Doug Grosjean's
Alaska Trip Report

June 1999

 
Day 10; Monday, June 7th, 1999
Start: Alaska Ferry, 4th day; Disembark at Haines, Alaska
End: Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada
254 Miles


Another great morning, our last day aboard the ship and everything seems different somehow, now that the end of the ferry ride is near. The atmosphere is changed, there's relief and also new excitement.

Each morning aboard ship, the sun comes up earlier and earlier, as the days get longer and longer at each end. It's impossible not to realize that we're really a long, long, long way from home.

One of the ranger talks today is about geology in Alaska, and the ice age. As you look at the mountains along the coast, some are soft and rounded like in the east, while right next to them are taller jagged mountains. The ranger explains that the glaciers traveled over the mountains, completely covering them and smoothing them. The jagged peaks were taller and were not covered by the glaciers, according to the theory, so they remain relatively unchanged at the top. It's also mentioned that the latest theories on the Ice Age are that it didn't come or go gradually, but suddenly, possibly in the space of a single person’s lifetime. Very sobering, against our current backdrop of La Nina and the weather changes that have accompanied it.

The ship makes a 2 hour stop in Juneau, the capital of Alaska; the only state capital not accessible by road. Jean and I go ashore together to see the sights during our layover. There's a tour bus in the parking lot of the ferry terminal, and for $10 we're off to see the Mendenhall Glacier and the other sights of Juneau.

The bus ride is actually very entertaining, as the driver points out the elementary school with the barbed-wire fence (looks like a jail, put up after a bear wandered in one summer day), bald eagles perched in trees at various locations in and out of the city, historic buildings, whatever. He reminds me of "Bill Nye, the Science Guy" as his conversation just zooms along - listen close or you'll miss a bunch!

My own favorite: "Bill" telling about a winded out-of-shape tourist complaining about the altitude in Juneau. When "Bill" explained to her that Juneau is at sea level, she angrily corrects him, pointing out that if they were at sea level they wouldn't have all the snow on the mountains, and that it's the altitude that's bothering her - she knows altitude!

"Bill" drops us off at the parking lot for the glacier, and points out the footpath that leads to the viewing area. But before he lets us hike off, he gathers us all in a group, young and old, and asks the following question in a very loud voice:

"Anyone here know the difference between a ferry passenger and a hitchhiker?"

Then a looooong pause.....

"ONE MINUTE!!

People!!
You have 15 minutes to view the glacier and return to the bus! Do not be late getting back to the bus!! I don't mean to be cruel - but we cannot and will not wait for anybody that's late..!”

I set the alarm on my watch for 14 minutes, and also note the time.

Jean and I walk up to the viewing area, take pictures and read the plaques about the glacier. The glacier ice is robin's egg blue, and in the pond below the glacier there are small icebergs, garage size, floating in the gray water. The water is gray from the ground-up granite in the melting glacier water; lots of the streams here are full of gray water.

Mendenhall Glacier
Juneau, Alaska
And the smell of Alaska! One of the rangers had talked about the smell of Alaska, how sweet and special it was - now I understand. The woods of the Alaska coast smell of pine, ferns, rotting wood, fresh plowed earth, rain, moss, maybe a dash of ocean - a fantastic mix of flavors, very intense, very aromatic, and delicious!

We get back to the bus on time, but the bus is 5 minutes late back to the ship. No big deal, apparently, we make it aboard, showing our ticket stubs to the gate attendant as we walk quickly aboard. Whew! With no roads in or out, being stranded in Juneau while my gear sails on to Haines would be very messy.

It's just a few hours from Juneau to Haines, and they go by much too quickly.

Joe and I pack up our sleeping bags, Thermarest pads, etc; and wait as the ship sails up the fjord to Haines. Everyone else is doing likewise, if they didn't do it first thing this morning.

When the ship arrives at Haines, Alaska; Joe and I go below to the car deck. We're scrambling to untie the bikes, attach our luggage, and be on our way. The scene is just the opposite of the scene at Bellingham, with semi-trucks and RVs trying to get out, directed by the deckhands.

Debarking,
Haines, Alaska
And then we're free! It's a beautiful, cloudless day as we ride our bikes down the ramp out of the ship, no helmets as we motor down the ramp, looking at the forest and parking lot and down through the grate of the ramp at the water below, smelling Alaska again.

We stop in the parking lot to check things over before getting on the road, and Jean is laying down, sunning herself on a section of the dock - damn! I really hate to be going! We say goodbye, again, and I leave her there relaxing in the sun.

Joe and I suit up and head out of the ferry terminal parking lot, north along the ocean and into Haines, Alaska.

Joe and I ride along the shoreline into the town of Haines, Alaska; the day is beautiful, the air smells good, and we're finally in Alaska.

