120 car, Chateau Vercherres, located just behind the diner. Since I had to return to my coach seat the next morning, I left most of my stuff back at the seat except for my daypack and a change of clothes.
During the day, berth accommodations consist of two couchettes facing eachother. At night, the couches lower and slide together to become a flat surface. A mattress is then placed on top of that, creating the lower berth. The upper berth is folded into the upper wall during the day and lowered for nighttime use. A ladder is attached for access. Heavy curtains afford complete privacy. Toilets can be found at the end of the car and a spacious shower is located just around the corner from the berths.
I arrived to find my bed had been nicely made up and the sheets turned down. The bedding included a big thick duvet and two pillows. In the corner just above and behind me was a reading light that provided both high and low settings. Nearby was an adjustable airflow vent that allowed nice cool air into my area. And finally, running half the length of the bed was a big picture window - very nice on this lightly snowy night.
There’s something about sleeping on a train that for me at least makes for a very nice sleep. Perhaps it’s the gentle rocking of the car or the clickity-clack of the tracks rushing by below. Whatever it is, I love it. Some say you haven’t truly traveled until you’ve slept in a bed on a train.
I awoke the next morning at about 8:00am – late for me, but then it was 6:00am where I’d come from the day before. At the end of my berth hung a bag with two large towels, a washcloth, soap, shampoo and body lotion. At this late hour, most of my fellow sleeping car passengers had already showered and headed in to breakfast. I was hopeful that there’d still be hot water in the shower. Thankfully, there was. Plenty of it! Water drains straight out onto the tracks, which you can see and hear through the drain on the shower floor.
Last Call for Breakfast was announced just as I was pulling on my jeans. Although seating is generally communal in the diner, there were only eight other people present, and they filled up two separate tables. I had a table to myself. Here’s the breakfast menu:
Two Egg Breakfast Two eggs prepared any style, served with your choice of bacon, ham or sausage and hashbrowns, toast or a muffin.$7.50
Western Scrambler Three eggs lightly scrambled with ham and green onions. Served with hashbrowns, toast or a muffin.$8.25
Full Consist Three fluffy pancakes served with two farm eggs prepared any style, two strips of bacon, a slice of ham and toast.$ 9.00
Continental Chilled fruit juice, hot or cold cereal, toast or muffin and coffee, tea or milk.$6.00
Also on the this menu (and subsequent transcripts) but not listed are all the usual secondary items like a side of toast, a fruit bowl, soup, a side salad, etc. I chose the Western Scrambler and received a generous portion of eggs accompanied by crispy hashbrowns and really good toast. The choices for bread were “Brown or White” and though I’d expected the “brown” to be simple wheat bread, I was pleasantly surprised when I received a plate of perfectly toasted multi-grain toast. The meal was served on real plates (as opposed to the Styrofoam plates often used by a certain railroad to the south) and the crew did a good job of keeping my coffee cup topped off.
One of the nicest things about dining aboard a train is the accompanying scenery. Where else can you relax and enjoy a fine meal, service and company while being able to take in nature’s beauty at eye-level rather than from 30,000 feet overhead? One moment you’re sipping coffee while rolling through a beautiful valley, the next you’re crossing a big river as breakfast is served.
Having departed Winnipeg well after dark, we were deprived of a chance to view the flat farmland of southern Manitoba. Any disappointment I may have had about this was more than offset by a few entertaining pages from my latest book. This morning, five hundred miles north of Winnipeg, the plains had been replaced by rolling hills dotted by the occasional tarn or small stream. The land was heavily forested by small white spruce and birch trees interspersed with many smaller plants such as willow. Everything was snow covered. Looking into the forest, I could see that despite its diminutive size, it was actually quite dense. Traveling through this area on anything but a rail or a road would have been quite difficult. I thought the land looked very much like the interior of Alaska.
After breakfast, I returned to my coach and consulted the timetable I’d picked up in Winnipeg. Ah… only twenty-three more hours to go. For some people, the prospect of twenty-three more hours rolling through tractless wilderness would be simply unbearable. For those people, there are airplanes.
As much as I enjoy flying, I much prefer overland travel if I have the time. When I consider the lands I’ve seen and the people and places I’ve visited on my overland travels, air travel seems downright impersonal by comparison. One simply steps aboard a climate-controlled flying machine and in just a few short hours is transported across mountains, deserts, forests, great lakes and/or oceans to a place hundreds or even thousands of miles away. In defense of flight, it shaves many hours or even days off a journey that, depending upon the portion of the planet traveled over might have included storms, travel through diseased or lawless lands or endless days surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean. Then again, overland travel might have included travel through beautiful landscapes and interesting towns during which it would have been possible to enjoy a bit of local flavor from both the land and the people that live there.
When I travel by land, I feel like I’ve come to know the country much better than I ever would have had I traveled by air. Even in a plane however, I like to have a window seat so I can see what I’m flying over. Yes, sometimes it’s cloudy or the ocean goes on for hours but even the deep blue sea has a unique beauty from 35,000 feet above it. Yet, on most international flights that I’ve been on, I’ve noticed many people close their window shades, even during the middle of the day. Earlier this year, while flying from Vancouver to Hong Kong on a 2:15pm departure, mine was the only window shade open as we flew past the mountains and glaciers of coastal Alaska. We were only two hours into the flight, with eleven and a half hours to go, so it’s not like everyone was exhausted and trying to sleep. Often times I’ve found the scenery outside my window to be far more entertaining than whatever was showing on the PTV. But – to each their own.
As it is, most people I know don’t want to go to Hawaii, the Great Barrier Reef or Paris. Rather, they just want to be there. Even in this modern world of high-speed inter-city transportation, traveling somewhere is generally viewed as something that must be endured, not enjoyed. Yeah, yeah, I know – most people, especially those traveling on business, simply don’t have the time. It’s also quite true that in this day and age of instant gratification, many people simply won’t take the time, even if they have it.
Now before any of you go getting your knickers in a knot over my comments, understand that I’m not saying everyone should slow down, take the train, drive more often or keep their window shades up during long international flights. Given the numbers of people traveling around the planet these days, it’s a good thing that most of them are aboard airplanes or else getting around by land might be a lot more difficult. What I want to point out are what I see as the benefits of traveling by land and enjoying that land, benefits that many will never get to experience while whisking overhead in their comfortable airplane seats.
A trip on a train is all about slowing down and enjoying the journey. There’s no driving, no pulling off the road in search of gas or food, no seasickness and rarely a storm large enough to give you cause for concern. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy.
And so I did, reclining my seat while re-reading Bill Bryson’s first great travel book “The Lost Continent”. In between laughs, I’d glance out my window occasionally to take in the passing scenery. Now and then, a small settlement or a road crossing would break the wilderness. Eventually, a gravel road started to parallel the tracks and then some buildings began to appear. We were approaching the town of The Pas. It’s pronounced “The Paw” and is, along with Thompson, the only town of any real size along the route to Churchill.
The timetable indicated we’d be spending about forty minutes in The Pas. It also indicated we’d be arriving about an hour and ten minutes earlier than we actually did. Given our late arrival, it was announced that the stop in The Pas would be limited to just twenty minutes. The train gets refueled and serviced here, so we’d need at least that much time. I watched with amusement as smokers practically leapt from the train, their cigarettes lit almost before their feet hit the ground.
Not long after we’d departed The Pas, the first call for lunch was made. Having taken a late breakfast, I decided to await the second call, about forty-five minutes later. Joining me at a table for four were Grant – a tour guide from Toronto, and Susan, one of his charges. Grant’s was one of two tour groups aboard the train, but his group was only twelve people and they were all traveling in the sleepers. The tour had started in Toronto aboard The Canadian, although some people had joined the group in Winnipeg. Susan was one of these, having flown up from Coral Gables, Florida.
“Hey! I was in Homestead just a few days ago!”
“No way! That’s just down the road!”
And from Grant: “I visited the Everglades last winter.”
As we exchanged travel stories, Daniel appeared with menus while Joe brought water. Remember that Daniel was the Service Manager while Joe was boarding coach passengers in Winnipeg. At another table, Michelle, who I’d earlier seen re-assembling berths and bedrooms for daytime occupancy, was taking meal orders. It was truly a team effort for these ViaRail employees. Here’s what was for lunch:
Caesar Salad Tossed romaine lettuce, croutons, creamy dressing and Asiago cheese.
