Once the journey on the ferry delivered me to Haines, Alaska, I still had a two day drive from Haines to Anchorage. My brother Tommy joined me for this part of the adventure and I was grateful. He is a forest firefighter and well versed in battling the elements of nature so if nothing else, his companionship offered me a great deal of confidence that we could overcome any challenges we faced along the way. He flew to Juneau and bored the ferry when it docked. It was just a short ferry ride from Juneau to Haines and then we were on the road.
The first thing we encountered was the Bald Eagle Preserve. Jackson, Tommy’s son, gave him Baldy, his stuff bald eagle to accompany Tommy on his trip. Jackson wanted him to take Baldy with him so he could visit his cousins in Alaska so our first stop along the way was to the Bald Eagle Preserve so Baldy could do as Jackson wanted. The preserve was just outside of Haines so it was a short drive. There was an area for cars to pull over so that is exactly as we did. Tommy pulled the car onto the icey pull off and we carefully got out of the car. After a few tenuous steps on the ice, we stood before a clearing in the trees where we saw a sea of bald eagles.
After snapping some pictures of Baldy with his cousins, we were ready to head out. Tommy headed on to the car as I started to step off the snow bank I had been standing on. It wasn’t a large snow bank by any means which would prove to be lucky for me. As soon as my foot hit the ice, it slid backwards. The top part of my body propelled forward and in a split second, I was sliding on my belly across the ice. I had only been in Alaska for a short bit and already took my first fall on the ice. As I carefully picked myself up, I found myself hoping that this was not an omen of how the rest of the trip would go.
Once we were back on the road again, it wasn’t long before we were crossing the border into Canada. We pulled into the Canadian border patrol and saw cars, most of them belonging to folks that were on the ferry with us, forming two lines. At the front of each line was a Canadian Border Patrol Officer. One of the officers was a woman wearing a thick jacket and gloves. The other one was a large man wearing a short sleeve shirt with the sleeves stretching tight across his large biceps. We were waived forward by the man whose shirt stretched just as tight across his muscular chest as his sleeves did across his arm. I asked him how he could be in the 0 F temperatures with no coat on. He smiled, told me it was a warm day and asked us where we were heading. I explained we were heading to Alaska. He asked me why I was heading to Alaska and I explained I had just taken a job with Kenai Peninsula College to help open their new residence hall. He joked with us a bit about the crazy things college kids do and then waived us on our way, wishing me good luck in my new job.
For the next three hours we drove through the Yukon and then had a very different experience with the US Border Agent when we crossed back into Alaska. The US Border Agent sat inside a warm building and talked to us through a window. His look was very sour during the entire interaction. He asked us where we were coming from and where we were going. He asked to see our passports and registration for the car and as we were putting them in the metal tray that extended from under his window, he wanted to know what business we had in Alaska. I told him about my new job as he looked through the documents we put in the tray. He asked about the car registration again to which I explained that I lived in Oklahoma they didn’t issue car registrations so I provided him with the bill of sale for my SUV and a tax receipt from Oklahoma. That seemed to settle the matter. After a few more questions about whether we had any alcohol or illegal drugs in the car, he gave everything back and without ever having cracked a smile, sent us on our way.
We had planned to stop in Tok for the night but the drive from Alaskan border to Tok was quite deceiving on the map. What looked to be a drive of a few hours on the map was literally twice what we expected. This was in part due to underestimating the size of Alaska and in part due to the icey conditions of the road that had us driving slower than the speed limit. We finally pulled into Tok about 9 pm. We were both exhausted so after checking in. My brother hooked up the oil pan heater in the hopes it would be enough to keep the car warm enough in the -30 F temperatures that it would start in the morning, and then we climbed into bed. We were both fast asleep on lumpy beds by 930 pm.
The next morning we woke up, started the car up and gave a sigh of relief when it started up. We left it running while we enjoyed breakfast with the folks from the ferry. After breakfast, the ferry party went separate ways with most folks heading to Fairbanks. We headed south toward Anchorage. Unlike the day before, we were making good time and actually made it to Palmer before the sun set. Another few hours the next day and we were in Anchorage where my brother and I parted ways. He prepared to head home while I spent a few days in Anchorage visiting the University of Alaska, Anchorage.
I ended up cutting my visit in Anchorage a bit short due to on impending storm that would make travel from Anchorage to the Kenai dangerous. I left Anchorage a few hours before the storm hit in Anchorage and managed to stay ahead of it all the way to Sterling where I pulled into the driveway of the place I would call home for a while.
The best advice I have for anyone planning to move to Alaska mid-winter is to wait until the summer, especially if you plan to drive. If you do have to make the journey during the winter, I strongly suggest taking the Alaskan Marine Highway.
When making my decision to move to Alaska, I thought about flying but the cost of shipping all my stuff was crazy and well out of my financial reach. My other option was to drive the Alaskan-Canadian Highway but the idea of driving an unforgiving stretch of road in frigid temperatures scared me. The idea of driving the road didn’t scare me as much as the idea that during the winter, the Alaskan-Canadian Highway was devoid of people and if something were to happen, no one would find me until the warmer weather drew people out of hibernation. So instead, I settled on a compromise.
