North to Alaska: The Mother of All Roadtrips

I’m truly the king of road trips, having first driven cross country when I was 18. Since then I’ve made at least 30 round-trips from coast to coast. But by far my most ambitious journey was in summer of 2005 when I drove east from San Francisco to Boston via Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia. On the westward return trip, I drove as far west as Montana, took a sharp right turn and drove to Alaska before working my way back down the coast to California. During the trip I kept a detailed journal of my experience, and so ride along with me on an adventure to our most remote and northern state.

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A study in blue and green… en route to Alaska

Across the Great Plains

Tonight I’m in a motel in far northern Montana in the town of Glasgow, ready to cross over into Canada sometime tomorrow afternoon. In the last few days I stopped in Minneapolis to pay homage to the statue of Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore’s memorable character from her 1970s TV show. The cable network TV Land erected a statue of her which was placed downtown on the very spot where she tossed her hat in the air in the show’s opening credits.

From the Twin Cities it was a long haul across North Dakota and eastern Montana. I always hate driving on Sunday because none of my usual talk shows are on, and the airwaves are populated by preachers, shows about investing, and sports. But things got even more bleak as I crossed Dakota: there was Polka music! Yes, it was actually hard to escape it; it seemed to be on multiple stations and as I scanned the dial I heard memorable gems like, “The Polka Nut Polka” by a group called the Polka Nuts! What a strange little corner of the world!

The weather was perfect, but the rolling, starkly beautiful hills of North Dakota and eastern Montana turned into a flat plain for as far as the eye could see. “Big Sky Country” indeed. I never realized how much the Rockies angle in a southeast-northwest direction. While the mountains begin at Denver further south, the plains extend much farther west up here in Montana – by several hundred miles. After days of crossing the Midwest, I’m longing to see some mountains.

The Road is Long…

I left my motel in Glasgow on Monday morning and started the long trip to Calgary. I drove several hours farther west through Montana and just as I began to see mountains in the distance ahead of me, I had to veer north and once again all that lay ahead of me was an endless expanse of flat plains again. The border crossing was easy and fast and amazingly I wasn’t even asked to show ID of any kind! There no other cars crossing in front of me or behind me and the road leading away from the border was virtually deserted. It was almost eerie.

Once I’d crossed into Alberta I began to pine for a little polka music on the radio. There were only a couple of stations to choose from on the radio: CBC 1 and CBC 2, which sounded a lot like National Public Radio in the U.S. but not as interesting. The big news, repeated over and over again were that Canadian beef was once again being transported to the U.S. after a two year ban due to cases of mad cow disease in Canadian cattle, and that James Doohan, the Canadian actor who played “Scotty” on Star Trek had died. God had beamed him up. There were talk shows, but not the call-in programs with dynamic hosts that we are used to down south. The Canadian hosts and their guests speak in hushed, almost reverential tones about serious topics like battling diseases through self-healing, experiencing nature in the wilderness of British Columbia, or contemplating the status of women in modern India. Lighten up, people! Thankfully I could turn to my CDs.

I got to Calgary at almost 9 PM and checked into a rather run-down and tacky Ramada Inn I’d reserved in advance, but I was so tired I didn’t even care. I wasn’t even very hungry, so all I did was run out to a gelateria I’d seen advertised in a guide book for some ice cream, and return to the hotel to crash. I didn’t wake up and get on the road till almost 10 AM the next morning, but luckily had a somewhat shorter day planned in terms of driving. I headed west on the Trans Canadian Highway and after another hour of flat plains, the Rockies finally began to appear as I arrived at Banff National Park, and they were truly worth waiting for. I’d visited this area a few years before and thought it was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been. The mountains are magnificently carved and snow-covered, the rivers and lakes are vivid shades of aqua blue from the glacial sediments in the water, and the trees grow tall and lush and impossibly green. Unfortunately, the last time I was here it was early June and it was wonderfully quiet and peaceful, but this time it was mid-July and Banff was a madhouse of tourists and traffic. I ended up stopping at a crowded restaurant and ordering a take-out lunch and had a picnic further up the road once I’d left the city.

It’s a four-hour drive north along a road called the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper, and the entire ride is within the national park boundaries. The last time I was here I’d been astounded by how much wildlife I’d seen along this road, but this time it seemed like there was just too much traffic and sightings were non-existent until I ventured off on a rough side road that paralleled the main highway. Soon I was rewarded with the sight of a large black bear and her cubs, and several elk with antlers so huge and elaborate I do not know how they are even able to raise their heads. I stopped for dinner at a lodge in Jasper and had a phenomenal dinner of venison medallions in a burnt chocolate and sour cherry preparation, with some cheddar mashed potatoes. I was in heaven. Fortified by dinner, I continued another hour north to the town of Hinton and the Old Entrance B & B, the place where I was spending the night

My stay involved camping out in a river-side teepee, an exciting and unique experience and 1/3 of the cost of any motel in Jasper. I arrived at 9:30 PM, but it was still fairly light out and the B & B owners, a lesbian couple, just pointed me toward my teepee and I was on my own. It was a huge, round tent with a small door that required squatting to get through. Inside was a double bed placed on the floor, a pot bellied stove, and a couple of chairs and tables. There were many candles which I promptly lit, and there was firewood and kindling to make a fire. I surprised myself by how easily I was able to get a fire going in the stove (those hours of watching Survivor paid off!), and I was equally surprised by how much heat it put out. Within minutes I’d transformed my teepee into a sweat lodge! I made my bed, settled in and read my guidebooks for a while by candlelight. I discovered that I’d miscalculated distances when planning my route and that I had a 730-mile drive ahead of me that day to get to my next stop, much of it on the infamous Alaska Highway. I’d read in my guidebooks about the highway’s harsh road conditions, loose gravel, logging truck traffic, etc. so I had no idea how long it might take me to go over 700 miles. The only plus was that I was crossing from Alberta into British Columbia and therefore, gaining an hour. Any little bit helps. I turned in around 11:00, but the chill woke me at 1:00 AM and caused me to have to get up to rebuild and re-stoke the fire.