Served with garlic toast.$6.50
Club Sandwich Smoked turkey, bacon, crisp lettuce and tomato piled high on your choice of bread, finished with creamy mayonnaise.$7.00
Smoked Beef on Rye Warm smoked beef thinly sliced and served on Winnipeg rye bread with tangy mustard.$7.50
Beef Burger A lean 4-oz beef patty, grilled to perfection and topped with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and sliced onion. Served on a toasted bun.$7.25
Michelle took our orders – green pea soup and a Caesar Salad for Susan and Club Sandwiches for Grant and I. The sandwiches were accompanied by a tasty coleslaw and a small side of wax bean salad which I did my best to ignore. Meanwhile we had a great time talking over adventures past, present and future. Grant said that later this summer he’d be leading a tour through Alaska, but only the southeast. They’d fly into Whitehorse, visit Dawson City and Inuvik by bus, then fly back to Whitehorse and take the White Pass Railroad down to Skagway, Alaska. From there, they’d cruise back down to Vancouver.
Susan was happy just to escape the heat and hurricanes of south Florida. She’d combined a visit to relatives living outside of Winnipeg with this trip up to Churchill. Riding out on to the tundra to see Polar Bears sounded like a lot of fun and, like me, she enjoyed travel to those end of the line type places.
After lunch, I returned to my seat in the coach car. We’d picked up almost forty passengers out of The Pas and I was lucky to still have a set of seats to myself. Trains are great places to read books, but the fold down table off the seat in front of me also made a nice place to set up my laptop and put in some work on this trip report.
Occasionally, the train would stop in the middle of nowhere to pick up or drop off a passenger or two. There are lots of flag stops on the run up to Churchill, much like the Alaska RR. That is to say the railroad will pick up or drop off anywhere along the line, not just the big towns. Looking at the timetable, I’d see names of what I initially assumed to be towns or villages located every few miles along the way, but in fact these names represented nothing more than signs along the railroad, with no evidence of civilization anywhere nearby.
In Wabowden, I watched as people left the train and ran into a nearby store to use the ATM. These were the same folks who’d boarded out the boonies where no ticket agent was available. They were withdrawing money from the ATM to pay for their train tickets onboard the train.
At about 6:30pm, I decided it was beer:30 and headed up to the diner to see what was on tap. In the absence of a true lounge car, the rear four tables of the diner are kept open for passengers to have a place to sit and enjoy a drink or play a game of cards. And that’s exactly what was going on at two of the tables. Bridge, in this case. I shelled out $4.75 for a cold Labatt’s and retired to an empty table where I remained without company to drink all by myself without adult supervision for the next half hour.
Earlier in the day, I’d signed up for the second dinner seating. This was supposed to happen about 7:30pm, after we’d left Thompson. Unfortunately, by the time 7:30 rolled around, we were still an hour and a half out of Thompson. The second call went out as scheduled however. Here’s the dinner menu:
Beef Burger A lean 4-oz beef patty, grilled to perfection and topped with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and sliced onion. Served on a toasted bun.$7.25
Add cheese for $1.25 more.
Turkey Schnitzel A tender breaded turkey cutlet grilled to perfection and finished with fresh lemon and dill.$8.50
Grilled Salmon Tender salmon grilled with garlic and seasoning, finished with fresh lemon, accompanied by vegetables of the day and your choice of rice pilaf or mashed potatoes.$11.50
Baby Back Ribs Delicious baby back ribs barbecued to perfection and served with vegetables of the day and your choice of rice pilaf or mashed potatoes.$11.50
Vegetarian Chile An excellent blend of vegetables, herbs and spices, stewed in a rich tomato sauce, served with your choice of mashed potato or rice pilaf.$8.00
I shared tonight’s dinner table with three ladies from a family of five who were all traveling up to Churchill to go see Polar Bears and experience a weekend in the subarctic. The group consisted of the mother, three daughters and a cousin. Everybody except the cousin was from the Chicago area. All five of them were wearing ghastly pink and white shirts that some well-meaning relative had made for them. The shirts were festooned with polar bears and snowflakes and cut in the same style as Hawaiian print shirts. Clothing notwithstanding, these ladies were veterans of many trips together. The matriarch in particular had traveled to just about everywhere except Antarctica. For Christmas, the entire family was taking a ten-day cruise from New York to the Caribbean.
We all ordered the salmon, to which I also added a bowl of halfway decent clam chowder. I measure all clam chowders against a bowl I once enjoyed in the Portland, Maine airport café. That was, per my tastes, the perfect bowl of clam chowder with just the right mix of clams, potatoes, bacon, clam stock… awesome stuff. I’ve sampled a lot of clam chowders since but have never managed a return to that little airport café in Portland, Maine.
The salmon was excellent by the way, accompanied by buttery rice and a tasty vegetable medley. Dessert was a choice of Three Berry pie, vanilla ice cream, or a combination of both. The soup and main course had left me more than full, so I passed on dessert but hung out with the gals awhile longer as they plotted activities for their three day stay in Churchill.
We stopped very briefly in Thicket Portage, a small town about half an hour out of Thompson. Joe was our server this evening and he mentioned that this town had an interesting history with the railroad. For many years, it was a crew tradition to throw scraps of food to the village dogs in Thicket Portage. Naturally, it wasn’t long before the dogs came to associate the whistle of the approaching train with food, and so they’d all rush down to the tracks in anticipation of their next meal. Joe mentioned he’d seen close to twenty dogs out by the tracks before. Unfortunately, over time some of the dogs began to behave a bit too aggressively around people with food regardless of whether the train was in town or not. At the request of the town council, the practice of throwing food to the dogs was scrapped.
After dinner, I returned to my coach car and fired up the laptop. Two days earlier in Kelowna, I’d established an account at a video rental shop and rented the following movies:
Scent of A Woman
An eclectic selection to be sure, but I finally settled on The Sting. I love the soundtrack almost as much as the story. Just about the time that Doyle Lonnigan (Robert Shaw) was lamenting the prospect of accusing Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) of cheating even better than him during the poker game on the train, we pulled out of Thompson and I went back to check with Daniel about the possibility of procuring another berth for the night. $44.00 later, I had my old berth back. I watched the rest of The Sting back at my seat before heading back to sleeper Chateau Vercherres for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning I awoke surprisingly early and so, following a shower, plugged in my kettle and whipped up a cup of my special blend coffee. I like my coffee full bodied and flavorful, so with my current batch I started with a base of Sumatran and Verona and then added just a hint of Chocolate Macadamia Nut. Good stuff.
Breakfast was another serving of the Western Scrambler, after which there was just enough time to repack my belongings and prepare to detrain. We’d made up a good bit of time on the new and improved tracks north of Thompson and would now be arriving at Churchill just thirty minutes late.
Located at latitude 58.47, Churchill is far enough north that this time of year the sun doesn’t rise until about 8:30am, which was right about the time of our arrival. Unfortunately, the day was cloudy with snow flurries and a slight breeze. Still, the conditions seemed quite fitting for this subarctic environment and I stepped off the train looking forward to an adventurous day here at the “end of the line”.
Unless you’re in the wheat or shipping business, the main reason for going to Churchill is to see the polar bears that pass through this area on their annual migration. Most visitors to Churchill stay for two or three days. ViaRail operates three weekly trains from Winnipeg, so the schedule is well suited to this. With one exception, everybody I met aboard the train was returning to Winnipeg on the Friday evening departure, three days from now. I was the lone exception, returning only twelve hours later on tonight’s departure at 8:45pm. Five days from now I’ve got to be in Prince Rupert, BC. After I get back to Winnipeg, I’ve got to fly back to Kelowna, then drive another 900 miles to Prince Rupert. More on that in a moment though…
For many visitors, a package tour seems to be the most popular way to see Churchill and the surrounding area. Most of the people on my train were either traveling with a tour group or planning to join one in Churchill. Prior to this trip, when I tried to google a bit of information about what to see and do in Churchill, I came up with mostly links to a bunch of these package tours, many of them costing well over $3000.00 USD per person. Apparently, there is no shortage of takers willing to pay that price.
With a population of only one thousand people, Churchill is not a big place. There’s one main street and five or six secondary streets. There are perhaps a half dozen hotels, with an equal number of restaurants and gift shops. The largest store in town is called the Northern. Although a sizable portion of the Northern is dedicated to groceries, the store also serves as a general store, selling everything from blankets to clothing to fishing line to toys to snow shovels. Prices were a bit higher than what you’d find down south, though not exorbitantly so.
Hotels on the other hand are very expensive. Most rooms averaged about $200.00 CAD per night. We’re not talkin’ Hyatts and Sheratons here either. A couple of brochures that I looked at showed rooms on par with what you’d find at a Holiday Inn or a Super 8. Functional and pleasant, perhaps, but worth $200.00?
