June 06, 2016

The Trip Home

I wake before my alarm goes off at 7:00. The ship is already docked in Vancouver, British Columbia. The last items are packed away, and I go for breakfast, my last meal on the ship. The buffet is very busy, but the staff is prepared today and everything works smoothly. Turn around days are the hardest on the staff because of all the extra work getting rid of one set of passengers, readying the ship, and greeting a new set.

At 9:00 we head to the gangway, luggage in tow. The process is painless. I learned many years ago how to navigate an escalator with two suitcases in tow. The one I never figured out is how to climb stairs with two suitcases, but we encounter no stairs. Canadian immigration process consists of collecting a form. No interview, no questions, they don't even want to see if I have a passport, not to mention look at it.

Finding the luggage storage facility is easy. There is a line of passengers using the service. It takes about 20 minutes to get the group's 23 pieces of luggage checked. How to get out of Pacific Place is another matter. We are directed the wrong way by the first person we asked. Our second attempt is successful. Once outside, the group disperses to engage in different activities until we meet again at the airport at 7:00 PM to claim our luggage and check in for our various flights back to the USA.

I head to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, one of the best rated tourist attractions in Vancouver. The free shuttle bus from Pacific Place is a bonus. The bridge is fun, especially if you are a people watcher. Kids try to make it sway, some adults are scared out of their minds. They think it is bad going across, and probably don't realize they have to cross the bridge a second time if they ever want to go home again. A couple of hours here is enough for me to see everything. The bus takes some of us back to Pacific Place, others will return later.

After a lunch at Subway, I buy a ticket for the Hop On Hop Off Bus. The route takes me around the city including several stops in Stanley Park, a thousand acre park in the city, much of it native woodlands. The bus eventually brings me back to Pacific Place.

Vancouver definitely is a city where one could spend a few days. We were fortunate in that the weather was absolutely perfect, sunny skies and temperatures in the low 70's. An unusual phenomena for Vancouver.

I eventually head to the train station about a block away to find a train to the airport. Instructions are clear, I purchase my $2.70 CAD ticket, and follow the signs. Modern clean trains run about every 7 minutes during rush hour on a Friday night. After about a 30 minute ride I am in the airport looking for the luggage company. Downstairs and a few hundred foot walk, it is easy.

Checking in with United is fairly quick. Metal detectors at the security checkpoint do their usual thing and set off bells and whistles as I approach. Eventually I am cleared.

Our 10:50 PM flight to Chicago is smooth. Some passengers are able to sleep, but not me. I never have been able to sleep on a plane. I think the engine noise is just too much.

Because of the late departure, we are not able to clear US customs in Canada, but must do so in the US.

We land at Chicago's International Terminal. At customs and immigration there are tempermental kiosks that take our picture and attempt to compare them with our passport photos. There are only 2 agents, and a plane from Mexico unloaded just before us. It takes about 30 of 40 minutes, we claim our luggage and immediately give it back to United for our flight to Orlando.

Of course our next flight leaves from the terminal as far away from the international terminal as one can get and still be at the airport. After the shuttle tram it is still a long walk. I already have a boarding pass, so I don't need to check in with United, but do need to be processed by TSA again. While I am waiting for my usual "additional processing" a cigarette lighter falls off the baggage conveyor belt. TSA is in panic, "There was an explosion in the luggage X-Ray....", an exaggeration that brings everything to a screeching halt.

Despite the long distances and the delays, I make it to the gate about 10 minutes before boarding. We leave the gate and taxi to near the end of the runway, and then turn back towards the gate. A water leak has been discovered in the forward galley. We need to go back to a gate and have a mechanic look at it.

About an hour and a half later we are on our way to Orlando. The captain pushes the jet at maximum speed and makes up some of the lost time. No matter how you cut the pie, this plane is going to be late for the rest of the day.

About 3:00 Saturday afternoon I am back home. Over 30 hours with no sleep. I'm getting too mature for this. (I don't like the "O" word!) I don't unpack, I hit the shower and then nap for about 5 hours. Hopefully within a few days my internal clock will be back to normal. No trips for at least a few months, time to finish a railroad before the NMRA National Convention in Orlando next summer.

At the moment my next cruise is October 22 on MSC Divina for 2 weeks. Pictures from this trip will be posted in a few days.

Day at Sea

This is our last day on the ship. We turned our clocks ahead one hour last night. I think I am being smart, and wait until 10:30 to have breakfast. The windjammer closes for breakfast at 11:00 and I expect it to be nearly empty. Well I got that one wrong. It takes a walk around the room twice before I find a table. For some reason they have shut down some of the serving stations even though many people are waiting in lines for food. Actually I know the reason, they schedule by the clock not by customer demand. It is 10:30, so we shut down half of the service. Period.

