Alaska Trip Memories

We had fully intended to keep a journal of our driving trip to Alaska. Our New Zealand 2010 blog has been a wonderful way to preserve memories and organize photos. With a little perseverance, I think we just may be able to think back and create something similar for the Summer of 2009.

Entering Alaska from Canada on the ALCAN Highway

Be sure to read the oldest post(s) first and then click on Newer post link at the bottom left of the post you're reading. Or use the Blog Archive links in the right column to find the chronology of the posts.

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Hope you enjoy!

Susan & Mike

Back Home and Final Thoughts

After Banff the trip began to feel almost like going downhill. Anticlimactic. We spent a night in Billings again and then drove straight home. Montana and Wyoming are beautiful, but the landscape was almost prosaic after the astonishing scenery we had in our rear-view mirror.

It felt good to be back in Colorado and we had a lot to catch up on. Our new car wasn't so new any more. There was lots of dirt and gravel and mud and sand and tar to remove, but we smiled as we remembered where we picked it all up.

What a summer we had! The entire journey took just about 7 weeks from start to finish and covered about 9,500 miles. This was the longest road trip either of us had ever taken and the time just flew by. There are too many firsts and bests to try to list here. The trip just felt "once-in-a-lifetime" even though we've had other similarly epic "road trips" since then (like New Zealand) and we plan to have more.

Alaska is Big! (image source: Wikipedia)

One of the most interesting lessons learned was about mountains. We expected a lot of big mountain ranges and peaks, since we were traveling to and through the northern Canadian Rockies, and we knew that Denali, at 20,328 ft was the highest peak in North America. But we soon had our eyes opened to the mountains beyond the Colorado Rockies. Colorado is beautiful but the Canadian Rockies and the mountains of Alaska are gloriously, stupendously big and just never seem to end. By the end of the trip we were somewhat embarrassed to admit that we had become a little snobbish about our local mountains. Not any more!

Denali (aka Mt McKinley), 20,328'

We also now realize that even 7 weeks can't do Alaska (and Canada) justice. A full 2-3 weeks was just getting there and making transitions between places! There is so much to see, so much ground to cover, so many hikes to do. We went as far and as deep as we could, and it was very exciting and satisfying, but we still often felt we had only scratched the surface. During the trip we kept saying, "we've got to come back here!"

Some of our favorite places were the Al-Can Highway, Banff/Jasper, Yukon Territory, Fairbanks, Denali National Park and Preserve, Turnagain Arm, the Kenai Peninsula, Chitina/Wrangell-St Elias NP, Haines, Glacier Bay NP, Junuea, the Inside Passage -- uh, wait -- that's pretty much everything we did! :-)

One really enjoyable aspect of our journey was the people along the way. We found Canadians to be exceptionally friendly and efficient, with none of the "attitude" you sometimes see from demotivated employees and people when traveling in the U.S. Alaskans were also very helpful and friendly and seemed welcoming of us as tourists.

We have always been enthusiastic observers of nature and wildlife, and Alaska and Canada definitely did not disappoint! But we view our Alaskan adventure as the genesis of our interest in birdwatching, mostly because of Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes, puffins, and a handful of other interesting birds we saw.

This adventure also renewed our interest in photography and trying to capture those awe-inspiring views and moments not only for our memories, but to share our experience with family and friends. And of course, with more photography experience and better gear, we're already thinking of what we need to re-shoot.

What did we miss? Next time we'd place a high priority on Katmai, Kodiak Island, the road to Prudhoe Bay, and we'd love to return to Haines. We'd probably take another flight-seeing trip, perhaps to Nome or in conjunction with Prudhoe Bay and/or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. We're even considering a cruise ship experience in the Inside Passage. And on our next trip, bird-watching will undoubtedly be a major priority in planning.

And although this blog was reconstructed 2-3 years after the trip, much of the trip is surprisingly fresh in our minds. Thanks to Susan, we began blogging our New Zealand trip, and liked the result so much that we knew we had to put out the effort to document Alaska, too. And we're glad we did.

Where to next? :-)

Mt Robson, Jasper and Banff (July 21-23)

Mt. Robson Provincial Park was beautiful, with considerably less crowds than the nearby National Parks.

We spent the morning enjoying the views but decided not to hike since there were no accommodations in the Park and the hikes were long. If we ever get into camping and backpacking, we must do the hike to Berg Lake along the Valley of a Thousand Falls.

Jasper National Park was next and this time we had a sunny day to appreciate it! We drove out to Maligne Lake, stopping first to hike all 6 bridges and take in the rushing waterfalls of Maligne Canyon.

Maligne Canyon hike

On the way back we stopped at Medicine Lake, which interestingly drains by an underground river system.

Medicine Lake on the Maligne Valley road in Jasper NP

Back in Jasper, we stayed at the Sawridge Inn again and had another good experience there. On the morning of July 22nd, we said goodbye to the Yellowhead Highway and headed south on Hwy 93 towards Banff.

We didn't get very far before turning off to see Mount Edith Cavell and the Angel Glacier. This is a stop not to be missed and easily worth the hike out to the glacier lake with closer views of the jagged mountain, named for a British nurse who helped allied soldiers in WWI escape to the Netherlands from occupied Belgium. Edith Cavell was executed by the Germans.

Mt Edith Cavell in Jasper NP

Mike at the glacial Lake below Angel Glacier and waterfall on Mt Edith Cavell

Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls was our next stop, right off of the highway, followed by Sumwapta Falls. We'll have to look into rafting next time.

