I took a bus to Alaska the other day.
Well, not from my front door, exactly. I began the trip in Vancouver, bound for Fairbanks by way of Canada's historic Cariboo trail and the legendary Alaska Highway, which plunges boldly through a mountain wilderness of intimidating immensity and spectacular beauty. I rode for five days and 2,323 miles, and I rarely pulled my eyes from the window.
The trip certainly ranks as one of the grandest bus rides anywhere in the world -- an unusual (and safe) mini-adventure into North America's last western frontier, "The Land of the Midnight Sun." When I finally pulled into bustling Fairbanks, I was just 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
In summer only, Alaska is linked to the lower 48 states by twice-weekly intercity bus service, an inexpensive route north favored especially by young backpackers. I opted for motorcoach because I wanted to travel the Alaska Highway and see the sights along the way -- which in this mostly untouched landscape means plenty of wildlife.
By keeping alert, I spotted bear, fox, moose, mountain goats, countless deer and rabbits and one stately bald eagle that brought the bus to a dead stop just over the Yukon Territory border into Alaska. The old fellow was finishing up a meal in the middle of the road, and he wasn't about to move until he was good and ready. Only when the bus edged to within a few feet did he begrudgingly lift off, circling directly overhead until we passed by.
The bus carried my fellow passengers and me through quaint old gold rush towns and Indian villages, gave us a peek at the gleaming trans-Alaska pipeline, climbed high Rocky Mountain passes, skirted emerald-green lakes and traced the winding paths of glacier-fed streams and rivers. I was awed by the density of the evergreen forests draped over much of the northern landscape. Wildflowers bloomed in profusion along the road, and the twilight sky glowed a deep red of incredible intensity.
We were barely two hours out of Vancouver, initially following the Trans-Canada Highway northeast into British Columbia, when the scenic show began. For about 80 miles, the two-lane roadway clings to a precarious ledge above the Fraser River as it races in white-water frenzy through a narrow, twisting canyon. To the distant north, the Alaska Highway, which we picked up at its beginning point in Dawson Creek, wanders for miles alongside both Kluane National Park in the Yukon Territory and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska. We were treated to splendid snow-capped mountainscapes and a glimpse or two of blue-gray glaciers.
Though eager to make the long journey, I nevertheless was apprehensive at the outset that it might become tedious and, since I was traveling alone, a bit lonely. I shouldn't have worried. There was so much fine scenery outside the window that I never once opened the paperback I had packed. I traveled in mid-June when daylight in the far north lasts around the clock, so I could watch well into the night.
As for my bus mates, they were almost as intriguing as the views. I chatted one morning with a retired schoolteacher who had taught for several years in the remote Aleutian Islands and was returning for a visit. An elderly Indian woman with braided hair, who boarded at a midnight stop, told me she was making her first trip back to her childhood village. A down-on-his-luck laborer from Toronto, who occupied the seat next to me for much of one day, was headed toward a chance at a job in the Yukon. (His professional problems may be the result of too many beers -- he polished off a couple at each meal stop.)
Curiously, the characteristics of the passengers changed the farther north the bus progressed. For much of the first day out of Vancouver, the bus served as something of a commuter link for local folks between the many towns of populous southern British Columbia. Two days later, as we turned onto the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek, American and other tourists had begun to predominate. By the time we reached Alaska, almost everyone aboard was a tourist.
I'm a fan of bus travel, and on other long-haul bus trips I've noticed that a certain camaraderie develops among the passengers. My Alaskan adventure was no exception. Fairly quickly, I became acquainted with a pair of middle-aged German businessmen carrying backpacks. They had begun the trip, as I did, in Vancouver and looked forward to camping and exploring in Alaska's national parklands. We would be on the bus to Fairbanks together for the full five days. Neither spoke fluent English, and they needed shepherding along the way. Once I caught them getting onto the wrong bus.
In Dawson Creek, three Americans with backpacks climbed aboard. Two of them, college students from Colorado, were bound for Anchorage in search of summer work. The third, a clerical worker from Washington, D.C., hoped to find a permanent job in Fairbanks. He had planned to drive all the way, but his car broke down in Canada and he sold it to the mechanic. All three soon became a part of our temporary bus family. We shared meal breaks and made sure nobody got left behind.
