Northern LIghts: Making Reservations

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October 29th 2018
Published: October 29th 2018
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On a trip this complicated, I decided that it was important to lock in some of the key components of the trip, like lodging and transportation. I understand that often spontaneity is one of the most important factors on a trip and that being able to pick and choose about where and how you spend your time (and dollars) can often make a trip much more rewarding. But when so many expensive arrangements can disappear before you get an option to choose them, then the sacrifice that comes from have a precise itinerary becomes less of a problem. Alaska is becoming more and more popular as time goes on and the competition for scarce motel rooms, rental cars, and tour and excursion tickets intensifies, getting those items reserved and locked in is preferable to not getting them at all.

As we started looking at various places we wanted to visit, we also developed more questions about whether they would be available during the months next summer when we planned on going. At a couple of places we learned that options were already starting to disappear. So a certain amount of panic set in and we decided that we needed to beat the crowds and get our reservations in as soon as possible.

As a first step, we broke the trip out into ‘legs’ or segments. I find this extremely helpful because it allowed me to focus on just a few locations and what might be the best way to get to them, see them, and get on to the next segment. Each segment could be planned separately and then they could be tied together into one master itinerary. In the case of the Alaska trip, geography quickly broke the trip up into four different sections based on where each of the parks was located and how you can get to them. (Remember that roads actually connect very few Alaskan communities. Most of the smaller towns can only be reached by sea or air - or maybe dog team.

The first region is the panhandle - the small, coastal strip that runs down the west side of British Columbia. There are three parks on my bucket list in that region - Sitka NHP, Klondike Goldrush NHP, and Glacier Bay National Park. There is a small road coming in from Canada that connects to Skagway, Alaska (the site for Klondike - Goldrush), but neither of the other two parks are on any road and are impossible to drive to. The customary travel to any of these sites is by ferry (water), or air-taxi (air). So renting a car for this segment was useless and I started looking into ferry and air taxi arrangements.

The ‘ferry’ is a set of boats that transport passengers, and vehicles, over the Alaska Maritime Highway, a set of routes connecting Alaskan coastal towns. Now traveling on a ferry through these waters has to be a unique way to see these parts. The downside is that it takes quite a bit longer than to fly. And, importantly, is that you are bound to the ferry schedule. After looking up the ferry schedule, I realized that the ferries do not necessarily run every day; in fact, service to some towns might be only once a week! Oh, and next summer’s ferry schedule won’t be ready until this December, so you can make plans based on this year’s schedule just assuming that they won’t change the schedule much. What are the odds?

And, it turns out that the air taxi services don’t have their schedule ready yet either. So you just kind of guess at an itinerary based on what info you can put together. I determined that Klondike-Goldrush (in Skagway) would be first and we would need a couple of days to really see the National Historical Park there. Then we would take some kind of transportation (probably an air taxi because the ferry schedule might not work.) over a few miles to Glacier Bay, where, given it is a National Park, we want to spend three to five days. From there we would get on a Ferry and go to Sitka. Now that’s a doozy of a trip because you have to take the Ferry to Juneau and change boats there at around 1:00 AM! The second boat arrives in Sitka almost 36 hours after leaving Glacier Bay, so you need to rent a ‘berth’ which is like a tiny cabin with little more than a bathroom and tiny bed. I have no idea how I’m supposed to sleep in such a thing, so the entire ferry experience is going to be interesting... But it will also be authentic - this is an important means of transportation for Alaskans!

After a couple of days in Sitka, exploring the park and town, we are ready to move on to the second segment! Which really is the biggest and most expensive part of the entire trip. Geographically, it is the northern portions of the Aleutian Island Chain. Seward and Homer are the two towns at the northern edge of this region and although Homer can only be reached by plane or boat, Seward is connected to Anchorage by a highway as well as railroad tracks. So you can actually travel to Seward by car or train! Because a car is useless getting to points south, we decided to take the train from Anchorage to Seward, we wouldn’t have to worry about a car while we are away, and, besides, taking a train in Alaska is yet one more way to travel in the country, so why not? Seward is also the site of the visitor center for Kenai Fjords National Park, which occupies the part of the peninsula mostly south of Seward. Originally, we had wanted to spend four or five days here, but transportation issues forced us to shorten our stay.

