Photo © 1980 Kathlyn Anderson; Minnesota frame is a gift from Betty Droel
Donald B. Johnson tours Alaska in Jerrianne's van, 1980.

My Incredible Journey To Alaska
by Donald B. Johnson
Ashby, MN

Editor's Note: During the last two summers of his life, my dad toured Alaska with me for a couple of weeks at the end of the summer, first with my sister Kathy and in 1981 with our mother (Twila). He wrote detailed accounts of both trips that were published in The Ashby Post. This story was published in The Ashby Post, October 2, 1980. The author died in 1982.

Up until six weeks ago, I had never dreamed of seeing Alaska. In fact, I always said I didn't think it was worth all the effort of going there! After all, we have been continuous subscribers to the "Alaska" magazine for 40 years and have seen it all in pictures over the years.

But, about that time, Twila's two sisters called from Salt Lake City; they said they were coming to visit for 10 days or so, and would arrive about the 27th of August. While I was wondering how I could possibly survive 10 days with three women in the house (all talking at once), our daughter Jerri, who is one of the editors of the "Alaska" magazine, called from Anchorage.

She said she and her husband, Mic, were taking their vacations and were going to tour the different roads leading out of Anchorage in a Volkswagen bus camper. Their daughter, Kyra, was flying to Virginia to enter college on the 29th and there would be room for two people to ride along and "camp" in the bus, if any of us could fly up there in time. Our daughter Kathy was home at the time and I thought she was only kidding when she said, "I think I'll go."

Facing the prospect of not being able to get a word in edgewise for 10 days, I said, "I think I'll go, too," but only just kidding! I was sure that after sleeping one night on a shelf in the bus I would be too stiff with arthritis to crawl out again. But it seemed the lesser of two evils and I would be willing to take a chance, still thinking it was all just a happy thought.

However, 1:30 p.m. the 28th of August found Kathy and me on board a Northwest Orient plane, headed for Alaska from Minneapolis. Kathy's family agreed to keep the home fires burning, with the idea that they would plan a family trip at some future time, after sending her as a scout ahead to check the ways and roads of Alaska. She, in turn, would be their tour guide. As for Twila, she said, "There is no choice this time. Go!"

After a four-hour wait in Seattle, we boarded another plane and Jerri met us in Anchorage at 11:30 p.m. Of course, it was already 3:30 a.m. back in Ashby. We had the next day to recover and visit with Kyra while she packed and boarded the plane that night for Virginia.

Photo © Jerrianne Lowther
Alaska State Fair Giant Vegetable Display in Palmer
(This photo is from 2005, but it's the same type of display as in 1980.)

Before leaving on our tour, we went to the State Fair at Palmer and saw all the entries from the Matanuska Valley and other parts of Alaska. Among them was a 68-1/2 pound cabbage and a 37 pound turnip. Kathy was especially taken up with the large number of different breeds of rabbits, especially with some that looked exactly like Siamese cats with long ears.

In the museum, hanging on the wall, there was a little airplane, only a few feet long, that some daredevil had flown from Alaska to the Lower 48 with only a go-cart motor for power.

We watched a rodeo at the fair for a while and were fascinated by a big, ugly looking, black bull with long horns and a tail exactlly like a horse, which the announcer said no one had ever been able to ride. While we were wondering what breed of cattle he was, someone came along and said he was a Yak, imported from China.

Photo © Kathlyn Anderson
Yak -- with long horns and a tail exactly like a horse.

The highlight of that day was when they turned a calf with a red ribbon tied high up on his tail loose in the arena. They then let 150 or more kids, all under 10 years of age, into the arena for "The Kids Scramble." The one who got the ribbon off the calf got $10. The calf did his best and the kids did their best for 15 or 20 minutes, and finally a little boy came out of the melee with the ribbon and collected his prize.

Photo © Kathlyn Anderson
Calf Scramble -- entertainment for the under 10 kids.

It was a beautiful summer day at the fair and a good share of the crowd were wearing short sleeves and shorts.

Leaving Anchorage in the camper, the four of us drove the 40 or so miles to Portage and there drove the bus unto a flatcar on the Alaska Railroad for a trip through 4-1/2 miles of tunnels under two mountains (a 12-mile trip altogether) to Whittier. A large number of autos and Winnebagos and even big charter buses were on the train and we all rode in our own vehicles.

At Whittier, all the vehicles were driven off the train and into the hold of a large ferry boat, the M.V. Bartlett, for a 7-hour ferry ride to Valdez.

Photos © Kathlyn Anderson
Auto transport, Alaska Railroad, left; ferry M/V Bartlett, right.
[There is a toll road through the tunnels now; no more auto train transport.]