I find my family in the Solarium, they report the water is really too cold to enjoy. I had no intentions of swimming in Alaska and didn't even bring a suit. Plans are made to meet for dinner at 5:30. They also want to carry off luggage in Vancouver instead of having the ship handle it. It certainly is quicker, and I tell them that is fine with me as long as someone can lug my second suitcase if needed.

Even though we get off the ship in the morning, our flight isn't until 11 PM. We plan to tour Vancouver during the day, doing what, depends on the weather when we get there. Vancouver isn't known for great weather. Adrienne, my oldest daughter, has found a luggage service that will accept our luggage at the ship dock, transfer it to the airport, store it for the day, and have it available for us to pickup at the airport in the evening.

Dinner reservations have been confirmed for 13 at 5:30. Not an easy task, but Royal gets it done. Unfortunately it is then learned that starting about 6 PM we pass through a strait where often there are many whales sighted. At least our table is next to the window so we may see some more whales. I don't remember if I mentioned this earlier, if I did, read about it again. Some of the fishermen in Alaska have been caught off guard this year because the salmon have started running two to three weeks earlier than ever before and many fishermen didn't have their boats ready or in the water.

It is suspected that the seals and whales are also making an early appearance this year, because of the warmer weather over much of the world.

Yes, some whales are spotted during dinner. I get a soft drink at the Champagne Bar after dinner and soon depart to the cabin to pack.

Ketchikan Alaska

Ketchikan Alaska is our last Alaskan port on the Radiance of The Seas. As we arrive at 9:00 AM the temperature is about 50, the skies very cloudy with some rain. The sun manages to peek thru for a few minutes. When I prepare to leave the ship for my "Bering Sea Crab Fisherman's Tour" it is pouring, fortunately I only have to walk about 10 yards between the covered gangway of the ship, and the covered gangway to the Aleutian Ballad fishing vessel.

This ship was featured in the early seasons of Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch. The ship was almost lost twice in it's history, once when a 90 foot wave knocked her over on her side and all hands had to abandon ship in the icy Bering Sea. The second time she ran aground and ripped holes thru much of the bottom. Several years ago she was refitted at a cost of about three million dollars to carry tours out of Ketchikan Harbor, her commercial fishing days behind her.

The staff on the ship relate many personal stories and tragedies from their years of crab fishing in the icy Alaskan waters. They give demonstrations of setting and pulling crab pots, and long lines. They work in cooperation with a sovereign Indian Nation, and everything they catch is released back into the water. The neatest part of the tour was when dozen's of eagles flew nearby to take fish thrown into the water by the crew. I promise, pictures will be posted as soon as I can.

The owner of the ship still owns a quota for king crab, but he leases that license to another operator, and spends his summer running his tour operation and talking with tour passengers. Personally, now knowing more about the dangers and conditions the crab fisherman work under, I think he has made a smart move,.

I didn't consciously set out to do this, but I now realize much of this trip touched on the locations of various TV shows. I traveled the "haul road" stopping at Coldfoot, an often featured location on "Ice Road Truckers". I rode the Alaska Railroad nearly 500 miles from Fairbanks to Seward. The TV show "Alaska Railroad" covered operations on this same route, and today my tour was on the Aleutian Ballard, featured in Deadliest Catch, rounding out my inadvertent ties to TV. And I must add, our entertainer the other night, Bobby Arvon, sang the theme song for the TV show Happy Days for many years, a show I never watched.

Earlier I had mentioned that there of 13 of us together on this cruise. We all had dinner together the first night, and I haven't seen any of them again until this afternoon. We are planning on having dinner again tomorrow night, the last evening of the cruise.

I imagine there are a few of you that have missed stories about strange passenger behavior. Well I am happy to report there really has been nothing worthy of writing about. Yes there was one person in the Windjammer buffet in pajamas early this morning, but that has been about it.

The ship is sold out, all cabins are occupied. The food and service has been good. The only glitch I have had is room keys. Here it is the sixth day and I am on key # 4. Maybe my surgeon slipped in some magnets when he installed my replacement joints, I don't know. They are supposed to be titanium, but whatever they are made of, they set off the metal detectors each time I board the ship. I'm pretty used to this by now as it happens often.

Tomorrow is a "sea day" in the context we don't dock. Actually most of an Alaskan cruise takes place on the inside passage, or close to land, not what you would call "out to sea". The ship has barely rocked at all.

Icy Strait Point

We arrive at Icy Strait Point at 6:30 AM. Initially I didn't think I would get off the ship today, but after seeing how close everything was I decided I might never be here again, so I should.

