“If you’re off the train, you’re in the chain,” the guide quipped. We were gazing at the endless Alaskan bush from domed windows, rolling from Denali to Anchorage, and his comment about our place in the wilderness food chain stuck. Someone wondered aloud about our chances in the world outside those windows. Survival, we all agreed, seemed unlikely.
Alaska is humbling that way. The state dazzles in its magnitude: It is one-fifth the size of the continental United States and contains 17 of the country’s 20 tallest peaks. Mix in its 100,000 glaciers, 3 million lakes, 47,300 miles of coastline and abundant wildlife, and you get a menu for adventure that can’t be consumed in one visit.
My group of five friends and I realized that the 11-day trip we agreed upon would offer only a glimpse of the state’s wonders. To maximize our time — and ensure that our glimpse would be grand — we would arrive by ship and take a guided trip via bus and train. The plan allowed us to explore swaths of territory, from coastline to inland wilds, in a limited amount of time.
Beyond the two flying days — to Vancouver to meet our cruise ship and back home from Anchorage — three days would be aboard Holland America Line’s MS Amsterdam, followed by a six-day guided trip via bus and train.
“Let’s Get This Party Started!” the poolside band, Darlene and the HALCats, sang as the Amsterdam headed out to sea. We had boarded at Vancouver’s Canada Place, settled into our cozy staterooms and had just begun to explore our home at sea, a handsome vessel with 10 decks and 650 crew members serving 1,400 passengers.
During the gray, blustery weather of the next day, my friends and I played dominoes, skipping the casino, spa and classes. And we wandered.
My favorite spot was the Promenade Deck, where passengers could circle the ship or relax in a deck chair. Though this was August, the wind was chilly as the ship sailed toward Alaska at 21 knots. Wooden chests on deck were stocked with red plaid blankets, in which passengers could wrap themselves against the chill.
I was bundled up on the Promenade Deck on our second morning, when the sun shone bright on the surrounding snow-capped peaks of the Inside Passage. Wind tugged at the blankets of those striding the deck as the ship navigated toward Juneau, our first stop.
We docked at 1 p.m. Knowing we would shove off by 10:30 that night, we joined a small excursion to Tongass National Forest for a hike in the rain forest.
“Shh! We’re in the bears’ kitchen,” our guide playfully warned. Later she pointed silently to signs of salmon or bear.
At Mendenhall Lake, a massive glacier rose on the opposite shore. The view across the lake is deceiving, though. Only about 3 miles of the glacier’s 13-mile length was visible from our perspective, and the glacier didn’t look imposing. Then I saw tiny figures that turned out to be hikers at the foot of the glacier, and I understood its scale.
The driver who had brought us to Tongass, a native of Juneau, pointed out that a warmer climate is taking a toll. Since 2000, the glacier has retreated 200 to 600 feet per year, calving icebergs and melting enough ice to fill more than 50,000 Olympic swimming pools.
That afternoon, we took a second excursion aboard a whale-watching boat on a network of Inside Passage channels. Our captain spotted the blows of humpback whales, obliging passengers by getting close enough for photos. With camera ever-ready, I missed a whale breaching on the boat’s other side.
As the fading sun illuminated the Amsterdam and a floatplane taking off, we relaxed on a harborside deck. Dusk comes late here and we boarded for the night sail to Skagway under the Amsterdam’s lights.
By train, then bus
Skagway has always meant opportunity. For tens of thousands of fortune-seekers during the 1897-99 gold rush, it was the “Gateway to the Klondike.” That era is commemorated at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. The town, four blocks wide and 23 blocks long, is largely restored to reflect that era.
For our group, opportunity came in a different way.
This is where we left the Amsterdam, and met Cassaundra, our Holland America overland tour director for the next six days.
During our one day in town, we sampled the town’s history — and some of its fudge and T-shirt shops. On our way to the train depot for our departure, we wandered down side streets and spied a bumper sticker that may well reflect life in Skagway today: “The tourists are here! Good news! Damn it!”
Skagway’s train depot marks the beginning of North America’s busiest excursion railroad. Built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route runs 67 miles from Skagway to Carcross, Yukon. It climbs about 3,000 feet in just 20 miles with steep grades, tight curves, soaring trestles and ink-black tunnels.
Our 28-mile ride on this tricky route took 3 hours. When the train stopped at Canadian customs in Fraser, British Columbia, we stepped off the coach cars to meet Alex, our Gray Line Alaska bus driver.
Cassaundra and Alex were knowledgeable and playful. Like doting parents, they kept us on time, entertained us across miles of the Alaskan Highway on the way to Fairbanks and opened our eyes to the wonders of the Yukon Territory and Alaska’s interior.
We learned from Cassaundra that Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon Territory, has a population of about 27,000 people while the total Yukon population is 35,000, about what it was in 1900. Towns, as sparse as they are, are still called settlements.
Alex explained that the Alaskan Highway, 1,500 miles long, was built in 1942 as a supply route in World War II through the sub-arctic wilderness of Alaska and the Yukon. It is a storied road that is slowly overcoming its image as a grueling drive that’s rough on vehicles.
Along the 500 miles of the Alaskan Highway that we navigated, we learned that the settlers of Chicken, Alaska, wanted to name their town “Ptarmigan,” but couldn’t agree on the spelling. In Tok, we saw a window sign that announced: “Tok, Alaska — we’ve never heard of you either!” And in Beaver Creek, “Officer Friendly,” an actor portraying a Canadian Mountie, hopped on the bus to welcome us to town.
After a two-night stay in Fairbanks, we would travel by train to Denali for a day and then by train to Anchorage.
In Fairbanks, we cruised on the Chena River aboard a paddle-wheeler. Along the way, we toured the Chena Indian village, panned for gold and met Lance Mackey, a world-famous dog musher.
The next morning, we boarded a Holland America dome car, attached to an Alaska Railroad train, for a four-hour ride to Denali. From the comfort of our seats, highlighted by good food and service, we watched mountains, streams and forest zoom past.
One of the highlights of the trip was a foray into the 6-million-acre Denali National Park. The only road into the park is 92 miles long and restricted mostly to park buses. We hopped on for a 4.5-hour guided natural history tour.
Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet, is the soul of the park even though it is visible to only 30 percent of visitors due to persistent clouds that catch on its peak. It is called Denali, meaning “Great One” or “the High One” by the Athabaskan Indians, and we didn’t see its peak during our park visit.
The next day, we boarded the train again for a comfortable eight-hour journey to Anchorage. While crossing the Susitna River bridge, the train slowed to a crawl. The engineer noticed that Denali, the High One, was fully visible about 70 miles to the northwest, so the cameras clicked nonstop in the evening light.
As we pulled into Anchorage, Denali was still visible on the horizon 200 miles away.
It was a fitting end to our Alaskan adventure. We felt as Robert W. Service did in his poem “The Spell of the Yukon”:
“There’s a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back — and I will.”
Jim Umhoefer is a travel and outdoor writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn. See more of his work at www.candid perceptions.com.