Breakfast the next morning was served inside the B & B itself and was a tasty mix of pancakes with strawberry rhubarb sauce and homemade sausage. Over breakfast I met a young couple from Oakland, California, a lesbian couple from Australia, and a few vacationing Canadians who thought I was completely insane to be driving as far as I’d planned in one day. With a full belly and a healthy dose of good coffee, I hit the road at 9:30 AM. The first 300 miles were on roads that weren’t particularly scenic, but I made excellent time and by 2:00 that afternoon I arrived at Dawson Creek, B.C. which is famous for being “Mile Zero” – the starting point of the Alaska Highway. From here I still needed to traverse 442 miles of the highway to reach the lodge where I’d made my reservation for that night. Ouch!

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My trusty Element and I at the start of the “World Famous” Alaska Highway

The Highway really surprised me. First, it is much less traveled than I was led to expect from what I’d read. I’d come up on a motor home or a slow truck, but it was easy to pass them, as the road is very, very straight and there’s little oncoming traffic. I was able to drive at 65 or 70 MPH most of the time, though there were many patches of road construction that slowed me down. Early on, miles-long fields of brilliant yellow flowers were everywhere. I found that they were canola, from which they produce the oil. Soon, however the road crossed low hills of dense pine forests and as it continued north and west it grew more mountainous. Still, the road makes very few twists and turns; it somehow just goes between the hills and continues straight ahead. I’d almost describe the sensation of driving on it as “claustrophobic” in that there are only two lanes, a shoulder, and then a swath has been cut on each side like a large firebreak. And then the trees, mostly firs with a few alabaster birch trees, form a solid, unbroken line that continues for mile after mile after mile. After a couple of hours, Mile 100. Another 90 minutes, Mile 200. It seemed endless. I longed to see mile marker 442 where my lodge was located, but that seemed as far away as Pluto. “Beam me up, Scotty!”

Consulting the map, I shuddered to think that my final destination on the highway was the town of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory at Mile Marker 985. At that point I will leave the highway and dip back down into Alaska. This same road goes all the way to Fairbanks, which I think is at Mile 1600! I couldn’t even wrap my mind around that trip. I have never seen such loneliness. Yes, there are stretches of Utah and Arizona that are desolate. But there are towns every 40 miles or so and there are signs, radio stations, other cars, and some services. The Alaska Highway defies comparison. Mile 300, Mile 400. After 400 miles on this road I’d only passed two towns: Fort St. John and Fort Nelson. Otherwise there was a small service station and/or a cafe about every 75 to 80 miles, but every other one seemed closed. Otherwise there was nothing but a wall of green trees on either side of the highway. Many deer and caribou grazed along the way, but mercifully they seemed to stay out of the road itself.

Rain started at Mile 200 and continued all day. As it got later, a fog as thick as pea-soup settled in, causing me to drastically reduce my speed, all the while wondering what wildlife might come springing out in front of me. It was tense and exhausting. At one point I’d been resting my right arm on the back of the passenger seat, and as I shifted in my seat, I brought my right hand back to the steering wheel. That action made me startle myself for a split second as I thought that it was someone else’s hand coming up from out of nowhere. When you start to hallucinate, you know it’s time to stop for the night! Thankfully, after a total of 13 hours I reached the long anticipated mile marker 442 and Muncho Lake where my no frills lodge was waiting. Dinner at a place near the lodge was awful; they had a whole slew of things listed on a white board which I thought were dinner specials, but it turned out that these were the things that they’d run OUT of. I ended up with a not-too-memorable buffalo burger and fries that cost a small fortune, followed by a coma-like sleep.

The End of the Road

The next morning it was still raining and the marathon drive continued: Mile 500, Mile 600, Mile 700. Those of you on the east coast should imagine driving from Boston to North Carolina; on the west coast think Eureka to San Diego. But imagine that for all this distance you are driving on nothing but an unbroken, two lane road cut through the forest, with only 3 actual towns the entire way (Watson Lake today was the 3rd and last town I past.). And then, just beyond mile 700, the road came to a screeching halt.

As I came down a long hill I saw traffic coming from the opposite direction sitting at a standstill. A vehicle was in the middle of the road and people were gathered around it. As I got closer, frantic people were in the road motioning for me to stop and I saw that there’d been a terrible accident between a motorcycle and a pick-up truck. The motorcyclist was lying in the middle of the road, motionless while the pick-up was wrecked and its driver was sobbing and distraught. Large motor homes and trucks coming southbound were at a standstill. A man came to my window and said that he’d taken the pulse of the motorcyclist and that he was dead. No one was able to make a call from their cell phones and of course, I had no signal either. But no one could get past the debris or turn around in their large vehicles, and no one knew what to do. I told them that I’d get through and try to call the authorities. I was able to go off-road (my beloved Honda Element had 4-wheel drive and high clearance) to get around the debris and the body. Driving past the scene gave me a somber feeling; I’d never seen a fatal accident before and it was hard to even wrap my head around what had happened.

