The land here is overpowering and dominates all. We'll experience both what first drew and sometimes drove mad, the earliest settlers. The stark peaks never free of snow, the ceaseless flow of the mighty Yukon, the glaciers that still carve the land - these are Alaskas that most will never know. Our mandate for this itinerary is to capture a bit of that same spirit.
This is not simply a tour of the North, but without roughing it, a journey through its many facets. Some come merely to say they've been to Alaska, but others aren't content with such a cursory look. If you're of the few where the name alone has long called, then this may be the tour for you.
The first day begins at 8 am, meeting in downtown Anchorage at the Snowshoe Inn. As not to completely ignore Anchorage, we'll take a quick trip to Earthquake Park, site of extensive damage in the 9.2 magnitude quake of 1964 and where an interpretive display brings home the inconceivable force of North America's largest recorded, "shaker". Nearby, we'll also take a peek at Lake Hood, the world's largest seaplane base before leaving the big city and heading northeast. We'll make a stop at the native village of Eklutna to maybe take a picture of their uniquely characteristic cemetary before continuing on past Palmer and up the Matanuska River. Dividing the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains, the deep valley of the Matanuska is quite beautiful as we head toward lunch overlooking its source and namesake, the Matanuska Glacier.
From here we'll rise to Tahneta Pass and enter into the Copper River Basin before reaching Glennallen and turning south a short stretch to visit the old roadhouse and early pioneer and mining museum of Copper Center. As a settlement on the early Valdez-Eagle Trail, Copper Center witnessed great suffering when hundreds of would-be miners wintered there unable to make it further north, many dying of scurvy and other ailments of malnutrition. Then it's back north and if the weather allows, a barbecue on a high bluff overlooking the mighty Copper River with the volcanoes of Mt. Drum, Sanford, and Blackburn beyond, eternally white with glaciers. Should the elements not be favorable, we'll dine at a lodge before crossing Mentasta Pass and arriving in crossroads Tok for the night.
Twelve miles of the Alaska Highway leads to Tetlin Junction and the mostly gravel road to Canada, closed in the winter months. We'll dawdle along the way before reaching the memorable little community of Chicken. We're now in the heart of what has long been known as "Fortymile Country", named for the great river that drains the innumerable creeks that drew and still do, the hearty soul of the gold miner. An area of repeated gold rushes before and after the great Klondike, the Fortymile is beautifully rugged country, dotted with ghost towns and some on the verge of becoming such even though gold mining is still a primary vocation in these parts. After visiting an abandoned dredge, we'll arrive in the outpost Boundary just before crossing the border into Canada.
The famed Top of the World Highway leads us to the goal of all of the Klondikers, legendary Dawson City. Crossing the Yukon River, we'll arrive on Front Street hopefully a bit less ragged than the multitudes that struggled so long and hard to reach here in hopes of fortune. The great irony was by the time most arrived, all of the valuable gold claims had been staked by those in the country at the time of discovery. Dawson still has a very distinct atmosphere from the old days with the dirt streets and boardwalks. Many of the old buildings remain, due simply to the fact that Dawson was soon forgotten by the rest of the world and dwindled in population, though now much is under preservation by Parks Canada.
We'll head out to the gold fields themselves, and wander around mammoth Dredge number 4. Fascinating even to most that predict otherwise, the dredge is an amazing amalgamation of floating machinery and was the centerpiece of a type of mining and way of life that dominated the area for many years. Much to the envy of the old miners, tonight we'll have a hot tub available at the bed and breakfast, with a chance after dinner to lose your gold dust at the tables of Diamond Tooth Gertie's.
To get a feel for the era an excellent reading of works by Robert Service, poet laureate of the north, is an option, with several museums and intriguing shops beckoning before lunch. In the afternoon we'll head "downriver" and cross back into the States, this time taking the cut-off to Eagle. The road from here narrows wonderfully, winding up and then down into the valley of the Fortymile and on through the haunting mountains until ending up on the banks of the Yukon River and the frontier outpost of Eagle. You can feel a different atmosphere as soon as you drop down from the mountains into town, passing the old log cabins and schoolhouse before arriving at the Yukon and another Front Street.
Accommodations for the night are in historic log cabins overlooking the river, two of which date from the earliest days of Eagle. In the main cabin Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen often played poker with then owner Jack Hillard during the winter after he made it south by dog team from his ship frozen in the ice a thousand miles north, picking Eagle with the only telegraph, as means to inform the world that he had at last conquered the long sought Northwest Passage. We'll have a barbecue at the cabins, with the mighty river in front, disappearing hauntingly around bends in both directions.
Eagle has remained an noncommercial gem given its remote location at the end of the road. With its beginnings as the American center of commerce in the region, Eagle is just four miles from the Canadian border and is one of the only almost untouched frontier towns of the early gold rush days. Still the hub of this part of the Upper Yukon at only 200 persons, far fewer people inhabit the area now than in its heyday. Most structures are of log and the town's amazing historical society has done much to preserve its past, from the old buildings of Ft. Egbert to the museums and interpretive displays of a quality rarely seen in a tiny place so seldom visited.
