Dallas and I were able to take advantage of a deal on a rental car to drive from Skagway to Anchorage, from where we found cheap flights to Seattle. Since it’s so hard to get to Alaska, we figured we should explore some more of the state before leaving entirely. We left Skagway on a Wednesday and made stops in Carcross and Whitehorse before heading Northwest on the ALCAN. Once over the White Pass summit and into Canada, we enjoyed clear skies and roads lined with trees of autumn colors, ranging from dark green to bright yellow and orange. The Yukon is SO beautiful, but that first night of camping was FREEZING!
We drove on through places with names like Destruction Bay and Beaver Creek, and then crossed back into Alaska on Thursday afternoon, stopping in Tok and North Pole en route to Fairbanks. We were never far from a picturesque view of mountains, most of which were topped with snow. It actually started snowing on us while passing through Tok. In Fairbanks, Dallas surprised me and splurged on a hotel so we could sleep well in a warm bed. I had offered numerous times to drive, but he insisted on staying behind the wheel.
We took off from Fairbanks relatively early on Friday morning. Both of us had developed an aversion to big cities after living in Skagway all summer, and we were eager to continue on through this one. The day was mainly cloudy, and the enormous mountains surrounding us were mostly invisible. We really wanted to see Denali, but the road is usually only open to personal vehicle for the first 15 miles. A few days ago, they had opened the road up as far as mile 30 (weather dependent). We were fortunate enough to drive twice as far than most tourists who visit during the height of the summer season. Adding to our good fortune, the sun started peaking out in the distance behind the mountains as we neared the 30-mile mark. We paused at this lookout spot to eat some crackers with tuna and avocado, and by the time we were ready to move on the whole sky had transformed to clear blue, and all of the clouds were gone. At every moment on the way up the road, we were both stopping constantly to take photos. On the way down it was even more awe-inspiring.
The only thing both of us would change next time we visit Denali is our mode of transportation. It was warm and effortless to drive through, but it would have been so much better had we been on bicycles. Throughout our road trip we had to make frequent stops to get out and stretch our legs, run around scenic overlooks, do pushups, yoga, etc. On a bicycle we wouldn’t feel the need to stop to move our bodies, and we could take in all the beautiful scenery without a pane of glass separating us from all of this beauty and fresh air. Another benefit to being on a bike is that we would be permitted to ride the entire 92-mile road through Denali National Park, and not just 15 or 30 miles. The only other option to get that far into the park would be from the seat of a tan-colored school bus filled with other tourists.
Continuing south from Denali as the sun disappeared behind the mountains, we saw two moose playing in one of the creeks off the highway. Eventually, we made our way to Talkeetna, a small town best known for being the launching spot for climbers wishing to summit Mt. McKinley. The only place that was open was the Fairview Inn – an historic pub with accommodations on the second floor. The room we were given was filled with nothing but a bed, dresser, and noise from the bar downstairs, but the price was right. Dallas and I each enjoyed a beer from the Denali Brewing Company (located next door to the Fairview Inn) before heading upstairs to our room and falling sound asleep before last call.
On Saturday, we walked around Talkeetna, sampling coffee and baked goods from several cafes before heading towards Anchorage. We only stopped briefly in Anchorage to have sushi at Ronnie’s at the recommendation of Alex, a native Alaskan who I had worked with at Columbia in Portland. The rolls were so big, we took enough sushi with us for dinner later that night. Also at Alex’s suggestion, we continued on to Homer, instead of Seward, to where we had originally considered driving. Both towns are at the end of opposite roads on the Kenai Peninsula. Shortly after the sun went down it started drizzling, and we decided to stop and pitch our tent at a campground in Ninilchik. Our luck came through again when we woke up on Sunday morning to clear blue skies.
The drive out to Homer was beautiful, with mountain views on the other side of the bay. It was amazing how green the trees still were down here, while they were all yellow and orange up in Fairbanks and the Yukon. We were able to run 5 or 6 miles along the Homestead Trail after lounging at one of the only cafes still open for the winter season.
To be honest, the Homestead Trail left for much to be desired. The parking area was across the street and a block away from where we entered the trail. No big deal, once we found the trail. However, we were running up to our eyeballs in a field of fireweed that had turned to cotton, getting white bits of the plant all over our black shirts. Still, not that much of a problem. But the long grass around the trail covered up the surface, which was muddy and full of divots. Not being able to see our footing, I feared that I would twist an ankle or slip in the mud. Our fears grew worse when we accidentally stumbled upon the bottom half of what appeared to be a horse’s front leg. It looked like the leg had been sawn clean off right below the first joint. In addition to all this, the trail was inconsistent and very ambiguous. There were forks, dead ends, clearings (one of which we interrupted a steamy rendezvous between two ATVers), and eventually we had to take a road for quite a distance to get back to the car. None of our issues with Homestead seemed to bother the two big dogs who took joy in chasing us down parts of the trail, romping carefree circles around us through the muck before disappearing amongst the fireweed.