Icy Strait Point is a private development built strictly for the cruise ships that stop here. Many years ago the site supported a commercial salmon canning operation. Long after the cannery closed, about 10 years ago, numerous tours were created for cruise ship passengers. The ships anchored in the bay and had to tender to the dock.

In March of this year a new dock was completed for cruise ships to eliminate the tendering process. Because the completion date of the dock was uncertain there have only been a limited number of ships this season,. Many more ships are already scheduled for next year. The dock can only handle one ship at a time. When we departed at 3:15 PM, a few minutes late because two passengers were late returning to the ship, the Celebrity Infinity was waiting to take our place.

The stop offers dozens of tours from zip lines to whale watching, to nature walks and fishing. The old cannery has been turned into a museum, and of course there is a large shopping area and several places to dine, fresh salmon being a featured item. In the nearest town, about 4 miles away, natives are carving totem poles for a new National Park Service visitors center in Glacier Bay. All work is being done by hand with no power tools, and so far the carvings have taken five years. The visitors center is being built as needed to accommodate the massive totem poles.

Eagles are frequently sighted flying overhead, and seals and whales can be seen swimming past the docked ship. Definitely a stop where the beauty of nature has priority over shopping.

June 01, 2016

Skagway Alaska

We arrive in Skagway at 7:00, I think. I'm still asleep and don't see daylight until about 9:30. Again the weather is cloudy with a few showers but the temperature approaches the mid 60's in the sun. The most popular thing to do here is ride the White Pass Railroad. I did this less than two years ago so I forgo a repeat trip and walk the town instead, all 8 blocks or so. Again the Explorer of The Seas and a SilverSeas ship are also in port. For $5.00 I purchase a ticket for the local bus which is good for as often as I want the entire day. One of the stops is right at our ship.

Skagway, like the other Alaskan ports, is slowly losing its charm as the big international firms like Diamonds International, Cariloha, Effy and Del Sol infiltrate the local shopping scene. It is obvious the locals aren't pleased as many shops post signs pointing out their long history of ownership by Alaskan Natives.

Today is the day for crew drills. First, half the lifeboats are lowered and they run around the harbor for 45 minutes or so. Before the life boat drill is finished, there is a fire drill, and that is soon followed by a medical emergency drill, and one that I have never witnessed before, a search for hidden bombs. The drills involve nearly all the crew, and take almost 3 hours to complete. I suspect there are probably a relatively large number of new crew members as the ship just came out of dry dock a few weeks ago.

Having said that, there are the usual glitches that always appear following a dry dock such as doors that don't open properly, elevators that are stuck on certain decks, and others that will go to any deck except the one you want.

We leave Skagway at 8:30 for our scheduled arrival at Icy Strait Point at 6:30 the next morning.

Juneau Alaska

We arrive in Juneau about 9:00 AM. The weather is mostly cloudy with some scattered showers. Highs are expected to be in the upper 50's. Juneau, the capital of Alaska, is unique in that there are no roads to Juneau, it can only be reached by sea or air. There are many wildlife and adventure tours available, but I choose one of the easiest, the tramway to the top of Mount Roberts. I have always been drawn to such things along with visiting observation platforms on tall buildings.

On the way up the mountain I spot an eagle in a nearby tree top. There is a rapture rehabilitation facility on the top of the mountain. The views are as good as can be expected in the cloudy weather. After I return to sea level I walk to the downtown area and stop at the world famous Red Dog Saloon for lunch. Very busy, but the service and food was good. I'll post pictures once I'm back home.

A good friend, Kelly Goodrich plays in the piano bar for Royal Caribbean, and has played on the Radiance for a number of seasons in Alaska. It is a good thing he is on a different ship this season as I have yet to stay up late enough to make it to the piano bar. Tonight will not be any different, I retire just as we leave port at 9:00 PM headed to our next port of Skagway.

Hubbard Glacier

We are scheduled to arrive at Hubbard Glacier at about 2:00 PM, but we arrive hours before then. The weather is absolutely perfect. Sunny skies without a cloud in the sky. The Guide tells us this is the best day for viewing the glacier he has seen in 10 years. Even if he is exaggerating, there is no questioning the weather is perfect.

The captain slowly maneuvers the ship close to the glacier face and rotates the ship in a complete circle four times so everyone can get a good view. The glacier cooperates by calving numerous times. Usually the Captain is lucky to make two turns before having to depart.

The crew launches a small boat and corrals a chunk of glacier ice to bring back on board. It will probably be several days before it melts completely.

We eventually leave the glacier behind and head for our next port of call, Juneau, Alaska.