Once back on the road, I drove as fast as I could until 25 miles further north I found a small service station and told the mechanic what had happened. We called the police and I reported the location of the accident. I was glad I was able to help, but I was left with an empty feeling realizing that someone had lost his life that day in the blink of an eye. I drove on through endless rain, and not one car caught up to me for the rest of the day. I assumed the road had been closed behind me and that others weren’t able to get past the accident for some time. This highway now felt even lonelier than it had before. Mile 750. Mile 800. By 6PM I arrived at Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Mile Marker 875. I had now traveled almost 1600 miles northwest from the Montana/Canada border. I was much farther west than Seattle or Portland, and a few hundred miles north of Juneau, Alaska, and as far north as the top of Hudson Bay or the northern coast of Labrador. It really felt as though I was on the far edge of the world. The rain finally stopped when I reached Whitehorse and at 11:30 PM I was treated to a brilliant sunset, which made me feel even more thankful than usual to be alive, safe, and here to appreciate it.

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A beautiful scene just outside Whitehorse, Yukon Territory

Alaska at Last!

Whitehorse is a “big city” of 30,000 people, not particularly scenic, but at least there were services and restaurants, etc. I had dinner that night with a French Canadian guy I’d been corresponding with for a while via the internet. His name was Rejean, and he’d moved from Quebec to Whitehorse 15 years ago. It was interesting hearing about life in such a remote place, but it seems that the people who live there crave the solitude, yet spend a lot of money traveling to other places like Calgary, Toronto, or Anchorage when they get stir-crazy. After dinner Rejean showed me around the city a bit and took me to a wooden suspension bridge that crosses the river just outside of town. He wanted to show me something there that had special significance to him. It seems that a couple of years back he’d noticed that someone had carved the following “poem” prominently into the bridge railing.

“I hate Richard McKay. I hate him because he’s gay. Gay people are sick and should be sent away.”

Rejean said that once he’d seen the carving it had always bothered him and he couldn’t seem to forget it. Last April, Whitehorse hosted a Gay Pride celebration – which in and of itself is amazing to me given that this is such a remote, small town. Rejean went to the festivities and was soon bored by the usual superficial carrying on. And then an idea struck him; he drove to the bridge, treading through a few feet of snow to get to it at that time of year, took a carving knife with him and simply eradicated the entire “poem.” He showed me the gouged out, cleansed area of the bridge and quietly said, “This is what Gay Pride should really be all about.” It stuck me that every town, every person has his or her own little stories to tell.

Beyond Whitehorse I braved yet another 100 miles of the Alaska Highway to reach Haines Junction amidst terrible construction, dust, mud and truck traffic. My windshield had quite a few pits now, but the car was doing just fine. Here I parted with the Alaska Highway at Mile 1016, heading south on the Haines Highway, a 159-mile road that dead-ends at Haines, Alaska, the town from which I’d be taking the ferry to Juneau and points south. The road was beautiful and well-kept and the mountain scenery was terrific, with intermittent sun, showers and rainbows adding to the beauty. I reached the border crossing and showed my driver’s license and was waved through with no delay.

I found a small and relatively cheap motel room in Haines for Friday night, and had wild salmon steak for dinner at about half the cost of what I was paying for meals in Canada. The next morning, I headed out to the ferry terminal to check in. You must arrive two hours before your ferry’s departure time and I was actually the first one in line and the first to drive onto the ferry. I thankfully got myself a comfy chaise lounge on the upper deck’s covered solarium and was able to nap. Our departure was delayed by 2 hours as the crew struggled to get some large trucks and a U-Haul trailer safely aboard. The 5-hour trip was pleasant enough; it was a beautiful sunny day and the cool breeze off the ocean felt good. The scenery along the way consisted of fir-covered hills, snowcapped mountains, and an occasional glacier snaking down from the mountains.

There was an interesting cast of characters aboard the ferry, though one woman stood out. She’d been in a car next to me in the line waiting to board the ferry and was blasting music that no one else wanted to hear on her car stereo. She was dressed in a loud, leopard-skin print coat, wore huge dark glasses, and reclined in a chair in the solarium listening to a Walkman, making motions along with the music as if she were conducting an orchestra. She engaged people in strange, rambling conversations and I pretended to be asleep whenever she looked in my direction. Folks set up campsites in the solarium, marking their territory with sleeping bags and back packs, and some actually pitched tents on the deck by securing them to the railing with rope and duct-tape. I imagine they were likely on board for a long haul, all the way to Bellingham, Washington, 2 days away. Thankfully, I was making my way down the coast in much shorter segments, stopping at Juneau, Sitka, and Ketchikan. We docked in Juneau at 6:00 PM, and I drove to my motel to get settled in for the night.