We are definitely interested in Kenai Fjords, but the next park on the list, Katmai is a fair jog south of Kenai Fjords and it turns out that getting there is even more difficult. One of the most photographed and enjoyed parts of Katmai is the Brooks River and Brooks Lodge. Here, most summers, a small number of people are able to spend time watching brown bears catch salmon in a waterfall. So how can you pass that up?

But Brooks Lodge is tiny - just 24 rooms, (and not likely to grow much more or it will likely discourage the very activity people go there to see!). And it turns out that the only way to get one of those rooms is to buy lottery tickets 18 months in advance. If your ticket is drawn, you get the three or four day reservation you have requested (or your second or third preference if your first choice is already taken.). Those dates are locked in stone and can’t be changed, so you are committed to being there those dates.

Brooks Lodge makes it even more difficult, because they are only accessible by seaplane. They are on an inland lake, but have no airfield, so planes have to land on the lake! But there just aren’t all that many seaplanes - bush planes, yes, but seaplanes, no. And, as I learned, there are no regularly scheduled air taxis into Brooks, except for the one the lodge runs which only picks up and delivers in Anchorage. That means that we would need to charter our own seaplane to take us from Seward to Brooks Lodge! And, btw, chartering a plane and a pilot generally comes to about $500/hour, and a seaplane is usually a bit more. Oh, and once they drop you off, they have to get back and so that is added to your bill as well, at $500/hour. It turned out that I could charter a regular plane from Seward to Homer and there switch to a seaplane to get us to Brooks. Yes, I could do it, but it was going to cost me $1000s of dollars to get both Joan and I and a few bags to Brooks Lodge.

Crying ‘uncle’ i gave up trying to make that arrangement and instead bought return train tickets to Anchorage ($220 total). From there, we would hop over to the airport and catch the Brooks Lodge Shuttle Service down to the lodge. Brooks Lodge charged us an extra $800 or so for us to fly with them as opposed to several times that using our own transportation. Seems like a waste, but when in Alaska, you have to play by their rules, or pay dearly!

So we will take the train to Seward, see Kenai Fjords for a couple of days, then take the train back to Anchorage and fly down to Brooks Lodge in Katmai. Our reservation there is for three nights. After that we fly across the lake to King Salmon. Even that short trip is difficult to arrange. It appears, though, that by next year there will be an air-taxi with daily trips between King Salmon and Brooks Lodge. Up until now, you would have to charter a sea plane to make that trip or fly on the Brooks Lodge seaplane. We are hoping that the plans to start this service are not dropped, or we will be scrambling to make the itinerary.

We are staying in a yurt in King Salmon for three nights. We only have one National Monument to see from King Salmon, but it is a hundred miles or so away and the only way to get to Aniakchak is with chartered sea-plane flight. We have arranged a set of dates with the pilot and he is promising to get the flight in on one of those days, but we are constrained by weather patterns which can make Aniakchak difficult to see. Of course, chartering him and his airplane to show us this park will cost us more than $500/hour and will take most of the day. They call this kind of tourism a ‘flightsee’. (To put this park in perspective, consider that just 16 people went there during all of 2014! That is fewer people than climbed Mt. Everest.)

After staying in King Salmon for three nights, we will fly to Port Alsworth. Fortunately there is some kind of taxi service for this trip - in fact, I’ve found a couple of services, so we’re assuming we can make this hop over to Lake Clark National Park. And we will spend several days there before flying back to Anchorage. The Aleutians segment is the most difficult one to arrange transportation between the parks. To make this segment work will require two train rides, four air-taxi flights between parks, plus the flightsee to Aniakchak. But no cars nor boats are involved on this one.

The third segment I’m calling ‘The Road Trip’ because we have rented an SUV and we will be driving this segment. Starting in Anchorage, we head north to Denali National Park for a few days, then move on further north to Fairbanks. We are only going to spend two nights there because we don’t have much to see, but then we drive southeast to Tok and spend a night and then drive down to Copper Center. We will be spending a couple days there and then we drive a 35-mile dirt road to McCarthy. There are plenty of things to do there while we explore the nation’s largest park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. We may be doing another flightsee down to see Malaspina glacier, the largest glacier in Alaska.

