Early this fall, Ann Selley – one of our cruise specialists, experienced a cruisetour in Alaska and the Yukon. Here is an account of her trip.

Aug 3

We arrived in Vancouver around 12:00 pm at the airport and caught the Sky Train into the city. There were signs everywhere leading us to the train
and it was very quick and easy. We went to the end of the line “ Waterfront” stop on the Canada Line. We walked down Howe St and the cruise terminal was right opposite the Pan Pacific Hotel and the Fairmont Hotel. Next time, I would stay one pre cruise night here so that we could enjoy Vancouver before sailing out.

We then boarded HAL Zuiderdam and we had an ocean view cabin. Personally, I would have preferred a balcony so that we could have watched the scenery while getting ready for dinner some nights. The people on the balconies saw more porpoises and whales early in the morning as they were having coffee on their balconies. We saw a few from the deck in the distance. There were good views on both sides of the ship as this is the Inside Passage and you can see lots of fjords and islands everywhere. There was a bit of fog, but it lifted as the day went on and the mountains looked beautiful in the sunshine. Dinner was lovely tonight in the dining room ( prime rib) and the service was great as always on HAL. We had a table at the very aft of the ship and so we watched the wake of the ship and the sun set over the water as we ate. There are lots of multi generational families onboard as this is a good active itinerary for all ages.

Aug 4 – Cruising the Inside Passage

The scenery today included endless forests, very rugged hills and even a  few mountains with snow on the tops. There were many islands and fjords in the area and the water was as smooth as glass. The sun came out this afternoon and it was lovely to sit on the top deck. There is a nice protected area near the Crow’s Nest to stretch out on a lounger and watch the mountains and trees pass by. It was actually a bit like a river boat cruise in that you could always see something from the ship. It was a lovely relaxing sea day today.

Aug 5 – Juneau Alaska

I started the day with a fleece sweater and ended up being hot in shorts and a short sleeved top by the afternoon. Dressing in layers is definitely the way to go as the weather changes very quickly.  We caught the white school bus ( there was also a blue one)near the pier and we  went out to the Mendenhall Glacier. There are lots of little kiosks by the pier offering these transfers and tours .It only cost $16 return and it was a lovely 20 minute drive. The glacier has receded a great deal over the years and now there is a large lake where much of it used to be. We walked to Nugget Falls on a very easy and groomed path. It took about 20 minutes in each direction at a very leisurely pace as we walked through a temperate rain forest on the way. The falls were very powerful and they were right beside the glacier  as much of the water was melting runoff from the glacier! We saw a black bear foraging for berries in the bushes, but park rangers were everywhere keeping an eye on both the people and the bears. We walked along a salmon stream and saw the sockeye salmon jumping and struggling up the river to spawn. There were a lot of bears in the area because of the salmon and the ripe blueberries. There is a very good visitor centre overlooking the glacier where they have all kinds of information and displays as well as telescopes to see the glacier right up close.

We took the shuttle back to town and on the way the driver stopped at another salmon river and it was just thick with salmon jumping up the river.

Lots of float planes were taking off in the harbour as were driving into town as this is a main mode of transportation up here. There is really only the one road that goes to the glacier and that is it. When we got back to town we went to the Alaska Hotel which has been in business since the gold rush. We had a “ Denali” beer and listened to a trio singing country songs in the old saloon.

Aug 6 – Skagway

It was a bright, sunny and hot day today as it was over  32C this afternoon – but no humidity.

We disembarked the ship around 8 am and walked around town as it has been restored to its gold rush glory days. We then went on a brief ride to see the old miners’ cemetery where some of the gold rush miners were buried. It reminded me of Boot Hill cemetery near Tombstone Arizona because the little wooden plaques had all sorts of quaint epitaphs. Soapy Smith ( the con man who basically ran Skagway during the gold rush ) was buried just outside the cemetery as the good citizens of Skagway didn’t think he should be included with the other “ law abiding people” of the town.  Back in town, we found a great little coffee spot with a pretty courtyard filled with flowers and we just enjoyed an excellent coffee in the sun.