Similarly, the nature of the bus drivers changed along the way. As I recall, we had 10 different drivers between Vancouver and Fairbanks. In the south, they were brusque and businesslike, concentrating on loading and discharging passengers at frequent stops, and completely anonymous. Up north, where bus stations are few and far between, the drivers had more time -- and, it seemed, more inclination -- to be friendly.
With some of them, we passengers quickly got on a first-name basis. Hans, an affable Canadian who drove too fast, nevertheless made an unscheduled stop at one of his favorite scenic viewpoints in British Columbia -- Muncho Lake, a large and beautiful mountain gem of deep turquoise color -- so we could get off to snap pictures. Jerry, an Alaskan with an obvious love of the North Country, was full of tales about gold mining on the Yukon-Alaska border, a hobby of his. Steve, our final driver, was an amateur pianist who had brought along several classical tapes, which he played for us over the bus's speaker system.
Hans's scenic stops, Jerry's informative comments and Steve's tapes were an unexpected bonus on an intercity bus ride. After all, we hadn't signed up for an escorted tour. And Jerry had some complimentary things to say about his passengers. Most are independent types, he told us, who have subjected themselves to the occasional discomforts of the long ride because they are intently curious about the countryside through which they are passing. Our group, in fine form, peppered him with questions.
About those discomforts: The principal one -- for me, the only one -- was sitting up overnight on a crowded bus that had to negotiate endless sharp mountain curves on a bumpy road. I found it next to impossible to sleep, and I dozed only occasionally for a few minutes at a time. I made the trip in five days, spending two nights on the bus and two nights in roadside motels. The trip could be done in four days, including two nights on board and one obligatory night in a motel or campground.
However, I recommend taking seven or eight days -- both to avoid any overnight rides and to give yourself a chance to explore at least a couple of the frontier communities through which you are passing. My one disappointment, and it came as no surprise, is that the bus hurried past many places where I would like to have lingered. This is the big difference between an intercity bus and a tour bus. An intercity bus is in the business of hauling passengers, not entertaining them. I think that's why the unexpected little extras from the northern drivers proved so welcome.
A couple of sleepless nights, I concluded, was a small price in discomfort to pay for the real thrill of traveling the famed Alaska Highway from beginning to end. For most of its 1,422 miles from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Delta Junction in Alaska, it cuts through an untouched wilderness so vast as to be almost stupefying. Many times our bus climbed a high ridge where we could look for miles in every direction, and the only sign of civilization was the slender ribbon of concrete cutting through the forest far ahead of us. If I weren't afraid of sounding maudlin, I might confess the sight brought tears to my eyes more than once.
Anxious to get on the road, I showed up two hours early at the Vancouver bus station to buy my ticket. The clerk gave me the bad news: Heavy rains had caused flooding just south of Prince George and the road was washed out. The bus could take me to Quesnel or Williams Lake, the first towns south of Prince George, but no further. No one had any idea when the road would be repaired. It might take days, said the clerk.
What an inauspicious beginning. What should I do? I decided to take my chances on the bus. We wouldn't reach Quesnel until late in the day. Maybe the road would be opened by then. Meanwhile, I counted it fortunate that I had planned an extra day in my schedule. Even if I were delayed 24 hours -- which proved to be the case -- I still had time to make my Alaskon Express connection in Whitehorse.
The 43-passenger "Scenicruiser" started out almost empty, but it filled as we made several stops in the Vancouver suburbs. The first stop came only 15 minutes after we had left the Vancouver station. I sighed deeply, and wondered if I had made a mistake about this bus. If the delays kept up, the trip would be endless. Once free of the city, however, the pace quickened.
The rain-swollen Fraser River splashed turbulently between high walls of Fraser Canyon. Its waters were a sullen gray, the result of silt scraped from the mountain slopes by slow-moving glaciers.
In 1858, gold was discovered along the river, and thousands of prospectors paddled their way up river in hope of a strike. One town along the canyon highway is, indeed, called Hope. I tried to absorb the history while keeping an eye on the river. Meanwhile, the rain poured heavily, forming slender waterfalls that cascaded down the canyon walls. Just ahead on our route north was the Cariboo Highway, following the path of the old Cariboo Wagon Road that led miners to Canada's Cariboo Country, where even more gold had been found.