I expect Haines to be a large town, since it is a ferry boat stop. Bzzzt! Wrong...! Haines is actually a pretty small town, I'd guess just a few thousand population max. There's a main business district with some bars, a hardware store, a bank, the basic necessities and that's about it.

Joe and I park on the main drag, I want to exchange some of my American money for Canadian - but the people in the bank have very little Canadian money to exchange, and the woman at the bank recommends that I make the exchange in Canada. Odd..... Eventually, I end up with a few hundred Canadian dollars in my wallet, and then I ride around town a bit to try to locate the Internet access that I saw mentioned in a local newspaper aboard the ship.

I find the copy shop that had net access, and they refer me to a little combination carry-out, bar-n-grill, Internet cafe. For a small fee, I check my mail, send a note home to my wife and son to let them know the ferry boat has delivered me safely to Alaska, and then it's back to the main drag to meet up with Joe.

We head out of town on the only highway that goes out of town, the Haines Highway, and almost immediately we run into construction on the US side of the border. Construction on and off, and at one point there is no road, and traffic is routed down an embankment that has been bladed smooth and onto a wide dirt path that parallels the roadbed. No big deal, at least in the dry.

Eventually, the construction ends and we are at the US-Canadian border, about 40 miles out of Haines. I'm expecting a large modern border crossing facility, like the crossing back home between Detroit and Windsor.

Reality is somewhat different - the border crossing is just a small building. There's a house out back. There's no gate, just a sign that says pull over, or words to that effect. What a friendly border!

We pull over, and a matronly middle-aged woman comes out and asks us for our ID, takes it, and then the phone rings. Saying she'll be right back, she goes into the building to take the phone call, and we wait. And wait. And wait. The birds are singing, the sun is shining, a light breeze is rustling the trees, and we wait some more. There's no car behind us, and no hurry, but after about 15 minutes it's a little bit annoying.

She gets off the phone, asks us some standard questions about our trip and length of our stay in Canada, and then gives us our ID and says we're free to go. I laugh a little, and tell her that the people back home will never believe this. She asks why, and I tell her that the Detroit-Windsor crossing must have 20 lanes, and answering the phone is the job of the secretary.

The customs agent gets a very serious look on her face, and explains to me in great detail that that is the official business phone, and that it rarely rings, but that when it does it's very, very important, and that the reason that it rang this time was to give her information on child kidnapping, and that when it rings she must answer it. She takes about 5 minutes to explain all this to us, and I end up feeling a little embarrassed at maybe being so shallow, and at expecting big-city things here in the far north.

And then we're in British Columbia, and shortly after we enter Kluane Provincial Park.

Kluane is incredible! The road climbs up to what seems like a very high elevation due to the heavy snowpack, but in reality it's only about 4,000 feet high, it's just we're so far north. Logically enough, as you travel north the snowline just keeps getting lower, and lower, and lower. The snowpack along the road is measured in feet, we both have our electrics on, and it's just endless vistas of mountains, snow, and more snow.

We stop at a scenic pullout in the park, and Joe tells me he can't believe that I'd even ask something like that at a border crossing! I was just curious, and figured that since she'd already cleared us it'd be OK.

We come down out of Kluane and enter the Yukon Territory. Then at Haines Junction we head east on the Alaskan Highway. It reminds me of when you meet someone famous, and in person they're shorter than you expected. Actually a very nice road, about like one of the county roads back home, some gravel spots where the road crews have been doing maintenance, and smooth chip-sealed pavement. Joe and I are able to run along about 70 mph comfortably.

Tahkinni Hot Springs Campground
Tahkinni Hot Springs Campground
The scenery is pleasant, large snow-peaked mountains in the distance but rather open and just rolling hills where the road goes through. We get to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory; and I remember reading about Tahkinni Hot Springs, and a campground there, so off we go. The campground is located a bit west and north of Whitehorse, about 6 miles down a small road, off the main road to Dawson City, and so we camp there.

Nice enough campground, but it's about 10:00 PM and the hot springs pool is closing.... shucks! We set up our tents, cook something to eat on our campstoves, write postcards home, that sort of thing.

Joe is the perfect traveling companion, able to provide good conversation or lots of space, whichever the case may be. Tonight we talk a little bit over our supper, and then just sort of keep to ourselves, which is fine. It's been a great day, with lots of excitement about finally riding in the far north, and a little bit of solitude is nice now.

At 11:00 PM, it's still very light out, and the family in the next campsite is getting ready to go for a bicycle ride. At 11:30 PM, they're back from the ride - and they start grilling hot dogs! For some reason, this strikes me as absolutely hilarious! I chuckle at the thought, and then I get in my tent and go to sleep.


Doug Grosjean
Pemberville, Ohio