Any chance we got to move around in between long hours of sitting in the car felt great, and the weather could not have been better for us this time. We had to return the car the next morning, so we couldn’t spend the night on the Kenai. As we drove back up to Anchorage, the setting sun lit the sky behind us with shades of pink and orange. It started raining and snowing as we drove North into the darkness.
We totalled over 1600 miles on our Alaskan road trip adventure, yet we still covered less than half of the state. We could have driven more than halfway across the continental US. Another thing I find interesting is that Rhode Island, being the smallest state in the US, has more residents than Alaska. It is such a vast and wild land, empty when it comes to people, but so full of wildlife, mountains, trees, plants, water, and beauty.
Dallas and I decided to extend our stay in Skagway by two weeks, so we could run in the Klondike Road Relay, take advantage of an extra pay period, and of course spend a little more time with the wonderful friends we made while living there. Working as a bike guide could be terrifying at times – trusting cruise ship vacationers to navigate themselves down the White Pass on mountain bikes may be less physically demanding, but is much more stressful than pulling people around in a pedicab. If I work as a bike guide again, I hope the clientele are limited to experienced cyclists who are physically and mentally prepared to do multi-day bicycle touring. Still, this job was a worthwhile and enjoyable experience.
I have never lived with such close access to trails where I could lose myself in nature so easily. Just a 5 minute walk from home could take me to the Dewey Lake trail system, where there are miles of hiking trails. We were also just a 65 mile drive (or bike ride) from Carcross, in the Yukon, where it is always sunny and there are numerous mountain biking trails on Montana Mountain.
From what we were able to forage locally, we made things like dandelion salad, fireweed syrup, blueberry crisp, cranberry-poppy seed muffins, rose water (which I used to make baklava), and cottonwood oil/salve. I only wish I could have finished bottling the cottonwood oil and salve before the last farmer’s market. Cottonwood oil has medicinal properties and can be used as an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-microbial. As a massage oil, it can be used to ease sore muscles or joints, and it can also be used to heal chapped or scraped skin. If anyone would like to buy one, I will send you a 1oz bottle of oil for $12 or 2oz jar of salve for $15 – just e-mail me or leave a comment on this post.
Looking back at our time in Skagway, both of us are very glad that we decided to spend our summer there. We were able to make great new friends, occupy our free time with a variety of outdoor activities including hiking, running and mountain biking, and we learned so much about the environment and history of the area. Hopefully our friendships will continue far beyond this summer, and we will be able to carry what we learned to whatever awaits us in our next adventure.
The Klondike Road Relay is a running race that runs from Skagway to Whitehorse during the first weekend of September. It started on a Friday evening, and our team ran all night up the Klondike Highway before crossing the finish line, 110 miles later, in downtown Whitehorse Saturday afternoon. Our friend Jaime connected us to the National Park Service team, where I ran leg 8 and Dallas ran leg 10 (the anchor leg). Each leg was anywhere from 7 or 8 miles to 16 miles long. The first two legs run up the White Pass (the reverse of our Sockeye Cycle Klondike bike tours), gaining 3292 feet of elevation in less than 15 miles. Dallas and I each ran between 12 and 13 miles for our respective legs. Our team was able to knock off more than forty minutes from their previous year’s time!
Training started on May 1st, and for the first week or so, all of us learned an incredible amount about Skagway, Coastal Temperate Rainforests, local flora and fauna, and glaciers, among other things. When we weren’t actively training to be bicycle tour guides, we were participating in other activities aimed at welcoming and orienting us for our first summer in Skagway. We went camping in Dyea, a town that began as a small summer fishing camp for the local Tlingits, boomed to about 20,000 people at the height of the gold rush, and then became a ghost town shortly after completion of construction of the railroad from Skagway to Dawson City. We hiked some of the Chilkoot Trail and rafted down the Taiya river with another tour company. We went on a bike ride through the Northwest sliver of British Columbia and into the Yukon Territory to Carcross. We were given an exam with 30 questions to answer in detail and return a week later. When possible, we ran and explored some of the nearby trails in an attempt to train for the upcoming Skagway Marathon. Most of the trails were still too icy or covered with snow. Dallas and I had very little time to relax, and practically no time to write or talk to friends and family back home.