Half-Cats and Half-Cooked

How’s that for a teaser? Half-Cats and Half-Cooked. Well, you need to keep reading to understand its significance. Prior to catching my ferry to Juneau, along the drive from Canada to Haines, Alaska I began to pick up American radio stations again. After days of Canadian radio: (“Today we will be discussing how art has led to the empowerment of Polynesian women…”) I was happily surprised to spin the dial and find the very American “Coast to Coast AM” show hosted by Art Bell. Art Bell, now retired was a strange and mysterious figure living in the mountains of Nevada near Area 51 who discussed all kinds of strange, supernatural and extra-terrestrial topics. I love listening to this show when driving late at night; listening to tales of UFO encounters as I drive down a dark desert highway at 1:00 AM is almost like being told a good ghost story when I was a child. At any rate, Art was talking to his “correspondent”, a woman named Linda who phones in “news” stories from around the globe. Tonight she was reporting on the sharp increase in half-cat sightings in Washington State. Yes, you read that correctly… “half-cat sightings”. What’s wonderful about this show is that they have such a cult following that they seldom need to explain to their audience what they’re talking about. It’s just presumed that everyone KNOWS what a half-cat sighting is.

So it took me awhile to piece together the details of this story, but the gist of it is that people in areas around Puget Sound, Washington are finding the front half of their cats, dead of course, sitting on their front lawns. There is a head, shoulders, and the two front legs… the rest is missing. Linda quoted an “eye-witness” who’d found a half-cat and said it looked like a child’s hand puppet. Local animal control officials claim these are the results of coyote attacks, but there are some strange facts that seem to refute such an idea. The half-cats have no blood or scarring… they have been “re-sealed” using very high heat. With a totally serious tone, Bell said, “Well certainly coyotes are not capable of THAT!” I wanted to call in and offer that if this was the work of coyotes, why did they only eat half the cat? And why the BACK half? Ew! Bell asked Linda whether it was always the front half of the cat that people found, and she replied that this is the case 90% of the time, but occasionally a back-half-half-cat shows up. She said that this is not an isolated incident: London, Toronto, Phoenix, rural Nebraska, and yes, even Manhattan have had flurries of half-cat sightings. Pet owners, beware! Keep careful watch over your cats or you too could become a half-cat owner!

Meanwhile, back in Juneau I stayed at the Breakwater Inn for a couple of night. The place was not as picturesque as it had appeared in the internet pictures, but the room was nice and had a king sized bed and king-sized jacuzzi tub in the room. The problem was that it was located underneath the Inn’s restaurant and bar and the noise above was deafening. People running across my ceiling, tables banging, pounding noises, vacuum cleaners… and best of all, a floor buffer being used at 1:00 AM Monday morning. I was so annoyed I ran out into the halls and screamed upstairs, “Are you almost finished up there? People are trying to sleep!” They looked surprised and said, “We’re almost done”. At 6:00 the garbage truck arrived and seemed to play basketball with the dumpsters immediately beneath my window. As I started to fall back to sleep, noises started emanating from the restaurant above: the breakfast preparation. It was like trying to sleep in a bowling alley! When I eventually checked out, I was cranky and exhausted and I looked at the desk clerk and asked, “Do people not complain about the noise from the restaurant? They were banging tables and buffing the floors until 1:30 this morning! I have had no sleep!” She looked genuinely surprised, apologized, and said that no, no one had complained before. Their patrons must have been comatose.

Juneau itself is a strange little town of 30,000 residents, set on the Gastineau Channel, a calm canal-like body of water, and is protected from the open sea by many islands and inlets; it’s probably at least 65 miles from the Pacific itself. The ferry dock is 15 miles from downtown and the whole community clings to the thin coastal strip between the dock and downtown. Mountains and glaciers rise immediately to the east. For a capital city, it is a rather laid-back place, rough around the edges, and it’s an odd location given that you can only fly or boat in. The state of Alaska had tentative plans to build a 75 mile road from here to Skagway, Alaska up north which would link Juneau to the mainland and Canada. The proposed road would have to cross some amazingly rugged terrain and would be threatened by no less than 16 major avalanche zones. Not surprisingly, it has yet to be built.

Downtown there are the cruise ship docks, where two or three skyscraper-like cruise ships dock each day. The shops in the area are very touristy and flocks of cruise ship escapees roam the streets like crazed maniacs, all the while elbowing people out of the way and checking their watches. I am so glad I did not do the Alaska cruise option I had originally considered; I’d have hated it. I like having my car and using the ferry and being able to drive off at the next destination to continue exploring.

In a strange way, this area of Alaska reminds me of Hawaii. It is isolated enough to feel like an island, and you have the same strange mix of native people, Caucasian residents and tourists all trying to get along. Like Hawaii, you feel similarly removed from the rest of the U.S. and the world here. So much of life revolves around the ocean and tourism in both places. The souvenir shops are very reminiscent of those in Honolulu or on Maui. The cost of living is high here, but the price of groceries and restaurants isn’t as bad as Hawaii. Still, the food here can’t compare to that of Hawaii. I went to a locally-recommended cafe for breakfast on Sunday and had blueberry pancakes. As I started eating them and thinking how they were nowhere near as tasty as the ones I make myself, I suddenly came upon an area of completely uncooked pancake batter. Pulling the cake apart, I found that the vast majority of the inside was completely uncooked. I showed the waitress and she offered to take $2 off the price… not to replace my meal with some cooked pancakes! That night I had dinner at the Breakwater Inn (I figured that I might as well try it, as at least I knew it must be eat-off-the-floor clean given the seeming hours I’d spent listening to them cleaning the place from my room!). I ordered salmon, halibut and vegetable tempura. It looked good until I bit into it and found that it was more sushi than tempura! The fish was completely uncooked and cold in the middle, and the vegetables were raw. I told the waiter and he did bring me another order with many apologies, but although the fish was cooked on the second attempt, the veggies were still cold and crunchy. Cook your food, people!