When we stopped that first evening for dinner at Williams Lake, a pleasant lakeshore community, the bus driver informed us the road onward to Prince George would remain closed until the next day. I decided to spend the night in a local motel. The forced halt actually proved beneficial. It gave me 24 hours to rest up before I climbed aboard the bus again for the next two nights on the road.
All of this was preliminary for what I considered the most important leg of the trip, the Alaska Highway out of Dawson Creek, a prairie town identified from afar by its tall grain elevators. An extraordinary engineering feat, the road was built jointly by the United States and Canada in 1942 in just nine months. The reason for the rush, of course, was the outbreak of World War II. Both countries feared a Japanese invasion of Alaska. The road served as an overland military supply route from the lower 48 states to Alaska. After the war, it was opened to tourist traffic.
In the early years, the road was all gravel. Since then, it has been paved almost entirely, although short stretches of gravel remain. On these segments, the dust stirred up by passing trucks can be blinding. "We call it Yukon fog," said Hans, the driver. Maintenance of the road is spotty. In some places, the pavement is wide and smooth; elsewhere, it is rough, potholes are a threat and there are no shoulders.
One big problem plaguing the highway is permafrost. Much of the northern end of the road was built across frozen ground. Basically, the pavement heats the soil beneath, causing the frost to melt. The soil becomes squishy, and the roadbed sinks. Much work has been done to correct the situation, but the highway is still full of queasy dips and rises. "Hold on to your seats, it's going to be a rough ride," said Jerry, when he took the wheel.
I was surprised how much traffic the road carried, most of it the vans and campers of summer tourists heading for the Alaska parklands. Towns are scarce along the highway, but every 20 to 50 miles there is an outpost providing food, gas and usually motel lodging. The best meal I ate was lunch at Laird River Lodge, a comfortable log structure across the road from Laird River Hotsprings Provincial Park in British Columbia. The chicken soup was homemade, and the ham in my sandwich came from a real baked ham. I longed to take a plunge in the park's natural outdoor hot pool, but there wasn't time.
In Beaver Creek, the obligatory stop, I stayed at Ida's Motel, which I think is representative of the lodging along the way. With rooms that run $45 (U.S.) a night, the place is well worn -- the result of harsh winters and long use -- but quite clean. Anything much fancier would have seemed out of place in the wilderness. I'll remember Ida's most, however, for what must be the world's largest pancakes. They are the size of a tricycle wheel -- the big front wheel -- and you get two of them draped across the dinner plate for about $3.50.
By the fifth day on the road, I was looking forward to the end. And yet I was far less tired than I had anticipated, and I had never once been bored. From Tok, the last change of buses, the final ride into Fairbanks took five hours. Steve, the driver, put on his classical tapes, some Beethoven and Mozart. Outside my window, on the left, my view was of the soaring peaks of the Alaska Range.
The most prominent one in sight was Mount Hayes, which climbs to an elevation of nearly 14,000 feet. For as long as I could, I watched the clouds play on its steep slopes. Then ahead was Fairbanks, journey's end. What were my thoughts? Someday, I told myself, I'm going to get back on the bus and do it all over again.
WAYS & MEANS GETTING THERE: I boarded the bus for Alaska in Vancouver because I wanted to see the scenery north of Vancouver. But there are a number of departure points from the United States or Canada, provided you can get to Dawson Creek in British Columbia, the start of the Alaska Highway.
I flew to Vancouver, took the bus to Fairbanks and returned to Washington by plane. The round-trip air fare on United Airlines was $664. The bus fare was $257. (For details, see related story, "The Trip, Leg by Leg," Page 3.) WHEN TO GO: Connecting bus service to Alaska from Whitehorse in the Yukon is available only in the summer months. This summer, the bus departs Tuesdays and Fridays until Sept. 14. The long summer days in the north make it possible to sightsee from the bus almost around the clock.
The temperature generally is warm during the day in summer but nights can get chilly. You may also need a sweater or light jacket when the bus stops in a mountain village, as it does often. I experienced heavy rain only on the first day out from Vancouver, apparently one more in a succession of stormy days that had swollen rivers already full from snow melt. The remaining four days were sunny and very pleasant. WHERE TO STAY: All the villages and cities where you must change buses have motels close to the bus station if you choose to stop en route. The communities with the most facilities are Prince George, Dawson Creek and Whitehorse.