The concierge lounge is busy, but not overcrowded as it often is. There are a number of passengers that have been on the ship since it came out of dry dock several weeks ago. No different than other ships, there are passengers that almost live here.

Nothing major was changed during dry dock. New carpet, some technology updates, and maintenance items not apparent to passengers. One update was new bearings in the generators. Someone goofed and installed one bearing backwards resulting in quite a vibration in the ship. Technicians are now on board and it is expected to be corrected in a few days. Can't even blame foreign workers as the dry dock was completed in Portland, Oregon.

This is my first time on the Radiance. I have been on one of her sister ships, but must confess I don't remember the details. She is quite modern with lots of chrome and glass. With over 2000 passengers she seems quite busy after having spent many months on the much smaller Amsterdam.

I have dinner in the Windjammer Buffet, and retire before 9 PM.

On Board The Radiance of The Seas

I quickly board The Radiance of The Seas in Seward Alaska. One of my two suitcases is sitting in the hallway. Within 15 minutes I have most everything unpacked. Our plan is for everyone to dine together at 5:30. I go to the concierge Lounge for cocktails and meet the others at the designated time. We are seated promptly. The food is good and the service is excellent, especially when you consider we are a table of 13. If my first meal is any indicator, the quality of food on the Radiance is better than what was served on the Amsterdam. There is no comparison in service. I am quickly reminded why I really prefer Royal Caribbean.

I have good intentions of going to the show in the theater, but I am just too worn out, I am in bed by 9. Vacations are rough. I am probably about 5 days behind in writing notes for the blog, but that will just have to wait another few days.

We leave Seward at 8:00 PM and head for Hubbard Glacier.

Train to Anchorage and Seward

On the Gold Star Alaska Railroad again - Since I will be having lunch on the train to Anchorage, I skip any attempt to have breakfast even though the lobby and restaurant reopen this morning. There is still the lingering odor of smoke in the building. The damage from the fire is quite minimal, essentially a section of roofing and outside wall around the stack where the flue from the lobby fireplace runs up and thru the roof. Guests are told it was an electrical fire, but it really looks like a fire related to the operation of the fireplace.

The shuttle bus driver is from Florida, and comes to Denali every summer just to drive a shuttle bus. On the way to the train station he stops at the national park sign so everyone can take pictures if they wish. Again a quick boarding process. This leg is approximately an 8 hour run from Denali to Anchorage. The train has a few more passengers, I guess about 25 in Gold Star, but didn't bother to get an exact count.

What can I say except the ride is very comfortable, the scenery spectacular, and being an afternoon trip I take advantage of the free drinks. Clearly a case where a picture is worth a thousand words, so look at the pictures I will post within a few weeks.

Adrienne is waiting for me at the Anchorage station, and after I collect my luggage we are off to a hotel for the night. The alarm is set for 5:00 as we meet in the lobby to take a cab to the station for the last leg of the trip to Seward. Again I am riding in Gold Star. The others are in coach. More spectacular scenery, breakfast in the dining car, but no drinks, it is too early.

The train has over 500 passengers for this leg, nearly all of them headed to the port to board the Radiance of the Seas. Much to my surprise our luggage is checked right to our cabins on the ship, not carried by rail, but carried by truck to save one unload and reloading step.

My car has 74 of its 76 seats occupied, the other Gold Star car is equally full. John, another solo traveler and I, are the only passengers with an empty seat next to us. Several of the passengers that were on the Fairbanks to Denali segment are on board again today.

Once in Seward we take a short shuttle ride to visit Exit glacier. I elect to only hike the short trail, the majority of the others hike out to the face of the glacier. The glacier is not very large, but has been extensively studied for many years. I estimate the Glacier has receded nearly a mile since the first records were made about a hundred years ago. Signs along the trail indicate the location of the face at different points in recent times. I make it back to the shuttle pick-up time with 5 minutes to spare.

After a long walk from the shuttle drop off to the ship, I quickly check in an board. It feels good to be back on a ship again. This packing and unpacking every day or two just doesn't make a lot of sense.

Denali National Park

After I settle into the hotel I learn that my Denali Park tour has been rescheduled from 5:00 am to 9:20 AM. This is probably a good thing as if I want breakfast before leaving on the eight hour tour. I need to shuttle to the Princess Hotel, have breakfast, and wait for the tour bus there.

Breakfast was delicious, and complimentary because of the inconvenience caused by the fire. When I board the tour bus we are told the back section of the bus is roped off because she has to pick up another group of passengers at the park visitors center. You can imagine my surprise when most of the other boarding passengers were my family that I did not expect to see until I arrive in Anchorage in another two days.