It was very bright and sunny today and we could see the mountains very clearly overlooking the town. We walked over to the Whitehorse Pass and Yukon Rail station, which was right in the centre of town, to meet the narrow gauge railway train . This railway was built to help the miners get over the Coast Mountains to the Klondike gold rush in the Yukon in 1897 – 1898. Although it only took 2 years to complete,  it was finished  late in 1898 , and the gold rush was over by that point. The train stayed active though for many years as the bigger mining companies moved in to mine the deeper gold.

The vintage train follows the Trail of  ‘ 98 and we could see portions of the trail still worn into the rock and dirt from the miners lugging their 1000 pounds of supplies on their trek to the Yukon. The scenery was stunning today and the classic rail cars all had outside viewing areas where the cool , fresh breeze was great and I got some amazing pictures.

After we arrived in the Yukon, we boarded a really comfortable and spacious HAL coach which took us the rest of the way to Whitehorse. We followed the Yukon River for quite awhile and as the day went on it got quite hot again. We saw some very beautiful pristine lakes and mountains which looked like settings on picture postcards. The lakes were many different colours of aqua as they were formed by the glaciers and the silt at the bottom of the lakebeds lent some spectacular colours when the water reflected in the sunlight.

We arrived in Whitehorse around 6:30 pm. We went to dinner at the Burnt Toast Café, just around the corner from the hotel where we enjoyed pulled pork fahitas and the portions were enormous. I was worried that the cost of food in the north might be expensive, but so far, it has been no different than home.

Aug 7 – Whitehorse, Yukon

We got up nice and early and headed out to Tim Hortons for breakfast and it was  also just around the corner. Whitehorse is very small, so everything is “right around the corner”. The streets were totally empty, but the line ran out the door at 6 am at Tims. We drove in our comfy HAL coach by Lake Laberge today on our way to Dawson. Our driver / guide recited “ The Cremation of Sam McGee” as we went by and it reminded me of all the times I had taught my students that poem. You can really see what Robert Service was talking about. It was a totally desolate place –trees, trees and more trees, muskeg, tundra and lakes. Nothing else .Anywhere. I can only imagine what it must be like in the winter. Beautiful and absolutely terrifying in its isolation.

We later passed part of the trail where the Itidarod sled dog race is run and we stopped at one of the pit stops of the race where they had these amazing giant cinnamon buns -yummy. We bought 2 and they fed the entire coach. They must have been size of a steering wheel. Kluane National Park is about 1 ½ hours from here and they call it the Patagonia of the north. They say it is even wilder and more remote than Denali in Alaska .I would love to come back and see it! Trees in this area are mostly pine, poplar and birch. The birch are actually starting to turn yellow as fall is very near up here. What a treat – no bugs so far! I guess that is an advantage of travelling in this area in August.

Further along the road to Dawson, we stopped at an overlook point where we saw the most dangerous rapids on the Yukon River. Many prospectors died at this point as they floated their rafts, loaded with their supplies ,the 500 miles towards Dawson. It has been another beautiful sunny day and the water in the lakes and rivers that we passed were just shimmering in the sunlight. The air was so clear and it was absolutely silent when we stopped for a breath of fresh air and a stretch.

We had a picnic lunch ,which was catered by a native group of Salish ladies, at a lovely little park overlooking the Yukon River in the sun. This area has the largest copper mines in the world and it is located on Salish native lands.

We arrived in Dawson about 4:30 pm and the hotel had air conditioning which was a blessing because even at 8pm, it was still quite hot . We sat outside at a picnic table at a small restaurant in town with our fish and chips tonight and had to move to the shade because it was so hot in the sun.