While in Juneau I met another person I’d been in touch with through the internet. Don is a computer programmer and returning college student in his 40s. He lives on his boat in the harbor. We had dinner at a place called Twisted Fish and the halibut was cooked through and delicious and served with sweet potato and shrimp fritters! Don invited me to crash on his boat later in the week, as I’d be returning from Glacier Bay at 8 PM and needing to catch the ferry at 5:00 AM, so that saved me a lot of cash that I’d have spent at the Breakwater Inn for only a few hours. Don told me an interesting tale about Juneau’s “bootleg” radio station. It seems that someone locally has been sending out 24 hour a day radio transmissions in the area. No one knows who it is, the signal can’t be traced, and the FCC is really not taking it too seriously as, well, it’s Juneau and who cares! The station plays some interesting music, but also raunchy stuff that would never be allowed on a “real” station. Bizarre. People have made bumper stickers supporting 96.9 FM, even though no one knows who’s running the show. Things here are so quirk; it reminded me of the 1990s TV show Northern Exposure, which was set in a remote Alaskan town and featured a zany cast of memorable characters.

One of the highlights of Juneau is the Mendenhall Glacier, which is located just north of the city. I spent an afternoon there and got some great photos of this blue-gray river of ice, which empties into a lake containing a few large, floating icebergs. I also got to see salmon swimming upstream to spawn, which was very cool. Those are some tough fish, bouncing themselves over rocks and up rapids and waterfalls! I must admit I have been skittish about hiking a lot here because of the bear threat. Everyone here talks about “a person they know” who was mauled or attacked, and it’s unnerving. You are told to make as much noise as possible as you hike, and I have to say I feel more than a little stupid walking through the woods talking to myself and singing. I found myself wishing that I had my childhood hero, the Lost in Space robot with me, as he’d be able to warn me of any risks and keep me out of trouble. “Danger, Will Robinson! Grizzly bear approaching! Danger! Danger!”

After a couple of entertaining days in Juneau, I went to the airport to catch my flight over to the hamlet of Gustavus, the gateway to Glacier National Park. I left my car in the long-term parking lot; it felt strange to be separated from my loyal friend after all these weeks on the road together. I was flying on L.A.B. Airways, and although I knew I’d be on a small plane, I didn’t realize HOW small. It was a Piper plane and I was the ONLY passenger. I sat up front with the pilot and there was a backseat that could have fit two small people. I swear I had more room in my Element than there was in that plane! It was like a Mini Cooper with wings! Off we went into the wild GRAY yonder; it drizzles and is overcast a LOT here. As we soared in and out of clouds and passed what seemed to be dangerously close to tree-covered mountain tops, I couldn’t help thinking of all the singers who died in small plane crashes… John Denver, Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly. Thank God I haven’t kept up with my karaoke career or I’d really have been worried. It was a little scary, but mostly just fantastic to see this countryside from the air.

The flight was 30 minutes long and once we landed at the Gustavus air strip, a van to my hotel, The Glacier Bay Country Inn, was waiting for me. This place had been recommended to me by a friend in San Francisco and it was everything he said it would be. Thanks to another wild night of cleaning at the Breakwater Inn, I was operating on only 4 hours of sleep and was just exhausted. I arrived at the hotel at 10:00 AM, but my cabin was ready for me. It was a gorgeous little house all of my own. The silence was deafening. I could hear flies and bees from 50 feet away. I immediately crawled into the bed that was as comfortable as a cloud and snuggled into the flannel sheets. Ahhhh. I tried to nap, but the fact that it wasn’t raining made me want to get outside, so I borrowed one of the Inn’s bikes and though the seat was way too low for me and couldn’t be raised, I managed to pedal about 4 miles into “town” – if you can call it that. I had a great lunch at a cafe attached to a B & B called the Bear’s Nest: a halibut sandwich (caught and filleted that morning), clam-salmon chowder, and strawberry rhubarb cobbler. I was the only customer and the owner-chef-waitress told me that she and her husband were pretty much living off credit cards, as business had been much reduced since 9/11. Strange that that event, almost 4 years prior, would be affecting tourism up here.

Gustavus is an interesting place. It feels like an island, but is really a flat area at the tip of a mountainous peninsula. There are perhaps 200 people living here, scattered around an area which has no real downtown. There’s a cool vintage gas station with old fashioned pumps, a Mercantile, a cafe, an airstrip, and a few widely scattered B & B’s, none of which are concentrated in one area. There is no police force or station. The Lodge and visitor’s center for Glacier Bay National Park are 10 miles away. As I rode my bike to town, everyone driving a vehicle waved at me. Conversation on the island centers on fishing and planes. The island’s lifeline is its air connection to Juneau and many of the locals are to be found hanging out by the airstrip waiting for supplies to come in.

