Monday, May 23, 2011

#4: Day Trip to Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada: To Train and to Shop

The Fairless
Skagway is a one-horse town: 1 library, 1 bank, 1 post office, 1 gas station, 1 grocery store--the Fairway. We call it the Fairless. A gallon of milk costs more than a gallon of gas. $5.50 compared to $4.98. Everything is shipped up once a week by barge--arriving Tuesday afternoons out of Seattle. By the time it gets here the produce is either too ripe or not ripe. Safe to say,  by Wednesday afternoon it's all gone. Shelves are as empty as Old Mother Hubbard's. So our company, HollandAmerica-Princess/Alaska, combined a day of training with a shopping spree in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, 110 miles due north of Skagway.  Hip hip harrah! I love the company I work for!
Skagway River, early season: Bus Yard to the left
We began at the MP2 lot--the bus yard. MP2 stands for Milepost 2 of the Klondike Highway; in other words, it's 2 miles from Skagway's Port of Call. So it's at MP2 where the buses are parked and the bus shop is--with a crew of full-time mechanics who keep us up and running and legal--and the MP2 House where several of the Driver Guides live in a large dormitory. I did not choose to live there, despite the fact that it's right across the highway from Jewell Gardens where I worked last year and where some of my friends live, because it's where Blake lives--the boy, I figure, needs some space from his mother.
MP2 Bus Yard and Housing
So we began our day of training and shopping bright and early, the agenda being to learn how to gear down for the steep windy road ahead, where to pull off for picture stops, and to visit various venues we'll be taking our tourists to. Final destination? Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, and the Canadaian Superstore! We were excited. Food!
Stanley and Me at picture stop just past the
Captain William Moore bridge.

William Moore Bridge, crossing an intersection
of about 5 fault lines, 1 of 3 or 4 cantilevers in the world.
A common tour is the train up/bus down (or bus up/train down) to Fraser, B.C., Canada. The White Pass & Yukon RR is Skagway's biggest tourist draw and largest employer, and we subcontract with them to get their passengers thither and yon. I personally love the train--one of 136 civil engineering feats in the world, right up there with the Eiffel Tower, Panama Canal, and Statue of Liberty.
View from the train, overlooking Skagway River
As a HAPA employee, I will frequently drive up the pass to either pick up or drop off tourists from or for the train--at Fraser, B.C., specifically Canadian Customs. So we practiced here on how to go through customs, what to do if we "deadheaded" up--meaning going up empty to load passengers just off the train. It was at this point we were told that if we rolled into the train station with people aboard and did not report to customs, we'd be fined $10,000 and looking at possible jail time. The fine comes right out of our own pocket, thank you, and the day we do this in all likelihood will be our last with HAPA.
Train Tracks at Fraser, BC: Lake Bernard still iced over.

The border itself, however, is several miles back up the summit; customs is stationed here because the weather is less gruesome, "less" being the operative word.
Fraser, BC, Housing
One of our Driver Guides is dating a Canadian Customs officer. I asked her what she'd done so wrong as to be banished to this Siberian outpost. She's just paying her dues, she says, and hopes soon to transfer back to Ontario. Who can blame her? And wish her luck? Existence up in Fraser has to be pretty rough in the winter. And pretty darn boring.
Lake Bernard Picture Stop, just past Fraser
Just past Customs at Fraser is a scenic pullout and picture stop. It's also where we can stall for time if we're too early for the train. Most importantly, it's a mile marker in history because this is where the White Pass Trail veers to Log Cabin, a tent city that once surrounded the Mounties' 1897 Log Cabin. At Log Cabin, duty was paid before going into Canada. And where the Mounties made sure everyone had 2,000 pounds of goods. Hunger in the Yukon was a problem; this was one way the Canadian government sought to forestall mass starvation.

Log Cabin
Just past the turn-out are railroad tracks, the train route stretching farther north, through Log Cabin and on to Lake Bennett. Crossing those tracks, the visible cabin, however, is not Log Cabin. It's foundations lie somewhere in the woods nearby. The cabin we "pretend" is Log Cabin is actually a RR maintenance shed.
"Log Cabin Now"

We crossed the tracks and arrived into Whitehorse about 2 pm...where we were taken directly to Canada's Super Store.
I heard someone once describe Whitehorse as a
strip mall. That about covers it.