It’s what the market will bear, and in a town that markets its bears for all they’re worth, you have to consider that the polar bear viewing season is only about six weeks long. These hotels aren’t there for the wheat and shipping people. They make most of their income for the year from the 15,000 or so tourists that visit from October through mid-November. During the summer months, a growing number of visitors are starting to recognize Churchill as an excellent place to pursue birding and whale watching as well, but the main tourist season is still tied to the polar bear migration.
So – with twelve hours ahead of me in Churchill, I set out to book a day tour on one of the Tundra Buggies that take people out to the coastal regions where the polar bears hang out. The tundra buggy is essentially a small bus body mounted on an elevated chassis high above four big wide tires. The tires are seriously big, too – about six feet tall – and well suited to getting around the uneven and occasionally boggy terrain of the tundra and coastal areas. The polar bears have been known to come right up to the buggy, get up on their hind legs and peer in the windows. Mmmm… if only I could pull one of those tasty looking people out for lunch…
I thought this sounded like a fine way to spend a few hours around Churchill and was prepared to pay up to $100.00 USD for it. I was so certain that a day trip would cost $100.00 or less that I didn’t even bother to verify the actual cost in advance. I was also so certain that this is what I’d be doing in Churchill that the original title of this trip report was to be
FROM FLORIDA TO ALASKA VIA PLANE, TRAIN, CAR, FERRY AND TUNDRA BUGGY
After making arrangements to store my pack behind the ticket counter at the train station, I started to make some inquiries. I found two different companies that offered tundra buggy tours and their prices for a day trip were the same. $250.00 per day trip. Did I hear that right? Did you say Two Hundred and Fifty Dollars? You did? Well uh, have a great trip!
Canadian currency notwithstanding, I’ve bought roundtrip tickets to Hawaii for less! I know people who’ve bought good running cars for less. In Alaska’s Denali National Park where I drive an eleven-hour 185-mile run out to Wonder Lake and back, the cost of the ticket is $32.00. The seven-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour, which includes a box lunch, hot and cold beverages and commentary from Certified Interpretive Guides costs $78.00. Over the course of both of these trips, we see grizzly bears, moose, Dall sheep, and caribou every day. Occasionally spotted are foxes, wolves, lynx, porcupines, martens and wolverines. Two summers ago, ozstamps and Joh rode out to Wonder Lake with me. We had a typically fine day in the park and didn’t even know of the FlyerTalk connection until we were chatting at the end of the trip.
Anyway, this might be a good time to point out that another one of the reasons I’m not staying three days in Churchill is because I can’t afford it. Even if I could, it’d be a hard sell. I remember traveling around the South Pacific back in the 1980s and stretching $3000.00 over four months. I had a great time on that trip, too. Granted, things are a little pricier today but the bottom line is there’s no way I’ll ever see the value of spending hundreds of dollars per day when, by my standards at least, I can have an excellent time for so much less. No doubt this means I’ll miss out on a few of life’s finer pleasures. So be it. I reckon I’ve been having a pretty good go at them so far on my comparatively meager budget.
So – no tundra buggy tour for me. I hadn’t even gotten out of the train station yet, so I returned to the brochure rack and found an outfit called North Star Tours that offered a six-hour historical and cultural tour around Churchill and vicinity for just $65.00. When does that tour depart? We can have a bus down to the train station in ten minutes. Sign me up, then! I’ll seeya out front.
I stepped outside to get a couple of photos of the train and engines, then headed back inside to check out the station. Churchill’s train station is an attractive two-story frame building that was built upon the arrival of the railroad in 1929. Over time, the station fell into disrepair and for awhile was said to be downright shoddy. In 2002, it was purchased and renovated by Parks Canada. They did an excellent job. The first floor is still used as a train station with a dedicated ticket office and waiting room. There’s also a small theater that Parks Canada uses to screen a documentary film about the history of the region. Upstairs houses the Parks Canada offices.
Right on time, a small airporter style bus bearing the green and yellow markings of North Star Tours pulled into the station lot. At the wheel was Koral, as friendly and capable a tour guide as you might ever imagine. Only one other passenger would be touring with us today and she was a retired Flight Attendant from Lufthansa named Inga. She still enjoyed pass privileges on Lufthansa and as one might expect had traveled extensively. Koral was from Saskatchewan but had worked with Northland Tours for six years. During the rest of the year she worked for another tour company out of Saskatoon that did much farther ranging tours. It was clear that Koral really enjoyed her work and it showed in her perpetual smile and a near encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly all things Churchill.
Rather than provide you with a blow by blow description of what we learned about Churchill’s history, I will instead provide you with a couple of links that should provide you with hours of entertainment!
We were only about an hour into the tour when Koral’s radio crackled and she was alerted that a polar bear had been spotted out near the grain elevators at the far end of town. Let’s go check it out! There are no paved roads in Churchill and some of the “roads” we took I would hesitate to classify as such. Soon enough however, we arrived at a small bluff overlooking the willowy flats between the Churchill River and the tracks to the grain elevators. Parked nearby was a DNR (Department of Natural Resources) truck with “Polar Bear Patrol” emblazoned along the front doors. The bear was somewhere down amongst the willows but we weren’t able to see it just yet.
Some people think that Polar Bears just wander right through downtown Churchill during their migration. I suppose a few of them would if it suited them but the DNR goes to great efforts to insure that the bears don’t feel welcome in town. In the old days, people would just shoot the bears. Over time, a more temperate view evolved as society came to view its relationship with the bears in a different light. After all, these bears had been migrating through here long before any humans showed up. Rather than moving into their environment and just killing them when they became inconvenient to us, we could learn to live with them. Enlightened thinking, I know, but something still in short supply amongst more than a few people when it comes to animals in “their” backyard. Here’s some more enlightened thinking, albeit of an economic bent: There’s money to be made from them thar bears!
Koral explained that nowadays when polar bears appear in or near town, the Polar Bear Patrol officers will try to encourage the bear to leave by shooting noisy firecracker rounds in the vicinity of the animal. For many bears, this is sufficiently bothersome to give them cause to leave the area. No two bears are alike however and some bears require stronger persuasion. For these bears there are rubber bullets and/or bean bags fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. In the event that a bear fails to respond appropriately to these stronger warnings, it is then tranquilized and relocated to the Polar Bear Compound.
The Polar Bear Compound is located in a large quonset hut out by the airport. It is essentially a jail for recalcitrant bruins. Inside are twenty-eight holding pens. Once a bear goes into the jail, it is tagged, tattooed and held until the sea ice freezes sufficiently for it to be returned to its normal winter habitat. This involves re-tranquilizing the bear, loading it into a big net and flying it out onto the ice with a helicopter.
Interestingly, the bears are never fed during their stay in jail, even if they’re there for two or three weeks. During their migration, the bears normally eat very little if anything, so not being fed while in jail is in keeping with their normal situation. Koral pointed out that the DNR learned this fact the hard way some years ago. Back then the bears were fed in jail and the DNR found that they were arresting the same bears again and again. Apparently the prospect of tranquilizers and free meals was just too good to resist!
Meanwhile, back on the bluff we still hadn’t spotted our bear. Evidently the size of the willow thicket that the beast was “hiding” in made the use of firecracker rounds impractical. Then a DNR helicopter showed up and hovered over a particularly dense section of willow. Apparently polar bears don’t enjoy loud noisy helicopters hovering in their vicinity and our bear finally decided it was time to emerge from his thicket.
Koral, having seen a few of these events over the years, offered color commentary. The idea here, she said, was to encourage the bear to head back across the Churchill River, away from town. Inga and I got a good view of our bear as it moved out of the bushes and loped up a shallow draw and into another willow thicket. It was only about 120 yards away. The helicopter followed. This time however, the bear decided to hold its ground. By now another tour van had parked next to us to watch the proceedings. None of us could see the bear but the helicopter remained hovering about fifteen feet overhead for almost fifteen minutes. Then it set down nearby and two DNR trucks moved in. Evidently, the bear had been darted from the helicopter, which then remained overhead until the drug took effect.
We all hung out and watched from the bluff as the bear was loaded into the back of a DNR truck and taken off to jail. Because of the bushes we couldn’t see very well, but there were quite a few people down there as I imagine it’s not an easy chore to maneuver a big sleepy polar bear into the back of a truck. The average weight of a male polar bear in the Churchill region is 1000 to 1300 pounds!
It’s worth noting here that the general public is not allowed to go see the bears in the compound. The idea is to keep the bears as free from human input as possible.
Later, we stopped for lunch at a great little place called Gypsy’s Bakery. There was a fair crowd of locals there, many of whom waved hello to Koral. A big glass display counter housed all sorts of delicious looking cakes, pies and pastries. Also on the menu were hot and cold sandwiches along with today’s special, the roast beef plate. We all ate well and then resumed our tour.
