Alaska Backroad Adventures
June 26 - July 8, 1991
For years, Dennis had dreamed about starting a business to introduce tourists to the wilderness in our wonderful state of Alaska. In 1991, he geared up. First he bought a 12-passenger Ford van in Minneapolis, his home state. We drove it to Colorado where my dad helped him build a rack. At the Sports Show in Denver that year, he bought matching tents, cots and other gear. We drove the van up the Alaska Highway.
The plan was to take small groups from Anchorage to Denali Park with a stop in Talkeetna, ride the bus into Denali Park, drive across the Denali Highway to Paxson, continue south to Glennallen, drive to McCarthy and explore the Kennicott Copper Mines, continue to Valdez and put the guests on a ferry to Whittier while one of us drove the van back on the road. It was a great plan. Others have since launched successful businesses doing much the same thing.
We invited friends from across the United States to join us for a trial run. Most deferred, but enough came to make it worthwhile: my mom, my brother, my best friend from high school and her two daughters, a teacher friend and one actual tourist, Teresa, from Texas. Everyone agreed to share expenses (gas and food).
Before we left Anchorage, we lost an expensive down sleeping bag that hadn’t been tied to the rack securely. We searched the road but no luck. Amazingly, years later we got a phone call from a man who’d found and picked it up. When he couldn't find identifying information, he tossed the bag into a corner of his garage. Some friends visited and needed a sleeping bag, so he pulled it out. Lo and behold, our name and phone number were tucked away inside. We got the bag back and made a new friend in the process!
Although we’d traveled with a group through Africa on a truck on a similar type of tour and thought we knew what we were doing, we learned a lot. For one thing, don’t give participants options. Just tell people what they're going to do and do it. We wasted time discussing options. People were never of the same mind! Getting everyone packed up and into the van, in the morning or after any stop, was like herding cats!
We got a bad flat tire while traversing the Denali Highway. The highway has since been improved because buses of tourists now cross that dirt road. Then Dennis had severe abdominal pain. He’d had it before and been rushed to the ER but doctors never thought it was anything serious. We let him rest, but one after another, people started sharing stories of similar situations that turned out to be critical! We decided if Dennis didn’t improve, we should take him to a doctor.
He didn’t improve. We drove him 80 miles to the nearest clinic, where the doctor did some tests and said it didn’t seem serious. But Dennis never complains and rarely gets sick. I was alarmed. We took him on into Anchorage as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Our good friend there, a surgeon, did tests and said nothing appeared to be seriously wrong, but because Dennis spent so much time far from medical care, it might be prudent to remove his appendix. Turns out his appendix was the problem. We were immensely lucky it didn’t burst!
After all Dennis' planning and all the money people had paid for airfare, he begged us to continue the trip without him. He had friends in town to take care of him so on we went, my brother doing the driving.
Everyone’s favorite part of the trip was McCarthy and Kennicott. At the time, there was no bridge to town across the raging glacial river. We had to pull ourselves across on a tram (see photo). It was great fun for everyone!
Our only real tourist, Teresa, helped convince us we weren’t ideally suited to being tour guides. She emerged from her tent one morning with a green facial, shocking everyone. She complained about this and that, and fought our request to pay a share of the expenses!
The biggest issue, though, was that I had just started my business. Any of you entrepreneurs out there know that businesses tend to be money pits for the first few years. We treasure our summers together and decided we really didn’t want obligations, whiny people and work all summer! We’d get the same intangible rewards by hosting friends on wilderness trips, without the downsides. We sold the van with no regrets, glad we made the dream a reality and glad we abandoned it before it turned into a nightmare.
Go on to read Snowmachining the Nelchina Glacier
Source: www.SusanCAnthony.com, ©Susan C. Anthony