It began to rain quite hard after lunch, so I pedaled in the rain back to my cozy cabin at the inn, climbed into those flannel sheets and slept 2 hours, waking up in time for afternoon tea, which was followed by a three course dinner that evening. There was an eclectic mix of guests at the Inn. There was “the nanny” – a woman from New York who bore a striking resemblance to TV’s Fran Drescher – voice and wardrobe included – and she was with her son and husband. There was a crazy man from New Hampshire who kept making absurd and inappropriate jokes as his wife and cousin rolled their eyes in embarrassment. There was a Georgia father and son fishing team, and a man from North Carolina who talked incessantly about his hobby: geo-caching. Evidently there is a cult-like group that uses geo-satellite tracking devices to do scavenger hunts around the world to find children’s toys hidden in “caches”. This guy told us how he’d found a yo-yo near the Gustavus airstrip. No one at dinner seemed too enthralled. Now perhaps if he’d found a half-cat, he’d have generated some genuine excitement.

The star of the dinner table, both literally and figuratively, was Jerry, a tall, exceptionally handsome 40-ish guy with a mop of black hair, stubble, and a clingy “Bodyglove” sweatshirt that emphasized each considerably chiseled pec and ab. Tanned beyond belief, Jerry was of course from L.A. and with a little prodding we found that he was somewhat of a celebrity – Jerry Penacoli, a celebrity interviewer for the entertainment show “Extra”. He’s also an actor who’s had roles in various soap operas and in sitcoms like Ellen. He was actually very funny and self-deprecating and of course I was all ears when he talked about various celebrities… including his many interviews with Cher, who he reports is an absolute delight. It was fun to talk about something besides fishing and geo-caching, let me tell you! Dinner was delicious – a roasted pepper soup, duck a l’orange with barley and veggies, and a nectarine Napoleon for dessert. Went to bed by about 10, as those of us going on the tour to Glacier Bay the next day had to be up for breakfast by 6:15 AM.

Morning came all too soon and I had to pry myself out of my wonderful bed and vowed to get myself a set of flannel sheets for my own bed at home! After a huge country breakfast, six of us were on a shuttle to the National Park to do an 8-hour boat tour of Glacier Bay. Sadly, the fun people like Jerry and the Nanny were doing other things that day, so I was with the crazy New Hampshire guy and the crazy geo-cache guy and their wives. Boarded a boat with about 75 other folks and off we went to explore the far reaches of the Bay. I must confess that the ride was pretty boring, given that rain and low fog obscured most of the scenery. I actually fell asleep a couple times, but when I was awake I marveled at the silver salmon leaping out of the water everywhere, and we did see a number of whales, sea otters, sea lions, eagles and funny, red-footed birds called Puffins. The crew was fun and entertaining, and one member of the crew, Adam, spent a lot of time talking to me when he learned I was a professor. He is working here in Alaska for the summer and goes home to Michigan in September to complete his senior year at college.

The very long 3-hour trip to the head of the bay was rewarded by our visit to the Johns Hopkins Glacier. At the end of a long, narrow inlet, we had hints that it must lay further ahead as large icebergs started to appear and float past us. It was like boating through a mixed drink! Finally, we rounded a bend and saw the glacier ahead, very blue colored in the gray light. Thankfully the rain stopped and as we pulled within ¼ mile of the edge of the glacier, the captain cut the engine and it was quiet and not windy. Then we began to hear the sounds of the glacier calving: huge chunks breaking off and plummeting into the bay. It made noises that sounded like cannon fire or exploding bombs echoing across the inlet. Sometimes nothing visible happened on the face of the glacier, but other times, huge masses of ice and rock went tumbling into the water, some generating little mini-tsunamis that rocked our boat. It was really exciting and we spent a good 30 minutes parked there watching the show.

Throughout the day we ate well: halibut filets, clam chowder, warm cookies and hot chocolate. The temperature was probably in the upper 40’s but the rain and wind from the moving boat made it hard to stay outside too long. At one point I was outside and got huge puffs of cigarette smoke blowing in my face from a German tourist who was smoking directly under one of the many “No Smoking” signs posted all over the deck. I pointed to the sign and said, “You’re not supposed to smoke.” He glared at me, walked to the edge of the boat and threw his cigarette into the pristine waters. I ALMOST pushed him overboard, but quickly alerted my friend on the crew and the offender was given a stern lecture. After year after year of studying psychology, I still don’t understand people.

We returned to the visitor’s center at 4:00 PM and were met by a driver who was taking several of us to the Gustavus airstrip for our flights back to Juneau at 5:30. They had bad news for me: my airline, L.A.B. had not been flying all day due to the weather. I had two options: one was to try to catch the ferry from the National Park to Juneau – 3 more hours on a boat – leaving me 10 miles away from where my car was parked at the airport. Or I could try to find a seat on another airline. I opted for the second choice, and luckily the airline that the New Hampshire and North Carolina folks were booked on had one extra seat for me – though I had to suffer more of their inane conversations. Anyway, I managed to get back to Juneau where I and catch a few hours of sleep on Don’s boat before driving to the ferry terminal at 5AM.