Following a visit to the old Anglican Church, we headed out to the coast. Numerous signs were posted around coastal areas warning people of the danger of encountering a polar bear. The bears spend their summers in a state of “walking hibernation” during which time they hardly eat a thing and spend most of their time just lying around on the tundra. Every picture I’ve ever seen of polar bears has always shown them frolicking about in a white, arctic environment. It was weird seeing pictures of these huge yellowish-white bears lying amidst green grasses and willows during the summer months. Only two local people have been killed by Polar Bears over the past thirty years – a surprisingly low number.
Koral showed us an old docking site from the Hudson Bay Company that was quite a ways above the shoreline. The rise in land was due to what’s called the "isostatic rebound" which happens when land that’s been pressed down by the immense weight of glacial ice begins to “rebound” once the ice above it retreats.
Next we stopped at Cape Merry, across the Churchill River from the two hundred and thirty year old Prince of Wales Fort. The fort took forty years to build and had thirteen-foot thick walls. From some of the pictures I saw, the walls were much thicker in some places. In any event, I found it ironic that the fort was designed to be impregnable and yet was taken over by the French in 1782 without a single shot being fired.
Later, Koral dropped Inga off at her hotel and me at the Eskimo Museum. She really did an excellent job and if North Star’s other tour guides are anywhere near as good as Koral, then I highly recommend taking the time to do this tour if you want to learn more about Churchill than just its bears.
I spent about an hour in the Eskimo Museum – a very worthy destination for any visitor to Churchill. The highlight of the museum is a huge collection of Inuit paintings and carvings, but there are also some interesting prehistoric archaeological artifacts along with a variety of pelts and a massive head from a 3000-pound walrus.
Next door to the museum is the post office. There I bought some stamps and then headed back out to the main drag to buy some postcards. Wow! Postcards are expensive up here! $1.00 – 1.25 for a basic card in most of the gift shops. I hit four or five of them before I came across some postcards of a polar bear removing a bottle of Labatt’s from a case of beer. They were only 45 cents each and as an added bonus, I got to hear all about the store owner’s hip transplant surgery.
The sun sets early this far north and with darkness fast approaching, I decided to head back to Gypsy’s to sample some of their pastry and dash off a few postcards. Anyone who’s ever received on of my postcards knows that they can take awhile to produce. I write fairly small and to compensate for that, I add some of my own artwork along with commercial stickers and large colorful stamps. The idea here is to take up a bunch of space so I don’t have to write as much. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say but rather that it takes longer to have to write it all out. The irony of this all is that it probably takes me longer to add all the artwork than it would just to fill in the extra space with writing. Still, a standard has been set and some folks have started rather impressive collections of my cards over the years.
At 8:00pm, I headed back to the station, posted my cards, picked up my backpack and climbed aboard the southbound Hudson Bay for the long journey back down to Winnipeg. Even though I didn’t get to see a polar bear close up, I feel like I had a pretty nice day here in Churchill. I may even come back someday, especially if I can find a coupon good for a discount on those Tundra Buggy tours!
November 8, 2005
Churchill to Winnipeg
ViaRail Canada Comfort Class
“The Hudson Bay” Car 121
830p-805a +2 Travel Time: 37 Hours
Nothing particularly noteworthy happened on the way back that I didn’t already write about on the way up. I guess I should note here that the Hudson Bay is notorious for its late arrivals in Winnipeg. It’s usually late by two to four hours. This is due to the poor quality of the track south of Thompson. Unfortunately, the delays are often exacerbated by the fact that once the passenger train is running late, it must give way to freight trains whether they’re on time or not. After all, freight is and always has been where the real money’s at.
I met a couple backpackers from England who had a flight booked from Winnipeg to Toronto at 11:00am, only three hours after we were due to arrive Winnipeg. From Toronto, they had a connection back to London. After hearing all the stories of this train’s perpetual state of delay, they decided to detrain at Thompson and take a bus from there. The bus arrived Winnipeg twelve hours before the train, though to be fair the bus also took a much more direct route as opposed to the train which zagged over to The Pas by the Saskatchewan border.
As things turned out, we arrived in Winnipeg on a bright sunny morning at 10:00 am, just two hours late. I had plenty of time to stop for a coffee downtown before hopping the city bus back out to the airport.
November 10, 2005
Winnipeg to Calgary WESTJET 737-700 Coach Class 115p – 220p
Calgary to Kelowna WESTJET 737-700 Coach Class 435p – 435p
Winnipeg International is a small to medium sized airport. It is served by all the usual suspects along with a host of smaller, regional airlines. A fair sized cargo operation was also in evidence at one end of the field.
There was no line at the WestJet ticket counter, and three pretty agents stood on duty there, eager to check me in. Once again, I scored exit row seats. On the down side, I was informed that my flight to Calgary would be operating about an hour late. On a more positive note, my connection to Kelowna wouldn’t be affected since I’d been scheduled for a two-hour layover in Calgary anyway.
So, I now had two and a half hours to burn at Winnipeg International. What to do? I wasn’t particularly hungry and had no reason to visit any of the airport stores. Then I saw a sign for the Palliser Lounge. This lounge was operated totally independent of the airlines and required only a $15.00 fee to enter. It was located airside, so I passed through security (where my T-shirt caused quite a laugh) and headed there straightaway.
The receptionist took note of my boarding pass and said she’d notify me when my flight was ready to board. She then led me on a brief tour of the facilities. As airport lounges go, the Palliser Lounge was just fine. A large console TV was located at one side of the lounge and a service center offered a nice variety of complimentary non-alcoholic beverages. Also available were some nice looking muffins along with the all the usual stuff like chips and pretzels found at most lounges. There were only two true workstations, both of which were equipped with Internet capable computer terminals that took up most of the available table space. Another small room offered comfortable couches and a couple of tables, one of which I commandeered for my laptop to take advantage of the free wireless Internet access. In all, a steal at only $15.00 CAD per visit. By comparison, American wants $50.00 for a day pass to one of its vaunted Admirals Clubs.
I was hopeful that one of my WestJet flights today might be aboard a 737-600. This is the only variant of the 737 that I have not yet flown upon, and very few airlines actually operate this smallest version of the Next Generation 737s. WestJet is the only operator in North America, while in Europe only SAS flies it. A couple of Chinese domestic airlines and Tunis Air round out the field. Unless the –600 offers substantially better operating costs, I can’t imagine why most airlines would buy it when they can employ the greater versatility of a 737-700 or –800 for not that much more money.
In any event, both of my flights today were aboard winglet equipped 737-700s. This is a good looking plane in WestJet’s two-tone blue and turquoise livery, and the cabin interior is equally attractive with its 136 dark gray leather seats atop navy blue carpet. Interestingly, the single exit row only offers extra legroom on the ABC side. The DEF side is standard seating with the exception that there’s no seat in front of exit window seat 12F. If the idea behind more space at the exit row is to facilitate quick and easy access to the over wing exit, this seems a very odd arrangement indeed. Looking down to the floor, I didn’t see anything about seats 12D and E to suggest that they could be easily removed either. Hmm… Anyway, a little heads up there for anyone desirous of extra legroom on WestJet’s 737-700s.
In Calgary, I spent my one-hour layover entirely within the WestJet concourse. Once upon a time, my Priority Pass membership would grant me entry to all of Air Canada’s Maple Leaf lounges, but Air Canada dropped out of the program this year so in Calgary at least I had nowhere to go. Years ago, while flying First Class on Royal Air Maroc out of Montreal’s Mirabel Airport, I was granted access to a Maple Leaf Lounge and found it quite nice indeed. Hopefully they’ll someday rejoin the Priority Pass program.
The last time I flew out of Calgary, I was aboard an Air Canada DC-8-61. That should give some of you an indication of just how long it’s been since I’ve been in this airport. Back then, the terminal was your classic 1970s style airport terminal – basic and functional, though hardly memorable. Judging from the WestJet concourse and from what I could see of the Air Canada wing, Calgary’s airport has undergone substantial change for the better.
A large Starbucks Coffee kiosk dominated the central service area of the concourse, so I headed over there for a tall Verona and a turkey sandwich to enjoy later on my flight into Kelowna. We had a full load for the short 50 minute flight across the Rockies and I took some pictures of the sun on the clouds as we climbed out of Calgary. We landed in Kelowna right on time at 4:35pm and I was surprised to see that it was dark already. There’s still another six weeks until the winter solstice, but then Kelowna is over on the eastern side of the Pacific Time Zone…
As for WestJet, I think they offer an excellent product and good value for the money spent. Certainly, a television equipped seat aboard a big wide WestJet 737 is far preferable to being crammed into one of those dinky CRJ-200s that Air Canada Jazz operate on many competing routes. As it says on the bulkhead at the front of the cabin, Way To Go, WestJet!
