My recent trip to Alaska was a Transportation Vacation. After a two-hour drive to the airport, it took three flights and all day to cross the continent and then north.
Once in Alaska, I traveled by plane, boat and by foot.
I flew in a plane the size of a mosquito when a ferry was sold out. Mostly, I traveled by ferry, also known as the Alaskan Marine Highway. I sailed from Juneau to Haines, to Skagway and to Tenakee Springs – about 500 miles, all told.
And I hiked in each locale as well as from Dyea to Canada on the Chilkoot Trail. I returned to the US on the White Pass & Yukon Route, a narrow gauge railroad that was by far the most frightening part of the whole trip. It made the human-powered tram across the Cowie Creek seem like a lark in the rain despite the swirling water just below. [Click for a video: 4QR1h2tHSa+MYGxuY5JsWg]
I hardly spent time in a car. I didn’t have to.
The trip began in Juneau, located in what Alaskans call “Southeast,” the watery coast attached to North America along the western edge of British Columbia. The rest of Alaska borders the Yukon Territory, and many parts of Alaska aren’t attached to the continent at all. In addition to its giant landmass, Alaska includes over 2,600 islands.
Juneau itself is not on an island, but it might as well be. As several people told me, there are only three ways to get to Juneau: by plane, boat and birth canal. That’s because there are few roads in Juneau, and none that will get you out. Juneau’s main drag, the Glacier
Highway, extends north from downtown for forty miles – and ends.
Once we landed, the only time we spent in a car was driving the eight miles to and from the airport and thirteen miles to and from the Auke Bay to catch the ferry. Because there’s only one road, we stopped for groceries whenever we were going somewhere else, either to board a boat or reach a trailhead.
We didn’t take the Mount Roberts Tramway from the waterfront. We hiked up – and beyond – to above tree line. We had fabulous views of the city below from one side of the trail, and of the Alaskan wilderness on the other.
The Alaskan wilderness is nothing short of astonishing, both for its vastness and its beauty. Snow covers the knife-edged mountains even in July, and wildlife abounds. Bald eagles are as common downtown as robins on my lawn.
We saw three black bears “out the road” as the end of the Glacier Highway is called, and lots of bear scat on the Chilkoot and in Tenakee – but no actual brown bears. In addition, we caught halibut and flounder, and we roasted venison over a bonfire, ingesting food foraged from both land and sea.
My Carbon Footprint
For all the beauty of the place, I was always aware of my carbon imprint on this fragile landscape, where the Mendenhall Glacier’s recession is an alarming testament to climate change. It didn’t particularly make me feel better that I wasn’t a passenger on one of the behemoth cruise ships that each disgorge four- to five- thousand passengers a day to take sight-seeing excursions by helicopter and float plane from port.
Everything I did and saw during my Transportation Vacation left me with awe and respect for the Tlingit, the indigenous “People of the Tides” who inhabited this part of the Pacific Northwest for millennia with a nearly invisible footprint, especially compared to the deep tracks we leave with the heavy carbon boots we newcomers wear.
This is the first in a series of essays about my travels in Alaska in the summer of 2018. Coming up: a post by a homesteader who lives lightly on the land and commutes on foot through bear country. Also look for posts about Hiking the Chilkoot; skinny-dipping in Naked Man Lake; charismatic mega-fauna, a visit with the past mayor of Haines, and whatever else comes to mind.
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