The park tour was good. The weather only partially cooperated with lots of clouds and a little rain. We were not able to see Mt Denali, or Mt McKinley as many of you would know it. This is not unusual, and is the case 70 percent of the time. We did see lots of sheep, caribou, several young bears, moose, and a number of small animals and birds. The scenery again is spectacular. I gave Alyssa, my youngest daughter, my window seat, but she had to pay for it by taking pictures not only with my camera but with the cameras of 3 or 4 people that were sitting on the other side of the bus.

After the tour the 12 of us went to a local brewery in Healy for dinner. Healy is a coal mining town about 15 minutes from Denali and not a place that tourists usually stop. The food and beer was good. For the first time in years I am carded before I can order a beer. Alaska marks the license of anyone convicted of DUI and they are prohibited from purchasing alcohol, this requires everyone to be carded.

Back at my hotel I learn the process for catching the train to Anchorage. Basically I need to set my luggage out by 9:00, check out by 10:00 and board the shuttle bus at 10:45. I do a load of laundry at the guest laundry in the hotel. It is busy and I have to wait about 20 minutes for an empty dryer. Dying clothes always takes two or three times as long as washing. Why then do all laundromats have only one dryer for each washer? Something I will never understand. I hit the pillow about midnight, 5 AM Florida and body time. I will try and sleep a little later in the morning.

Train to Denali

My cab pulls up to the lobby door just before 5:45. I arrive at the station, check my luggage and get my boarding pass. No dogs sniffing my luggage, no scanners invading my body, just show some sort of ID and I'm on my way. My bags are checked right to my hotel in Denali.

My gamble that the Tanana Valley Model Railroad club layout will be open pays off. Two of the club's 10 members are present. Their agreement with Alaska Railroad for free use of the space is that they have to be open to the public for an hour before each regular passenger train departs during the summer months, this is seven trains a week. The railroad also operates several private trains for the cruise lines, but the waiting passengers only get to see the model if by chance a member is there.

No surprise, they model a portion of the Alaska Railroad. The layout is DC in HO scale. Much of the scenery is scratch built, and the rolling stock is all modern Alaska Railroad.

I have chosen to splurge and purchase the Gold Star Service. Seating is in relatively new double deck dome cars built specifically for the Alaska Railroad. All seating is on the upper level with complementary bar service at one end of the car as well as an outdoor platform which is ideal for picture taking. With Gold Star Service meal service is included in the dining area on the lower level.

The train is staffed by mostly young men and women, many just out of high school or attending college. The conductor is the only staff person over 30. Gold Star Service can carry 76 passengers in each car. From Fairbanks to Denali there are just 17 of us in one car and zero in the other.

This really is a tourist train more than passenger service. We seldom exceed 35 mph even though the track limit is 70 most of the time. When moose or bear are sighted, the train will often slow to a crawl. Despite this appearing to be a haphazard way to run a railroad, we arrive precisely on schedule. The scenery is spectacular as we make our way towards Denali, bordering rivers, cutting thru mountain passes and rolling across the permafrost tundra. I will post pictures soon after my return to Florida.

I board the shuttle to the hotel and the checking in process is completed during the 10 minute drive. We are also informed that the lobby, bar, restaurant, and tour desk are closed due to a fire in the lobby of the main lodge building four days ago. A temporary office is set up on portable tables and bankers boxes in the hallway. There is quite a bit of confusion as the hotel just opened for the season a few weeks ago and most of the staff are temporary hires for the summer. We manage without much inconvenience. Without food available I take the free shuttle into town and grab a hot dog at "The Denali Dog House". Probably the most expensive hot dog I have ever purchased.

I also learn that my tour into Denali National Park has been rescheduled from 5:00 to 9:20. I crash for the night and set my alarm even though I have usually been awake by 3:30 or 4:00. My body just doesn't adapt to time zone changes quickly.

Last Day In Fairbanks

I have one more day in Fairbanks before heading across the state. Initially I left the calendar clear in case I needed to reschedule my trip North of the Arctic Circle. The weather forecast is for scattered showers, and at the last minute I decide on a game plan for the day. A trip on the Riverboat Discovery, and a tour of Gold Dredge # 8.

These are the two most popular tours in Fairbanks, coincidentally owned and operated by the same family. I call and make reservations. Even though it is only an hour before leaving dock, tickets must be purchased in advance by phone as they do not have the internet capability to handle ticketing at either location.

I pick up my ticket at the dock. Even though there are 500 passengers, I am one of about 6 that have purchased tickets directly. All the other passengers are here as part of a tour package from one of the cruise lines. The riverboat is a modern four deck stern wheeler powered by diesel engines, and hydraulic propulsion equipment including both bow and stern side thrusters.

