Friday, May 20, 2011

And he’ll have fun, fun, fun driving coaches in AK, USA…

I thought I might go through an average day in the life of a Driver/Guide for HAP Alaska, Yukon.  To do this properly, let us return to yesterday for a brief moment.  On Tuesday the 18th, I had the distinct pleasure of driving through some of the most breathtaking country on this great planet of ours.

Standing on the Denali Highway ~ Gravel Roads FTW!
About 20 of us were taken on the Denali Highway Fam (familiarizing) Tour.  This drive took us from Fairbanks, AK to the Denali Princess Lodge, across the Denali Highway and back to Fairbanks via the Richardson Highway, a loop of about 436 miles.  The Denali Highway is about 134 miles long, approximately 121 miles of which is unpaved road.  We reported to the yard at about 5:30am and I got home at about 10:00pm that night.  Now, on to a regular day in the life of a driver guide…

3:30 A.M. – Alarm goes off… I shower and prepare everything for my 4 day road trip. 
5:15 A.M.  – I arrive at the yard, clock in, update my log book and check in with dispatch.
5:30 A.M. – I head out to coach 8898 and start my pre-trip inspection.   I am driving one of our luxury E-class models that were acquired in 2007 at the cost of $500,000.00 each.  The pre-trip inspection covers over 300 points on the coach and lasts about 90 minutes.
7:00 A.M. – I leave the yard and head to the Westmark Hotel, Fairbanks, AK.
7:15 A.M. – I help our luggage handlers load the guest's luggage into the coach bays. 
7:45 A.M. – I stage my coach in preparation to pick up our guests.  The coaches are to be staged at the Hotel entrance 15 minutes prior to departure time.
8:00 A.M. – The first guests start heading out to the coach.  All guests are loaded in about 15 minutes.
8:15 A.M. – We hit the road on to our first stop, North Pole, AK.  Our tour director spends the next 30 minutes telling our guests how cool North Pole, AK is.  How you can visit the Santa Clause House, read many letters that Santa has received over the years, mail their post cards stamped, “North Pole, Alaska” by the North Pole Post Office, grab some yummy cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate, etc…
101 St. Nicolas Dr., North Pole, AK, 99705
8:45 A.M. – Arrive at North Pole, give guests final instructions making sure they know to return by 9:15am.
9:00 A.M. – After 5 grueling minutes of giant mosquito attacks, our bus is reloaded by grumbling guests letting us know that North Pole, AK is currently closed… ruh-roh!  Someone on our coach must have been very naughty!  We are loaded and headed to Rika’s Landing.
10:00 A.M. – We pull over to take a quick 10 minute photo-op of the woven Tanana River with the majestic Mount Hayes and the Alaskan Ridge in the background.

Mt. Hayes and the Alaskan Range make a beautiful backdrop for the braided Tanana River.
11:00 A.M. – Snack and gift shop stop at Rika’s Landing.
11:30 A.M. – The coach is again reloaded and we are back on the Alaska Highway…
2:00 P.M. – Arrive in Tok, AK for a quick lunch of Red Snapper, Chicken Stew, Reindeer Sausage, Sweet Potato Fries, Buttermilk Biscuit, and Fireweed Salad.  Deeelish!!
2:45 P.M. – Back on the Highway and headed for the border!
The Alaska, US / Yukon Territory, Canada Border
4:30 P.M. – Quick photo stop at the Alaska/Yukon border.
5:00 P.M. – Clear customs and enter into Canada.
Look Closely and you can see the notch on the horizon where the border passes.
6:00 P.M. – Arrive at Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory.
6:30 P.M. – Post Trip Inspection and cleaning of the coach.
7:00 P.M. – Dinner Theatre (well a shower and blogging for me, I am too tired!)
8:45 P.M. – Finish blogging for the day and headed to bed.  No internet here so I will be posting this tomorrow night when we reach Whitehorse.

Good Night!

