Monday, July 19, 2010

Alaska Trip Day 7 Recap: Skagway, AK to Haines Junction, YT

Alaska Trip Day 7 (Wed Jun 30): 200-ish miles, 4-ish hours? (We made a side trip or two in the Haines Junction area, so I don't have exact numbers. Shame on me.)

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So...the original plan was to come back from Skagway the way we came and drive to the Haines Junction area by way of Whitehorse. Then, at some point, it hit me. Why don't we take the ferry to Haines and take the Haines Highway instead? That way, we'll get more new scenery, both on the drive and the ferry ride. Yeah! Let's do it! (And, yes, I'd visit another "new county" - Haines Borough - in the process. That may have played a small part in our decision as well.)

But I wasn't sure how often the ferry runs from Skagway to Haines, and whether or not it was one of those things you needed advance reservations for. So, I gave them a call the previous night and got my answers: 1) the ferry leaves Skagway for Haines at 7:00a sharp (which seems early, but that's Alaska time, so really it was more like 8:00a); 2) there would be plenty of room for us; and 3) the one-hour, 15-mile ferry ride would cost $103. Seems kind of pricey when you compare it to some of North Carolina's ferries - for example, the 2½-hour, 27-mile Swan Quarter to Ocracoke ferry only costs $15! On the other hand, pretty much everything is more expensive in Alaska, so we were willing to pay up.

Not only that, but the Alaska ferries are way fancier than the North Carolina ferries. Alaska ferries have their own restaurant, bar, lounge area with really comfortable chairs, and private rooms that you can rent. If that seems like overkill for a one-hour ferry ride, you're right! But these ferries don't just go back and forth between Skagway and Haines all day, either. While this particular route ended in Juneau that afternoon, you can take the ferry all the way from Skagway to Bellingham, WA, if you want. That trip starts Monday afternoon and ends Friday morning. If I was going to be stuck on a ferry for four days, I think I'd want my own private room, too. (By the way, the Skagway-Bellingham ferry ride costs a wee bit more than $103. Try $1,546!)

Part of the reason I wanted to take the ferry is because I thought we'd see some neat scenery along the way. Yep!

It was cold and rainy throughout the ferry ride; otherwise we may have spent the duration of the ride outside. Actually, it was cold and rainy pretty much all day:

But that's okay; it wouldn't be a vacation without at least one rainy day. This was pretty much the only definitive "rainy day" we had the whole trip. Not too bad, especially considering that coastal Alaska seems to be permanently stuck under a low stratus deck. At least, that's the impression we got from our time in Skagway, Haines, and Seward.

So...Haines. Anything there? Nope. Well, except for The Hammer Museum, which in hindsight would have made for a great rainy day activity. Oh well.

By the way, I mentioned in my Twitter/Facebook comments that I actually did think snow was possible that day. But that was just silly. We never experienced temperatures anywhere near cold enough to snow. That comment was just based on the fact that a) it was in the upper 40s at sea level in Haines, and b) it was snowing on some of the mountains between Haines and Skagway (you could see it from the ferry), and c) I knew the Haines Highway ascended to 3,000 feet or so. But it was also a lot colder in the inlets than inland, so we never even came close to snow. Silly Chris...

The Haines Highway is, like the Klondike Highway to Skagway, and excellent drive. The treeless tundra portion through British Columbia (from which the wet road picture was taken) is exceptional. We would have gotten more pictures of it, if not for the weather conditions. You can't really take pictures from the car when there are raindrops everywhere.

Alright...enough about the rain. Day 7 wasn't a complete washout. There were enough breaks in the rain to get a little bit of hiking in at Kluane National Park (in the Yukon, west of the Haines and Alaska Highways), which was the original plan for the day, after all.

Kluane National Park - like many national parks up here, both in the Yukon and in Alaska - is really, really, big. Problem is, you can't get to most of it. While the highest point in Canada (Mount Logan) is located within the boundaries of Kluane, it's so far away from the road, there are pretty much only two ways to see it: 1) by plane, and 2) by catapult. But Logan isn't really the reason you go to Kluane, anyway. It's just more neat scenery.

This is a "rock glacier". It's like a traditional ice glacier, but...with rocks!

Mountains, clouds, woo.

I think this is the Dezadeash River near Haines Junction, which we hiked along during a break in the rain.

I don't feel like we got everything out of Kluane that we would have liked, so we made another stop - albeit a very brief stop - on a much nicer day along the return trip.

We went to one of those little National Park educational talks in the evening, where - darn it, I forget her name - talked about the many different things you can do with a dead moose (make clothing, tools, etc). It was all very interesting, in particular because the presenter acquired this knowledge from her ancestors and from experience rather than, say, from a book. The presenter is of First Nations descent ("First Nations" is the Canadian term for what we call "Native Americans"), and her ancestors have lived in the Yukon for...a while. Or at least since the 1800s (?), when the Canadian government decided to formally grant land ownership in The North. Basically, her ancestors said, "We want this land way up here along Kluane Lake, far away from pretty much everything", and the Canadian government said, "Well, nobody else wants it, so it's yours! Have fun!"

Of course, as interesting as tools made from moose bones are, here's what we really wanted to know. Where do you find these damn moose, anyway??? Here's the answer: mostly in woods and meadows, but we already sort of knew that. We didn't know that the best times of year to spot moose are in April/May (when the meadows are still snow-covered and grass is only available in wide-open spaces), and during mating season, a.k.a. "the rut" (September/October), when moose basically go crazy. Hmm...

So, here are my official recommendations for the day:
- Alaska Marine Highway: Is the Haines/Skagway ferry ride worth it? Depends on your trip budget.
- Haines or Skagway?: Unless you consider yourself a "hammer enthusiast", Skagway is a better trip than Haines, both in terms of the town and the drive to the town. Of course, if you take the ferry, you can do both!
- Kluane National Park: Absolutely recommended.
- Haines Junction: Perhaps my favorite town along the Alaska Highway, this is a great place to stop. Not just for one night, but for two nights.

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