We were given an hour to buy everything our purse and cart could support. Everyone dispersed like flies frightened by a swat and we swarmed through the aisles grabbing frozen waffles, pencils, canned stew, raw honey, milk, granola bars, peanut butter.
After the Fairway, I mean Fairless,
the variety at the Super Store was mind-boggling.
If you spent more than $125 you got a free watermelon. I got a free watermelon.

Coming home, we were taken the back route to Miles Canyon, a once formidable spot on the Yukon River where white water rapids gave name to the city, it's frothy water looking like the mane of a spirited white horse--hence Whitehorse.

The formidable waterfalls also splintered the home made boats of 1898, built by miners at Bennett Lake. To get to the gold, miners had to catch a steamer out of Seattle for Skagway, hike either the Dead Horse or Chilkoot Trail, then build a boat on Lake Bennett where the trails converged--and then paddle 640 miles downriver to the gold fields. In 1898, Miles Canyon was turning the Yukon River into the River Stix for the majority, and so the Mounties again stepped in by requiring building codes that eliminated fragile boat construction.
Miles Canyom 1898
Miles Canyon 2011
Today there is instead a dam and Lake Schwatka, thus taming the Yukon and taming the White Horse stallion. Perhaps a pity.

But just in case anyone asks why I happen to like working for HAPA? What other company in the world takes you for a drive through paradise and calls it training? And gives you an hour off to go shopping? I mean, really?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

#3: Do you have a good place to sleep and rest until you recover?

Stanley's side
The question from Gracie back home implies that I'm sick. Which I am. On the downside I have a bad head cold, sinus and ear congestion, sore throat and pneumonia. On the upside I am not as sick as I was last summer here in Skagway. So to answer Grace's question, I do have a good place to sleep and rest until recovered.

My friends will remember that housing was a challenge last year, first in a place where I was told I was too old to fit in, second my boss's century-old cabin aka tool shed without facilities, third a converted meat locker. It was behind my very own freezer door, in a 9' x6' space that I lay in the dark for ten days, I think. My son at some point took time off work to just sit in that cave with me as I moaned and moaned some more, every breath a whine that I couldn't control. This year?

Hey, this  year I'm living in the Taj Mahal, better known here in Skagway as the Westmark Hotel. We like to make fun of the stinky smell in the hallways and the peuk-green of the kitchen, but the kitchen's got hot water. I can wash my dishes in hot water this year. And the rooms all have views of the mountains and hundred-year-old buildings, some restored, some on the waiting list. We have a bathroom to every room, with a tub, in which I'm able to immerse myself 2 times a day and sometimes in the middle of the night when I can't breathe, the searing heat and steam a delightful respite from the dry hacking cough and tightness.

My side: w/Mitty's arsenal for the sick
Not only that, I have an army of friends: people back home praying for my recovery; Shari getting me some OJ and Emergen-C; Ginny rescuing me at the library when I foolishly tried to walk down there yesterday and ran out of steam to get back on my own two feet (and pay the $5 for a new library card I couldn't talk Demitra into giving me); Mitty who this afternoon brought around salted nuts, cough syrup, cough drops, tissues, bag of oranges, and wit so funny I nearly coughed my lungs inside out at least a half dozen times; and Stanley, my roomie, who feeds me protein, warms up chicken noodle soup, and keeps me in the loop of how much fun everyone is having.

So to answer the question, yes I do have a good place to sleep and rest until I recover. A most excellent place.

Check out my room...and the view that kept me company all day while I read my library books.
What I see from my bed. The window opens to the north, onto Fourth Street and
the Hardware Store. Their motto? "If we don't have it, you don't need it."

Looking out to the right, to the eastern mountains that frame Skagway Valley
Our sunflower sprouts and buckwheat lettuce growing in
the window: We signed up for Jewell Garden's weekly
delivery of organic food.

