Mush On

Mush-On, A Journey to British Columbia, Yukon, and Alaska, August, 2013

---14 grizzly and black bear sightings
---120 sled dogs howling
---thousands of salmon spawning
---great views of porpoises and whales by sea, and marmots, moose, mountain goats and more high on the mountains
---incredible sights of massive glaciers, waterfalls, and tribal totem poles…

---not to mention
---six nights with flashlight in one hand, bear spray in the other, up the path to the     Outhouse

---One unforgettable outboard motor boat ride through a torrential downpour, choppy water and dense fog, making our way over submerged rocks, drifting kelp, and through narrow channels in a search for a tiny log cabin on an isolated beach on Baranoff Island.

By the end of the journey we had accomplished more than we ever imagined:

--- a 3,300-mile once-in-a-lifetime adventure of bumping over narrow mountain roads in BC, the Yukon and Alaska and recuperating on a relaxing “uncruise” on an often-hilarious ferry boat ride on the return to Bellingham, Washington.

It began for me on Mother’s Day, 2013.

That Sunday in May my son Steve called from Oregon and said unexpectedly, “Mom, what are you doing in August?”

My unenthusiastic response:   “Well, dental appointments for the most part.”

His answer: “Cancel them.  Christina and I are taking you on a trip you’ve always wanted to take!”

My friends are well aware that I’ve done a lot of traveling—but my kids also know that one trip I’ve always wanted to do is journey to the Yukon and cross the Arctic Circle in Alaska.  I hadn’t managed to do it yet. But this would soon change.

Before the journey was over, Steve, Christina and I completed successfully a 3,300-mile trip in her sturdy Subaru, joined for the last week by granddaughter Laurel for the grand finale on the Alaska Ferry Boat System’s famous Columbia car ferry for the 1,000-mile return to Bellingham, Washington.

The entire trip was a blast---all 3,300 miles of driving and a 1,000 mile ferry ride on the  inland waterways of Alaska and Canada---almost a month’s journey of unforgettable sights, sounds and more than a few smells (outhouse-wise. But who’s smelling?)

OK.  Enough of the prologue.  Let’s get to the heart of any journey---some photos and a story or two.


I casually called the proposed trip, “Mush-on to Alaska,” and mush-on we did--  hardly realizing at the moment that we would actually have a once-in-a lifetime live experience with some the very heroic dog sled animals that participate in “Yukon Quest,” a thousand-mile dog sled race equivalent in excruciating difficulty to the famed Iditarod challenge. More about that later.

Seeing a rainbow on our first day of travel, I knew it was a premonition for good luck.

Arriving for the first time ever in British Columbia, I found myself surrounded by some of the most incredibly beautiful Alpine scenery in the world, the Canadian Rockies in Banff National Park.  There we viewed one breath-taking vista after another of craggy, snow-capped peaks, huge glaciers, and crystal clear emerald green lakes of Lake Louise, Moraine Lake (rightfully called “the Jewel of the Rockies,”) and Bow Lake. Steve and Christina were in their element, hiking easily up mountain trails and around lakes and through forests while I strolled for shorter distances and lingered along lakeside trails.

We halted to “take a picture” at one viewpoint after another as we made our way along the 124-mile Ice Fields Parkway of British Columbia.  This fabulous highway crosses Banff and Jasper National Park and parallels the Continental Divide between Lake Louise and Jasper. It offers an unending landscape of mile-high glaciers, snowcapped saw-tooth ridged mountains, horsetail shaped cascading waterfalls, and rushing ice-tinged rivers.  I had never heard of the Ice Fields Parkway before, but surely this spectacular drive must be added to any list of the great highways of the world.

The Columbia Ice Field itself is the source of eight glaciers, including the huge Athabasca Glacier just inside Jasper National Park. Steve and Christina hiked to the top of this massive glacier. Not surprisingly, at the top Steve hopped over the “do not cross” sign and disappeared across the dangerous glacial ice.  Christina feared he had slipped  unseen into a hidden crevasse and needed reassurances from me. It was easier for me to be relaxed.  I had lived through Steve’s many precarious adventures throughout his childhood!

As always, he made his way safely back down the trail an hour later!

Before leaving Jasper Park, we spent the morning taking a guided tour through the Gitanyou/Kitwancoul Historic Village with Michelle, a member of the Wolf tribe of the five tribes, as our guide. She led us through the five houses comprising the village, explaining the culture, history, art, music and dances of the tribe and sharing sounds of the tribal elders chanting and playing their traditional music.

Arriving in the out-of-the way village of  Hyder, Alaska, a 100-person sorry little former Gold Rush town on the eastern fringes of Misty Fiords National Monument, we headed first  to the town dump where we heard bears come to dine each evening (none came).  But the next day we enjoyed our first sudden bear encounter. On the high mountain road above the town, we stopped as we sighted two little bear cubs climbing up a tree next to the dirt road!  There would be many more bear sightings—14 in all.  We were never satisfied but kept hoping we’d sight another around the next bend.

