“Skinny dip!” Someone yelled. Clothes were flung and naked bodies rushed past. Splashing and laughter ensued. A group of travellers caught in the spirit of the moment. Some hesitated, caught by surprise, but now it was too late to join in, without being conspicuous.
This was the story my sister told me about her first trip with Green Tortoise. She did two two trips – the popular ‘Coast to Coast’ tours from San Francisco to New York and return – a huge loop covering the best of the USA. She says that by the time she realised what was happening, she was too embarrassed to join in. But by the second trip, she’d psyched herself up and was determined not to be left out. The cry came…
“Skinny dip!” Tearing off her clothes she plunged into the chilly lake, resurfacing a moment later to find she was the only one in the lake and the only one naked.
The moral of the story, for me, was “expect the unexpected on a Green Tortoise tour” and, armed with this knowledge, I signed up for four weeks in Alaska. This promised to be an adventure to the last frontier; one of the few wilderness experiences left in the world. Sailing up the Inside Passage past islands and glaciers; spotting whales, seals and bald eagles. Hiking in magnificent terrain, with a chance to spot grizzly bears, moose and caribou.
But before any of that could happen, I had shake off my inhibitions and board the bus.
Along with a handful of other travellers, I joined the tour at the final pick-up point of Seattle. Initially I felt like a fish-out-of-water as most people started the journey two days earlier in San Francisco and a sense of camaraderie had developed. All eyes were on us as we squeezed into the crowded interior. People’s belongings were scattered to such an extent it didn’t look humanly possible to fit anyone else.
Meanwhile our new home – a hotel masquerading as a bus – headed north on Alaskan Way; its rear window proudly displaying our newfound motto to: Arrive inspired, not dog-tired.
Later that evening our drivers taught us ‘the miracle’ of converting the bus into a bedroom. Overhead luggage racks became bunks and mattresses covered the walkways. Soon I was horizontal, lying head to foot with travellers I’d just met, trying to drift off to sleep. Just maybe, I thought, I’d wake up in a real hotel and this will all be a dream.
I woke to music. “If you go out in the woods today, you’ll be in for a big surprise…”
Groaning, I came to consciousness. Bleary-eyed I glanced at my companions, then joined with their laughter when I realised this was our wake-up song.
“Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic…”
It was to be the theme of this trip with some people even packing teddy bears in their luggage. Conversations invariably led to:
When do you think we will see a bear? Did you see that? Was that a grizzly bear? Man, you guys’ snored so loud last night all the grizzly bears have run away, headed south, howling with terror!
During our long drive through Canada to Prince Rupert we had a chance to get to know the other passengers and our two drivers, Llary and Walter, who were both crazy (in the nicest possible way). Llary had the habit of frequently getting lost, which was fine, but asking a horse in the paddock for directions seemed a little oddball. A few days later a stark-naked Walter streaked past some startled passengers and dived into a freezing lake.
Eventually we boarded a ferry to travel north via Alaska’s Inside Passage. First stop was Ketchikan – Salmon Capital of the World, City of Stink and, according to Lonely Planet, a place where it is likely to rain if you stay more than an hour. Fortunately for us Ketchikan did not live up to its name – no unusual smells and glorious weather for our hike up Deer Mountain where we had spectacular views of the Inside Passage.
Ketchikan is also the place I became a beer drinker, frustrated by the apparent language barrier.
“You want Soda?” the waitress at the Alaska Bar asked me.
“No, cider.” I repeated. This wasn’t the first time I’d had trouble ordering cider.
“You know, like alcoholic apple juice,” I tried talking slowly.
“Oh!” her face lit up and she trundled off, returning a few moments later with a glass of apple schnapps.
Back on the ferry for a 20-hour trip to Juneau, we spent most of the day enjoying the scenery and spotting whales off in the distance. Eventually we headed to the bar where, freshly converted, I ordered an Alaskan Pale beer.
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have any beer,” the waiter said.
“Um…no,” he grimaced. “We don’t have cider either.”
In fact the only alcohol they had were mini-wine bottles, and after downing a few of these we no longer cared about finding a pub-with-no-beer in the middle of Alaska.
By midnight we were ready for one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen followed by an equally impressive sunrise merely two hours later. It’s amazing how quickly the body adjusts to minimum sleep in the land of the midnight sun.
Glacier Bay was our first real taste of Alaskan wilderness. We sailed close to massive glaciers, the silence occasionally shattered by thunderous cracking as chunks of ice calved and crashed into the water. Grizzly bears roamed the shores; seals perched on icebergs and otters played in the water. It was simply an amazing day.
Over the following weeks we saw much of Alaska’s glorious scenery particularly when we were hiking. Most memorable was Denali National Park. Equipped with compass, map and bear-bin (to keep the grizzlies at bay) we set out into the wilderness where no trails existed, intent on forging our own path.
Scrambling over rocks and struggling up steep inclines we fought through thick brush emerging scratched and agitated. We hiked for ten hours but barely progressed three kilometres. And that was just the first day.
At the end of our three-day expedition we were cold, wet and exhausted, not to mention, scratched and bruised. But we were ecstatic. We’d survived. We may even have walked where no person had been before.
Prior to our hike we glanced sparingly at the field notes for the area we were entering. What we missed was crucial:
Climbing Mt Healy is possible, but beware of loose rock. Due to difficulty and exposure, a traverse of the entire ridge is rarely done.
After hearing my sister’s stories about Green Tortoise, I was unsure if this style of trip would suit me. Travelling in such close proximity to forty other people for a month involves challenges. But if you pack a sense of adventure and an easygoing nature the experience can be life changing – as it was for me.
What is the best tour you’ve ever done? What made it so special?
I did this trip in 1996 (unbelievably) and the best thing about it was the people I met and the experiences we shared. Sixteen years on, I’m still in touch with people from all around the world… and a few of them have become lifelong friends.