Travel blog – Vancouver to Yukon part 6 – To Alaska!

Friday morning I checked out of my hotel in Whitehorse, grabbed a coffee, filled up on gas, replaced the terribly-streaking windshield wipers, and headed to Miles Canyon.  It was very beautiful and I’m glad I went, but there was nothing exceptional about it.  The Yukon River is really wonderful everywhere and it was neat walking over the suspension bridge and checking things out.  I’m glad I made the stop and got to see it.

From there, on to Carcross, through more mountains and valleys, with innumerable rivers and lakes all the way along.  There were some gorgeous lakes that were perfectly still and reflected the mountains above, which was lovely.  The drive really is quite gorgeous… I stopped for what should have been a brief stop for lunch in Carcross, that turned into a lengthy lunch at the only place open that served food.  Still the quiet town was peaceful and attractive, and it was hot and sunny so I sat on the patio with my sandwich (the last one in town, apparently, as everyone after me had their sandwich requests denied).

Then, from there, on to Skagway through a much more mountainous route (including a brief crossing back into BC before crossing into Alaska).  There were about 30 km between the Canada Customs office and the US Customs one, where I technically did cross the Canada-US border, and was able to make a number of scenic stops, but hadn’t cleared any sort of inspection yet.  I did get through customs unscathed, fortunately, and arrived in Skagway with plenty of time to check in to the ferry.

Skagway is a cruise ship town, and it was both off-season and a cruise-shipless day.  It’s also a gold rush (c. 1898) town.  All of this meant a number of very beautiful frontier-times old buildings, almost none of which were open.  I had 1.5 hours to kill before the ferry, so I took a wander through the town.

Despite being a town of 950 in an area completely isolated from the rest of the world (access is by road from Whitehorse – a two hour drive – or by cruise ship, ferry, or helicopter), there was a Starbucks-licensed café, countless expensive jewellery stores, and many many bicyclists.  I was actually most impressed by the bicycling – everyone seemed to be using a bicycle to get around, there were bike racks everywhere, and no one locked their bikes up.  Also of note: there was a Sarah Palin store – it was closed, but when it’s open it apparently sells all sorts of Sarah Palin merchandise.  I grabbed an almond-milk latte (which was surprisingly an option) in the only café/bakery that was open and found my way back to the ferry.

The ferry ride was beautiful if not a bit monotonous.  The inside passage (of which I’ve only seen a small portion so far – I’m writing this Saturday in Juneau and leave Sunday for the rest of the trip) is amazing – endless water and mountains.  Apparently there were whales, though I missed them – hopefully I’ll be lucky on the next leg.  When I wasn’t looking at scenery, though, there wasn’t a lot to do – fortunately I had a book to read.

We arrived in Juneau on time, around 11PM Alaska Time, and I overheard someone asking to share a cab to the airport with someone else. They turned her down as they were a party of four, so I offered her a ride since my hotel is two blocks from the airport.  I learned from her, since she’d spent the summer in Skagway, that business in Skagway was not doing well this year – which also partly explained all the closed businesses.  While the number of cruise ships was higher, apparently people were not spending money. The rumour in Skagway was that the Alaskan cruise companies were offering bargain-basement prices to people living in the central US who otherwise couldn’t afford the cruises – and, in turn, still could not afford all the luxury items for sale in Skagway.  Tourism economics are incredibly interesting to me – I’d love to learn more about these phenomena.

Anyways, I got in to my hotel and eventually got to bed, completely exhausted.  I’m starting to wear thin – I’m quite tired, but still trying to make the most of the time I have so I’ve been getting up reasonably early.  Getting into the hotel at 11:30 Alaska Time, 12:30 Pacific, after another early morning was enough to leave me wiped.  I got through the next day fine but as I write this it’s barely 9:30 and I’m ready for bed already – fortunately I have some free time before checking into the ferry so will likely use it to sleep in.

But back to Juneau.  I got up Saturday morning and headed straight for Mendenhall Glacier.  The TomTom GPS app is still being funny – it’s missing a number of major attractions as destinations (like, the Mendenhall Glacier / Information Center), and for some reason does not seem to understand the difference between right and left.  Virtually all street numbers are, in its system, transposed to the opposite side of the street.  Since I don’t have data in the US (another rant for another time – AT&T changed its data plans after I preloaded a lot of money onto a GoPhone card late last year), and didn’t have a local map until part way through the day, I was lucky to figure things out.