Friday, May 13, 2011

#2: Dual Driving: Two "Situations"

Broadway, looking south to Broadway Dock
I arrived in Skagway mid-afternoon of May 1st, two days ahead of Stanley. Which meant I got to clean our room of 7 months' dust and dirt and scrounge for light bulbs and bedding (mine on a mystery bus still in Seattle, waiting to be loaded on a barge for the journey north). That done, I took my pal Mitty, a real Skagwayian, to the Sweet Tooth and then sweet-talked the man into convincing the grocery store manager into lending me some milk crates for storage. Score!

All in time to meet last year's garden friends at the Starfire for Thai food--and to celebrate Bev's divorce, her marriage having fallen apart in the garden last summer.

But then play time was over; it was training time, big time. Our third day into it, the powers-to-be put Stanley and I together for dual driving around town and up to the pass.

Stanley made three short videos of me. But let me clarify. I did NOT kill the bus on the train tracks. NOT. NOT. NOT.

Stanley Introduces the Day

Situation #1
She so fibbed right there!

Situation #2

So there you have it: our first day off the leash. We made it to the summit without any further ado, staged at Fraser, B.C. and Lake Bernard, took a few pictures to prove we were there and then Stanley practiced brake stabbing all the way down the pass to "home sweet home."

The Trip
Crossing Skagway River to head up the Klondike
Driving over Black Lake
The spruce needles spill; the tanin turns the water black.

Not sure where this is, but it's pretty.

 Stopping and...yes, we chocked.

 Alaska and B.C. Yeah! I love it up here!

#1: It Takes a Village: Training for my CDL

I'm not sure just when last year in Skagway I decided that if I came back for a second season, I was going to come back and play with the big kids, big kids being the motor coach drivers for HollandAmerica-Princess/Alaska (HAPA). They were the ones making all the money and having all of the fun. I wanted to be one of them. 

But it meant I had to learn how to drive a motor coach. 


It takes a village to raise a child and to get me into the driver's seat. My mantra quickly became, "I am going to do this until I fail." As it turned out, I did fail. I mistook the CDL tester's question at a critical point in the testing and got an automatic failure. I have to confess, I popped. I haven't been so angry in decades and chewed him out for half an hour. His anal and officious attitude was beyond outrageous.

"You know very well I misunderstood you!" I roared, stomping my foot, punching the steering wheel, growling in his face. "OooooOOO!" Several "I don't like you's" tumbled out of my mouth, even an "In fact, I hate you right now! HATE YOU!" But the madder I got--injustice always a trigger--the cuter he thought I was. Which outraged me further. Man oh man, was I mad. Finally, I waggled my finger in his face and bellowed, "I can't retake this test for a week and a half, Mr. Big Britches! You owe me! What are you going to do for me? YOU OWE ME!"

He agreed to come out early the next morning and run me through it again.
Ooops, snow the next morning. Two inches! Mid-April! I rolled up in my car to the parking lot where we were doing the skills portion of our testing. Mr. Nice Guy (not) was setting out his cones. "Mr. Big Britches, are we really going to do this?" I asked.

"You're going to Alaska, aren't you? Get in the bus."

He had a point. I got in the bus. "But no shenanigans," I warned. "I'm not going to answer any of your questions. You hear me? None, nada, zip. I'm just going to drive. By the way? I still don't like you very much." He ate it up. We shook hands, and I passed. But it did take a village to get me to that point. May I introduce Laura Rudy?

I have to teach Brenda?
This was the girl they assigned to teach me. I have to say, she was Total Great. I sang her praises to the highest of high, namely Will, the man in charge of transportation.

Except I struggled with my turns and backing up and was getting myself into a real tizzy fit. I mean really. But this is how great Laura is. She let me train a couple of times under Dennis--who taught me how to turn (LEFT: bring your shoulder to the white line of the road you're turning onto; RIGHT: bring your bumper to the white line) and a 5-hour afternoon session with Blake, my son, who got me hooked on Skagway in the first place. I could not not not not not back up, angle 45 degrees, and then continue backing down an 80-foot corridor between a narrow aisle of cones. Not.

Old Yeller, the bus Laura and I usually drove,
18-foot tail swing.
Blake watched me attempt this a couple of times under Laura and then said, "May I say something?" He then proceeded to press a pretend anxiety button in my head. "No more anxiety, Mum. You did this. You backed up. That's all that's required. You just wiggled your ass into it. See?" And he shook his hiney all the way down the aisle backward, looking like Elvis in reverse. "So all we're going to do now is tidy you up."