Then it is back to Copper Center and then we complete the circle back down to Anchorage. With this drive we will almost be driving every highway in the state. And all of that just to see two National Parks.

Once back in Anchorage, we catch an Alaska Air plane from Anchorage to Keotzebue for the fourth and final trip segment. Kotzebue is above the arctic circle and we have booked a hotel room (in the only hotel in the town, the Nullagvik, for several nights. While there we will be doing our last flightsee, which will take us to Krusenstern National Monument, and Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic National Parks. Again, this flightsee isn’t cheap but is about the only way to see these parks unless you are a seasoned outdoorsman and want to canoe the rivers or hike the wilderness. There might be dog teams willing to take you in. But the flightsee we’ve reviewed will allow brief times on the ground at all three parks to take pictures. Weather is also an issue up here which is why we’ve allotted three possible days to do the trip.

Eventually though we end this segment and return to Anchorage. This major city quickly emerged as the likely place to serve as a hub for our trip. For one thing, it is pretty central to the four segments of the trip and you can fly Alaska Airlines to Juneau to do the panhandle segment, and can also fly up to Kotzebue to do the Arctic Circle segment. As the largest city in Alaska it offers the most car rental, airplane, and hotel options. We found one hotel with easy transportation to the airports and train station, so we booked a room for all nights in between each of the segments. By spending a couple of nights in between trips, that gives us downdays to do laundry and other errands while in Anchorage. It is also the city with the largest international airport and where most flights to and from the mainland go. So the structure of the trip is to use Anchorage as the hub and each of the four trip segments as the spokes on the wheel of our trip. We shall see how well that works.

Once we had the trip plan pretty well nailed down, we divided up the work. Joan was responsible for making all the lodging arrangements and I was responsible for making the transportation reservations. That division came pretty naturally as Joan was always in charge of arranging campgrounds when we travel by trailer, and I was responsible for route planning and driving. I think Joan had the more difficult task, though, because there were, in most places, more options for lodging than there were travel carriers. So she had to research the various places and find out costs, references, amenities, etc. before making arrangements. Then, after choosing a place, it turns out that some places haven’t even opened their books for next year and so weren’t ready to book. Others were already seeing heavy demand and so encouraged us to book early. Some places have web sites to manage the reservations, others can only be booked by phone! Some places, usually the smaller and more expensive lodges, required deposits up front in order to hold the booking. Others seemed not to care and simply took our names and said they would contact us when we got closer to next summer. In one case, the owners were in the process of getting married and so weren’t able to talk to us for several weeks, but we finally connected and those dates are now firm. At some places we are only getting a room and a bed; at others we get a full slate of meals and a set of activities to choose from with their help getting to and from them. There really is a full range of travel experiences waiting for us up there. If there is any guidance to be offered about arranging lodging in Alaska, it would be to keep all options open to see what works out best with your schedule, your method of travel, and your budget.

All the airplane flights are booked, although the arrangements for the flightsees make me a little nervous. For those, all we have is an agreement to fly us on one of three days, depending on weather. Fortunately, though, they don’t charge a dime until the end of the flight. But if, like us, you are taking the time and money to fly to Keotzebue for the sole purpose of taking a particular flightsee, you really hope that weather doesn’t get in the way. As I mentioned earlier, the ferry and air-taxi arrangements in the Panhandle segment (between Juneau, Skagway, Gustavus, Sitka, and Juneau) have to wait until their schedules come out in December.

Almost all other transportation and lodging reservations have been made, and we have the bulk of our budget set up in a spreadsheet, documenting what we’ve paid and what we owe. We have also booked some of our tours and excursions. I normally don’t like booking to that level of detail this early, but in the case of Alaska, with increasing demand, it seems increasingly necessary to ensure you can do some of the park tours. (The Denali Kantishna tour, for example, is one that books up quickly so it doesn’t seem prudent to play the odds when we get there.) With the exception of those places we are staying that have meal plans, we also haven’t even begun to solve the eating problem, but I suspect most of those decisions will wait until we get there.

There are a few straggling reservations to be made, so there will be more work to be done, especially in December and January. After that, though, about the only things we need to do are start packing our suitcases and read about our next destination - Alaska!


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