We went to Diamond Tooth Gertie’s tonight to see a music and dance production about the Klondike Gold Rush here in Dawson. We then went over to the Sour Toe Saloon where there was a tradition that patrons could put this old purple toe in their whiskey and drink it. The” Captain of the Toe” would recite:

“ You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow. But your lips must touch the toe”. One lady in our group took the challenge and another lady actually put the toe right in her mouth!!!They then got a certificate to show they had done it.( Side note: 2 weeks after we got home, someone went into the Saloon, plunked down $500 and swallowed the toe. So I guess that it the end of the toe –until they can find a new one!!)

We walked home around 11 pm and it was still very light outside  as they have 16 hours of daylight at this time of year up here.

Aug 8 – Dawson, Yukon

Another bright, clear and warm day. We took a paddle wheel boat up the Yukon River this morning and stood outside on deck with our coffees in the sun. Watching the scenery just floating by was amazing. You could sense how deep and fast the current was running from this angle as you looked up the cliffs at the large gorge that the river had created . Dawson marks the place where the Klondike and Yukon Rivers meet and they are 2 distinctly different colours. One is clear blue spring water and the other is glacial water which is dark brown and muddy. The 2 colours start to blend in Dawson. You can clearly see the marks that the glaciers have made on the mountains in this area as they are deeply grooved and rounded.

Dawson had over 30 000 people during the 1897-1898 gold rush ,8 newspapers and 23 bars. The population went from 5 people to 5000 people in the course of one month in 1897.  The town is run by Parks Canada and everything in town must remain authentic to the time period, so walking the streets is like living history! Even empty store fronts are maintained as they would have been in the gold rush. The streets are not paved and the sidewalks are boardwalks. I can only imagine the level of the mud in the streets when it rained. Over half the town is built on permafrost and so many of the buildings have to be leveled each year . Unfortunately, they did not know this when they built the town and many of the older buildings are on rather precarious angles.

We then walked over to see Robert Service’s cabin where he lived for 4 years while he worked at the Bank of Commerce in town ( it is still there too).We also saw some of his original drafts of his poetry on his desk in his cabin as well as the typewriter that he used.

Next we went to see Jack London’s cabin ( Call of the Wild) which was a very primitive soddy and a   small one room affair. It was no wonder he only stayed there for 4 months! The grass on his roof was doing very well indeed and in fact many wild flowers were in bloom up there as well.

We walked to the Dawson Museum and it was really fascinating as all the artifacts were local from the gold rush period. They even were screening some silent films which they had found  in the old movie theatre  .Apparently, the reels were too heavy to send back south and so they just kept them at the time. The news reels that they were watching during that time period were very interesting from an historical point of view.

We then went out to Slow Rush Kennels to see the musher who trains and breeds her dogs for the Itidarod and Yukon Quest dog sled races. She has actually come in second place in the Itidarod and the Yukon Quest .The dogs were much smaller than we had thought as I guess we were picturing Jack London’s “ Buck” in our imaginations. They used to use larger dogs in the 1930’s, but they found lighter and smaller dogs had more stamina and strength. Modern Alaskan Huskies are bred for distance running ,intelligence and compatibility rather than appearance which is why they all look a bit different.

Slow Rush Kennels is located on the other side of the Yukon River across from Dawson, high on a hill overlooking the river valley and out in the absolute middle of no where.The owner is a very independent, strong and highly focused woman as she lives alone in the bush and cares for her 50 dogs. She says the dogs are her children and those dogs are treated like gold. When she is on the trail, she feeds and waters the dogs first and then puts down straw for their beds before she even thinks about eating herself. The races take place in the winter and so they are mostly run in the dark and extreme cold by one musher with 14 dogs. She has this little light on her head and that is all that she has to guide her on the dark trail. The dogs run for 6 hours and rest for 6 hours. She massages all 14 dogs’ feet and legs after every run and if any dog looks weak, it is pulled from the race. There are Vets at every check point station and they make the decision regarding the dogs’ health.