Five days of on-site airport parking for only $25.00! Ya gotta love these smaller community airports! I fired up the trusty blue Mazda and sped out onto the highway headed south towards Kelowna. Highway 97 is the main drag through town and tonight it seemed particularly busy. Add to this about two dozen stoplights between the airport and the bridge over the lake at the south end of Kelowna and you’ve got about a forty-five minute drive just to get out of town. And it was raining.
About 15 miles out of Kelowna, Highway 97C branches off from southbound 97 and begins a seventeen mile long climb up into the mountains. A flashing road sign warned that dense fog and snow were ahead, but the road was still open. Hmm…
As I continued climbing, the rain did indeed change to snow, though so far it wasn’t much of a problem. Then I got into the fog. Just like that it was suddenly there. Then the snow began to accumulate on the roadway. I’m not kidding when I say that you couldn’t see more than about thirty feet in front of you, but the sides of the road weren’t showing up all that clearly either. White on the road, white on the sides and lots of snow reflecting off the headlights in the front. The grade was about 6%, enough so that I really didn’t want to slow my speed and momentum down on a potentially slippery surface. It was pretty much a case of keep the pedal down and don’t screw up. I would best describe the remainder of my drive to the top of the pass as “harrowing”. And, just as I was contemplating a long, slow descent into Merritt, the intensity of the snowfall began to quickly diminish. Within three miles of the summit, I was out of the fog and breathing a big sigh of relief as conditions improved ever so rapidly. I continued on to 100 Mile House without further concern.
The next day I made it out to Smithers, situated at the foot of scenic Hudson Bay Mountain. Odd, I thought, to name the mountain not after Henry Hudson but rather after a geographical feature that’s already been named for him. There’s a ski area on the mountain that’s not only popular with local Canadians but also with folks from Ketchikan, Alaska – 100 miles up the coast. They just hop on the Alaska Marine Highway for the five hour “drive” down to Prince Rupert, then continue on another three hours to Smithers.
Smithers has lots of motels and I set out to find one appropriate to my budget. It’s not always as simple as staying in the cheapest motel however. While many inexpensive motels can be quite good, some of them can also be quite rundown. Often, though not always, the quality of a motel can be discerned from its overall appearance outside. First and foremost, does it look inviting? Does the building appear to be well maintained? Do the grounds look clean? Next, I look at the amount of space between the doors to each room. It’s a good indicator of how spacious the rooms are. And what about those windows… I like a big window set waist high, not a small window mounted high up on the wall. Also, I much prefer single level ranch-style construction to multi-level buildings such as Motel 6s. It’s worth noting that many of the older motels are more solidly built than the newer multi-story buildings. This generally means better insulation between rooms and less noise. Whenever I check in, I always ask for a room with no adjoining room. The doors between rooms are great conduits for noise from next door.
I found what I was looking for in the Sorrento Motel. Located out at the far end of town, it was a single level place built along the lines of the old auto courts that housed many a traveler along Route 66 and other rural routes in the days before interstates. The owner was an elderly Italian gentleman named Rocco. He was only too happy to show me a room and introduce me to his Border Collie, Lucky. The room included a kitchenette along one wall, a large couch, a table and a 20” color cable television with remote. The bedroom was separate from the main sitting room and had a nice queen sized bed. The bathroom had a bath. Total cost: $45.00 CAD per night.
On the subject of amenities, I’ve always found it interesting that big corporate hotels like Hyatt’s and Sheratons often append a charge for local calls and only offer about a dozen channels on their televisions. Most motels I’ve stayed in offer free local calls and have cable or satellite television offering a multitude of channels. Some of the big corporate places even charge exorbitant fees for parking on top of room rates that are three to four times higher than most motels. Yes, but there is that hairdryer along with a higher level of ambience more in keeping with many of the guest’s stations in life. Plus, those $15.00 room service hamburgers are really good!
The next morning, following a plate of memorable banana nut pancakes in a downtown restaurant, I turned back on to the Yellowhead Highway and continued my westward journey. Prince Rupert was only another 215 miles away. Unfortunately, sleet and snow were my constant companions through the beautiful Skeena Canyon – one of my favorite places in all of British Columbia and one that I’ve been fortunate to experience twice under sunnier conditions.
Some of you may remember that I spent three days in Prince Rupert back in late March of this year. I’d just come up from the bottom of South America and was on my way – in a roundabout fashion – to the top of Australia. I had no vehicle with me then and so stayed in town at the Moby Dick Hotel. I was quite pleased then with the Moby Dick – the rooms were spacious and well appointed, and the location at the edge of the downtown district was most convenient. So – even though there were less expensive accommodations available in town, I found myself looking forward to a return visit to this hotel.
Alas, it was not to be. Yes, I had a reservation but unfortunately the only rooms available to me were both on the third and fourth floors, both of which were primarily assigned to a number of high school girl’s hockey teams in town for a weekend tournament. Now this might sound like fun at first, but we’re talking loud, giggly, gum chewing fifteen year old mall crawlers who punctuate their speech with words like “like” and “OhmyGod!” every other sentence. Sometimes more than once in the same sentence. Occasionally one of them would scream at some particularly erudite observation or comment by one of her peers. I know. My room was unfortunately right next to what appeared to be Party Central. The door was open and the room had about eight kids crowded onto the bed or the floor around the bed. Clothes were strewn all over the place and a steady stream of people seemed to be coming in and out constantly. Next door in my room, I could hear everything.
OhmyGod! Did you see that guy Suzie went out with last week?! OhmyGod! (Insert scream here) He was like, four feet tall! Tell me you’re not gonna wear that green thing to Megan’s party next weekend! OhmyGod! That thing is like, sooo grody! They were all screaming over the finer points of some classmate named Darren when I decided to head down to the front desk and see what my options were. For sure, there was like, no way I was going to be able to stay any longer in that room. OhmyGod! (Insert scream here) It was like, totally insane!
The only other rooms at the hotel were on the second floor and were nowhere near as nice as those on the top two floors. Since I’d not used anything in my original room, I decided to ask if I could just check out and come back another time. The front desk clerk was both understanding and accommodating. She said there’d be no charge and they’d look forward my next visit whenever that might be.
With the exception of my visit last March, I’ve always driven to Prince Rupert, so staying at a motel away from the downtown district was never a problem. My motel of choice has always been the Parkside Resort Motel, located just a mile out of town. I have yet to understand the “Resort” connotation of the name, though the property does offer a laundry room. I headed over to the Parkside now and was pleased to find that not only did they have plenty of space (I was only one of two guests in my building) but they’d added free wireless internet access since my last visit, some six years ago. My room was nice and quiet and I got a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, I whipped up a cup of my favorite coffee and walked over to a nearby McDonalds for an Egg McMuffin. Say what you will about McDonalds, but I think those Egg McMuffins are an excellent breakfast sandwich by anyone’s standards. Simple, tasty, and eminently affordable. Avoid the sausage ones though – they’ve got 29 grams of fat! Get the regular one and you’re down to 11 grams of fat, even less if you remove some or all of the cheese. I bought two and headed back to the motel for some football. It was Sunday and the Chiefs were playing the Bills. As a Bronco fan, I had to cheer on the Bills since a victory over the Chiefs coupled with a Denver win over the Raiders would put the Broncs up by two in the AFC West. Go Bills!
The Parkside offers a complimentary late checkout until 2:00pm for its many guests who are making connections onto either the Alaska Marine Highway or the BC Ferry. My boat wasn’t scheduled to depart until 5:30pm, so I was appreciative of the extra time available. After all, it had been raining all morning, even sleeting on occasion, so it was a good day to just hang out and enjoy the games. On a positive note, the Bills did indeed beat the Chiefs. Unfortunately however, the local CBS affiliate chose to broadcast a boring golf tournament over the vastly superior entertainment afforded via a key AFC West battle between the Raiders and the Broncos. I listened to the game via the Internet until checkout time, and then headed into town for a lunch. At 4:00pm, I drove out to the ferry terminal, located about three miles south of the city center.
November 13, 2005
Prince Rupert to Juneau
Alaska Marine Highway
530p-330p +2 Travel Time: 47 Hours
No, the “Alaska Marine Highway” is not a beautiful Alaskan coastal road. The name can be a bit confusing to some since there are no roads to or between the communities of Southeastern Alaska. Once known as the Alaska Ferry System, the name was changed to the Alaska Marine Highway shortly after Alaska gained its statehood in 1959. One story has it that the new State of Alaska had requested federal funding for the Alaska Ferry System fleet but their request was denied by the Federal government on the basis that only highway systems are eligible for Federal transportation funds. The State of Alaska then renamed the Alaska Ferry System to the Alaska Marine Highway and lo and behold, the federal funds began to flow. Funny how government works sometimes, ain’t it?