And, “Hello!” again.  Today’s itinerary read pretty much the same as yesterday’s; except I got to sleep in until 4:55 A.M. (3:55 in Alaska =P) and the names have been changed to protect the innocent.  We pulled out of Beaver Creek at about 7:15 this morning and arrived in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory at about 6:30 this evening, with a brief stop for lunch in Haines Junction.  I then spent about a half hour talking with my family on Skype (yeah internet), reading scriptures and now blogging and will soon be calling it a night.  Our morning starts tomorrow at 5:30 A.M. (4:30 in Alaska)
5:26 A.M. ~ Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory, Canada

We will be dropping our guests off in Skagway and then deadheading back here for the night before deadheading back to Fairbanks on Sunday.  It has been a fun tour, and I look forward to my next tour on Thursday the 25th of May.  I will be posting some new pictures, probably tomorrow night, so look for those.  For now I bid you all adieu and send special HUGS and Kisses to Conner, Madison and J’Nell!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Copper River Fam Tour... And Eagles!!

It has been a week since my last post… and a busy week it has been.

We enjoyed Division Day… a day in which they brought all the drivers, maintenance, guest services, management… everyone for an intense orientation and training.  The day started with training and familiarization on the different equipment we will find around the yard.  We got the opportunity to get a closer look at the different models of coaches and to learn about some of their quirks.  This training continued for new drivers on Monday with even more in depth for the highway drivers on the following day. 

During the highway training we got the opportunity to change out one of the tires from the coach.
Changing the Dualies
Of course there were about 15 of us working on the same tire at the same time… not quite the same thing as finding ourselves out somewhere alone on the road in the driving rain.  The heavier tires, all nice and clean in the yard, weigh upwards of 270 lbs.  It was quite the show watching some of our smaller drivers (some of the ladies couldn’t have weighed more than a $1.25 with change to spare) get these tires moved from the horizontal to the vertical.  It is mostly about smarts when working with these monsters, though I gotta admit the brawn doesn’t hurt!
Under the Coach with Fairbank's Head Mechanic, Jon

After our morning training they fed us up on hamburgers and hot dogs.  We then jumped in the coaches and got to tour around Fairbanks.  And when I say “the coaches” I mean “ALL” the coaches.  I think there were about 50 coaches tooling around Fairbanks for a few hours.   Meanwhile, back at the yard, they were cleaning up all the gravel that accumulated over the winter.  Up here they do not use salt on the roads.  Gravel is the roughener of choice.  By the end of the winter the gravel is knee high to a moose!  Driving around Fairbanks you can see a plethora of stars, especially during the daylight hours!  There is nary a windshield without at least two chips to its name.   On the flip side, gravel is cheap and reusable.

Division Day led us into our first day off, which was Sunday, May 8th, Mother’s Day!  I attended church this morning for the first time since arriving in Alaska.  I am currently attending the Fairbanks 2nd Ward which is presided over by Bishop Cheney.  The ward seems friendly enough and I believe I will enjoy my time here.  In addition to myself, there are currently six other driver/guides that I work with attending the 2nd ward… Bryan & Sarah Pulsipher, Brad & Nicole Spencer, and Matt & Erica Farmer.  I am really feeling my age as they are all young enough to be my children =P  The church is about 1.5 miles from our apartment, and as you may remember, I am without a vehicle.  I have been thrust back into a world without wheels, so I am relying upon my feet to get me around just about everywhere I go.  I am definitely getting my exercise!

Traditional Native Clothing
As I stated earlier, we passed most of the day Monday in more training for all drivers in the yard followed with more in depth training on Tuesday for the highway drivers.  Later Monday evening we entertained and fed at “Vendor Night”.  We headed to the Morris Thompson Center in downtown Fairbanks and we met some of the vendors in the area that sponsor tours to their establishments.  We learned about flights up to the Arctic Circle as well as rafting and fishing on some of the rivers and evenings on the Riverboat.  There was some great food from the Pagoda restaurant in North Pole as well as some smoked salmon from the Riverboat in Fairbanks (which I could not get enough of!). 

All the days seem to be running together… I may have gotten a few items out of sequence, but suffice it to say, they are keeping us hopping up here.  Sunday was a welcome relief, not only being able to attend church services, but also getting the opportunity to hear from Jake!  Mother’s Day is one of two days in the year that our missionary is allowed to call home.  I connected with the family via Skype and then listened to the call between Jake and Cheryl for about an hour.  Jake seems to be doing very well thus far on his mission.  He and his companion have gotten off to a great start, from what Jake reports, they have become best of friends.  There have been a few tough moments, but overall his mission has been an amazing growing experience.  I must admit… I love being a missionary parent!