In the summer, she hooks a team up to an ATV to let them run a bit and she demonstrated this. The dogs were so excited that they couldn’t wait to get going and running. You could tell that they love it .The dogs were all really friendly and we got lots of kisses. We also met the new puppies who will be training for next year’s race.

Aug 9 – Dawson to Fairbanks, Alaska

This morning we went down to see one of the original paddle wheelers, “ Keno”, which is now a museum. This boat was used to transport miners during the gold rush down the Yukon River and it is of the same era as the Fram  (the ship which went to the South Pole with Amundsen) in Norway. You could see similarities in the living quarters and kitchen areas.

Then we walked part of the Robert Service Trail which is a mountain path through the woods behind his cabin. It is a very nicely groomed path and apparently he walked up here for inspiration for his poems. It reminded me of the Robert Frost Trail in Middlebury Vermont where Frost was also supposed to have got inspiration for his writing. We picked some wild raspberries as we walked and they were very tiny and sweet! We also made lots of noise talking because if we found the berries, I am sure that the bears could have found them as well.

We went back down into town to the Bonanza Market which had a great deli and bakery at the back. They were just taking fresh sausage rolls out of the oven so we bought a couple and went down to the park by the river to have another picnic in the sun. We later walked along the river and enjoyed the flowers which were in bloom in the gardens.

Next, it was out to the airport to catch a small plane from Dawson to Fairbanks. We had lovely views from the plane of the mountains, lakes and trees as the sky was bright, bright blue and so clear. It was an interestingly different perspective on the landscape we had just seen.

We arrived an hour later in Fairbanks and then went to see the Ice Museum. This was a collection of ice sculptures from last year’s world championship ice carving competition held in February. The sculptures are maintained in display freezers at very cold temperatures to preserve them for viewing. One ice artist also sculpted a bird within a matter of minutes to show us how it was done. They also had a cold room ( 20 F) where you could go in to see a life size dog sled team, miners and a log cabin all made of ice and beautifully lit with different coloured lights.

We then saw a wonderful film called the Aurora Borealis and the photography was stunning. Apparently, the earliest you can really see the Northern Lights is after Labour Day as it is just too light up here in the summer to see anything .Another good reason to come back!

It hasn’t been getting dark until after 11:30 pm each night and so we find we are staying up later and doing much more. The people up here say that they work very long days in the summer as it stays light so late. You just keep thinking that it is about 6pm and you keep going. Winter would be another matter entirely.

Aug 10 – Denali National Park Alaska

We caught HAL’s McKinley Explorer today which is a lovely domed double decker train which would take us from Fairbanks to Denali. There were  beautiful outside viewing areas on each car and the seats in the domed section were extremely comfortable with lots of leg room. We had breakfast down in the dining car on the first level with white tablecloths and silverware. The food was wonderful and the blueberry pancakes were so large that we easily could have shared. Michael tried the reindeer sausage with his eggs and said that it was very good. The dining car reminded me of train travel the way it used to be when I was a child. It was wonderful munching on a really tasty breakfast with fabulous service as the scenery just slipped on by. We talked to another passenger on the train and she said that it was very similar to the Rocky Mountaineer.

We arrived in Denali mid day and we stayed in the Canyon wing of the McKinley Lodge which HAL  owns and has been newly refurbished. The view from our window was of the forest  and it was so peaceful and quiet to just sit in one of the cozy chairs by the window with a nice warm cup of tea and relax .Tonight we went to Cabin Night Fever which was a musical show about the history of Denali. The food was great, particularly the salmon. I think it was the best that we have had here in Alaska.

We then went back to the room and shared a glass of wine as we watched the sun go down behind the mountains –again about 11:30 pm. You can feel a twinge of fall in the air here as the nights are definitely getting cooler and the colours of the trees and tundra are beginning to change to gold .Mind you, we have slept with the window open and only one blanket on the bed.