The tour takes us up and down the Chena river. We pass a diverse range of houses, some very simple log cabins and others very elaborate modern structures with solar panels and all sorts of toys in the yard.

The boat stops at several locations. One is at the home and kennels of the late Iditarod Champion and Alaskan Legend, Susan Butcher. We are given a demonstration of some of the techniques used in training of the team. At our next stop we get to meet the dogs face to face.

Our next stop is at the Chena Village, a replica of the original Chena Indian Village of the early 1900s. Examples of how they caught and smoked fish, trapped animals, and the houses they lived in are authentically recreated. Authentic dress including a winter parka was modeled by a native Chena indian. We were told the parka takes over six months to make and is valued in excess of $20,000. We have about half an hour of free time to revist the kennels or any of the other exhibit areas.

The tour was well done. The narrator on the ship is a local radio personality, and his profession had a very positive impact on the quality of his presentation.

All of the tour groups headed for a group lunch, most at a facility at the dock, and one bus load to a different venue. The four or five cars and one cab leave with no traffic to contend with.

I grab a fast food lunch and head to the next stop. An old gold mine dredge which is located about 10 mines out of town. Again I am one of a handful of individual passengers that arrive before the tour buses. To reach the dredge we ride a narrow gauge train a mile or so to the dredge site, the spot where it was shut down about 60 years ago. During its long history, it only traveled about 8 miles after it was first assembled in Alaska.

As we step off the train we are given a bag of gravel to pan for gold. Everyone is guaranteed to find some gold, and are given more material until they do. I was told that the flakes I found are worth $9 at today's prices. Some passengers found as much as $50 worth. This is just a part of the cost of operating the business. The gold does not come from the site of the gold dredge, but is purchased from other nearby operating mines.

After my gold was weighed I spent half an hour climbing around the old dredge. It is large, but very simple and very efficient in what it does. Gold pricing was held artificially low at $35 per ounce by the federal government. As operating costs crept up to the point where it cost more to recover gold than it was worth, the dredge was forced to close down. Over the years of the dredge's operation it returned about $10 in profit for every $1 of original investment. Not a bad return.

When I leave the dredge I head to the North Pole. A community about 15 minutes from my hotel. A classic tourist town. The street lights look like candy canes, there is a 30 foot santa at the entrance to town, and all the streets have Christmas names. I drive around, take a few pictures and head back to Fairbanks for the night.

I find a local restaurant for dinner. No tour buses, only locals and me. The pasta is plentiful, the service excellent and the cost high as is everything in Alaska.

I drive my car back to the airport and return by complementary shuttle to my hotel. At the front desk I arrange for a cab to pick me up at 6:30 in the morning to take me to the train station.

North of The Arctic

Today's tour "Arctic Circle Fly/Drive Adventure" will ultimately take me about 100 miles North of the Arctic Circle. Just before 5:00 AM I gather at the tour operator's office to check in. "Check In" means sign waivers that regardless what happens to you it is NOT the responsibility of the tour operator. Our carry along luggage is weighed to ensure that the plane is not overloaded. We order our optional box lunch which we will pick up along the way.

There are only seven passengers and our driver/guide in the 15 passenger van converted to a 12 passenger van. One younger solo passenger from Oklahoma, a couple from the East coast, Virginia I believe, and a couple from Mumbai, India with their teenage son. The wife is very ill. She lies down on a bench waiting for the van to load, and spends the majority of the day sleeping in back seat with her son and husband taking turns offering their lap as a pillow. Several hours into the trip she acknowledges that when they left the hotel her fever was over 104!

I share the 3rd seat with the other solo passenger, the couple take the second row seat, and the Indian family take the front passenger seat and the fourth row seat.

We leave promptly at 5:30 in a light rain. Our drive takes us North on a major highway headed towards the Yukon River. Our first stop is at "Wildwood General Store". There is no electricity here, in fact the power grid ended many miles ago, but there are several outhouses. The store is closed, the tourist season is just starting, but the driver knows where the keys are kept, on a nail by the door, and opens the outhouses for us. Actually they are amazingly clean. The store started with the children of the family selling lemonade to the truckers working on the pipeline. They sold the lemonade for $1 a glass, and were often given a $5 tip by the grateful drivers. Recognizing an opportunity they soon expanded the operation into a "general store". Today it is operated by the same family. We are back on the road after a 15 minute break.

The skies have cleared and the rain has stopped. Our next stop is at milepost #1 of the Dalton Highway, or "haul road" as it is sometimes referred to. The road was built in one summer to provide a means to transfer men, materials, and machinery to build the Alaska oil pipeline. A road that was constructed over the rugged Alaskan terrain at a completion rate of 2 miles a day.