To this day, the communities throughout Alaska’s southeastern panhandle remain accessible only by air and sea, so the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway continue to play a vital role in the transport of people, freight and vehicles. There are currently eleven ferries in the fleet, some of them fairly small. The route system stretches as far south as Bellingham, Washington and as far west as Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.
I took my first ride along the Alaska Marine Highway back in 1985. Myself and a bunch of friends from Denali rode the M.V. Malaspina on the four day, three night run from Haines, Alaska all the way down to Seattle. We were blessed with excellent autumn weather along with one of the finest displays of northern lights I’ve ever witnessed. Rather than book cabins or sit in the passenger lounges inside the ship, we all just set up tents on the top deck or slept on chaise loungers under the solarium. There were quite a few other folks up there doing the same thing. Hacky sacks were boppin’, beer was discreetly flowing and a couple of guitars made their presence known over the course of the journey. It was a memorable experience and a trip that I’ve managed to repeat five or six times since.
During the off-peak season, ferry rates are much more affordable, especially for people driving their cars onboard since the driver travels for free. It had been about five years since I last drove along the Alaska Marine Highway and I must say I’ve been looking forward to this part of the trip ever since I started putting it together back in September.
I knew from chatting with the ticket office earlier in the day that a light load was expected out of Prince Rupert, but I was amazed to see just how light when I arrived at the ferry terminal. Only three cars were lined up in front of me, and by the time we’d closed up ship only eight vehicles and a total of thirty-five passengers had boarded.
All passengers boarding the Alaska Marine Highway out of Prince Rupert have to pass through U.S. Customs at Prince Rupert. It was a pretty casual affair and I spent more time chatting with the agent about her trip to Denali than I did about any illegal things I might be transporting, which of course were none.
Our boat for this two day, forty-seven hour journey up to Juneau would be the M.V. Taku, one of three larger ferries built for the Alaska Marine Highway in 1963. The other two are the Malaspina and the Matanuska. All three boats were named after Alaskan glaciers. The Taku is the smallest of the three, weighing in at 2,624 tons, but she offers all the creature comforts a traveler could ever ask for. The Taku also happens to be my favorite boat in the fleet, one that I’ve ridden many times because her primary route is between Prince Rupert and Skagway. You won’t see her down in Bellingham or the Aleutians.
There are three passenger decks aboard the Taku. From the top down they include the Sun Deck, the Boat Deck and the Cabin Deck. Below those is the Car Deck. On the Sun Deck is a solarium equipped with overhead heat lamps and shower-equipped bathrooms. An open deck area behind the solarium provides plenty of space for deck chairs or tents. Those wouldn’t be seen on this trip however. The forecast was calling for rain, sleet and occasional snow for the next few days.
The next level down is the Boat Deck, the busiest deck on the boat. At one end is the dining room – a cafeteria really, but one with decent food and a large, spacious dining area. The dining area is located at the rear of the boat, and is surrounded by big picture windows allowing a great view of the scenery to the sides and behind us. Just off the entrance to the dining room is the Taku Bar. It’s quite the convivial little place with bar seating for six and cocktail lounge seating for about twenty more. Moving on towards the front of the boat we come to a small gift shop, a writing area with a few tables and chairs, a small passenger seating lounge and finally the forward observation lounge. This is a large room that takes up the forward quarter of the Boat Deck. It provides both recliner and day seating and some of the side seats are set around low tables. Typical ferry seating arrangement except that the view forward through the wrap around windows is magnificent, particularly in this part of the world.
The last passenger deck, just above the car deck, is the Cabin Deck. As the name implies, it’s where you’ll find all the cabins along with the movie lounge and a couple more passenger seating lounges. I’ve seen a couple of the cabins on Alaska Marine Highway ferries, including those aboard the Taku. They’re very basic and while they’ll afford you some measure of privacy, don’t expect any creature comforts beyond a bed, some shelves and maybe an ensuite bathroom.
It’s been said that the ferries are for travelers while the cruise ships are for tourists. People desiring of the considerable luxuries of a cruise ship won’t be found along the Alaska Marine Highway.
Access to the Vehicle Deck is prohibited once the ferry is underway, so I grabbed everything I needed for a comfortable night’s sleep along with my daypack and of course my portable cooler, loaded as it were with a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ales and a can of Blue Diamond Roasted Almonds. Truth be known, it’s illegal to bring your own alcohol onboard the ferry unless you’ve booked a cabin. Still, a little discretion goes a long way…
Ultimately, only thirty-two passengers, cars included, boarded out of Prince Rupert. There was more than enough room to stretch out and create our own space – at least initially. The ship’s purser announced that we’d be picking up another thirty some off people out of Ketchikan later this evening, followed by a big group of school kids out of Kake tomorrow morning. I must say that while I enjoyed the light load, there’s a certain positive energy that a lot of travelers bring to a train or boat. Oddly, I never really notice this on a fairly full airplane, probably because most everyone remains in their seats the whole flight. In all honesty, I’d prefer the ship to be about half full.
Right on time at 5:30pm, the captain released a long belch from his smokestack. The ship shuddered as the twin 4000 horsepower MaK Diesel engines were revved to half their power and slowly pushed the Taku out past the lights of Prince Rupert and into the Inside Passage. I had the entire small side passenger lounge on the Boat Deck to myself and so reclined my seat, discretely poured a Sierra Nevada into a large paper coffee cup and silently toasted my good fortune in life to have enjoyed such a wide variety of quality travels over the past week. Just one week ago today, at this very time, I was rolling out of Winnipeg aboard the northbound Hudson Bay, bound for the end of the line. I took another swig of the Pale Ale. Ah… only forty-seven more hours until we arrive Juneau…
Forty-seven more hours! Was that a collective groan I heard out there? In this fast paced world we live in now, the prospect of spending forty-seven hours much less even half that amount aboard any form of transport conveyance would drive some people stark raving mad.
Yes, but aboard how many other forms of transportation can you start the morning off with a hot shower, have a nice meal in a dining room surrounded by spectacular scenery, walk around and check out a variety of lounges, spend some time socializing in one of the nicest little pubs at sea, or perhaps take in a feature film downstairs in the evening? What a pleasant way to spend the day! Whereas I’d probably go crazy in the Las Vegas like atmosphere of a cruise ship, I could easily spend twice as long relaxing on the laid back Taku.
And so it went for the next forty-seven hours. In the Wrangell Narrows, the forested mountains looked close enough to reach out and touch. The sight of snowy peaks rising high beyond Petersburg was quite stunning. At one point the crew alerted us to a pod of whales off our starboard side. There must have been two dozen of them, very easily spotted by the plumes of mist they expelled while breaching. Also spotted were numerous dolphins and an Orca. I also noticed that we were right on time throughout the trip, even arriving a bit early to some of our ports of call. The only downside to this journey was the weather. It rained incessantly throughout the trip and occasionally even snowed. But then, southeast Alaska is a rainy place and this is the rainy season so I guess I’ve really no complaint. When we arrived in Juneau at 3:30pm on the fifteenth, it was with mild disappointment that I gathered my belongings and headed down to the Vehicle Deck. After forty-seven hours cruising through Alaska’s beautiful Inside Passage aboard my favorite boat in the far north, I was just beginning to feel at home.
I love Juneau! It’s like going on a camping trip in the city. I mean, the mountains are right there! They start to rise quite steeply no more than three or four blocks from the central business district. Situated along the Gastineau Channel and with the huge Mendenhall Glacier as a backdrop, the city of Juneau is certainly one of the prettiest capital cities in the world.
Unfortunately, Juneau is very likely the rainiest capital city as well. Annual rainfall is listed at over 150 inches per year. It was raining when I arrived. It was raining harder when I left. And it rained the entire time in between.
Fortunately, I had friends to visit in Juneau so between evenings at their place and spending my free day exploring the limited road system (40 miles out to the end of the road west of the city) and the downtown district, I had a very nice, if short visit before connecting to my onward ferry to Haines.
For more information on Juneau, check out the following links:
November 17, 2005
Juneau to Haines
Alaska Marine Highway
800a-1030a Travel Time: 2.5 Hours
It was a dark and stormy morning as I drove out to the ferry terminal. Rain was falling in sheets and wind gusts buffeted my little truck as I tentatively made my way down the dark road out to Auke Bay. At the terminal, about a dozen vehicles had already gathered. After checking in at the ticket counter, I took my place in one of the departure lanes and perused that morning’s Juneau Empire.
