Dispatch, Alaska: Taking the road less traveled

Alaska Dispatch series

Johanna in AlaskaCruise Editor Johanna Jainchill has embarked on a land-cruise tour of Alaska and the Yukon territory. She will be filing dispatches detailing her adventures there.

DISPATCH 1: On the third day of my trip, I was determined not to sit.

I had spent two full days almost entirely on my rear end, along with the rest of the Holland America Line tour group, on a motorcoach rolling through the dusty, gravel-packed roads of Alaska's eastern interior, en route to the Yukon territory.

When we finally arrived in Dawson City, we had one free day to spend on our feet, before embarking on another eight-hour ride to points further into the Yukon.

Such is life during a land tour of Alaska and the Yukon. This area is massive -- Alaska itself is more than twice the size of Texas. So getting anywhere takes time and a willingness to appreciate astounding views from a window seat.

My HAL tour began two days before arriving here, in Fairbanks, Alaska. Most of my group had already been traveling for four days, visiting Anchorage and Denali National Park. For many of them, the tour began or will end with a Holland America Line cruise.

Alaska-PanningForGold2HAL has invested a great deal into being the tour company of the Gold Rush route, the leg of the trip that I joined. The Gold Rush route begins in Fairbanks and crosses the border into Canada's Yukon territory. 

HAL's mark is all over the route. In Fairbanks, we panned for gold at a site where HAL purchased and restored a massive gold dredge -- a literal gold digger that tore up much of Alaska and the Yukon in the early half of the 20th century. The next day we were on the Yukon Queen II, a HAL-owned riverboat that took us down the 100-mile stretch of the Yukon River into Dawson City.

HAL's Westmark hotels dot the path, even in places unlikely to have a hotel, such as two-road Tok, Alaska. We stayed there the night before we crossed the border into Canada.

Since HAL is the only company running tours here, their motorcoaches have become transporters of goods for some towns, like Chicken, a former Alaska gold mining town with a population of less than 100. The coach stops in Chicken for coffee and fresh baked goods from the Chicken Creek Cafe.

Besides the aforementioned Yukon Queen, most of our waking hours are spent on motorcoaches, so HAL put some money into a new fleet that entered service last year. They are very comfortable as far as buses go, with leather seats and what HAL calls legroom the equivalent of a first-class domestic flight. But it's still tough to sit for eight hours no matter how comfortable the seats are.

That's what we did on day two, beginning at 6 a.m. We left Tok, beginning a 160-mile ride to Eagle, Alaska, where we would board a Yukon river boat. Kurt, our driver extraordinaire from Michigan, let us stretch our legs at places where the view was too good to pass up. We had clear, sunny days with the snow-capped Alaska Range in view as we passed miles and AlaskaRange2miles of rivers and forests, many of them still clogged with patches of breaking ice.

Most of the trip to Eagle was spent on the winding Taylor Highway. The word "highway" is a stretch since this narrow road is made of gravel. The Taylor begins where the famed Alaska Highway ends, and HAL is the only tour company that dares traverse it. The road has several drop-offs of many hundreds of feet, and several riders had the white knuckles to prove it.

Our coach was escorted by a local whose pickup truck had a sign on top of it that said "Two Buses Ahead," as there really isn't room on the road for a bus and car.

But the road was so empty that Kurt and Rachel, our tour guide up for the summer from Mississippi, started a game where we all put in $1 and waged guesses on how many cars we would see on the way to Eagle.

The winner guessed eight.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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