I got out of the taxi at the Alaskan Backpackers Inn at seven a.m. I was about to embark on a journey on a yellow school bus down the length of North and Central America from Anchorage in Alaska to Panama City. A large iconic American school bus was sitting in the parking lot alongside the hostel. Next to it was a group of people milling about. These were some of my friends and travelling companions who would be making part or the whole journey with me. The bus had been christened Betsy and was to be our primary mode of transport for the next five months.
There had been a group meeting the day before but I had been unable to attend as I was still travelling to get to Anchorage. Therefore, I had missed the introduction to Betsy. The rest of the group had made their introductions to each other and to Betsy the day before and so I had the disadvantage of trying to pick up everyone’s latest news, jobs, and names for those that I did not know personally, already.
I found our leader and driver, Zoë, a Canadian and Seb, her co-driver, a Frenchman from Brittany and introduced myself. We were waiting for one more passenger, Richard, who had not turned up, so having waited an hour, we left a message at reception and set off. We needed to collect supplies so we stopped at a supermarket for an hour.
Before setting off again there was a call to the hostel but still no news from Richard. We set off and as we jerked into motion, a few people who had bought take-away coffees spilt some and complained about the coffee being hot. One of my fellow travelling companions was Gabi who piped up for the benefit of the whole bus that in America they had invented paper sleeves to help insulate the heat from within the cup and lids to stop spillages to protect your hands, as if no one anywhere else in the world had heard of Starbucks, paper sleeves and lids.
Gabi was in her sixties and came from California and she claimed that this was her first overseas trip. Although Alaska is still part of the USA she had flown north and so she was still in the USA. Further the overland journey through Canada back to the lower 48 states was not ‘overseas’ either so she was wrong on more than one account. But the section of the journey that she was joining us for would be her first foreign trip outside of the USA.
It is an urban myth that only ten per cent of Americans have a passport, as in fact 46 per cent have one (as a comparison, 83 per cent of UK residents have a passport). Overseas travel claims to broaden the mind and educate. However, of all the overseas trips made by Americans, to get a true picture you need to exclude certain trips. A lot of Americans are legitimate immigrants and take multiple trips overseas to visit relatives. Several businessmen also take multiple trips.
The USA is a large country and has a vast number of tourist destinations within its own boundaries so there is a reduced need for overseas travel. Everyone speaks English and the incidence of the ability to speak a language, other than English or Spanish, is very low. Most Americans may recognise the outlines of states and name the state capital of each, but fall short on recognising outlines of overseas countries or naming their capitals. If you also take out trips to neighbouring Canada or Mexico, the number of native born Americans who have experienced another overseas culture is actually very small.
Our first destination was Seward and the Kenai Fjords National Park and we had started down the road leaving Anchorage, which followed a route alongside a railway line, built between 1917 – 23, overlooking Resurrection Bay, named by the Russian fur trader and explorer Alexander Baranof. He was sailing along the coast and was caught in a storm and unexpectedly found shelter in the bay on the Russian Orthodox feast of the Resurrection; hence the name.
Seward was named after Secretary of the Interior William Seward (1861–1869) who negotiated the Alaskan purchase from the Russians. It has an ice-free port and became an important distribution centre for the Alaskan interior. As the city devastated by a massive earthquake in 1964, it has little of the original city left.
The Kenai Fjords National Park sits on the same peninsular as Seward and was set up in 1980 and covers 4,600 square kilometres. At its centre is the Harding Icefield from which 38 glaciers flow. As Kenai Fjords National Park is en route to Seward, we stopped at the Byron Glacier Trail for a walk up the valley to see the glacier.
It was a gentle walk but even at sea level we could see large patches of ice clinging to the mountain slopes rising above us. High above us, at the end of the valley was the snout of the glacier as it tumbled down from the icefield hidden from view behind the mountain tops around us. We checked the hostel for any news of Richard but he still had not turned up.
We drove through Seward and found our campsite along the coast where we would be staying for two nights. It was a warm, dry, and sunny day which made the campsite seem so much more inviting. The tents needed water proofing so we sprayed them as soon as we arrived and left them to dry in the sun.