After another 50 miles or so we stop at an easy access point to take a closeup look at the pipeline. Some of it is above ground, other parts buried. The technique depending on soil conditions. At the time, the pipeline construction was one of the largest construction projects in the world, and continues in operation today, many years past its design life.

The Dalton highway has been improved over the years since original construction. A good part of it is now paved, but we travel some sections where the road is nothing more than six inches of mud. I understand why rental car companies forbid rentals from being driven on the haul road.

About 5 hours into our trip we cross the Yukon River and stop at the Yukon River Camp to pick up our box lunch. We were offered a choice of ham, roast beef, corned beef, or turkey. A choice of several types of cheese, and several kinds of bread. All of the individual ingredients were individually wrapped in plastic wrap and then sealed in a zip lock. I thought a very good approach as this method kept everything as fresh as possible. After a trek to the rivers edge, we are back in the van and on our way. Eating lunch was a real challenge in the bouncing van. Everyone wore seat belts not to protect themselves in the event of a crash, but to keep us held in place on our seats. Yes, the road is rough.

We make several stops to stretch our legs and take pictures. The temperature fluctuates between the low forties and the low sixties. There is virtually no wind, and the mosquitoes are humongous. Being large they have a voracious appetite. Deet seems to work pretty well, I think I only get one bite on my cheek even though I had applied a liberal layer of repellant.

To entertain ourselves, we count the passing vehicles going the opposite direction. Over the course of nearly 11 hours of driving we are passed by about 40 vehicles going the other direction. That is about one vehicle every 15 minutes. Surprising I learn the road is easier to drive in winter than in summer. Ice fills in many of the holes so the surface is much smoother, and of course there is no mud.

Very similar to the TV show "Ice Road Truckers" everyone uses a CB Radio and seems to know everyone else on the road. The truckers tell us about vehicles, especially oversized ones, coming towards us, and recent wildlife sightings. The thought is what counts here. We see one squirrel and one moose footprint the entire trip. I am doing this for the scenery and to be able to say I was there, not for the wildlife.

About 200 miles into the trip we cross the Arctic Circle. Yes there is a dotted line marking the location on the ground. The driver made sure of this by laying down a red carpet with a dotted line on it. We are given a slice of cake to celebrate, and after pictures are soon back on the road again.

Our next stop is the Coldfoot camp, another location often featured in Ice Road Truckers. We learn that the tour company now owns the camp. Essentially a small remote truck stop where food and fuel can be purchased. Many truckers will layover here for a nights rest as driving all the way to Deadhorse is too far to go without sleep. This is also where there is a small airstrip for our plane to land and take us back to Fairbanks later in the day.

We rest here for about 30 minutes then head North for about another 50 miles before returning to Coldfoot.

At each stop the driver checks in with the home office. No there is no cell service, he uses a portable satellite phone. Improvements are in the works though, fiber has been laid to Coldfoot and they are working their way further north. I expect if it isn't operational to Coldfoot, it will be soon.

When we return our plane and pilot are ready. Only five of us returning today, the other couple are spending the night in Coldfoot, doing some white water rafting and then a river float on the Yukon before flying back the following day.

Our driver also has to lay over to the following day. Ryan has spent all his life in Alaska, and has one more year of college. He has worked for this tour company for four seasons. This is the first trip he has ever taken north of the Circle. And he has seen a wild bear only once, and that was 4 summers ago. He did a good job for us, but I for one am glad I'm flying back and not driving the haul road, eleven hours was enough.

Our plane is a twin engine Piper Chieftain PA-31-350 Navajo. I suspect the plane is probably over 30 years old. It is highly prized for service in Alaska because of it's stability, reliability, capacity, and short landing strip requirements. There is no equal replacement.

The hour and half flight is very enjoyable. I sit directly behind the copilot. We fly several hundred feet over the mountains, and the pilot points out a number of sights on our course back to Fairbanks. The sun is shining on Fairbanks as we approach the city.

Sadly the seating is much more comfortable than the seats on Alaska Airlines, and the landing is much smoother. I can't resist pointing this out to the pilot as I leave the plane. He chuckles with joy.

My plans for tomorrow will depend on the weather when I awaken. No alarm clock, but being 5 hours later than back home I expect to be up pretty early.

The Flight To Fairbanks

I set my alarm for 3 AM, an absolutely ridiculous hour in the middle of the night. My daughter Alyssa drives me to the airport and I am standing in line for TSA at 4:45. They are already overwhelmed. The line is getting longer, but despite what the news reports say they are really hustling to get passengers cleared. I see two things that are making the job more difficult, passengers and equipment.

Passengers are carrying tons of luggage. I fly very seldom, but carry on luggage has grown tremendously as a direct result of the airlines charging for bags.