On the ferry, we rode up in the glass-enclosed deck; it was too cold and misty to ride in a still higher open deck, but the scenery was fantastic through the glass and the girls went out onto the deck long enough to snap pictures every few minutes.

A few minutes after Kathy and Jerri sat down, they were quite surprised to find Mavis and Betty Bothun from Dalton, Minnesota [about 7 miles from Ashby] sitting right in front of them.

The ferry pulled right up close to the Columbia Glacier and blew the whistle several times. The vibration from the whistle caused the glacier to "calve," as they put it, several icebergs, which then float around in the water.

The water is full of chunks of ice of varying sizes and hundreds of seals were bobbing around on those chunks of ice while the ferry pushed right through them.

Photo © Kathlyn Anderson
Ferry passengers watch Columbia Glacier calve, left; seals on icebergs, right.
[The ferry no longer goes to Columbia Glacier. Tour boats do but they cannot go near the glacier face anymore as the retreating glacier has choked the bay with icebergs.]

At Valdez, the ferry opened its big mouth at the opposite end and we drove right out onto the dock and onto dry land. We camped outside of town in a Chugach National Forest campground.

In the morning, we started up the Richardson Highway toward Fairbanks. A short way up the highway, we took a side trip on a mountain road to another glacier [Worthington] that was "calving" huge icebergs that stood out of the water 20 or 30 feet.

Some of the small chunks came right to shore and Jerri went down the bank and got a piece of glacier ice for the icebox in the bus. That ice is formed under such high pressure that it is much harder and heavier than ordinary ice and keeps much longer in the icebox.

Near there, we could walk right down to the edge of a small river where the salmon were spawning in the shallow water right at our feet. That kind of salmon turn bright red when they spawn and then they die right there. They are not fit for food after they spawn.

Several times we saw different kinds of salmon spawning right by the road. Some kinds turn red and some turn gray, but they all die afterwards. We didn't make much mileage that day, but it seemed like we made hundreds of stops for pictures of mountains, flowers, glaciers, clouds and waterfalls.

The second night we camped in the forest campground at Gulkana. We had pancakes the next morning at the Sourdough Roadhouse, up the road a little way, the oldest roadhouse in Alaska. Built in 1884 and added to in 1903, it has been preserved in its original form. [Sourdough Roadhouse burned down in 19xx.]

The wood fire in the stove (made from a hundred gallon barrel) sure felt good as we were getting inland, which isn't warmed up by the Japanese current like the coastal area.

It was getting colder as we drove north, so we decided to spend the third night in a motel. Also, the red alternator light came on and we didn't want to use any battery juice until we could get to Fairbanks to see what was wrong.

In Fairbanks, we found no Volkswagen dealer, but a small repair shop that would monkey with them soon diagnosed it as the regulator having gone out. They rounded one up and put it on for about $50. That was the only car trouble we had.

We were headed for Circle, which is the end of the Richardson Highway and is only 50 miles from the Arctic Circle, but 40 miles north of Fairbanks the pavement ended and the road was under construction, although the machinery was shut down for the night.

There had been a lot of rain and the road ahead looked awful formidable to go on with that little bus. The passengers (us) started to murmur a little, so Mic said he would try it, but not with nervous passengers, so he decided to leave it for a later trip with their 4-wheel-drive Scout.

We went back a short way and camped for the night in another forest campground [Chatanika]. It was already dark when we pulled in there and it was so cold that we cooked and ate right in the bus.

The beds were warm with heavy down sleeping bags, but when we woke up in the morning, the windows had about an eighth of an inch of ice on them and the water puddles and the dirt road had frozen solid during the night. Right then, I named the unheated Volkswagen the "Tin Ice Box" and Jerri said that would be its name from now on.

We had parked as close as possible to the outdoor restrooms and didn't drink anything for supper (at least I didn't), but you can't put ALL things off forever and we found out that the restrooms had stainless steel seats [so the porcupines wouldn't try to eat them] and that eventually the seats get warm by transferring the cold into the user!

By then, I was wearing thermal underwear with two layers on the bottom, also wool shirts and hooded sweatshirts and jackets, etc.

Mic maneuvered the bus out into the sun and we all stood around and cooked breakfast (oatmeal, cocoa, coffee, etc.) on a picnic table so we could warm up in the sunshine. That was the first time I ever went outside to get warm. We called it the "solar heated" campground.

It took quite a while to get my fingers warmed up so I could hold a spoon, so I put them inside and sat on them a while and I could finally bend them a little again.

By then, I had found out that my first fears were unfounded. I have never been so cold, that I can remember, but my lungs got better every day and I hardly noticed the arthritis at all at any time. The others said that they could see I was getting better every day that I was in Alaska.