For $1100 I purchased a ticket for my SUV on the Alaska Marine Highway. I packed everything I owned into my SUV (if it didn’t fit, I threw it out, gave it away, sold it or left it with my parents) and headed out west to Bellingham Washington where I was to catch the ferry that would take me to my new home.
I traveled from Oklahoma northward to Iowa where I met up with some friends. I enjoyed a nice meal with Doogie and Mark before hitting the road again, heading west where I would eventually meet up with my brother in Northern California. After spending new year’s with him and his family, I headed North again stopping to visit the parents of my childhood best friend before making the last leg of the journey to Bellingham. All in all, I spent close to two weeks traveling the highway so by the time I reached Bellingham, I was happy to be out of the car for a while.
The Alaska Marine Highway travels up the coast of Canada from Bellingham and then along the coast of Alaska. It also provides transportation from the mainland to the smaller islands like Kodiak as well as the smaller coastal villages like Seldovia. During the winter, its travel schedule is a bit more limited so it would have taken me three weeks to make the trip from Bellingham to Homer, which sits on the tip of the Kenai. Most of that time would have been spent in layovers that stretched from two days to a week. I didn’t have that much time or money to spend on hotels so I took a direct route to Haines, Alaska. Haines, Alaska was the closest port to where I was going and just a short two day drive to Anchorage, Alaska, which is only about a two and a half hours North of the Kenai.
I still had to drive a short stint through the Yukon and then North to Tok, Alaska before heading South to Anchorage but at least I had three days on the Alaskan Marine Highway to rest up for what I imagined would be the hardest part of the trip.
I arrived at the dock in Bellingham, Washington several hours early. I wasn’t sure if I would get sea sick or not so I stopped and picked up some Dramamine (which it turned out I didn’t need). Everything I read about the ferry indicated that there would be food service on board but that I could also bring food with me so I picked up some fruit, nuts and a few bottles of water to snack on if the need hit. Then I pulled into the dock, pulled my SUV into the waiting lane and munched on some of the nuts while watching drug sniffing dogs go car by car and people with suitcases, coolers and sleeping bags walk up the ramp. After a short while, dock workers began waving cars forward, directing them where to park their vehicles on board the ferry.
I had paid a bit extra to reserve a cabin so after locking up my car, I headed upstairs to check in and get my cabin assignment. Reserving a cabin on the ferry wasn’t a necessity but after traveling on the road for two weeks, I wanted to make sure I was rested up for the rest of the drive.
The cabin was quaint. It consisted mainly of two single bunks stacked on top of each other, a built in metal desk, a shelf and a bathroom that wasn’t much bigger than those you find on an airplane. There was a shower in the bathroom which made the bathroom a few feet bigger but I still had to do an odd dance to close the shower door and still be able to open the bathroom door to get out. It wasn’t fancy but it was to be my home for three days.
However, I really didn’t spend that much time in the cabin during the trip. I spent most of my time hanging out in the dining room or taking walks on the deck. Most people seemed to hang out in the dining room, which was open 24 hours a day. While food service was limited to specific hours, the dining room was where people hung out to talk, play games, read and generally socialize.
It was in the dining room that I met Dan and Diane. Dan was a contractor on his way to Fairbanks to work on a bridge and Diane was his wife. I met Ed and Marie who were from Alaska and as an anniversary gift to themselves were traveling the entire coast of Alaska. I met several people from the military who were en route to their new post in Fairbanks or outside of Anchorage. I also got to know some folks from North Carolina who were on their way to Fairbanks and then on to the North Slope to make crazy money drilling oil and a family from Haiti who already had two young boys and a third one on the way. Most the folks were heading to Fairbanks with a few of us going the other way to Anchorage. Regardless, we all had to pass through Tok so we all got to talking and agreed to look out for each other on the road.
When I needed a break from socializing, I took laps around the deck with my camera. It was the middle of winter so the days were short and just got shorter the further North we went. However, the ferry traveled closed to the coast so, other than two short open water crossings, I could always see land.
I enjoyed the views of the Alaskan coastline and the introduction to the Alaska village when we stopped at the various ports.
If I wasn’t walking the deck or socializing in the dining room, I was eating in the dining room, drinking in the bar or watching movies on the upper observation lounge that was scattered with blow up beds and sleeping bags from those that chose not to reserve a cabin. The movies weren’t the best movies and were actually rather old but the food was amazing. There were so many choices–sandwiches, burgers, comfort foods, soup, snacks, prime ribs, salmon and so on. No matter what choice I made, I was never disappointed.
And there was no reason not to eat my fill. Because we traveled so close to the coast, the ferry rocked very little so I didn’t get sea sick and when it did rock, it was during the two short open water crossings. During the open water crossings, I returned to my cabin where I laid in bed and read. I never got more than a page or two into the book before the gentle rocking put me to sleep.
Needless to say, the three days I spent on the ferry were the most relaxing days of my journey. With nothing to do but eat, sleep, walk around and read, the “go go go” energy that had driven me across the country dissipated and was replaced by a strong sense of calm that would carry me through the rest of my journey.