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Glacier Reflections

That day it poured all day long. The ferry trip was really nice, though, as there is a ranger giving talks and pointing out wildlife all along the way. I saw at least 6 or 7 humpback whales flapping their tails repeatedly on the water; they feed here all summer and then go to Maui to mate in the winter. Not a bad life. There were literally hundreds of silver salmon leaping from the water. Evidently this is done to loosen the eggs before they start the journey up the local streams to spawn. Four hours later we arrived in Sitka, and after a lunch of some of the best tasting salmon I have ever eaten, I checked in at my B & B in the waterfront home of a bubbly woman named Sue. Sitka is very beautiful and quiet; the scenery resembles that of Oregon and Washington – very green and rain-forest-like, with little snow on the surrounding peaks. Sitka is close to the open ocean and the harbor is dotted with dozens of little spruce-covered islands. Miraculously the sun appeared mid-afternoon, and I spent an enjoyable time sitting by the harbor and watching an enormous sea lion fishing for salmon. He’d get a salmon in his mouth and toss it around with great abandon like a dog playing with a chew-toy. Then he’d swallow it whole and dive for more.

I left Sitka the following night at 9PM bound for Ketchikan, a 22.5-hour trip! Thankfully I had reserved a cabin on the ferry, so had a comfortable place to sleep on the overnight journey. The same cannot be said for my stay in Ketchikan: I spent the night at a Super 8 motel there, which felt like a college dorm. About 12 or 15 young “adults” occupied the 5 or 6 rooms surrounding mine. They came in at 11:00 PM, and there was yelling, slamming of doors, and constant visits from room to room, preceded by loud knocks on the doors. This went on till 1 AM and I called the front desk. A short time later I heard the desk clerk come up and talk to them and things quieted down for maybe 20 minutes, enough time to almost doze off before being awakened by slamming doors, giggles, and more knocks on doors. I went to the door and reminded them that it was 2:00 AM and that I was trying to sleep. it got worse. At 2:30 I called the desk again. And again at 3:20. The desk clerk sounded frazzled and angry and said he’d take care of it. Peering from the peep hole in my door, I watched as the clerk came up to break up the party. People were actually smoking and drinking beer in the hallway, the doors to their rooms were open, music was playing from tinny sounding motel room radios, and there was much loud conversation. The desk clerk screamed at them like a parent or a chaperone on a school trip: “Go back in your rooms and go to sleep! It’s 3:20 in the morning. Guests are complaining. There is no beer drinking in the public area of the hotel. There is no smoking in the hallways!” Finally, by 3:45 or so, people quieted down and I fell asleep, but on a night when I really needed to get a good night’s rest, it was denied to me.

The next day I visited the fascinating Raptor Center, a sanctuary for eagles, hawks and owls, as well as other wildlife. It was a rare sunny afternoon and I did a bit of souvenir shopping, some hiking, and a lot of watching the fish from one of the many bridges over the creek. Looking down at the creek or out toward the inlets it appeared that the surface of the water was effervescent, like a giant glass of champagne, because there are so many salmon swimming around, their little shark-like top fins breaking the surface of the water, and almost every 3 or 4 seconds an 18” long salmon literally leaps a foot or two out of the water. There were hundreds of them. It was really amazing to watch. I had a farewell dinner at a restaurant on the water, dining on more of the delicious wild Coho salmon. I felt like a bear; I’ve been living on salmon and snacking on blueberries and raspberries every day!

I had to catch my departing ferry at 2AM and after not having a decent night’s sleep, I knew I had a long drive once the ferry docked in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. I drove out to a remote park on a lake and tried to nap, but there were lots of people there and idiots would peel out of a parking space and blow their horns and I’d startle awake. It was almost comical; here I was I’m in the wilds of Alaska and I couldn’t find a quiet place to just rest and have an undisturbed nap. I gave up and went to the ferry terminal around 11:30 PM and caught an hour or so of sleep in the car before we boarded. I brought a pillow and warm sweatshirt on board with me and managed to find a chaise lounge for a nap as Alaska slowly receded into the darkness and Canada loomed ahead.

At Prince Rupert I debarked and hit the highway, heading southeast toward Prince George. Canadian Radio was back with a vengeance: “Today our guest will talk to us about some of the very interesting plaques that can be found around the province of British Columbia. If you have a favorite plaque, please call in and tell us about it”. I longed to hear Dr. Laura Schlessinger nagging someone for “shacking up” with their boyfriend.

The scenery was pretty but not mind-blowing, and there was lots of mist and drizzle. I had a very underwhelming overnight in Prince George and then headed on toward Vancouver, which was much nicer. My hotel room was on the 16th floor and my room faced east, and clear as a bell from my balcony I saw snow-capped Mount Baker, about 50 miles away in Washington state, the first of the long chain of Cascade Range volcanoes. I had a great swim in one of the hotel’s three pools and then I amused myself watching Indian music videos on TV for awhile. There is a large Asian Indian population in Vancouver and they have their own music video channel on local TV. The song lyrics were provided in subtitles, and almost every video focused on a beautiful young woman being courted by a handsome young man. He chases her and dances around her as she plays hard to get while a multitude of dancers watch the action. The lyrics were hilarious and I wondered how close these subtitle translations were to the actual lyrics or whether they reflected terrible mistakes in translation:

Man: “You are like a glistening fruit in the garden and I must pick you”.
Woman: “No, no… you cannot taste the fruit. You are the chill of my cucumber!”

Of course the “picked fruit” and chilly cucumber always seemed to get together by the end of the video.