That cold morning we had to wait for the sun to thaw the ice off the windows of the Tin Ice Box because it only had a manifold heater that I claimed gave about the same amount of heat as a portable hairdryer and only when the bus was moving.

While we were waiting, Kathy got warm enough to pick a big cup of lingonberries [low bush or mountain cranberries] right there, a few feet from where we camped. She picked lingonberries in two or three campgrounds, which surprised me, because I thought they only grew in Norway.

While I was eating breakfast, a red squirrel jumped up on the cooler that I had my oatmeal sitting on and was going to have some, too. Also, a Canada Jay [camp robber] sat on one end of the picnic table while Jerri cooked on the other end.

The birds and animals were really missing the summer tourists; the last red squirrel we saw had given up on tourists and was lugging home a mushroom three times as big as he was.

We saw the big pipeline many times, right near the road, all the way from Valdez to Fairbanks. Sometimes it was above ground and then it would go underground again.

The next night we were at the Mt. McKinley National Park headquarters. The big hotel there had burned one year and the Alaska Railroad parked a bunch of sleeper cars there for the emergency. They were so popular that they left them there. We slept in one of them that night for $48 for all of us. The hotel is rebuilt but it would have cost $72 to sleep in it.

The park had had an extra-early snow and part of it was closed off, but we could drive part of the way. We rode on a free shuttle bus farther and saw quite a few moose and three big bears, also quite a few ptarmigan and a red fox, right by the road. None of them were the slightest bit afraid. The fox came within 10 feet of the cars that stopped.

We couldn't go far enough into the park to see Mt. McKinley and when we were out of the park it was fogged in, so we never did get a good look at it.

That night we made Talkeetna and stayed in the Talkeetna Road House, another of the old roadhouses built during the Gold Rush and now preserved. We had to go through the proprietor's living room to get to our rooms. There were three dogs and three cats asleep on the davenport, but the rooms and showers, etc. were spotless.

We had sourdough pancakes and eggs, etc. for breakfast there and everyone sits up to a long table like the olden days.

That day we came down through Willow, where they want to move the capital to from Juneau. Then we took a long, narrow, unpaved road back in the mountains to the Independence Gold Mine, which isn't being worked anymore and has been given to the state for a park. They will restore the old buildings that can be restored.

While we were at the Independence Mine, I was sitting in the bus with my winter clothes on and a down-filled sleeping bag wrapped around me because it was cold and windy. There was a fellow working on the roof there and all he had on was short sleeves, shorts, and shoes! We saw lots of people jogging in the cold wearing shorts, which proves Alaskans are tough.

There was quite a town there during its heyday. It was called Boom-town but only part of two or three houses are left. The Little Susitna River runs through the area and we stopped at the Little Susitna Roadhouse [later named The Motherlode Lodge] down the road a little way from the mine.

The Glen Miles family, from between Erdahl and Elbow Lake [Minnesota], who used to raise bees [and placed beehives on Donald's Ashby farm], bought that old roadhouse six years ago. Although it had been idle for 10 years, they have completely restored it and are running it now. They are so far back in the mountains that they don't have electricity or telephones. They run a diesel engine 24 hours a day for power.

Mrs. Miles was quite surprised to see us; she served us coffee and the most delicious blueberry pie I have ever eaten. [She extended and enhanced the blueberries with rhubarb.] Next year they are talking of putting in a hydro-electric plant to get electricity from the river.

The two youngest Miles kids were up the road a ways, riding a Honda three-wheeler. The road we took up there was so narrow we had to wait on a wide spot to let someone go past. Little waterfalls came down the mountains in many places and ran right across the road, making washouts that you just have to creep through.

They have a shorter distance out to the highway on the other side of the river. This comes out near Palmer and the Matanuska Valley. There are a lot of gold mines up through there, some being worked and some abandoned. [Link]

When we got back to Anchorage, Mic had to go back to work and so we had three days to kill until Jerri could take some more time off. The next door neighbor said a moose had walked through Mic and Jerri's yard a couple of days before (sorry to have missed it).

Kathy walked over to the foot of the mountains a couple of blocks from Jerri's one afternoon and picked a big bowl of lingonberries that we froze and brought home, along with a big cooler full of salmon and halibut fillets.

We stopped and looked for berries many places along the road and found several different kinds. Among them were watermelon berries that tasted exactly like the poor watermelon we bought this summer in the store in Ashby.

Although it had been clear and sunshiny weather most of the time, the temperature had been much lower inland, but in Anchorage the weather was pretty much the same as home in Minnesota. The lawns were lush and green and the flowers were blooming everywhere, with much bigger blooms on them than mine in Minnesota. The leaves on the trees were turning color and the fireweed, etc. were turning red, giving some whole mountains a red color above the timberline.