Aug 11 –Denali

We were up bright and early this morning for our 8 hour tundra wilderness tour of Denali. There is only one road into the park and only park buses are allowed into the interior of the park. We went 62 miles into the park and we saw 13 grizzly bears, 25 caribou, golden eagles, ptarmagon, arctic squirrels and dall sheep. Every time someone spotted an animal, the park ranger/driver stopped so that we could all get a good look. Our driver/guide gave us a wonderful running commentary on the things that we were seeing and the history of the area .The interior of the park,  is very different than the entrance  to the park as it is complete wilderness. The mountains are many different colours because they are a combination of volcanic ash as well as the erosion effects of glaciation. We didn’t get to see My McKinley as the peak was covered in cloud, but it didn’t matter because all the other mountains were so spectacular. The rivers are called braided rivers which run off the glaciers into the valleys below. They are different from anything else I have ever seen as are the colours of the mountains and hills: red, orange, gold, green, black and brown .It really looked like a painting and it was hard to believe that what we were looking at was real. This has definitely been one of the major highlights of this trip and one that I will always remember.

Tonight we went over to Prospector’s Pizza and Alehouse , which had 50 different kinds of beer on tap. It was decorated in a northern roadhouse style and had great food. We had lots of fun as many in the group with whom we are travelling came over to give us their best wishes and they sent us a celebratory cheesecake for dessert as well as a card signed by everyone . We have been chumming around with Terri and Lynn since Dawson and we had a lot of laughs with them this evening as well .We capped the evening off with a walk around some of the shops near the lodge.

Aug 12 – Denali to Anchorage

We once again boarded the McKinley Explorer train and had our wonderful seats in the domed car. I loved being up so high and able to look in all directions to see the landscapes. This section of the railway has to be one of the great train rides in the world. There are no roads and we saw everything up close from the train. We went so close to a glacial river that I could have jumped out the window and landed right in it. We saw lots of rapids today and even a few people in zodiacs running them. Talkeetna was a short stop on the train today . This was the place upon which the TV show Northern Exposure is based. It is very tiny and not much there, however, this is the closest spot to see Mt McKinley. Again no luck today  seeing the top of the mountain, however, many flightseeing tours leave from here in good weather.

We had dinner on the train again and we had a lovely piece of salmon. I just love eating on the train!

After we arrived in Anchorage we went for a walk down by the bay and watched the sun begin to sink behind the mountains. It was about 10pm and still very light.

 Aug 13 – Anchorage

After a nice buffet breakfast we went to catch the trolley which gave us a good overview of the city. This is the largest city in Alaska – about 200 000 people. The entire state only has about 250 000 population in total.

The tour took us by the airport and we saw more float planes than I have ever seen in my life. There is a water channel that they use as a runway and planes were taking off non stop. In the winter they replace the floats with skis and the planes slide down the icy channel. This is the main mode of transportation into and out of the area.

After we finished the trolley tour, we walked over to the Anchorage museum and it was great. The Smithsonian wing with the different native artifacts was extremely well presented. There was lots of original  film footage of the first peoples of the area and an art gallery of both traditional and modern native arts. There was a lovely gift shop at the museum with authentic Alaskan arts ,crafts and pictures.

We had to leave after lunch today , however, Lynn and Terri weren’t leaving until this evening. They were going salmon fishing this afternoon as the salmon river is right in town. Apparently, there were many salmon in the river right now and they were planning to have their catch frozen and sent home to enjoy later.

To say goodbye to our new friends, we went to this small café called Kobuk which had 50 different types of teas as well as freshly made goodies. I had red chai tea for the first time and it was great!

After we said our goodbyes, we walked back to the hotel and caught a taxi to the airport. It was a very easy process as it was only about a 15 minute drive.

On the plane flying towards Vancouver the pilot flew right down the Inside Passage and so we could see many of the mountains and fjords that we had seen from the ship on our route north.

A perfect ending to an unforgettable trip and I can’t wait to go back. Next time it will be Whittier, Seward and the Kenai Peninsula, preceded or followed , of course, by a cruise!