In Hyder, Alaska we decided to drag ourselves up at six a.m. and head north of town to the Forest Service sanctuary, Fish Creek Bridge. We wanted to watch for the brown and black bears that we were told feed on the salmon spawning on the creek at dawn.  We walked the length of the wooden viewing bridge and met one couple who had spent their entire vacation on the walkway. They arrived at 6 a.m. each day for two weeks for the bear view!

Sadly, they were leaving that day after a failure to see even one bear.  We also had no luck that morning, but good fortune awaited us several times in the future. Just once, a mother bear sniffed us and headed aggressively directly for us.  She got within 10 feet of the car before Steve managed to take off as fast as some NASCAR driver.

We viewed countless huge glaciers in British Columbia and one morning were intrigued  as we observed the native tribe of the area who had the sole rights to catch salmon commercially in their huge run there.  We bought a fresh salmon from them to enjoy at our next picnic.

Our sightseeing luck was great later that day when we turned onto a narrow winding gravel road leading up the mountain.  A sign said Salmon Glacier. This turned out to be one of our best views of a glacier on the entire trip.  At the high elevation at the top we found ourselves alone, facing a magnificent view of the Salmon Glacier. Though the view was fantastic, the no-see-ums bugs were not pleasant. Unfortunately, I had left my bug hat in my packed suitcase and suffered as a result. I had found the bug hat at Hudson Trail Outfitters on Rockville Pike, and I recommend the hat as well worth having on this kind of wilderness trip.

On Day 11 we reached our first official day in Alaska. We spent a long hard day driving the Cassiar Highway, crossed the Arctic Divide where rivers flow into the Pacific or Arctic oceans, and headed through the rugged remote wilderness of northern British Columbia to the Yukon Territory. More than $100 million in gold was mined in the region in a six year span just before the turn of 20th century.

WHITEHORSE, Yukon’s capitol on the banks of the scenic Yukon River, has a fascinating history of the Yukon Gold Rush Days and of the gold rush miners, trappers and stampeders. For several days we checked out history of this colorful era, touring such interesting sites as the docked Klondike steamer that carried miners to the Yukon and tons of silver out.

Not on our planned agenda, however, was our experience with Alaskan sled dogs!
We stumbled into this terrific unexpected adventure simply because we arrived in Whitehorse a day earlier than we had planned.  We tried to find lodging there but every hotel was fully booked.  At the last place Steve tried the clerk told him that one spot out of town might be available.  When he called, they had just had a cancellation and we took it sight unseen.

Not realizing our luck, we had just booked a beautiful log cabin at the Yukon Sled Dog lodge, the MUKTUK Sled Dog Resort. There over a hundred pure bred Alaskan sled dogs are the property of MUKTUK resort owner, Frank Turner.  A native of the Yukon, for 25 years Turner raced in the incredible Yukon Quest thousand-mile sled dog race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. He won the race a few years ago. Though less well-known than the world-famous Iditarod, mushers say that it is tougher than the Iditarod.  Turner won the race in a record 10 days, 16 hours, 23 minutes and held the record for 10 years!

When we got to the MUKTUK resort, we found 120 beautiful Alaskan sled dogs with a live-in crew of college interns taking care of them. “Here you can follow your mushing dreams at dog sled college,” we were told. Frank gave us free rein of the place, along with a free breakfast and encouraged us to stroll among the friendly animals and pet some of them. He told us he only raised pups who would not only be friendly but who had the breeding and inherent desire to run with a team of sled dogs and compete fiercely in the long-distance Yukon Quest race.

The sled dogs each had an individual doghouse. A small group was let loose to run every two days for “doggie recess” in a large penned area. We heard them howl with anticipation when the keeper headed toward them to choose that day’s doggie recess winning dogs.
As always, Steve and Christina hunted for gold in the rocks along mountainsides. Just after leaving Whitehorse, we stopped at an out-of-the- way gold miner guy’s shop to get clues on where to hunt.  I wandered around, taking pictures while they chatted.

At a remote spot on a lake about 30 miles from Whitehorse, we enjoyed complete isolation for three days at a log cabin called Dunroamin’. The cabin had no running water and featured (if that’s the right word) an outhouse.  I got used to sleeping on the floor (with a mattress) but hiking down the mountain by flashlight at night was something harder to deal with!

We canoed, fished, picnicked, swam and enjoyed the sauna at this isolated retreat near the old Caribou crossing village (now renamed Carcross.)  The owners possessed a huge library of gold rush history and we immersed ourselves in tales of the Gold Rush, reading by candle light from many books. I chose John Muir’s “Travels to Alaska” that described his trips starting in 1879.  His first-time exploration of many of the glaciers he visited was vastly more hazardous than the same ones that we faced, to say the least!

The pass through the mountains from Carcross to Skagway is spectacular.  We enjoyed the gorgeous scenery so much we crossed over the Canadian border to Skagway twice.  An historic gold rush town, Skagway had droves of tourists who had poured off three massive cruise ships that day, clogging every street and shop. We were turned off and left after buying some smoked salmon for a picnic lunch.  Of course, we didn’t consider ourselves tourists.

