Vancouver-Yukon/Alaska (6d, $900)

Vancouver-Yukon/Alaska (6d, $900)

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Hawaii done and still losing the race to join the Traveler’s Century Club I had challenged my sister to years back, I needed to step things up a notch.

Plus, it had been a pretty busy season at the massage clinic and I needed a break. So I looked north for my next adventure: Alaska would get me a TCC point and the Yukon would be my second Canadian territory checked off. And flights up there from Vancouver are much cheaper than from anywhere else in Canada — realistically, if I didn’t go there now, I likely never would. The plan was simple: fly to Whitehorse, bus through Carcross (Yukon) and Fraser (BC), take the old gold miners’ train to Skagway, then ferry past Haines to Alaska’s capital, Juneau. I know, right, not Anchorage as everyone thinks. So I convinced an old roommate to come with and so the adventure began!

Whitehorse

Whitehorse is the capital of Canada’s Yukon, a territory straddled between Alaska and the Northwest Territories, bordering BC to the south and the Arctic Ocean to the north. Famous for the 1980s Gold Rush, where men found gold but lost digits, it’s certainly a piece of Canada worth seeing if you’re into traveling off the beaten road. It’s a great place for peace of mind and for seeking inspiration, to commune with nature in a way you just can’t do down south.

WestJet got me a return flight to Whitehorse for $360.41, but even booking well over a month in advance I had to split my time up there between two hostels because the cheaper one had already been booked by a planeload of Germans. Seriously, Germans love to travel. And they always pre-book. Like years in advance. The north is sparsely populated (Whitehorse, the “big city”, has just over 20,000 residents) so amenities like hotels — and especially cheap spots like hostels — get booked quickly. We spent our first night at the Beez Kneez hostel, $20/night if you don’t mind sleeping in a shed or a VW camper, $30 for a bed in a dorm, and up to $65 for something more private. We clearly did the camper.

After our Alaska trip we came back to spend our final nights at the Lead Dog Backpackers hostel for $30/night ($20 if you want to pitch your tent out front and sleep there). Of the two, I preferred Lead Dog. Beez Kneez was a bit cramped and we felt awkward going into the house because the owner very much lives there and has locals over for card nights and such. We felt like we were imposing when we went in to leave our phones charging for the night. Lead Dog, on the other hand, has a much more international flair — lots of French travelers in addition to the Canadians and Germans who frequent Canada’s north — and it definitely felt like a hostel and not a house. It had that revolving feeling I like with travel: people coming and going, a neat community events board, great, warm beds, easy access to the kitchen and fridge, ample outlets near my bed, four showers and at least two toilets. Something like 30 people can stay there when it’s absolutely full and the bathroom is rarely occupied when you need it.

Transportation in Whitehorse is easy: though there are like two city buses and a taxi service, you can walk to the city from the airport in under an hour (free!). Moving around within the city is even easier: it’s flat, bordered by hills and a river, and everything you need is within 30m of everything else. There is an Extra Foods where you can buy groceries but be warned, food in the north is expensive. You can get neat northern fare like reindeer and fresh salmon at a few restaurants but there was nothing that stood out for me. Then again, I tend to make my own food to cut back on expenses so restaurants aren’t high on my list of things to check out when traveling. Total expenses for hostel ($20/1 night at BK and $60/2 nights at LD) and food was something around $100. Added to this some small gifts and watching a few movies — Wolverine had just come out and I couldn’t think of a better place to watch it that the Yukon — and $150 is about fair for three days spent in the city.

Alaska

Overall, I wasn’t too impressed by this part of the trip. The cities in this part of Alaska are full of mostly just tourist shops with very little else to offer. They reminded me very much of smaller versions of Niagara Falls with all the kitsch and glam and tourists buying tee shirts.

