Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, once wrote about the allure of the north in an article for Canada's Saturday Night, a now-defunct magazine that was based in Toronto. In a piece entitled "True North," she poetically laid out the notion that since Canadians (and perhaps most Americans in the northern states) are more or less preoccupied with life to their south, the north is at the back of their minds, just outside of awareness. She wrote, "Turning to face north, . . . we enter our own unconscious. Always, in retrospect, the journey north has the quality of dream."
This was certainly true for me, and her words finally articulated a feeling I could not articulate for myself. In my early 20s, I was fascinated with places in the Far North -- places like the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and, of course, Alaska. What was life like for people living in the Arctic? What did their communities look like? What would it be like to experience perpetual daylight in the summer and sunless nights in the winter? What would it be like to live so remotely that the nearest settlement could be hundreds of miles away? Before I decided to reach every county in the United States, I wanted to explore the north.
Since then, I have been to Alaska at least a dozen times. I have been to the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and on an extended stopover on the way to Luxembourg in 1993, Iceland. In this post, I want to share my experience of traveling to Alaska for the first time, and my first solo extended road trip.
Juneau - 1987
The first time I went to Alaska, I was a 21-year-old University of Washington student living on a budget and short on free time. One week was about the maximum amount of time I could afford to be away from my job. I had to plan out my daily route and travel budget very carefully -- it had to be doable in the amount of time I had given myself, and it had to be done cheaply. I decided on a July getaway -- I was taking the summer semester off from school, plus the weather would be more agreeable. The best way to get there, after weighing all of the options, was by ferry.
In 1987, you could catch an Alaska State ferry from Seattle up through the Inside Passage of southeastern Alaska, or you could make the two-day drive into Canada and catch the ferry from Prince Rupert, British Columbia. As a walk-on, the price difference between the two ports was about $200, and that was a lot of money for a struggling college student in those days. I decided to take the cheaper route of driving to Prince Rupert, camping out along the way to save on accommodations.
Early on the morning of July 10, 1987, I loaded up my bright-orange '73 Volkswagen Fastback and set out for the Canadian border. It was my very first long-distance solo road trip. Just below my surface was a percolating layer of anxiety. I knew I would be traveling through vast stretches of sparsely populated land with few roadside services. I would also be traveling in a foreign country. If something were to happen, let's say, my car broke down in the middle of nowhere, getting help would be very difficult. I could be stranded for days. To hedge against this possibility, I brought lots of prepared food.
After a slight detour on the BC Ferry system to visit Vancouver Island and Victoria, I got back on the Trans-Canada Highway eastbound for Hope where I overnighted at a campsite right off the highway. I had borrowed my father's vinyl one-person tent that was the color of enchilada sauce. It was sticky in the heat and rain and resembled a large wad of chewing gum when folded up. Each night, I wrestled with the gummy layers of material which took a good amount of force to separate. It was my shelter for most of the trip. The following morning, I got back on the Trans-Canada which immediately hooked northward. At Cache Creek, the Trans-Canada heads east toward the Canadian Rockies, but I continued north along BC Highway 97 and maintained the momentum due north toward Prince George -- the largest city in north central British Columbia. It was somewhere between the tiny communities of 70 Mile House and 100 Mile House where I had my first setback, and where my anxiety erupted to the surface.
I had been driving for miles without seeing a single sign of civilization save for the cars coming from the opposite direction along the highway. As I was descending a hill, the engine of my car suddenly quit. Panic set in. This was the scenario I most dreaded. With no other choice, and a cold wave of fear rushing through my body, I coasted down the hill. At the bottom, where the road rounded a curve, there to my utter astonishment, was a small service station. Luck was on my side that day. An attendant looked under the hood, quickly diagnosed the problem and had me back on the road in under 30 minutes. My fuel line had disengaged -- an easy fix as it turned out; I had dodged a bullet.
The experience put me on tenterhooks for the rest of the journey, however. The incident still fresh in my mind, I continued to worry about unforeseen mechanical problems. I couldn't afford delays, and I certainly couldn't afford costly repairs. Lamentably, it cast a bit of a shadow on the remainder of my car journey. As it turned out, it was the one and only mishap with my car on the trip. Two days, and nearly a thousand kilometers later, in the very early hours of July 13, I locked up my car in a parking lot in Prince Rupert and boarded the M/V Malaspina with everything I needed strapped to my back.