Skagway is a major port of the Alaska Marine Highway System.  We boarded the first of  two car ferries there, and hopped off that ship in Juneau for a two-day stay. In Juneau we picked up Laurel, my grand daughter, at the airport.  She planned to join us on the second leg of our journey on the Columbia, the large car ferry that would be the centerpiece of our transportation for the final week of our trip.  This ferry boat experience promised fantastic views of Alaska’s Inland Waterways with its spectacular variety of fjords, waterfalls, and wildlife--we had many opportunities to observe bald eagles, whales breaching, and pods of porpoises swimming alongside the ship.

We had reserved a coveted four-person bunk stateroom on the Columbia. We predicted this week would be a relaxed diversion from our lengthy days on the road.   As Lonely Planet says, “There’s no experience like it.”  Truer words were never spoken!

We expected a variety of people aboard this 500-person budget traveler’s Spartan vessel, and we weren’t disappointed. The passengers ranged from experienced locals with backpacks who quickly snagged all available space in the solarium and unrolled their sleeping bags on the deck chairs and interior lounge chairs and in corners of every available spot. Others quickly barricaded themselves around the few available tables in the Observation Lounge or maneuvered their belongings onto the comfortable reclining seats in the movie theater.  (They were asked to “Please remove all sleeping bags from seats in the movie theater so others can enjoy the film.”)  They did but promptly regained their spots once the film ended.  Others set up colorful tents on the open deck. Many, including us, dragged aboard enough food to prepare picnic meals for the three- day trip. Our one luxury was to enjoy a delicious buffet dinner to celebrate our last night on the funky ferry boat.

At our major stopover, Sitka, we had rented a Forest Service log cabin located somewhere on an obscure inlet five miles out from the port on Baranoff Island.

I can’t begin to describe our “ordeal” journeying by boat to this remote hideaway.
But to start with, I quote the familiar saying:

“It was a dark and stormy night”---actually, late afternoon.

Steve had contacted Jim, a Sitka fishing boat outfitter, the day before.  Jim agreed to rent us a small outboard motor boat for three days and guide us out to this island destination.  He said we’d never find it on our own!  Unfortunately, by the time we met him on the dock, we had run into a torrential downpour, with rain and fierce wind buffeting the choppy grey sea water of the port.  Christina and I, dismayed by the terrible weather, felt we should just stay overnight in a nearby motel. But Steve was adamant.  He explained he knew how to manage this motor boat without a problem, even though it would be loaded down with gear.  We needed to haul suitcases, backpacks, sleeping bags, gallons of water and supplies enough for a three-day stay in an isolated log cabin that contained only hard bunks and a small stove for heat. We knew it also had no running water and an outhouse, necessitating a climb up the hill through the forest. (We were told to watch out for bears.)

I admit I was hardly looking forward to the “adventure” of a boat ride in a storm to find this uninviting log cabin!

In addition, Jim didn’t reassure me when he said, “You’re very brave.”  He insisted on stuffing me into a Survival Suit and heavy waterproof rain pants. The others wore life jackets. Once dressed, I was stuck and could never remove the heavy armor by myself---but at least I would float if the boat capsized, he said.

I felt I resembled a huge orange inflated balloon, perched uneasily on the hard boat bench and hung on tightly as we headed out through the dense fog. Gradually, I was reassured when Jim, standing upright in his small boat, guided us expertly, signaling obstacles to avoid as we slipped narrowly by buoys, nets, kelp, submerged rocks and other water hazards.

What seemed like an eternity later we made it to the inlet, hiked up the rocky shore to the cabin—and he left us.  I worried about how we would ever find our way back to Sitka after three days at this isolated inlet.

Of course, we had a fantastic time in our RUSTIC  log cabin. Laurel and Steve took full advantage of the tide pools for exploring the abundant marine life. Christina picked mountains of ripe raspberries and gooseberries for snacks.  We searched for mushrooms, Steve fished, and we never tired of watching thousands of spawning salmon swarming up the nearby creek, searching for their original birth places to die.

Moving on to Ketchikan for a final outing, we had a great time touring an impressive totem pole park and museum.

Unfortunately, in Ketchikan it was only after we reboarded the Columbia for the journey to Bellingham, too late we learned that a huge cruise liner in the harbor had just had to evacuate its 3,000 passengers due to a propulsion problem.  The cruise line was offering anyone on our ferry boat a $1000 check and a trip around the world if they would give up their stateroom to some of the many stranded passengers!  We were devastated! We agreed if we had just known about it earlier, we would have gladly moved out into the observation lounge or slept on the deck. We even had sleeping bags to do it!

Nevertheless, we agreed we would never forget this great family journey-- exploring trails in vast spruce forests, watching numerous bald eagles, visiting ice-blue glaciers and emerald lakes, and wandering in such fascinating places as the deck of an old gold rush steamer on this fabulous trip to  British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska.

Perhaps the most important experience for me was visiting the incredible variety of totems and learning the history of the many Indian cultures of southeastern Alaska.  As a result, I gained a huge respect for Canadian, Alaskan, and native people, their lands, history and cultures.

MUSH-ON TWO is already a high priority on my future travel agenda!
How about it, Steve and Christina?  Are you ready to mush-on again?