We took the White Pass & Yukon Rail train which consisted of a bus from Whitehorse to Fraser, BC through Carcross, and a scenic train from Fraser to Skagway, Alaska on the old gold miners’ route. The return trip was a bus straight from Skagway to Whitehorse: this is much better than doing the train again because, though scenic, it’s mostly full of snowbirds. The whole trip was $175 USD, it would have been $50 cheaper or more expensive depending on if you didn’t take the train or if you took it there and back (more train = more money). Not worth doing it twice though, once you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it all.

From Skagway is where the disappointments began: we took the Alaska Marine Highway ferry and not only was it late 1.5 hours, causing us to miss our 11PM hostel check-in and having to buy a night at a much more expensive hotel, but they were not very helpful along the way. When we talked to the purser at the end of our trip (the person in charge of customer services on the ship), she only repeatedly told us the ferry does not have any policies to aid customers in our circumstance. Emailing them later with a formal complaint, asking for confirmation of the ferry’s lateness for an insurance claim, I received a curt note saying they cannot provide me with this because the delay had not been logged by the captain (only delays longer than 4 hours are). Not cool. And for all this headache, a trip from Skagway to Juneau is $50 so $100 USD return. Total Whitehorse-Juneau transportation costs: $275 USD (we had bought food in Whitehorse, luckily, but were sure to eat it all before we passed US customs).

Winging it

So here we are, Tim and me, docked in Auke Bay (ah yes, the Marine Highway neglected to mention that, since the cruise ships pay more for docking fees, ferry docking has been relocated 13 miles north of Juneau). The only silver lining here was I got a chance to wing things under pressure. Luckily there was a very nice server on board, Nate. When we explained our predicament to him, he lent us his cell to make a few calls. We called the hostel and were told we’d have to find lodging elsewhere as the place closes at 11PM and it was already nearing midnight. We called a few hotels but rates were exorbitant: upwards of $180 USD for a single room. We then placed one last call to get a cab to our ferry and went down to talk with the (very unhelpful) purser. Again, luck had our backs and there was a construction fellow talking to her as well who informed us there was a courtesy phone we could use inside the terminal. From there, as Tim was placing a call to more hotels, I went outside to see if our taxi had arrived. After having left the ship and talked with the purser, something like 10 minutes had gone by. Immediately upon hitting the parking lot I saw how tricky our situation was: there were around 30 others just like us, late and not sure where to go, and everyone eyeing a lone, circling taxi like vultures.

I suddenly heard, “Are you Paul?” from my right. Glancing over, a middle-aged lady with a guitar slung over one shoulder appeared.

“Yes,” I replied.

“That taxi’s been driving in circles for five minutes looking for you. He won’t take anyone else on board. Hey, if you’re going downtown, can I come with?”

I quickly gathered Tim from inside and, along with guitar-slung Gin, piled into the cab. An unshaven student from Missouri also saw the opportunity and jumped in with us: he was going to the airport and this was on our way. In the cab it was time to make some quick choices: we’d be at the airport in ten minutes and in Juneau in twenty more and we needed to have a place to sleep by then. Using the Rick the Cabbie’s cell, the lowest rate we could scramble was $160 at a motel. Still a bit much, just for one night. Gin came to the rescue again: “Hey, why don’t you guys just stay at the Alaskan?”

“Oh, the Alaskan. Used to be a brothel, and a strip bar before then. Not a bad place if you don’t mind being in the heart of the night life,” Rick broke in.

“Let’s do it.” A quick call later and we had a night for $100 USD in Juneau’s downtown core (ie: an intersection and about 500m of bar-lined streets). Sure, it was tough sleeping because people were making friends below the whole night, and the bathroom had no door and we kept remembering the $13 USD/night rate at the hostel, but whatever.