There was a free day to do whatever was on offer. Several people wanted to take a sea trip along the fjord and hopefully see some whales. I was happy just to wander around town and see Seward along with Roger, an Australian chemistry lecturer on an extended holiday and David, a retired accountant from London. We were dropped off on the far side of town, near the harbour where several other members of the group were going whale watching. We walked back towards downtown along the sea front. After the harbour and its marina, there was a huge RV park with all sorts of vehicles, and judging by the number plates there were vehicles from all over the lower 48 states. Alaska is the 49th, joining the Union in January 1959 and is a long way from the other more southerly states, separated by Canada. There are fifty states in all and the fiftieth state is Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific, which joined in August 1959.
There wasn’t much to see of any historical significance in Seward, as it suffered badly from fires and the tsunami following the destruction caused by the earthquake. But it was an interesting walk in bright sunlight. There is history to the town, as it was an important harbour and starting point for many gold prospectors in various gold rushes following the Klondike discoveries in neighbouring Yukon, at Dawson at the end of the nineteenth century. These gold rushes include the Nome, Fairbanks, and Iditarod goldfields and later as prospectors spread throughout Alaska, hundreds of locations were found with gold deposits between 1898 and 1914.
Zoë took me on a tour of introduction to Betsy at the campsite, since I had missed-out on the briefing the day before. She is a traditional big yellow school bus built by Thomas Built Buses, which has its own interesting history. In the economic downturn after the First World War, tram designer Perley A. Thomas lost his job as chief engineer at the Southern Car Works in North Carolina. A few months later he was approached by the Southern Public Utilities Company, a former major client and asked to create a team to renovate several trams that he had designed that his former employer had sold to them.
He contacted his former co-workers and opened the Perley A. Thomas Car Works. Trams were replaced by vehicles, so he expanded and launched his first school bus in 1936. Expansion continued and in 1972 the name changed to Thomas Built Buses and expanded in the commercial market. In 1998, Thomas Built Buses became part of the Daimler group. Innovation followed and by November 2006, Thomas manufactured its last FS-65 conventional bus and retired the product, and produced buses with newer technology and design.
Betsy might be ageing but the Thomas buses have a reputation for being robust work-horses with tried and tested technology and are easy to work on. These buses were exported in droves and can be seen throughout Central and Southern America. In the USA, school buses are painted yellow but in Central America the buses come in all sorts of colours and personalised paint jobs. In Central and South America, they are also referred to as chicken buses, due to the locals often taking their chickens to market on the local buses.
Betsy has had a few modifications but is still easily recognisable as a school bus. She had a modified chassis and suspension to cope with rough roads and low clearance. The back three rows of seats have been converted into a locker for luggage, camping equipment and food storage. Inside there are a range of electrical ports for recharging phones, tablets, and laptops. Otherwise the bus is unaltered from its former role and anyone who has been to school in the USA would have that moment of nostalgia on entering the bus.
We drove back through Anchorage and on to Denali National Park, the home of Mount McKinley which at 6,190 metres, is America’s highest peak where we were due to camp for three nights. It was officially renamed Denali meaning ‘the tall one’ in the local language, but old names tend to stick. It was a long drive day so we left the driving to the drivers and settled into our seats, looking out at the scenery going past, or sleeping.
There were mountains with a scattering of snow on their tops, but as we drove further away from Kenai National Park, the scenery slowly changed to rolling forested hills. In places, there had been wildfires and great stretches had burnt, leaving just blackened trunks pointing skyward. As we approached Denali we could see the mountains covered in snow in the distance.
We stopped at a viewpoint with a braided river below it and views across the landscape to Mount McKinley in the distance. It was named after the American President but he never actually visited Alaska. It is the tallest mountain in the state and is usually cloaked with cloud. Many people come to look at it as it is on the tourists list of things to see in Alaska but few are lucky enough to see it. Down one side is the Ruth Glacier which has carved the Great Gorge. This is 3,000 metres deep but only a little of the gorge is seen as the glacier still fills most of it.
It was early evening by the time we reached the campsite where we would be staying. We drove Betsy through the camp site to our allocated spaces then backed her up from the track through the forest on to a parking space and set up our tents on two neighbouring pitches.