Post 9-11 regulations state that all vehicles and carry on items are subject to inspection but I’ve yet to experience anything beyond the usual questions. Did you pack your own vehicle?
This was to be my first trip aboard the M.V. Fairweather, the first of two new “Fast Ferry” class boats that entered service with the Alaska Marine Highway in 2004. How fast is the Fairweather? Whereas the larger ferries such as the Matanuska and Taku have a top service speed of 16 knots, the Fairweather’s four diesel engines and four water jets propel it along at an expeditious 32 knots. Travel times are effectively cut in half.
The journey up the Lynn Canal between Juneau and Haines is unquestionably the prettiest part of the Inside Passage. For most of its sixty-mile length, the canal is only about three miles wide and is flanked by high, steep mountains on each side. Numerous small islands dot the surface and towards the north end, hanging glaciers drop from the rugged mountains above.
Normally, I’d recommend taking a slower boat to better enjoy the beauty of this region, but
I’d never ridden aboard the Fairweather and the next boat up to Haines wouldn’t leave until tomorrow afternoon. Add to this the fact that I still had another seven hundred miles of driving ahead, over roads that usually offer less than optimal conditions this time of year, and it made sense to get underway earlier.
Boarding for both walk-ons and vehicles started about a half-hour before departure. The process went pretty quickly because the Fairweather isn’t that big of a ferry. It has room for thirty-six vehicles plus another two hundred and fifty passengers.
Upstairs above the vehicle deck is the one and only passenger deck. Upon emerging from the stairway and into passenger area, I was immediately impressed by how new and shiny everything was. Of course, this ferry was only two years old, but the difference in onboard ambience between it and the much older Taku was substantial.
The first thing I noticed was how much better illuminated the passenger areas of this boat were. A multitude of ceiling lamps highlighted the bright patterned fabrics covering the lightweight, airline style seats. The Fairweather is designed for day trips, so there are no cabins and none of the seats recline. Up in the front of the boat, a forward passenger lounge provided seating for about 150 passengers. One of the nicer features onboard was a so-called “Quiet Study Area” equipped with six workstations complete with electrical outlets and desk lamps. It was located just behind the forward passenger lounge.
In the center of the passenger deck is a small cafeteria offering pre-packaged items such as cereals, yogurts, sandwiches, chips and cookies. Hot cereal and clam chowder were the only hot items available. Surrounding the café were about one hundred seats arranged in an intimate fashion around tables for two, four or six. A couple of center islands were adorned with flowers, adding to the cheerful ambience of the lounge.
As we motored out of Auke Bay in the early morning darkness, a safety briefing was shown on TV Monitors suspended from the ceiling. I purchased a coffee from the café and took a seat at a table for four. With today’s load at only about 50%, there were plenty of seats and tables available. Since the weather was anything but fair, I spent the entire two and a half four trip writing postcards and – yes – I even put in some time attempting to bring this report up to date.
Arrival in Haines was right on time but strong winds buffeting the ferry as it approached the terminal warned of a difficult drive ahead. Haines is served by a single road that climbs up over the Chilkat Mountains before dropping down to meet the Alaska Highway at Haines Junction, one hundred and sixty miles to the north. Sure enough, an announcement was made informing us that the Haines Highway was closed until 4:00pm due to freezing rain, blowing snow and low visibility. For those continuing on to Skagway, an hour further up the canal, the Klondike Highway over White Pass was still open but closure was imminent if conditions didn’t improve.
Haines is a pretty little town, particularly in the autumn when the birch and poplar trees brighten up the hillsides with their yellow and orange leaves. On this cold and rainy late autumn day however, Haines was anything but inviting, especially since about a quarter of the businesses in town were closed for the season.
Before leaving the Haines Ferry Terminal, I stopped in and got phone numbers for the local road condition hotline and the Canadian Customs border post, located forty miles up the road from Haines. Wind driven rain lashed my face as I struggled to find a working pay phone in town. I went through three before finally locating one outside the local grocery store. The forecast was not good and I was told that it was unlikely the road would be opened at all today. Call back at 3:30pm.
There’s an old saying I’ve always liked: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. As I was driving into Haines, I noticed a ramshackle looking little restaurant and bar called the Bamboo Room. A sign on the outside advertised famous halibut and chips. Never having heard of the Bamboo Room before this day, I had to wonder whether that halibut was famous only in Haines or over a wider region. Ah, what the hell… I’ll bite. And a good bite it was, too. Although the menu offered a wide variety of sandwiches and burgers, I highly recommend the halibut and chips. Delicious!
Later, I spent a couple of hours at the town library, A banner indicated that this library was honored as the Best Small Library in America for 2005, an award cosponsored by Library Journal and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Hmm…
On the library’s free Internet, I accessed the Yukon Government Daily Road Report. The news was not good. Highway 3 over Chilkoot Pass would remain closed for the remainder of the day. A subsequent call to the Canadian border post not only confirmed this but also indicated that the road was unlikely to reopen tomorrow either. Hmm…
Interestingly, reports showed that out of Skagway the Klondike Highway over White Pass remained open, though conditions were reported as poor and travel was not advised. My favorite ferry, the MV Taku, would be making the run between Haines and Skagway late tomorrow afternoon at 5:45pm. I resolved that if conditions didn’t improve by noon, I’d be on that ferry and try my luck out of Skagway. Then I booked a motel for the night and returned to the Bamboo Room for a coupla beers and a burger.
November 18, 2005
Haines to Skagway
Alaska Marine Highway
545p-645p Travel Time: 1 Hour
There’s no sense in mucking around with descriptions of another rainy day in Haines, so I’ll continue right on with the journey home. If anything, conditions in and around Haines worsened on this day so I booked myself passage on the 5:45pm ferry and headed over to the terminal about 4:00pm. Sunset is about 3:30pm this time of year, but with all the clouds it seemed like it got dark by around 3:00. Passage for me and my truck would cost an additional $47.00, but if it meant getting back to Fairbanks by Sunday evening, it’d be money well spent. On Monday I had an award flight booked to return to Colorado for Thanksgiving with the family. If I were unable to make that flight, finding award space on later flights during the Thanksgiving holiday would not be easy, if even possible.
I should note here that ferry departures between Haines and Skagway are not daily events. Today’s was the first scheduled departure since I’d arrived yesterday. The next ferry isn’t scheduled until two days from now, and it just got canceled. That means after today, there won’t be any boats out of here until the 22nd.
The Taku arrived on time and took about forty-five minutes to disgorge its hold of cars and semi-truck trailers. Out in the loading area, five of us normal sized vehicles were lined up to continue on up to Skagway. Occasional gusts of wind would rock my little truck as a steady rain continued to fall. It was a dark and stormy night.
On board the Taku, the load was light and the atmosphere relaxed as we awaited departure. Most folks had disembarked in Haines and only about forty of us were continuing on to Skagway, located another twenty miles up the Lynn Canal.
Travel time between Haines and Skagway is only an hour – even for the Taku – but I used the short transit time to have dinner in the dining room. Here are tonight’s specials:
Cornish Game Hen $8.50
Grilled Salmon $13.50
Top Sirloin Steak with Onion Rings $13.50
Soup of the Day: Clam Chowder $3.00 Bowl
All of the above entrees were offered with the vegetable of the day (broccoli), a choice of rice or baked potato with a dinner roll. I chose the Cornish Game Hen and found it quite good. By the time I’d finished dinner, one could feel the boat slowing and see the first lights of Skagway. With a population of just 710 people, Skagway doesn’t have very many lights and most of the brightest ones seemed to be down by the ferry terminal.
The road up over White Pass and on to Whitehorse had been closed since 4:00pm but was scheduled to reopen at 9:00am. I found a bed for the night at the Skagway Home Hostel and was joined by a brother and sister from Newcastle, Australia and an English friend they’d been traveling with from, surprisingly, Newcastle, England. They were all heading to Whitehorse for a couple of days before continuing on to Alaska. Most people visit this part of the world in the summer, but they were looking forward to seeing the Northern Lights, checking out some hot springs and maybe catching a ride on a dog sled. I was happy to share the rest of my stash of Sierra Nevadas with them whilst offering some travel tips on my home state.
The first thing I did when I awoke this morning was look out the window. Hey! No rain! In fact, there were even a couple of big patches of blue sky. I quickly got dressed, brewed up a cup of coffee, bid adieu to my hosts Frank and Nancy and hit the road. Jeez, if this weather holds, I might even make it out to the Canadian border at Beaver Creek by nightfall.