Juneau

Though Juneau had a purported population of over 30,000, it feels much smaller and more cramped than the city-tucked-in-a-blanket-of-hills Whitehorse. There is an IGA in town where we did our grocery shopping, there are tours to see a local glacier, you can hike or take the tram up Mt. Roberts, and this seems to be about it. Each costs about $15; we did neither, just spending the 1.5 days there catching up after not having seen each other for around 3 years. We did see St. Nicholas’ Russian Orthodox Church, but it was tiny and very much rundown. After our previous night’s experience, we mostly just wanted to rest and get back to Whitehorse. There was an IGA right in the city where food could be got for cheap (meals on the ferry are expensive and not too good so packing a lunch for the road is smart).

The hostel was exceptionally nice and clean. The only points it loses are with service: they should expect that ferries are late (turns out every local we asked knew of their horrible track record) and so have a 24-hour arrival policy. As it stands, you can only check in at like 8-9AM and then 5-11PM or so. They were also understanding and let us move our registration one night forward, meaning we didn’t have to pay for the night we missed because of the ferry. That was nice.

Total expenses in Juneau included $13/night in Juneau, $100/night at the Alaskan (we each covered half), and then around $50 for food and chocolates, delicious, delicious chocolates. Add to this the unidirectional $35 taxi fare twice (again, split) and total Juneau costs ran up to around $150 USD.

What I learned

First, total damage: it was a bit more than the $800 I anticipated but, from leaving my front door to when I crossed that threshold again, my purse was only $950 lighter ($900 if my insurance claim goes through; more below). Taking into consideration how much transportation costs bloated this figure ($670), this is not a surprise at all. Were we to take the more conservative bus route from the Yukon to Alaska, and were our ferry not late, I’d only have shelled out $850.

I also learned the value of having a good credit card and of charging all your travel-related items to it. Like everything. This way if things go wrong you can claim many unplanned expenses via their insurance. My favourite is the WestJest RBC World Elite MasterCard: I’m currently filing for a $100 return to cover our unanticipated hotel expense and this looks promising. It’s hard and boring reading through all the details your credit card insurance covers but doing so is a smart move. This particular card costs $99 annually but also offers additional perks: you automatically get $250 WestJet dollars when you sign on as well as an annual return flight for a companion for $99 so long as they are traveling with you to anywhere WestJet travels. This is pretty huge considering WestJet covers pretty much everything north of Panama. There is a “light” version of this card if you don’t meet the qualifications for the elite one (or if you want a smaller annual fee), and some really good friends of mine who travel often recommend the Visa Avion from RBC (Infinite or Platinum, I forget which). With both these as well as the WestJet cards you get a small percentage of your purchases back in Avion points or WestJet dollars as well.

All told, I’ve saved over $500 since getting MasterCard in like February with the welcome bonus and the companion flight, plus having around $100 WestJet Dollars accumulated just from daily shopping. In the end, the main reason I went with this card is because I saw myself traveling within North America (mostly Canada) a lot this year, and I hate any “points”. WestJet dollars are simple: you have one, it’s worth one actual Canadian dollar on a WestJet flight purchase. Easy. And I like it this way. Plus, WestJet is awesome.

In a completely different vein, I was pumped Tim came along for the ride this time. I remember lamenting that my Hawaiian memories were only shared with strangers: it’s nice having a good friend out there whom I can call to reminisce about how I slept with my feet huddled around a gearbox or about how he almost missed the first day of dental school because of a late ferry.

Would I do this again? The Alaska Panhandle, nope. Whitehorse, probably. I’m thinking a cross-Canada roadtrip might be in order these next few years. But like a real cross-Canada one, not just the typical Vancouver-Halifax trip every student “finding himself” does. Before then, though, I’ll have to do all the continental United States. And, of course, much of Europe just because I’ll be there for the next two years. Watch out, Mags, I’ll beat you in our race yet!

But my next immediate adventure will be a Vancouver-Toronto road and rail ride, checking off Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, and Winnipeg all along the way, leaving in ten days. It still hasn’t really hit me that this is about to happen yet. And then Greece in less than a month, wow.

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