Whew!  almost caught up…   Starting on Wednesday of this week we have enjoyed what is known as the “Copper River Fam Tour”.  This is a tour that allows new drivers to become familiar with the Copper River run that we will be doing this year.  The tour starts off in Fairbanks and heads in the direction of  Copper Center, AK.  We overnight at the Copper River Resort that overlooks the Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Reserve… the view is breath taking!
Mt. Drum ~ Mt. Zanetti ~ Mt. Wrangell ~ Mt. Blackburn

The next morning we headed down to Valdez and were treated to an aerial display the likes of which I have never seen before.  There were easily a dozen Bald Eagles
Adult and Juvenile Bald Eagle
flying around the area and in the trees.  A resident of Valdez was “baiting” the eagles by throwing some herring out into the parking lot.  I was able to get some incredible pictures!

More Eagle Pics 
We returned to the Copper River Resort for our second night and then took the Glenn Alan Highway to the Kenai Peninsula.  We traveled the Seward Highway up the Cook Inlet to the cruise port in Whittier.  In order to reach Whittier you must travel through a 2.5 mile tunnel that was blasted through the mountain.  The tunnel was originally built in 1941 to allow for easier freight passage.  Originally there was only a rail that passed through the tunnel… if you wanted your vehicle to traverse the span you were required to drive up onto a railroad car and they would take you through for the minimal cost of $60.00.  Getting the coaches on the RR cars led to the introduction of one of our skills tests, the offset alley.  It is an art form to be sure!  In 2000 they opened up the tunnel to vehicular traffic, which has greatly enhanced the passage.  It is still a single lane, and it is very closely regulated.  I took a video of our journey which I hope to be able to post on the blog… if it lets me (but not tonight).
We did a quick turnaround at the port in Whittier and I got my first “Highway” experience.  I drove the coach to our current location at the Kenai Princess Lodge.  It is a beautiful resort overlooking the Kenai River.  I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to see so much of this beautiful state.  I miss the family terribly, but I am enjoying myself very much thus far.  I am beat, so I think I will call it a night… look for pictures to be posted sometime tomorrow.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Alaska training has begun in earnest, as well it should since the season starts in about two weeks.  I have already driven twice with trainers here that are evaluating our performance.  I have received good marks in all areas and I am becoming more and more familiar with Fairbanks.  I will have one or two more evaluation drives before I am put through the company road testing.  By all accounts this test is more rigorous than the one given by the DMV.  I am hoping that I do well.

I have some very exciting news!  Well, exciting to me anyway…  Two days ago my supervisor, Jill Hyatt, approached me and asked if I could spare a few minutes.  Of course being the overly positive person that I am I immediately started trying to think of what I had done wrong.  As it turned out she asked if I would be willing to consider taking on “The Alaska Highway” tour in addition to “The Copper River” tour that I was assigned.  My first response was, “Jill, I am only a first year…” (First years usually are not considered for highway driving, but about a dozen of us were selected to drive “Copper River” which is a 5-6 day highway tour.  No first years were even considered for any of the other highway tours.)  Jill said, “I know, and I will understand if you don’t want to do it…”  I, all the while, am jumping out of my skin for this opportunity.  I assured her that I would be more than willing to help out any way that I could.  She explained that they had a driver available for the tour, but because of scheduling he would be unable to do it.  Sooo… I am now the king of the yard among all the first years.  They are sooooo jealous!  Of course I now have twice the material that I need to learn… but this is why I came up here, to see as much of Alaska as possible.  Okay… really I am here to make money… but, I want to see as much as I can!

In case anyone is wondering… I have moved into my apartment.  There are currently four of us living here.  Nicole and Brad Spencer, a young married couple from Utah and Robert Dawson, a more seasoned gentleman from Oregon.  All four of us are jammed into about a 400 square foot apartment.  But as all of us are highway drivers (hmmm… except for maybe Robert) we will not all be in town at the same time.  Sooo…  we think it will work out.

As far as new sites we have seen… We were taken on a Fairbanks familiarity tour yesterday.  This included a tour of downtown Fairbanks and a quick ride out to see the Alaskan Pipeline (well a stretch of pipeline that is near Fairbanks).  There is a lot of neat history here in Fairbanks which I may start sharing as the days go on…  The pipeline itself is pretty fabulous.  It stretches 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez (google it) and at current load is delivering about 300,000 barrels of oil a day.  If I am remembering correctly, its max capacity is about 1.25 million barrels a day.  Once all the red tape was gone through, construction of the pipeline took less than three years to complete (1974-1977).  A marvel of vision, engineering and sheer determination!  In case you are wondering… Alaskans as a whole LOVE their pipeline!