About the 14th [of September], Jerri and Kathy and I started out again, leaving Mic at his job with the pipeline company in Anchorage. Driving south and east around Turnagain Arm (this is a long body of water that is unsafe for any kind of boats because of the high tides that come in) we went on down to Seward, stopping dozens of times to take pictures of the colossal scenery and to look for berries.

Seward is on a long fjord, which is supposed to be more like Norway than any other place. It is also the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad and has an ice-free harbor with hundreds of boats docked there. We slept that night in the parking lot by the harbor and although the restrooms were indoors, we had to drive a ways to them, so we had another waterless supper.

After seeing the sights at Seward, we back traveled up the highway and turned to Homer on the Sterling Highway. The scenery was terrific up in the mountains there and salmon were spawning in the rivers along the roads, etc.

Some places, at the lower elevations, the highway department has seeded poppies along with the grass in the road ditches [after road construction] and they were blooming profusely.

Driving the highway along Cook Inlet toward Homer, we drove down into the little town of Ninilchick where Carolyn Bratvold [from Ashby] and her husband, Loren Leman, go back to his hometown to net salmon commercially during the salmon season (which was over before we got there).

Homer is much warmer than Minnesota and it seldom gets below zero there. This was the most desirable place in Alaska I saw to live in. The roads zigzag all the way up the mountainsides with beautiful houses and beautiful lawns and flower beds all along them overlooking Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay and the Homer Spit.

The Spit is a five mile long rock and gravel bar reaching out across Kachemak Bay with a black-topped road out to the end of it. It was quite deserted now, after the southern tourists had gone home, but it has a large hotel out at the end and boat landings and fish markets, etc. We took a quick look in the evening and then went back up the hill to a motel for the night.

In the morning, we toured a lot of the mountain roads above the town and did other sightseeing during the day, stopping at the Alaska Wild Berry Shop. We bough some rose hips jelly, etc. to take home, also went by the Yah Sure Saloon, which we figured must have been built by a Norwegian from Minnesota. [The Yah Sure Club burned down in 19xx.]

Toward evening we went back out on the spit and had French-fried halibut and shrimp at a drive-in and bought a cooler full of frozen fish to bring back to Minnesota.

While we were out on the spit, three dogs that looked like they were representing at least 15 different breeds mixed together were playing out on a shallow sandbar. Kathy went down there with them and was picking up pretty shells that had washed up. Jerri and I were quite a ways up on the spit in the bus watching them when the tide started to come in and was cutting off their connection to the spit.

Kathy didn't notice it right away and we were wondering if we would have to call the Coast Guard to rescue them. By the time it dawned on her what was happening, she had to take off her shoes and she and the dogs waded to shore. In a short time, the whole sandbar was under several feet of water.

One of the things that surprised me was the type of dogs we saw in Alaska. I expected to see mostly the sled dog type and I think we were there a whole week or more before we saw one that even looked like a sled dog and that one was riding in the back of a pickup. We saw every kind of hybrid or crossbreed dog imaginable, most of which would look right at home running up the streets in Ashby.

The same went for people, a large percentage of which had varying shades of darker skin and I said if I were the one taking the pictures, I would have taken some pictures of the odd looking hybrid dogs and the good looking girls instead of wasting so much film on endless pictures of mountains, clouds, scenery and flowers.

Kathy and Jerri wanted to get back to Anchorage to go on a field trip up in the mountains with a class in wild plants that Jerri was taking, so we drove back the 225 miles from Homer to Anchorage that night, getting there about 2 a.m. Too bad to miss all that scenery at night, but we had seen it all on the way down there and it was beautiful night driving weather, except for some fog the first 50 miles.

Tuesday night we reluctantly boarded the plane again at 12:30 a.m. and stopped off for two hours to change planes at sunrise in Seattle. We were met in Minneapolis by Kathy's husband, Argyle Anderson, at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, the 20th of September.

I had a perfect trip with someone else to do all my thinking and worrying, even what to eat and where to sleep. Kathy and Jerri were perfect Tour Leaders.

We were warmly welcomed home by Wyatt and Weston, the two little grandsons, but I think they were a little disappointed when the flow of cards from Alaska stopped.

Weston, left; Wyatt, right, 1980.

I had commented in Alaska that there was nothing but scenery to look at, and it would almost be nice to look at something plain for a change, but I must admit that what I considered scenery before really did look plain when we got back here.

Camp life and camp cooking aren't especially my line, and especially under adverse conditions. When the dishes are washed with paper towels and everything available is put into one pot and heated on a little Primus stove, it might be a balanced ration of health food, and I survived all those hardships, but it was good to get home where I could order just what I wanted again and Twila would be the caterer.