Private vehicles are not allowed inside the park, instead there are a series of shuttle buses and you book the time you want to go. The driver points out things of interest as he drives through the park, with periodic stops. We caught our early morning bus and stopped at one of the designated stops with a café, shop, and toilets, set high on top of a river bank with a view across a braided river. The water levels were low, so there was a lot of light coloured gravel and rocks exposed. It was here that we had our first view of one of the local bears. On the far bank was a brown bear walking along the edge of the river, stopping every now and again to look around and smell the air. We watched until it walked back into the forest and was lost to view.
We got back on our bus and crossed a bridge over the river. There are a few cabins along the way but none are open to the public. They are either left over from the time before this area was a national park, that is prior to 1917 or used by the rangers. Bears are very inquisitive and strong and both doors and windows must be robust to resist tampering. There were heavy steel shutters on some of the windows to protect against bears.
The scenery we were going through had several wide open valleys with rolling hills rising significantly as they get nearer to the central peaks. The bottoms of the valleys have wide braided rivers. As the road climbs upwards, the trees thin to just a few struggling individuals and eventually there are none above the tree line. The grass covering the ground also thins and there are more bare patches of rock and boulders.
The road was purposebuilt to cross some of the best scenery in the park up the Toklat River, to give visitors the best views to appreciate the scenery, sometimes irrespective of cost and the engineering difficulties. That day there was a clear blue sky, no haze, no pollution, and fantastic views of distant peaks with glaciers descending from them from our vantage point high up on one side of the valley.
We had already seen a bear on the lower slopes and up here we saw elk and caribou. It is easy to spot them as there are open vistas with no trees and it was a bright sunny day. The caribou here can be seen individually (as opposed to congregating in herds as in other parks), and can be anywhere in the scenery. One caribou was standing right next to the road with its head planted in a large bush as if it was doing an ostrich impersonation and trying to hide. We got out of the bus to have a closer look and take photos.
While we were doing this, another caribou came gently jogging down the road and passed within an arm’s length. Those who heard it and turned around saw this animal coming straight for them. Others had a fright as the first they knew about it was when it rushed past them. Only those quick-witted enough and with a camera at the ready could get any close-up shots.
We arrived at the interpretive centre in the centre of the park where the bus waits for a while before turning around and heading back the way we had come. We saw more bears below the tree line foraging along the river banks as we made our way back. By mid-afternoon we were back at the campsite and we all agreed that it had been a wonderful trip with plenty of magnificent views of the wildlife.
The rest of the day was free and since I had heard trains during the night, I went for a walk in that direction. There was a high, long bridge and just beyond was the railway station. This is where the McKinley Explorer brings guests from the coast and their cruise ships, up into the mountains to visit the park in double-decker railway luxury.
I watched from the river as a train crossed the bridge and slowed as it entered the station. By the time I climbed up the valley side and reached the station, most of the passengers had climbed off and their luggage was transferred by porters. Ever inquisitive, I had a word with the conductor and was allowed on board to view the cabins, the restaurant area and the upper perplex roofed viewing level. It was a modern train with plenty of space but little in the way of decoration. This wasn’t needed as the large see-through roof gave panoramic views of the countryside as the train made its way through the mountains to its destination.
That evening we drove out of town to the 49th State Brewery. It is a large restaurant and bar that brews ten types of beer in various styles and strengths up to eleven per cent (which regrettably, was the one beer that they had run out of). Some were named after a local theme such as Solstice IPA or McKinley’s Stout or other well-known styles such as Dunkelweizen or Vienna Lager. I tried as many as I could before we finished our meal and I had to go back to the campsite.
The next day was a free day to do whatever we liked. There are several trails radiating away from the campsite, so I first headed to the railway station and the nearby interpretative centre. From here, the Roadside Trail leads off to the sled dog kennels. Here you can wander about the kennels and learn something about their history and their usefulness to rangers in getting about in winter. There is also a dog sled exhibition and demonstration so that guests can get a real understanding of mushing.
I looked around the kennels. Dogs all have characters, and it was clear in these dogs. Some liked to be patted and tolerated the noisy crowd of tourists. Others just slept in the sun, while others hid in or behind their kennels, out of sight. After touring the kennels, I took the alternative but longer Rock Creek Trail to get back. This trail was noticeably quieter and stopping for a moment, I heard nothing except the sounds of the forest. I had met a ranger leading a small group on a flora and fauna walk near the start, coming in the opposite direction but I saw no one else after that. I scanned the trail ahead and stopped and listened for movement. Whenever I was about to break cover across a clearing, I made sure I looked both ways as I was by myself and didn’t want an unexpected face-to-face encounter with any large animals especially bears. The local wildlife probably is used to a lot of visitors around here and stay away, but you can never be certain.