Tomorrow is our “Division Day”.  This will be the one and only time that all the drivers, mechanics, office staff and support in the Fairbanks area will be in one place at the same time.  There is an all day party planned for us with lots of food, some food and even a bit of food.  I of course will be eating sparingly as I do not wish to disrupt my new lifestyle.  Okay, that is a lie… I am taking a free day and eating whatever I dang well please.

I have been careful with my intake, and since moving into our apartment I have been 100% perfect on my diet.  Granted, it has only been two days… but hey!  I made it two days!  In addition to my diet, I am walking to work and will be occasionally walking home as well.  It is 2.83 miles from my door to the yard.  Alright, it isn’t all that far… but it is a start!  My goal is to be able to make the walk in less than 45 minutes by the end of the season!  I also am working to drop 100 lbs in that time as well!

Pray for me!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Moving In! (I hope)

Well, it looks as if I may have finally found a place to live.  I had HR Orientation this morning at the yard and then spent the remaining part of the morning into the afternoon searching for an apartment.  We found a small 1-bedroom for $850.00/month plus electric.  There will be four of us living there and so we expect to be paying about 225.00 each.  It hopefully will not be too crowded since we are all highway drivers and will probably be crossing paths more often than not.

Yesterday the company took us on the Chena Hot Springs tour to get us familiarized with that run.  This is a tour that I may be doing between highway runs.  The facilities run off of electricity generated from the geothermal energy found on the site.  The science behind the running of their generators was extremely interesting, but I fear I will not be able to explain how it all works.  I am sure that any interested parties can easily find the information on the internet.  They currently generate all the energy they need at a cost of approximately $0.06 / KW hour.  Once their newest generator goes online they will be able to supply not only all the energy they need, but also enough to run the U.S. Army base that is nearby.  The cost to supply this energy will be less than $0.01 / KW hour.  Of course being a government contract I expect they will be able to get a minimum of $10.00 / KWH out of the army.    

Chena Hot Springs has built greenhouses up in the area that currently supplies all the fresh produce for the resort.  It is amazing how fast things tend to grow when you supply them with perfect growing conditions 24 hours a day.  The tomato vines and cucumbers in the picture are only about 75 days old.  Take special note of the length of the vines that are wrapped around the support pole at the base.  Incredible!  They have plans to start a shrimp farm in the foreseeable future to supply all the shrimp they will need.

One of the main attractions at the Hot Springs is their Ice Museum.  They have a husband and wife team that have more than a dozen world championships between them that now work full time up at the resort.  The creations are incredible… I will let the images speak for themselves.  They maintain about a 20 degree temperature in the museum.  The ice bar is an actual working bar and the rooms in the back can be rented out for the night… why?  I didn’t make it inside myself, but there is a working xylophone inside the igloo.    I meant to go in and take a picture, but forgot to take my turn when it was available.  It was an amazing place of beauty! (other images can be found here:  more pics )

I was one of six first year drivers that drove one of the four coaches up and back from the hot springs.  This gave me added experience, as well as giving a Fairbank’s instructor a chance to see how well our training in Provo translates to Alaska conditions.  When the trip was over he handed me my evaluation to sign and informed me that he had given me the highest marks he was allowed to give on every category.  He mentioned that he thought about giving me some lower scores on some of the items just to make himself look better, but he could not justify doing so.  I felt pretty good about the outcome and am greatly appreciative of the excellent training that I received.

Oh!  I almost forgot… I went to bed early last night because of the whirlwind that I have gone through for the past few days.   I was pretty well exhausted.  At about 10:30pm an alarm went off.  I woke up in a daze and didn’t remember where I was.  I was scrambling to find my phone to turn off the alarm, and couldn’t believe how loud it was sounding.  I finally found my phone and was trying to shut off the alarm when I realized it wasn’t my phone… It was the fire alarm!  I got out of bed and started looking for a shirt and some shoes.  I looked out the window and didn’t see anything and then went to the door and heard a lot of people talking and making noise.  I opened the door and joined the exodus to the parking lot.  It was cold outside!  I should have grabbed a jacket, and maybe my wallet... camera... computer... etc…  To make a long story short, a dumpster near the ventilation intake had caught fire and filled the hotel with smoke.  The fire department arrived and put out the fire and then let us back in about a half hour later.  All in all it was quite a fun night.  In fact, at about 2am I finally called downstairs to have someone come up and break up the party that was going on outside my door… =P

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The (Mis-)Adventure Continues...