The other issue is equipment. There are not enough trays for the passengers to prepare their personal items for the luggage scanners, and the fully body scanners seem to be problematic today. I carry no illegal items, no hidden weapons, and certainly nothing for the ever present sniffing dogs. Now, I am fitted with numerous staples, artificial joints, and metal tooth fillings, but these aren't supposed to set off the metal detectors, but they do. They send me thru two different scanners and neither one likes me. The next step is the hand wand and a pat down. After about 40 minutes I am cleared and on my way to the gate.

The incoming flight is a few minutes late. Once the plane is cleaned, we board. Every seat is occupied, the overhead bins are packed, and we are soon on our way. The pitch between seat rows is good for a short person like me, but the leg room in the aisle seat is horrible. The support for the seat in front of me is where my right foot would naturally like to go, and the place for my left foot is taken up by a guard to keep luggage under the seat and out of the aisle. I have to sit crooked in the seat to find any space for my feet. Not a very comfortable position. I compensate by taking numerous walks to the back of the plane, only occasionally to use the washroom.

Most of the flight is calm, with the exception of about an hour of turbulent air as we cross the Rockies. Most of the passengers are pretty quiet. There are no screaming children and only a few passengers with an ongoing cough, one of the most annoying sounds in the confined space of an airplane cabin. What contagious disease is being spread throughout the cabin with each cough?

The young lady seated next to me is headed to Anchorage to help her sister shop to replace all of her personal belongings that were recently lost in a house fire. Fortunately no one was hurt. Her son and husband are remaining behind in Castleberry. A few passengers rent movies, some read, others watch stuff on their phones or ipads.

We land in Seattle on time, six hours later. No I need to correct that, we don't land as you would expect a plane to land, we bounce down the runway several times before the wheels remain on the ground.

My luggage is checked to Fairbanks, so I have several hours to kill awaiting my next flight. I grab a quick sandwich, and use up time walking around the terminal.

The next four hour leg takes me up along the Canadian and Alaskan coast and then inland to Fairbanks. The mountain peaks are still covered with snow, and the bright sunshine made for very picturesque scenery, well for those in the right window seats. Being in an aisle seat I could get a glimpse, but pictures were impossible.

If I thought the landing is Seattle was less than ideal, compared to our landing in Fairbanks it was a dream. When the pilot touched down, the plane not only bounced, but began to skid down the runway at about a 15 degree angle. No, there was no snow or ice, no wet runway, and no wind. Not being a pilot I can't tell what exactly caused the skid. No explanation was given, but we soon pulled up to the gate but are not allowed to leave the plane. The pilot tells us that the baggage needs to be removed from the back of the plane before passengers can get off, otherwise the planes tail is likely to sit down on the tarmac because of the unbalanced weight as passengers leave the front of the plane. Sounds like a design oversight to me and a way to give the baggage handlers 15 extra minutes to meet Alaskan Airlines 20 minute baggage delivery promise.

The rental car booth is right next to baggage claim, and cars are parked in a lot only a few hundred feet away. I am assigned an almost new car with about 250 miles on it. My lucky day. I drive the 15 minutes to my hotel, check in, unpack, and then go out to grab a Subway sandwich for dinner. I locate where I need to go in the morning, return to the hotel, and crash for the night. I set my alarm for 3:15 am so I arrive at my tour departure point on time before 5:00 AM.

Preparing for Alaska Trip

Preparing for departure to Alaska on May 21 – I actually booked most of this trip before I decided to take my World Cruise. I fly to Fairbanks on May 21, stay three nights and do some sightseeing then board the Alaska Railroad for the 4 hour train to Denali National Park. After spending two nights in Denali, I board the train again for a seven and a half hour trip to Anchorage.

In Anchorage I will meet up with my family and some other friends for the cruise portion of the trip ending in Vancouver BC. Our flights back to Orlando are night flights, just to make the time adjustment a little more difficult.

In my three weeks since concluding the World Cruise I caught up on all my doctor appointments, and everything went smooth until a little less than 48 hours before I was to be at Orlando International for departure. I had noticed a slight decrease in vision in one eye. After my ophthalmologist ran a number of tests he immediately scheduled an appointment the following morning with a specialist. Needless to say I was a little concerned that my travel plans might be in jeopardy.

The next morning after two and a half hours and numerous tests and pictures, I was given an injection in my left eye and told "yes", I could fly and have a good time in Alaska. The injection left the one eye quite uncomfortable and me looking like a monster from a horror movie. With one eye oozing, and both eyes dilated I went home and rested for the afternoon. The last 30 minutes of packing would have to wait until after dinner.