It was on this first day getting on the ferry in Prince Rupert when I met Sue Easton, a British subject on her way to summer employment in a can-can theater located in the northern community of Dawson City, Yukon. She and I were the same age; we bonded instantly over travel and the experience of being in Alaska. She had never been to the United States before; her first port of entry was Ketchikan, Alaska. She and I traveled together until I got off the boat at Juneau the next day. She continued on to Skagway where she had other transportation lined up. We exchanged contact information and stayed in touch for a few months after our respective trips had completed. I was glad to have a travel companion, even if it was for just a day and a half.
Being on a ferry, you can't really tell when you've crossed a political border. I could really only be sure I was in Alaska when the captain announced our approach to Ketchikan. I would have preferred to get a welcome sign photo, or some kind of memento of the occasion of entering Alaska for the first time. Instead, I settled for pictures of Ketchikan. (The ferry stopped in each of the ports just long enough for passengers to disembark and make a quick, exploratory dash on foot through the small communities.) As I recall, I had about an hour to take in this first Alaskan city. Ketchikan that day was cold and misty, but for me, it was genuine Alaskan soil. A little bit of chilly marine weather could not dampen my enthusiasm. I was finally in Alaska! After all, the weather is always unpredictable in this part of Alaska, even in the summertime. In fact, for the rest of the time I was there, it rained.
Ketchikan, Alaska - 1987:
The fee for a sleeping berth on the ferry was exorbitant. Fortunately, many of us budget travelers were allowed to lay out our sleeping bags on one of the deck chairs under the heat lamps of the solarium. It provided the necessary shelter from the rain and just enough heat to sleep soundly in the cold nighttime Alaskan air.
The ferry stopped in the southeastern Alaskan communities of Petersburg and Wrangell on its way northward. I quickly explored both and was back on the boat within an hour of each stop. The next morning, the ferry arrived in Juneau. The ferry dock, as it turned out, was about 15 miles north of the city center, and there was no municipal bus service that went as far as the ferry terminal. I had a choice: I could either pay the bloated cab fare to get a ride into town, or I could hike one mile down the highway to catch the municipal bus. Money being tight, I hiked to the bus stop.
Juneau surprised me. It wasn't what I was expecting. It is a very densely built city occupying an extremely narrow piece of land that is squeezed between steep, ascending mountains to the northeast and the Gastineau Channel to the southwest. The streets are narrow and there are almost no traffic lights. I had hours to kill before checking into the youth hostel, so I wandered the damp downtown streets toting my backpack and stopping here and there for photos and snacks.
I arrived at the youth hostel just as they were opening to welcome their evening guests. To my great disappointment, it was completely full. I had been counting on it to avoid endangering my budget. As fate would have it, there were two other men my age traveling from Belgium who were similarly turned away. The three of us agreed to find an inexpensive hotel room and split the cost three ways. We found one in an old building a few blocks away for $51/night, a bargain for Juneau -- they took the bed and I slept on the floor in my sleeping bag.
Juneau, being the state capital, is filled with government jobs and government buildings. The capitol building itself is rather unremarkable, and when I saw it for the first time, I felt somewhat let down. It does not have that neo-Classical, domed architectural style characteristic of most state capitol buildings. It is an Art Deco building constructed between 1929 and 1931 with four columns tacked onto the entrance in what looks like an architectural afterthought. It served as the Federal and Territorial Building until 1959 when Alaska gained statehood:
The following morning, in the wee hours of July 15, I bit the bullet and hired a cab to take me back to the ferry terminal in time to catch the return voyage back to Prince Rupert. I was in Juneau for just one day. It was all the time I could afford. On the ferry ride back, I read books and slept on the floor between the rows of chairs, just inside the enclosed seating area, and no one seemed to care. Twenty-four hours or so later, I was back in Prince Rupert. It took me two more days to drive the rest of the way back to Seattle, retracing my northward route through British Columbia.
It was, in short, an amazing journey for me. It tested my mettle against unanticipated challenges and boosted my confidence as a solo road tripper. I was witness to some of the most stunning scenery on the West Coast. I locked in a suite of memories of that amazing experience. And I carry them with me to this day. As I look back on this adventure, the journey north to Alaska unquestionably had the quality of dream.
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!