Day 5 in the Alaskan wilderness… It has been an eventful few days to say the least. With some of the things that have happened I am wondering if I should rename my blog. How does “The Great Northern Mis-Adventures of Yukon Jon” sound?

I spent the greater part of my first two days in Alaska on the phone in search of a vehicle and living arrangements as well as the first two nights sleeping in the airport. Airport sleeping is nothing new to me, but it has been quite a few years since I have done it. I remember it being a lot easier when I was younger…

I know where I am going to live (well depending on whether they let me live there or not =P) and I was supposed to see my place on Thursday, April 28th, and potentially move in on that date. Unfortunately, the apartment wasn’t quite ready. Call back tomorrow… I am getting a little tired of those words. As it stands, I am going Monday to finally see the place and hopefully move in. Meanwhile, I finally broke down after my second night sleeping on the chairs at the airport and got myself a room at the Westmark Hotel. Regular cost is $105.00 a night, but I was able to get an employee rate for only $50.00 a night. Even at that rate the funds are fading fast!

I did have some “luck” in the vehicle department! Unfortunately it was major bad luck. I found a “beater with a heater” from one of the locals up here. The cost was $500.00 but I was able to talk them down to $400.00. It is ugly as sin, but drove great during the test ride. It is a 1984 Mazda GLC hatchback… two door, four seater, 34 mpg eyesore. I would post a picture, but it will have to wait until later, if ever. I was headed back to the airport for my second night’s sleep when the car suddenly stopped. It just died. 10:30pm at night on the outskirts of Fairbanks and my car died. I was just a little bit worried and a wee bit upset.

I was able to get the car on the side of the road, and then I just sat there and prayed that I would survive this mess I had gotten myself in. Fortunately within 15 minutes a friendly local in a pickup stopped and asked if I needed help. Boy, was I glad to see him. Scott and I did all we could to get the car started without any luck. The starter would crank, but we couldn’t get the dang thing to start. We finally dragged the pull rope out of his truck (apparently standard equipment with all vehicles) and tied it to my poor little red engine that couldn’t and he towed me to the nearest service station. By this time it was about midnight. We pushed the beater into a parking stall and Scott gave me a ride back to the airport where I made myself as comfortable as possible for another night’s “rest”.

The next morning I contacted the service station and had them take a look at the situation. It cost $127.00 just to get the thing up in the door for the mechanic to diagnose the problem. Diagnosis… blown distributor. $647.00 just to fix that so they can determine what else needs to be done. The nearest distributor is currently in Pennsylvania… wait a second… why does that sound familiar to me? I have been trying in vain to get in contact with the guy I purchased the “car” from, but to this date have been unsuccessful. My mechanic is calling around to see if he can find a cheaper alternative than the Pennsylvania distributor, but I am not holding my breath. I am afraid to throw good money after bad and unless he can get that thing running for less than $500.00 I think I will be eventually purchasing another vehicle. I guess I am just too trusting and I should have paid more attention to the old adage, “buyer beware”. And it has come crashing home to me again that the cheapest route is not always the least expensive.

Despite all of this I am still excited to be here. The countryside is beautiful! Weather has been partly cloudy with the occasional shower (it is actually raining at this moment, but should be clearing up shortly) and ranging from 45-55 degrees during the day. Daylight lasts till late evening, and starts in the early morning, even this early in the Summer. According to the website the sun rose at 5:18am this morning and will set at 10:20pm tonight. Next Sunday it will be rising at about 4:50am and set at about 10:45pm. The days will continue to get longer and longer until the Summer solstice on June 21st. On this date the sun will rise at about 2:58am and set at about 12:48am the next morning giving us a total of approximately 21 hours and 50 minutes when the sun should be visible in Fairbanks.

I did see my first moose the other day. Unfortunately I did not have my camera to hand and so I did not get the opportunity for the photo-op. I am sure I will have numerous chances in the days to come. My plans this morning were to make the 1.27 mile walk to church and hopefully find a ride back to the hotel. But, with the current weather conditions, I found it too easy to be lazy and did not quite make it out for the morning services. If I only had a car…

Still raining… I think I may climb back in bed for a morning nap and then write a quick letter to Jake in Pennsylvania… wait a second… why does that sound familiar to me?