I did eventually find the Mendenhall Glacier, and there was virtually no one there, which was rather nice as the facilities are clearly built to accommodate large numbers.  As I stood eating the breakfast I took with me from the hotel, I saw a bald eagle fly by.  I was approached by a park ranger who thanked me for putting my wrapper in the garbage (I never got to ask what she expected me to do with it if I hadn’t put it there).  She was so friendly and gave me lots of suggestions for what to do with my morning there.

Armed with this information, I headed up towards the information centre, opted not to go in (there was a fee, and I didn’t really need another museum on how glaciers work), and then headed out to Photo Point which is marked as the closest access to the glacier – this is not actually true.  I backtracked slightly and then followed the Nugget Creek Trail, which leads to a very prominent waterfall just to the right of the glacier, and puts you right on the lake formed by the glacier, and much closer to the glacier itself.  Thanks to the friendly ranger I encountered for this tip.

The site itself is beautiful – you don’t get to go on the glacier like you do with the Athabasca Glaicer in Alberta, but this is partly due to the fact that the glacier itself has a large lake beneath it.  Like the Athabasca Glacier, however, Mendenhall is receding rapidly – most of the tourist site is built on land that was fully covered by the Glacier in 1950.  There were large icebergs floating in the lake that had broken off the glacier itself and, as I mentioned, a large waterfall to the one side.  The glacier shines a blue-ish colour and the lake has various birds swimming around in it. The walk to the waterfall is worth it – about 45 minutes return, including some photo stops – and really puts you into the middle of all of it.

Next stop was the Alaska State Museum, which had a fascinating (temporary) exhibit on Alaska’s participation in World War II.  I knew about attacks on US soil at Pearl Harbor, but for some reason I had no idea that the Japanese had at one point captured some of the Aleutian Islands.  It was quite a learning experience and had so much interesting history.  Much of the rest of the museum had anthropological history – starting with the First Nations, of which there are many within Alaska’s large land mass… though the exhibit was rather dated as maps showing traditional territories imposed on today’s borders still referred to “USSR” and “Commonwealth of Independent States,” and the First Nations people were often referred to as “Indians” and the Inuit referred to as “Eskimos.”  It also covered the 1867 purchase of Alaska from the Russians (which was, in part, to strengthen resistance against the British and the newly-formed Canada), and some more modern history.  The other temporary exhibit was a series of works by an artist who created an imaginary history of Alaska based on some common themes in the official records – I laughed out loud (which is a bit awkward to do in a museum) at the painting of knotted rope falling from the sky to represent 50-knot winds.

From here I headed downtown – and discovered, despite no mention of this in any of the tour guides I looked at, a collection of Art Deco buildings that easily rivalled Napier, New Zealand.  The buildings are not all as well maintained, and some are in better shape than others, but I just kept walking around town gasping at every new corner I turned!  Those who know me know I absolutely love Art Deco architecture, so this was a most pleasant surprise.  Interestingly, a number of newer buildings have taken some direction from the Art Deco buildings in town, forming what I can only describe as “faux-frontier-deco” and “Victorian-Deco” styles – interesting twists.

After I caught my breath from all this beauty, I grabbed a quick lunch at a café (yet another one that served almond milk!) and then set about wandering the downtown grid just to see all these wonderful buildings.  The Capitol building was most notable – primarily Art Deco with hints of Beaux-Arts, it’s just such a striking building.  I just wandered and took pictures (and popped into a couple shops along the way) for most of the day.  I had planned to take the “tramway” (which is actually an oversized-gondola-lift) ride, but it was very overcast all day so I passed on it.  Had a delicious Mexican meal on Franklin Street, and then headed back to the hotel to do laundry.

Sunday, I get back on the ferry for the two-day (internet-less) journey to Prince Rupert on my way home – I can’t believe this journey is almost over!

As always, a small selection of photos are on Flickr, with hundreds more to come when I get home!  Now in two sets: Part 1 and Part 2.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Traveleish on 2012/09/24 at 1:32 am

    Hi Neal, love the descriptions. Glad I subscribed to your blog feed so thatI don’t miss out on your blog posts (and, bonus, I can read them through email).

    Reply

  2. […] Friday morning I checked out of my hotel in Whitehorse, grabbed a coffee, filled up on gas, replaced the terribly-streaking windshield wipers, and headed to Miles Canyon. It was very beautiful and I'm glad I went, but there was …  […]

    Reply

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