Training has finally ceased, and all of us new guides have been slowly easing into the routine. Cruise ships are starting to dock regularly at one of the three docks. One amazing thing about this is that Skagway sits right at the end of the Lynn Canal, which is the deepest and longest fjord in North America. The mountains around here, which reach heights of 7000 feet, rise right up from the sea, and the 1800ft deep canal allows cruise ships to pull right up to the docks. In Newport, cruise ships would anchor in the middle of the bay and people would be shuttled to the shore on small boats called tenders. At the peak of tourism season, we will be getting 4-6 cruise ships in town daily, with fewer on the weekends. The town, which only has about 800 residents year-round and 2000 during the summer, increases 10-fold during the day while all the cruise ship tourists are walking about. While Dallas and I have mixed feelings about them, these cruise ships are vital to Skagway’s economy.
One great thing about living here is the amount of outdoor activities and available hiking trails just out our back door. The local backcountry outfitter’s store has a summer trail challenge, and I’m excited to hike or run all 12 of the trails on the list. The most challenging will be the historic Chilkoot Trail, which in its entirety is 33 miles long and climbs 3500 feet in elevation. It was once a Tlingit trading route, where natives would hike to trade their fish (Hooligan) oils with the Tagish natives of the interior for furs to stay warm and red cedar to build kayaks. When gold was found outside of Dawson City in 1896, people flocked to Dyea to hike this same trail. The trail ends at Lake Bennett, where people would then have to build a boat to float another 500 miles up the Yukon River to where the gold was found.
Another great thing about this region is the air quality. Lichens grow in abundance here, which is a true testament to the cleanliness of the air since they receive their nutrients from the air and are so sensitive to air pollution. Also, bicycling is a very common form of transportation, probably because the town is only 5 blocks wide and 22 blocks long. For a school that has only 60-70 people (k-12), there are more bike racks than the train station in Providence. This certainly helps the air quality. Today, while driving up to the summit for the start of one of our tours, we passed a group of high school students from White Horse, who were cycling back. They were in the midst of a 15 mile uphill stretch along the Klondike Highway that climbs to 3292ft in elevation from sea level. I was impressed (and a little jealous).
The only negative thing I can say about living in SE Alaska is that because we are so isolated, our food is expensive. Once a week, a barge comes in with all of the town’s supplies for the week. Groceries are not only expensive, but by the end of the week there is really not much to choose from. Dallas and I ordered some dry goods from Amazon, but produce and dairy are tough to come by without a high cost. Because of shipping costs, pretty much everything is pricier by at least 25 cents per pound. I’m looking forward to June and July, when we start getting more edible plants in the forest. Since learning about all of these berries, mushrooms, spruce tips and other edibles, my roommates and I plan to forage as much as possible in the upcoming months.
We were both so tired, Dallas and I didn’t talk to anyone on the ferry. I was hoping to check out Haines, since the ferry was stopping there for two hours and Christy had told us it was a nice town, but when the ferry docked, I read a road sign pointing 4 miles to Haines. With nothing of interest within walking distance during our short layover, I went back to sleep on the bench next to Dallas. Neither of us were fully awake to appreciate the grandeur view for more than a few minutes before drifting off again, and I didn’t fully wake up until we were a few minutes from landing in Skagway, our destination for the summer.
Dustin and Scott greeted us when we stepped off the boat, and 4 other new guides who had been on the same ferry joined us a few minutes later. We all managed to load our bags into the Sockeye Cycle Van, and Dustin drove our belongings to the house while Scott led the rest of us by foot. It was only a few blocks to the shop, and walking felt good after lounging around on the ferry for 7 hours (three of the other guides had boarded the ferry in Bellingham, and had been on board for 4 days).
Although it was clear and sunny that day, the announcement of an avalanche having recently blocked the white passage to the Yukon (pretty much the only way out of Skagway by land) reminded us that it was still very much winter in Alaska. Scott, the shop manager who had previously been a mechanic for a tour company in Italy, provided us with numerous and entertaining stories. He had arrived three weeks earlier and told us about his first day and days leading up to now, when it seemed he was finally able to talk to some other people who were seeing Skagway for the first time. I think we all shared his wonder in what we’ve gotten ourselves into here.
The owner of the company, Thom, greeted us when we arrived at our new summer home, the two stories above the Sockeye Cycle bike shop. Then he hurried off to drive to Whitehorse, the nearest city, to buy supplies for the house and our welcome barbecue. Because of the avalanche, he had to take an alternate route to Whitehorse, and it was uncertain if he would even make it back the next day for the barbecue.
Dallas and I will be sharing this space for the next four months with 10 other guides.