He pressed the "button" again. "You've passed, we're just making you pretty now."


"Bssst!" He rammed his finger against my temple again. I got the point. And out came the markers and drawings on the windshield and careful measuring of my anxiety and timely jokes. Pretty soon I was backing up like a straight arrow and feeling sorta proud of myself. Yup.

"Okay," says Blake. "On a scale of 1 to 10, Dad being a 1, Roy Carlisle being a 10, how do you feel?"

Laura knew I'd divorced Blake's dad 30 years ago. "Who's Roy?" she asked.

"Her old agent, manuscript guru. So Mum, Dad's the 1--he thinks you're stupid and makes you feel like shit. Roy's the 10: thinks you're smart and hot shit. 1 to 10, where are you?"

"Seven. Let's do it again."

When I finally claimed 10, Blake threw his hat on the floor in a fit of exuberance. "Man, I'm good!" he crowed. "And I'm mad at Will all over again for not hiring me as a trainer!" Ha, ha.

Truth be told, I'm a little mad at Will myself for not hiring Blake to train us newbie drivers.  Blake's good, and not just because I'm his mother and he can do no wrong. It's because he's articulate, knows how to use metaphors, inherited his grandfather's teacher genes, and turns off pretend anxiety buttons whenever he needs to.  Bssst. Bssstt. Bussst!

Though I can't be too mad at Will. He did agree to let Blake help me out. And there've been a couple of times since I've found myself thanking the head hauncho for this favor: 1) as I successfully did the backup for my CDL test, Mr. Nice Guy (not) dinging me for the two very tensy-weensy wiggles I ended up making; 2), when I had to practice backing down Railroad Dock here in Skagway. A mighty fine feeling, backing toward the sea, beep/beep/beep, Blake's instruction in my ears and Anne, a Dock Rep, in my left side mirror, giving me a thumbs up once I landed it. Bam!

On a scale of 1 to 10, where am I? Shit or hot shit? 

Hot shit thanks to the village.

For a reward, Will gave us newbies a little graduation ceremony, "Pomp and Circumstance" playing from his computer. Strike up the band, shake hands, hug, kiss, we''re official! We were all HAPA drivers! I was, after all, going to get to play this summer with the big kids!
Will, Jessica, Laura, Dennis
Dennis, Me, Stanley, Jessica, Laura
Laura, Me -- you can see why I love the girl
Me, Stanley, Jessica
To celebrate, oh, yea, back up a bit. 

Jessica and Stanley lived out of town by a few hours and so they lived with me during the bulk of our training, February through April. To celebrate our collective victory, we decided to have a dinner party and invite Blake, Laura, and Dennis and his wife. Blake bailed, but Laura, Dennis, and Marilyn showed up. It was, as Stanley says, "the best night, ever."

 I made up a quiz, Washington and Alaska trivia. Dennis won. Pretty hot stuff there, Dennis.

Still, no one wanted to go home, so we opted for Clue. Dennis and Marilyn had never heard of the game. You gotta be kidding. Really? Really.
It's Mrs. White in the Conservatory with the Revolver. Right, Dennis?
Dennis (sorry, Dennis) was not hot stuff this time around; we had a merry time at his expense. In the end, though, it was Stanley who threw the game, blurting out Who, What, and Where before Laura could make her official accusation.

No, we're not reading Mountie books, we're hiding
our Clue notes.
And so it was, a village. A village that got us up and running. How sad to part ways--Dennis and Marilyn to Fairbanks, Jessica to Ketchican, Laura to Juneau, me, Stanley, and Blake to Skagway (Blake not until June 20). We were sad, yes, but simultaneously excited to embrace the new adventure before us. If you don't get that I'm stoked, let me tell ya, I'm stoked.

Mr. Nice Guy? Turns out he called one of the bosses to tell them how "impressed" he was with me. Said I was well prepared, knew my stuff (see? he did know I'd misunderstood his question! B--!) and that I was, get this, cute and sweet. Sweet?

I should get livid more often, I'm thinking. You think?