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THE MATURE TRAVELER

Rolling Along the Alaska Highway

February 02, 1992|BILL HUGHES

Mature travelers can celebrate a golden wedding anniversary of sorts this year, the 1942 wartime union between Alaska and the Lower 48 states via the 1,523-mile, two-lane highway that runs through Canadian wilderness.

Several senior tours and military reunions are planned during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Alaska Highway, which runs from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, Alaska, and on to Fairbanks.

Considered one of the great engineering achievements of the 20th Century, construction began on the highway in March, 1942, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an emergency war measure to provide an overland military supply route to Alaska, and was finished eight months later.

The epic project employed more than 33,000 U.S. soldiers--one-third of them black--and several thousand civilians. Among the civilians were Canadian hunters, trappers, bush pilots and Indians who helped U.S. surveyors lay out a route where no man had gone before. The crews braved wilderness living and sub-zero temperatures, swarms of gnats, flies and mosquitoes.

Following World War II, the two-lane dirt highway was turned over to Canada for operation and maintenance, and it has been a tourist lure ever since. Still two lanes--all but about 80 miles paved--it sees an average of 75,000 tourists a year in cars, RVs and motor-coach tour groups who view the spectacular scenery.

Great Western Tours, a Pasadena specialist in senior group travel, is offering an 18-day tour put together by Bill Siefke and featuring a 60-foot-long, two-part motor coach called the Alaska Yukon Explorer.

The tour begins May 5 in Los Angeles when passengers board the Yukon Explorer, which is owned by Holland America Line-Westours. The spacious motor coach, which includes a 14-passenger lounge in the rear section, will stop for sightseeing and overnight layovers in Modesto, Portland, Ore., Mt. St. Helens and Seattle.

Then it's up through British Columbia to Dawson Creek and Milepost Zero for three days on the Alaska Highway, with overnight stops in motels.

Within Alaska, stops and sightseeing include Skagway and a ride on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. Then comes Whitehorse, capital of Canada's Yukon Territory, back into Alaska for two days in Fairbanks, on to Denali National Park and Mt. McKinley, and finally into Cook Inlet and Anchorage for a glacier cruise and overnight stay before returning to Los Angeles by air.

Tour price is $2,195 per person, double occupancy, including all motor coach and air travel, 17 overnight stays, taxes and baggage handling. For more information: Great Western Tours, 3814 E. Colorado Blvd., Suite 200, Pasadena 91107, (800) 344-7090 or (818) 578-1161.

Gadabout Tours of Palm Springs also tours the full length of the route with its "Alaska Highway Rendezvous '92," a 20-day air and motor-coach tour. Tourists fly from Los Angeles to Edmonton, Alberta, then travel by motor coach to Dawson Creek--the beginning of the highway--with overnight stops at Ft. Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse and Beaver Creek, before arrival in Fairbanks at the end of the highway.

Also included in the Gadabout tour are Denali National Park and Mt. McKinley, Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and Portage Glacier, then down to Skagway. The tour takes a two-night cruise on the Alaska State Ferry through the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert, B.C., followed by a motor-coach tour over the Yellowhead Highway via Jasper National Park to Edmonton, then the return flight to Los Angeles.

Departures are planned for July 27 and Aug. 17. Tour price is $2,698 per person, double. For more information: Gadabout Tours, 700 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs 92262, (619) 325-5556 or (800) 952-5068.

Most military reunions are being planned by individual units that worked on the highway and are limited to specific members and their families. Galaxy Tours, a specialist in World War II tours, has one set for May 31 to June 5 that's open to any interested travelers.

Galaxy's reunion trip lasts six days, flying from Los Angeles to Dawson Creek, then via motor coach to Liard Springs and the return, with five overnight stops to participate in 50th- anniversary celebrations.

Price from Los Angeles is $1,676 per person, double. For more information: Galaxy Tours, P.O. Box 234, Wayne, Pa. 19087-0234, (800) 523-7287.

For mature travelers wishing to take their own drive along the Alaska-Canada Highway, there is a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary called "Rendezvous '92." It includes hundreds of special events, ceremonies, military reunions and other programs all along the route, from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks and adjoining areas in the Yukon and Alaska.

Advance reservations for accommodations will be critical to any successful trip. Even in ordinary years during peak season, hotels, motels and campgrounds are fully booked.

For more information: "Alaska Highway Rendezvous '92," 14-9223 100 St., Ft. St. Johns, B.C. VIJ 3X3, Canada, (604) 787-1992. And, for the Alaska events: Great Alaska Highways Society, P.O. Box 74250, Fairbanks, Alaska 99707, (907) 452-8000.

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