Along the road through Jasper to Banff we stopped to observe Bighorn Sheep on the road.

Bighorn Sheep along the road

Scenery along Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Banff

With so much to see, along the way, we didn't make it to the Icefields Parkway until late in the afternoon. Not wanting to rush this final leg of our trip, we splurged (although they did give us a discount) and stayed at the Glacier View Inn where we had a view of the Athabasca Glacier from our room.

View of the Athabasca Glacier from our Glacier View Inn room

The massive Athabasca Glacier

Thought it was late, after we checked into our room, we hiked closer to the tongue of the Athabasca Glacier and got to enjoy some evening light on the surrounding mountains.

There was a glacier bus tour the next morning we could've taken but we elected to move along.

Stunning views abounded all the way down to Lake Louise Thursday morning. We had lunch at the Chateau Lake Louise patio and started talking about what to do next.

A typical view in Banff NP

A black bear observed from the road
Susan enjoying the poppies near our lunch spot at Lake Louise

There is so much to see in Jasper and Banff, and we had been on the go so much, we hadn't scratched the surface of hiking. But we started to feel home calling. Southern British Columbia seemed quite close, after being so much further norther. So we agreed we'd come back here another time, and stay longer.

We took a last look around, got back in the car and headed home. Only 1200 miles to go!

Panorama of Peyto Lake in Banff NP

Here's a map of our route for this leg of the trip, from McBride, BC to Banff.

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Yellowhead Highway 16 (July 19-20)

Totems in Gitwangak village
We were winging it all the way home now, with no set itinerary or reservations. After leaving the MV Malaspina, we drove the Yellowhead Highway (Canada 16) along the Skeena River from Prince Rupert, BC to Terrace, BC where we stayed at the Best Western Plus Terrace Inn.

This area is home to the rare white Kermodei Bears (locally the name was always spelled with the final "i"), known as Spirit Bears by the native peoples. A good article on the bears appeared in National Geographic in August 2011.

The next morning, just past the Seven Sisters Mountain Range, we stopped at the tiny native village of Gitwangak to see a collection of historic totem poles. The totems have been moved over the years to avoid flooding, but they are the largest totem collection in their original village anywhere in British Columbia.

As we drove around the village photographing more carvings in peoples' yards, wondering if it was appropriate to do so, a truck pulled up. A local gentleman got out and approached our car window. Apologizing in case he had startled us, he explained that he was a local Chief and was curious to know why were were there. Not because he had a problem with us being there, but rather because he wanted to find a way to draw more visitors, and thus bring more income, to the village. We didn't fully understand the situation, but it has something to do with the BC government not allowing the native tribes to advertise.

Gitwangak village and totem

Recently I found this blog post about the Gitwangak band. Scroll to the bottom for more information about the individual totems we saw.

We drove the rest of the day straight through, staying in McBride, BC that night, just an hour west of Mt Robson Provincial Park.

The road to McBride, BC, Canada

Here's a map of this segment of the trip, from Prince Rupert to McBride, BC.

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Inside Passage (July 17-19)

When we left for Alaska 6 weeks ago we didn't really think past driving the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks and seeing Denali, much less consider our route home.

Our digs on the MV Malaspina
While driving up, we thought we might return via the Top of the World Highway through Chicken and Dawson City, then on to Faro, with its rare Fannin Sheep. But we'd covered a lot of miles by car, and traveling the Inside Passage on the Alaska Marine Highway System would allow us to make some southbound progress without Mike having to be behind the wheel of the car.

We studied the schedules and routes and found that we could cruise at a discounted rate if we exited at Prince Rupert, BC instead of going all the way to Bellingham, WA. Plus that route would allow us to see new areas in the interior of British Columbia. We had a plan! We booked a berth with double bunks for two nights, and of course a space for our car.

Always something to see from the deck

Solarium on the Malaspina; backpackers were allowed to sleep here

Although not fancy, we found the MV Malaspina to be clean and comfortable. It had a nice little restaurant, solarium and up front in an enclosed area were comfortable chairs where we could enjoy the view and listen to the occasional naturalist talk. All sort of people were aboard, from backpacking tourists to a group of Sitka high school football players returning home from a game. Everything about our trip ran smoothly and we wouldn't hesitate to travel the Alaska Marine Highway again.

Mike on the deck reading Michener's "Alaska"

We cruised to Sitka, Kake, Petersburg, through the narrows to Wrangell, and Ketchikan before leaving Alaska and docking at Prince Rupert. Our trip was a through cruise, which didn't include time to get off and look around at these places any for any longer than it took to let passengers get on and off. But I did manage to convince Mike to run off the ship at Petersburg, in the rain, just to set foot briefly on the ground. We missed seeing Ketchikan because we stopped there after dark -- wait a minute -- it was actually getting DARK!

A rainy stop at Petersburg

Susan out on the deck looking for whales

The weather could have been better, but that didn't spoil absolutely the best part of the trip -- whale watching. From orcas to humpback whales, we couldn't get enough of it.

We saw a pod of perhaps a dozen humpback whales nearby

Humpback whales diving

Late in the afternoon of our third day at sea, rested and 4 degrees of latitude closer to home, we drove off the MV Malaspina and headed east.

Here are the main stops on the Alaska Marine Highway System between Juneau and Prince Rupert, BC, Canada:

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