You know when you are getting close to your destination as you start to see or hear more people. A lot of people only go for a short circular walk or a short distance up one of the longer trails before turning around again. I had begun to see more people and true enough around the corner was the visitors centre.
I had a picnic lunch at the centre before heading up the Mount Healy Overlook Trail. This was steep in places and didn’t look far on the map but seemed a lot further. Again, away from the centre the trail was quiet with just a couple of other walkers, but the outlook is worth the effort. On the return journey, I took the Taiga Trail and the bike path to the Wilderness Centre and finally back to camp. It had been a long day and I would sleep well that night.
We started our drive up the George Parks Highway past the 49th Brewery and for a while we got glimpses of trains running along the far side of the valley, high up the slope. After more than an hour of driving and passing through Cantwell, we turned off the tarmac road onto a gravel track along the Denali Highway to head for our wilderness campsite. The mountains set well-back from the road were covered with snow. As we gently climbed, the trees thinned-out and we had great vistas in all directions. We stopped a few times to stretch our legs and look at wildlife. There were caribou but we saw no bears. There is little traffic along this road and you really get the sense of being in the wilderness.
At mid-afternoon, we arrived at McClaren where the road crosses a river. The settlement is no more than a bush camp, a couple of houses, a cabin and a bar-cum-restaurant. We would be ferried upriver by motor launch to reach our camp. There were only two boats and we would need three trips, so the first boat set off with seven people. The second boat was loaded with our luggage and there was space for two people so Zoë and I jumped in and joined Alan the helmsman and his two dogs that also came along for the ride.
Another boat overtook us going fast and making a lot of waves that rocked us as it shot past. The boat that had taken the first group of passengers was coming back downstream, again fast and I am sure it swung towards us mischievously and spray went everywhere as it shot past and we ploughed through its wake. I was sitting in the bow of the boat and Alan’s dog came and sat right next to me. It was obvious that I was in someone else’s favourite spot. If I so much as moved an inch away from him, he would move an inch as well. If I nudged him as the boat rocked, he stood his ground and didn’t budge an inch. Alan confirmed that I was in his favourite position and he wasn’t happy at losing his spot.
We arrived at the campsite and unloaded the baggage. The tents were already set-up with wooden floors and three camp beds in each tent and I shared with Steve, a former English prisoner governor and Laurence, a New Zealander who worked in forestry. This was luxury camping, as all we had to do was unroll our sleeping bags. The toilet wasn’t so luxurious. It was a privy with a hole in the ground and no door. There was a wooden baton, so that if it was sticking out, it was occupied and you lowered it after you had finished. It looked away from the campsite up the valley to the glacier and the mountains beyond. It had the best view from any toilet I have ever seen.
The next day was a free day to do as we wished, which was basically either to sit around camp and do nothing or go for a hike. The difficult decision was in which direction. There were no discernible tracks, so you could go in any direction. There was a glacier at the top of the valley and although it was a fair distance I was ready to give it a go. No one expressed any interest in a long walk except for Sigi, a young woman from Austria who ran several chalets in the Alps and who often went off on her own at her own speed, and had already left to walk up the side of the valley. I was ready to go straight after breakfast so I set off up the length of the valley by myself.
There was no obvious path except animal tracks through the scrub and a pair of intermittent tyre marks where an ATV had been across the scrub some time this season. The vegetation at altitude and this far north, is delicate and just one journey in the spring can leave a trace that lasts for the rest of the season.
I forded a few streams and headed up the valley, keeping the main river to my right. The water was cold as it flowed straight off the glacier, and I didn’t mind wading through streams up to my knees which I had to do a couple of times as I couldn’t find a better crossing-point. The start of the trek was across a wide flat valley floor and easy going until there was a slight rise. There was evidence of a mine with some discarded mining equipment, rubbish, and several spoil heaps but I had no idea what was being sought. After this there was a steep rise right across the valley.