Imagine then my shock and dismay to come upon a big ROAD CLOSED barrier still in place across the northbound lane about five miles out of Skagway. To look at the road and the mountains in the immediate area, you’d never imagine the road being closed.
Sigh… I turned around and headed back into town. Breakfast at the Sweet Tooth Café mollified my spirits somewhat but I was anxious to get home and didn’t feel like hanging out and drinking coffee all morning. Apparently there’d been a couple of avalanches overnight and all we could do was wait until the Canadian highway crews got them cleaned up. Meanwhile, more clouds had gathered and soon after that a light rain began to fall.
At this point, my chances of getting back to Colorado for Thanksgiving were beginning to look pretty bleak. I had once given consideration to ferrying back to Juneau, parking my truck and rerouting my award ticket so that I could depart from Juneau rather than Fairbanks. Unfortunately, that possibility was scuttled by the cancellation of the ferry “LeConte” on the 20th. The next available ferry wouldn’t get into Juneau in time to fly down to Colorado in time. No, it was pretty much a situation now where I either managed to escape over the Chilkat Mountains today, or I’d probably be spending Thanksgiving in Alaska. Maybe even Skagway.
The road did eventually open at noon, though the official word was that travel on it was not recommended. Hey, if it’s open, I’m goin’! I was the second car of town. The road conditions down in Skagway were fine – just wet with rain. As the road began to climb from sea level to the 2,800 foot summit of White Pass, the conditions gradually deteriorated.
Rather than describe the variety of poor road conditions I encountered, I’ll sum up my passage from Skagway up over the White Pass in just one word: Intense!
Basically I encountered lots of slush, then snow and ice amidst blowing snow and fog. Or was it clouds? Either way, visibility was very poor and the road seemed slick enough that I didn’t dare stop during the drive up or I might never regain my momentum! Check out the pictures!
Eventually, I crested the summit and began the long, 70-mile descent down to the junction with the Alaska Highway, ten miles east of Whitehorse. I never did see where the avalanches were, but then I was watching the road and nothing else.
After what I’d been through on the Klondike Highway, you’d think I was home free once I hit the Alaska Highway. Unfortunately, this was not the case. I got the first of three flat tires in Haines Junction, about 100 miles west of Whitehorse. I’d driven 10,000 miles on this trip without a flat, so I guess I was due. Thankfully, it happened just as I arrived at this small Yukon community where the Alaska Highway meets the Haines Road. Thankfully I had a good spare tire though now, having employed it, I had no more. It was Saturday night and there was nobody available to repair my flat. In fact, there wouldn’t be anybody available in Haines Junction until Monday morning. Also, it was dark and about 20 degrees with temperatures forecast to drop into the single digits later tonight. Driving out here along the remote roads of the Yukon and Alaska without a spare tire is never a good idea. To do so at night with hardly any traffic on the road would be downright foolhardy.
I booked a room for the night at a local motel and got an early start the next morning, hoping that somewhere along the 500 remaining miles between Haines Junction and Fairbanks would be someone willing and able to repair a tire on Sunday. In the meantime, pray I don’t get another flat.
Sixty-five miles up the road at Destruction Bay, I pulled into the Talbot Arms Hotel for breakfast. Destruction Bay is a tiny settlement on Kluane Lake, the largest lake in the Yukon, Aside from the Talbot Arms and a sprinkling of cabins, there isn’t much else there. There was however a gentleman named Charlie who ran a tire and welding service out of his garage. Now – would he be willing to fix a tire at 8:00am on Sunday morning? The lady working as waitress/cashier/hotel receptionist at the Talbot Arms was happy to call him and find out.
Charlie had just woken up, but give him a half-hour or so to get himself out of bed and sure, it wouldn’t be a problem. Awright! I ordered a plate of blueberry pancakes and perused a five day old Yukon Times before heading down a couple of driveways to Charlie’s place. It was easy to find. A plain white hand painted sign indicated “Tires & Welding” at his driveway.
While getting my tire repaired, I decided to check the air on the rest of my tires. One of them was 10 psi low. Another flat caught in the perfect place. Charlie fixed that, too. An hour later, I was on the road again, only 430 more miles to go but at least I had a good spare tire. The problem with getting flats this time of year is due to the gravel or rock used to “sand” the highways. It’s very sharp. The rock that pierced my tire was less than ½ inch long and ¼ inch wide.
The rest of the trip proceeded apace until I pulled into Beaver Creek to purchase enough gas to get me to Tok, Alaska where prices would be much more affordable. I’d fill up there. At Beaver Creek I met Henry, the driver of the Alaska Direct van that I’d passed a few miles before pulling into Beaver Creek. Alaska Direct provides van service between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. Now that Air North no longer serves Fairbanks out of Whitehorse in the winter, Alaska Direct provides the only transportation link between these two northern communities.
On travel days, Alaska Direct will have a van leave Whitehorse and a van leave Fairbanks. They’ll meet in Tok or Beaver Creek depending upon road conditions and switch vans so that each driver can return to his home community that night. Unfortunately, on this day the Fairbanks driver had injured his back and wouldn’t be able to get on the road until tomorrow. Perhaps he and Henry could meet up in Tok… At least that’s the way it was explained to me. In any event, Henry had a single passenger who’d like to get to Fairbanks tonight, and since I was going, might I be willing to take him the rest of the way into Fairbanks? Ya, sure, no problem. How bout we meet at Fast Eddy’s Restaurant. Seeya there. Henry even volunteered to pay for my gas out of Tok.
So it was that in Tok I picked up Jeff, a PHd Tlinkit Language Professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He’d been in Whitehorse at a conference on Native Languages. As we were loading his bags, we noticed that I had another tire just about flat. Of all the luck! Good luck, though, because we were right in “downtown” Tok and just down the street at the Texaco station they were willing and able to repair my tire. Since the temperature by now was –4° degrees, having them repair and mount it was far preferable to wrenching and jacking about on the side of the highway. Plus, I’d still have a good spare and at the rate I was going, I might well get another flat between Tok and Fairbanks.
Thankfully I didn’t. Jeff proved to be an engaging travel companion, as might be expected of one of the very few white men fluent in the Tlinkit language. Actually, Jeff was extremely knowledgeable about Native Americans in general and I quite enjoyed his company for the remaining four hour drive into Fairbanks.
As I drove past the big electronic billboard at the Fred Meyer store on Airport Way, the thermometer read –16° degrees. Welcome home!
All told, this journey covered 12,370 miles via the following conveyances:
6,140 miles of air travel
3,520 miles of driving
2,140 miles of train travel
570 miles of ferry travel
Finally, if you managed to stick around for this entire journey, you’re a much better reader than I’m a writer. Thanks for tagging along!
Wonderful read there Mr. Seat2A! I couldn't help but reminisce about the Alaska Highway, having driven it two months ago - my fifth drive on it! Luckily though, I had much more pleasant conditions and no flats! I do remember the "Tire and Welding" sign though Glad to hear that you made it back to FAI for your Thanksgiving flights and that the sound system in the Mazda was working good for you!
I read State of Fear when it came out and can't remember if I read it on the way home from Australia, the long way; or on my trip to Sweden... Alas, a good read indeed!
Thank you very much Seat 2A for this wonderful tripreport and greetings from Germany.
It brought back memories of our visit to Alaska in late July/early August this year.We are now addicted to Alaska and will return as soon as possible.
We did a combination of a landtour on our own and a cruise.
We flew from DUS-FRA-ORD-ANC on LH/UA.
From ANC we took the train to Denali und two days later to FAI.
Then we picked up a car and drove down to Valdez, then on the AMHS
to Whittier and on to ANC by car . (Ship: M/V Kennicott)
In Denali (July 31, 2005) we took the bus to Kantishna. It was a beautiful
day and DENALI was ,(if possible),allways visible, sometimes without clouds.
The day before it was heavy raining.
During our trip we had only 2 rainy days (from ANC -Denali and Valdez-Whittier-ANC).
Again we took the train from ANC to Seward.Beautiful scenery.
During the Cruise we visited Hubbard Glacier,Juneau,Skagway, Icy Strait and
Ketchikan, Inside Passage, YVR).
One highlight (the whole trip was a highlight) was a flight from Ketchikan to Anan Creek to visit black bears.
We flew with Michelle from Island Wings. It was a 40 year old De Haviland Beaver.
The Scenery was amazing as well as the the bears.We enjoyed every second.
Petra and Michael
Beside our Flights, cruise and car rental ,we made all our reservations( Hotel, train,ferry,daytrips etc... ) direct in Alaska via Internet/E-mail.
Everybody was very very nice and helpful (English is not my native language)and everything went without no problems.