There is an obligatory overnight layover in Beaver Creek in the Yukon. Make reservations in advance because the three motels there often fill up. All three motels have restaurants. They are:
Westmark Inn Beaver Creek: A deluxe motel at deluxe prices. A room for two is about $110 (U.S.). For information: (403) 862-7501.
Ida's Motel & Cafe: A local hangout with a good restaurant, a popular bar and 14 modest rooms. A room for two is about $45. My full dinner of barbecued pork ribs, salad, dessert, beer and tip came to about $18. For information: (403) 862-7223.
Marvin's Roost: An even more modest motel. Most rooms have a shared bath. A room for two is about $38. For information: (403) 862-7516.
Public or private campgrounds are available in every community, and there's usually one close to the bus stop. Between Vancouver and Fairbanks, the towns through which the bus passes are small enough that you can easily walk almost anywhere. INFORMATION: To check on the latest bus schedules, contact:
Greyhound Lines of Canada: For service from points in Canada to Whitehorse, (604) 662-3222.
Alaskon Express (Gray Line of Alaska): For service onward from Whitehorse to destinations in Alaska, 1-800-544-2206.
-- James T. Yenckel THE TRIP, LEG BY LEG The logistics of getting to the Midnight Sun are fairly simple. The distance is covered by two connecting bus lines, and the trip involves five changes of bus.
I began in Vancouver, because I wanted to see the countryside north of that city. But you could also head north via Calgary and Edmonton in Alberta. Both routes lead to Dawson Creek, the start of the Alaska Highway.
Greyhound of Canada -- which is not affiliated with the much-troubled Greyhound company in this country -- covers the first 1,600 miles of the journey from Vancouver. Its coaches depart for Prince George from the bus station in downtown Vancouver daily except Sunday at 8:30 a.m.
However, you can buy a through ticket all the way to Whitehorse, the principal city in the Yukon Territory. Service on the Vancouver-Whitehorse leg of the trip is provided year-round.
If you plan to ride straight through to Alaska, you will change buses in Prince George at the end of the first day, then travel overnight to Dawson Creek and change buses again the next morning for Whitehorse. The trip from Dawson Creek to Whitehorse, the longest stretch on a single coach, takes 24 hours almost exactly. Your second night on the bus is spent en route to Whitehorse.
From Whitehorse, the carrier is Alaskon Express, operated by Gray Line of Alaska, the touring company. If you are making same-day connections, there is a seven-hour layover in Whitehorse.
I checked into a nearby motel for a shower and a nap, and I still had time to take a look at the Yukon River, which flows through town.
Alaskon's buses depart for Anchorage and Fairbanks at noon on Friday and Tuesday during the summer only. This year, the schedule runs from May 29 to Sept. 14.
Soon out of Whitehorse, you change buses at the little village of Haines Junction and proceed on to Beaver Creek, a tiny spot of civilization on the Yukon-Alaska border. There the bus halts at 7 p.m. for the night.
Overnight lodgings are limited to a KOA campground and three motels, so advance reservations for a room are advised. At 8 a.m., the same bus and driver depart for the border and the crossroads village of Tok in Alaska.
Passengers headed for Anchorage stay on the bus at Tok. Those going to Fairbanks change buses once more. This time, the layover is six hours.
I passed much of the time at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center, an excellent information office representing eight state and federal agencies providing visitor services in Alaska. Movies on Alaska wildlife and other regional topics are shown throughout the day.
The last bus of the long journey arrives in Fairbanks about 9 p.m. at the end of the fourth day on the road. The one-way cost from Vancouver to Fairbanks is about $257, depending on the exchange rate between the American and Canadian dollar.
Layovers can be scheduled anywhere along the route, provided you specify where you want to get off at the time you purchase your ticket.
All the buses I rode were quite clean and in very good shape, and they all had restrooms. Smoking or drinking of alcohol are not permitted on any bus. The drivers did very well in keeping to the published schedule, and we fell behind only once because of bad weather.
Rest breaks come about every two hours. We generally got 20 minutes for coffee and snacks and 45 minutes for lunch and dinner. I stretched my legs at every opportunity.
I thought I might get saddle sore from so much time in the seat. But the frequent breaks kept me in good shape, and no back or muscle aches developed.
Rather, I found it relaxing to settle back for the duration with no responsibilities except getting myself on the proper bus when it came time to switch.
Admittedly, you will enjoy the trip more if you have a deep appreciation for fine scenery.