I had a wonderful, multi-course Lebanese meal with another interesting internet acquaintance I’d made. His name was Majid and he was born and raised in Lebanon, but is a Canadian citizen now and has lived in Canada for 20 years. It was fascinating talking with him about the world situation. He and his family were forced to hide in the hills of Lebanon many years ago during the Syrian occupation before they escaped to Canada. They were overjoyed that Syria was now withdrawing from Lebanon and he had just returned home for his first visit in many years. He warned, “Your country should never trust Syria. It is one of the most dangerous places on the earth!” How prophetic those words were given all the turmoil there over the past few years.

Majid now works in advertising and media, and it was interesting to hear about his research findings about how American and Canadian values are diverging. Evidently ads that are designed for a Canadian audience rarely work in America and vice versa. He said, “We assume that our two countries are very much alike, but there are very big differences in the way we think”. I’d have to agree. I don’t think that radio show on “most interesting plaques” would have gone over well in Boston or San Francisco!

I slept late, did a little more sightseeing around Vancouver, and stopped at an establishment called Death by Chocolate before hitting the road again. I stopped at roadside stands to buy boxes of raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and just pulled over on the side of the road in Canada and Washington to pick my own blackberries; the bushes line the road and the berries hang off the branches like grapes. As I got closer to Seattle it was apparent that I had driven into a heat wave: Seattle was 96 degrees. It didn’t help that I passed through Seattle close to rush hour, and encountered almost total gridlock for mile upon mile. I hopped off I-5 onto side roads. I tried to take freeways that would loop around the city. It was all to no avail and it took me almost 2.5 hours to cover the 30 miles or so between Seattle and Tacoma. If I had to do that every day, I would be in a nut house talking about half-cats and plaques. I don’t know how people cope with it. The only consolation was that I had beautiful views of good-old, volcanic Mt. Rainier looming to the east, totally covered in snow and looking ominously close.

I didn’t get to Portland till almost 9:00 PM, and just collapsed, but I decided to spend two nights there at a nice motel with a very refreshing pool and a blissfully quiet 3rd floor room. I never heard a sound from any other rooms and it was heavenly. Having driven almost 9,000 miles in the past 6 weeks, I took my car to a local Honda dealership for servicing. They squeezed me in even though I didn’t have an appointment, and they gave me complimentary tickets to ride the light rail system into downtown Portland and have lunch. Their light rail system is amazing – so clean and quiet, and cheap. I had a laugh as I rode downtown. An athletic man, perhaps 50 years old, got onboard with his bike, and as the train continued, he set the kick stand on his bike and began using the poles and bars that people standing up usually hold onto as his own personal gym. He did pull-ups, he did strange vertical push-ups. I was tempted to make a loud public announcement that aerobics classes would be starting in 5 minutes in Car #2! I am always amazed by how un-self-conscious people can be in public.

Morning came too soon for my liking; I could have spent a whole day in bed or in the pool, but I went to my favorite place, Mother’s Bistro in Portland for wild salmon hash & eggs before filling up with gas and heading south on I – 5. Terrible traffic around each of Oregon’s major cities, Salem, Eugene, and Medford slowed my progress, but thank God, Dr. Laura was now on the airwaves to keep me company.The temperature at Redding, California was 107 degrees, but by the time I reached the Bay Area it was much cooler! My friends Gail and Chrissie invited me to stop for dinner in Marin County on my way home, and served a delicious meal of organic chicken, organic corn, organic summer squash and organic tomatoes; they wanted to make sure I knew I was back in Marin County! It was delicious and much welcomed, as after the salmon hash, all I’d eaten during the day were raspberries and blackberries. I took a relaxing swim in their 90 degree pool, marveling at the brilliance of the stars above and realizing that I’d really never seen the stars at all in Alaska or Canada; it rained too much. So somehow it was an ironic twist of fate for me to float in the warm water and look up to see the Big Dipper – featured on the Alaska state flag – shining brightly above me. I’ll think of Alaska now whenever I see it. I got to my place around 11:30PM amidst 57 degree temperatures and San Francisco’s typical summer fog.

And so another epic road trip was over and it was my longest ever: a total of 14,000 miles, which is equivalent to two round-trips across country and then going 2/3 of the way back again! Just the drive from where I left the Alaska ferry to San Francisco was almost 2,000 miles… that’s how far north I was!

I liked Alaska and was glad I finally saw it, but it has not been one of those places that calls me back. That is actually somewhat of a relief, because my greatest problem with travel is that I fall madly in love with places and am driven to return to them again and again: Hawaii, New England, Italy, Paris, New York City, Utah. I would be interested in flying to Anchorage sometime and renting a car to explore that area, but I have no desire to ever drive Canada’s Alaska Highway again. Once was exciting, but it was also enough. But the trip reminded me again of how I love the freedom of being out on the road, wandering from place to place, collecting stories from the journey, seeing family and old friends, and making new ones along the way.

4 thoughts on “North to Alaska: The Mother of All Roadtrips

  1. now that is some road trip…when I started my blog I envisaged such things (on a British scale) but it morphed into something else. Hey ho. You certainly appear to have caught more wildlife up there than I did in Yellowstone Park…looks fab.

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    • Yes, Banff National Park is one of the most amazing places I have ever been. just go in May or June or September when the hordes aren’t there!

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  2. Thank for a great ride along on your road trip. I made the run from Fairbanks/Manley Hot Springs to Philadelphia 4 time when I first moved to Alaska. I was working as an assistant guide and went back and forth to book clients at outdoor shows, it is truly a adventure driving those roads.

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