Summer is coming and the great white north is calling. In fact, if you listen closely you can almost hear roaring grizzly bears, splashing killer whales, rustling moose, and squawking bald eagles – all doing their best to attract tourists to share in the splendor of Alaska.
I answered the call of the wild last summer when I took a land tour of “last frontier” via a mixture of trains and coaches running through beautifully rugged interior.
The journey began in July, when a friend and I flew to Fairbanks and met up with representatives from Gray Line of Alaska, a tour company associated with Holland America Cruise Line. We then took a comfortable charted bus to the Westmark Hotel in Fairbanks.
After checking-in, we explored the small town charm of Fairbanks, where gold mining history coexists with art deco buildings, native peoples and rugged individuals. Located 358 miles north of Anchorage at the end of the Alaska Highway, Fairbanks sees remarkable temperature fluctuations, ranging from 65 degrees below zero in the winter to more than 90 degrees in the summer.
In the morning we drove to historic Gold Dredge No.8, where between 1928 and 1959, hundreds of thousands of ounces of gold passed through the five-deck dredge, which functioned as a gigantic mechanical gold pan. Our tour featured a wooden train ride through an actual mine used in the early 1900’s, real gold-panning and a hearty miner’s lunch of stew and biscuits.
The next day we visited the world-famous Alaskan Pipeline. A marvel of engineering, the 800-mile-long pipeline was built to move oil from the North Slope of Alaska in Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Along the way, the pipeline crosses three mountain ranges and 800 rivers and streams.
Our next excursion was a paddlewheel cruise down the Chena River and encountered a dog sled training operation, an Alaskan boat plane pilot, and an authentic Native Alaskan village.
We then boarded the McKinley Express. Operated by Holland America, the two-story dining-lounge cars are highlighted by glass domed roofs which blend into the train’s large side windows, providing riders incredible 360-degree views of the Alaskan landscape.
On our four-hour trip to Denali National Park, we past lush forests, rivers and streams lined rocks and beaver houses, lonely bridges, grazing moose, bald eagles, Alaskan peaks covered with snow, and opaque lakes shimmering in the middle of lost meadows.
At Denali National Park we checked into the McKinley Chalet Resort, overlooking the gorgeous Nenana River, in the shadow of Mt. McKinley. From here we explored the park and the tiny town of Talkeetna.
The next day we met Iditarod champion Martin Buser and his dog sled team. We then visited Kenai Fjords National Park, near Seward, where we took a cruise deep into the fjords. During the voyage we drifted past towering glacier ice and encountered bald eagles, sea otters, sea lions, hump back whales, and an pod of killer whales.
Gray Line of Alaska is currently taking reservations for the 2010 season, which runs May – September. For more info and specials, visit: www.graylineofalaska.com or call (888) 452-1737.