We'll take the walking historical tour that features many a treasure, guided by local folk with an obvious pride in their choice of home. It's quite a unique neighborhood and you'll undoubtedly want a bit of time to wander about and take a few photos, with an optional afternoon challenge of making it to the top of Eagle Bluff for some fantastic views. Later in the afternoon our neighbor will serve as our captain and guide for a trip on the Yukon itself, with dinner planned on the shores downstream if the weather permits. We will overnight again in the historic cabins, by now feeling almost a part of a very unique place on the planet.
After a hearty pancake breakfast, a few more moments are open to relax and ponder before heading to the airstrip for the flight to Fairbanks. It's universally with a bit of regret that one leaves Eagle, but the flight is an event in itself, driving home the isolation of the upper Yukon and the unforgiving country that separates it from, "civilization". From the air is a perspective impossible otherwise, with the Yukon-Charley Preserve and towering Ogilvie Mountains to the north and the roadless and rugged Fortymile country below. The 200 air miles melt away in what must have been a dream to our predecessors toiling weeks to reach the same destination.
With the second largest population in Alaska, Fairbanks serves as a hub for all of the northern part of the state. Even so, it retains a decidedly frontier flavor and its extremely harsh winters foster a sense of community alien elsewhere in towns a fraction the size. After installing in our hotel, we'll wander to Alaska land, an area where early Fairbanks has been relocated, with many of the original buildings. It's now a curious mix of history and commerce, though the real gem is the restored stern wheeler, Nenana. A walk aboard gives insight into an entire way of life now vanished, upon which all of Interior Alaska depended for generations for almost every aspect of trade and transportation.
Downtown Fairbanks is not far off, and though the contrast to its earlier version is apparent, there are some very interesting attractions. We'll have dinner nearby, and then if folks are inclined, head to the former mining community of Fox for a beverage at the famous watering hole, The Howling Dog. It's here that one finds a quintessentially Alaskan phenomena that appearance or garb give absolutely no clue as to the person or station in life.
In the morning we'll have a little more time to explore before the University of Alaska's excellent museum opens at 10 with its extensive collections of early Native artifacts and cultural interpretive displays. This puts us close by the old mining community of Ester for lunch, whose more recent reputation as home to numerous artists and practitioners of free thinking has given rise to the name "esteroids" for the local inhabitants. A particularly beautiful stretch of the Parks Highway leads south from here, as it passes through the Tanana Hills with great views of the distant Alaska Range to the south.
We'll stop for a look at the displays in the old railroad depot of the primarily Native community of Nenana on the banks of the Tanana River, before entering the northernmost portion of the Alaska Range. We'll spend the night in a hotel in Healy just north of Denali Park, to allow an opportunity for flightseeing of Mt. McKinley and Denali Park from the local airstrip. It's an option highly, highly recommended but should the weather not be conducive, we'll have another chance the following day.
As the vast interior of Denali Park is closed to private vehicles, we'll take the excellent Natural History Tour with quite knowledgeable guides, operated by the park concessionaire. Even if "The Mountain" is not "out", chances are good of seeing bears, caribou, moose, Dall sheep and possibly even wolves in the wide open vistas, with the vehicle stopping for wildlife or scenic photos whenever anyone would like. At two and one half million acres, Denali is large enough to encompass an entire ecosystem, and so remains a truly unique environment for study of wildlife behavior unaltered by encroaching development.
If inclined, there are some great optional hikes to get an even different perspective of the park before we leave the Alaska Range in the afternoon and head towards the charming village of Talkeetna. An old mining town, Talkeetna now serves as the principal staging point for expeditions to North America's highest peak, Mt. McKinley. Climbing parties from around the world can be seen preparing for and returning from one of mountaineering's most famous challenges, and the village airstrip buzzing with ski-equipped bush planes servicing the mountain's glacier base camps.
It's here that we'll have another option to experience the mountain a little less painfully than the climbers, through flightseeing. Sliding between towering peaks and over monstrous glaciers, this is an indescribable glimpse of a world few experience. From our lodgings, you'll have the evening opportunity to explore some of the unique attractions of town, from the various boutiques of northern artistry, to the great little museum, to additional "wildlife" viewing at the colorful bar in the historic Fairview Inn.
Shortly after departing Talkeetna we'll visit an institution in the personage of Mary Carey, a vibrant 86 year old woman of many lives and fascinating tales, who'll hopefully recount a few for us while there. Continuing on, the community of Wasilla is the first evidence that we're trickling back toward civilization and it is here that is headquartered the Iditarod Trail Committee just off the main road. A visit to the organizational base of The Last Great Race, the 1000 mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race, allows one to consider the surprising intricacies of a resurgence form of ancient competition, that is as much an intense lifestyle commitment as it is a sport.
Any notion of dog mistreatment is quickly dispelled when one witnesses the level of care and devotion the mushers have for the true athletes of this intriguing sport. Having lunch in the older community of Palmer allows us a measured pace before afternoon reentry into the throng of activity that is Anchorage. The contrast with worlds just visited may make your mind wander to thoughts of a winter trail lit by the northern lights, a team of dogs stretched out in front.
This tour can be combined with the Kenai Explorer Tour for a truly comprehensive Alaskan experience. This itinerary had 5 separate departure dates each season. Please contact us for this year's schedule. Single Supplement price upon request.
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