Touring Alaska the Green Tortoise Way: Twenty-Eight Days on a "Hippie Bus"
By Sam Hartshorne
Given the chance, would you like to spend 28 days on a bus with a group of strangers? When I was offered the chance to take a month-long Green Tortoise bus tour of Alaska, I admit I had some misgivings.
But the scenery was awesome, the food was fabulous, and I had an opportunity to get to know people from all over the world.
History of the Green Tortoise
Back in the early 1970s, numerous one-bus operators in the San Francisco area would fill their vehicles from local "ride boards" for different destinations. Most of these operators traveled as quickly as possible to their destinations - like the "Gray Rabbit," which journeyed across the country in three and a half days, stopping briefly to allow passengers to hunt for cafeteria food.
Entrepreneur Gardner Kent devised a different route for his "Green Tortoise," a weary green school bus which took five and a half days, stopping to camp out in national parks, relaxing in hot springs, and cooperatively cooking fresh food at their campsites.
The Tortoise Beats the Rabbit
After years of competition, just as in Aesop's fable, the "Tortoise" beat out the "Rabbit" by taking its time and considering not only the destination, but the sights and activities along the way. Gardner bought out the Gray Rabbit and cornered what was then called the "hippie bus" market.
Today the Green Tortoise has graduated from "hippie buses" to "adventure travel" with a fleet of modern sleeper coaches with booths and couches that easily convert to beds accomodating up to 36 weary passengers. This allows the tours to do a lot of the driving while the passengers are asleep.
The Green Tortoise operates all kinds of tours from Alaska to Costa Rica - trips to Mardi Gras, tours of Aztec and Mayan ruins, visits to national parks and many others with all kinds of opportunities for trekking, fishing, kayaking, and learning about local attractions. (Check out their schedule.)
The company also operates two hostels, one in San Francisco and one in Seattle.
Starting in San Francisco
I arrived in San Francisco late the night before to stay at the Green Tortoise hostel. I enjoyed this experience a lot there was a large common room where people from all over the world hang out.
The next day I obtained some final supplies for the trip with my uncle Bill and he dropped me off at the bus station. I felt a mixture of nervousness and anticipation because I truly had no idea what to expect or whom I would meet on this long voyage.
I saw a large group of people assembled on the corner with large backpacks and deduced that this was my group. The first person I spoke to was Suzy, a British woman smoking a rolled cigarette and chatting with some Irish lads.
“The bus probably won’t get here for another hour” she said. Suzy was a veteran of the tortoise and she explained the loose itinerary. I found this concept appealing because I did not like the idea of being forced to adhere to a rigid structure. I was on vacation and I figured it's best to enjoy it.
The next people I met were Tom, an American, Herbert, a German, and Ohdid from Israel. I also met Sam and John, two Brits. I had recognized Sam from the night before at the hostel.
A Green Tortoise bus from a trip that had just ended pulled up and two passengers disembarked. I saw one passenger in particular I noticed who was sobbing. This was Karin who eventually would join our party - but more on that later.
A Real International Mix
Soon our bus arrived and we were off. Our two drivers were Bill and Richie. Bill briefed us on the rules of the bus and such and then we were on our way. It was a crazy bunch - a real international mix - and the first night we mainly just conversed amongst ourselves and began to get acquainted.
The next stop we went to was the Four Feathers Casino and Lounge in Oregon, which is owned by a local Native American tribe. I enjoyed visiting the casino, although I didn't do any gambling, and had an omelet in the restaurant.
On the bus Sam described an interesting encounter with a local at the casino. Sam observed this fellow having some trouble with the automatic taps that go on when you wave your hand. Sam asked the man if he was having trouble with the taps.
“I don’t like anything modern,” he said.
Checking Out Seattle
Next we drove to Seattle and spent a few hours checking out the city. I was with Herbert, Suzie, Ohdid, and Jaqui, another Brit. We were looking for affordable fare at reasonable prices. After an exhaustive search we went to the Green Tortoise Hostel. They recommended a Mexican place which was very good and had reasonable prices.
At Seattle we picked up more passengers - Marla, Barbara, and Dolores. After that we drove into Canada. We went through a border crossing where we handed in all our passports and ids and such and went through pretty quickly.
Next we drove all night through Vancouver where we picked up Eric, a Texan. The following morning we woke up in the beautiful Fraser River Valley in British Columbi.
The Portable Kitchen
On the Green Tortoise everyone is expected to help prepare meals. They have all sorts of portable grills, propane tanks, cutting boards, and cutlery, so that the bus itself functions as a portable kitchen. This was our first breakfast and we had bagels toasted on the grill and fruit which was quite good.
The following day we drove further north into BC to a place called McCleese Lake. We soon set up camp and began to make dinner pasta which was superb.
Sam and Jon two of our companions had purchased a small one man tent at the army/navy store in Seattle. The tent was small and we all wondered how the two of them both over 6 feet would fit into such small accommodations.
That night after dinner, we made a fire in the firepit and Bill, one of the drivers, sang and played guitar. Much later in the night I visited the local pub called the oasis. At the oasis I had some of the local beer “Ricker’s Red” mmmm…..quite good.
After this we drove further into Canada and saw some totem poles at the First Nation village of Kispiox. This area was a RV park with a historical village which was pretty cool.
A Writer From Boston
That afternoon I decided to head into the town of Hazelton. Hazelton is a town with a strong native American presence and I found this very interesting because my Mom is a professor of Native American Studies and this has always interested me.
After dinner I decided to head into town to see what was there. As I headed into town unsure of what to do a strange old man approached me. This fellow was very obviously intoxicated and spoke to me asking who I was where I was from and such. Then he asked me “Do you want to meet some people?” I was intrigued by this idea so I agreed. Also, he offered to buy me a beer.
I came to the bar and met some people and we played a came of pool. It was me and the old guy and two others. I must admit that my pool playing is rusty at best but somehow me and the old guy won on a technicality. When we were playing pool the old fellow would speak loudly close to my ear as if to whisper a secret. All the people at the bar seemed to know him and be used to his crazy antics.
After a while the local asked me what I was doing in Canada. I explained to them I was on a tour of Alaska and I was writing a story. They introduced me as a “writer from Boston,” which was amusing.
I found the colorful character at the bar quite interesting. I also met Vincent the barkeep who is also and artist of metal artwork. Vincent was telling me that he ships his art all over the world and that it was on display in the historical village.
Then one a.m. rolled around and the bar closed. I said goodbye to everyone and John, one of the regulars, said, “Speak highly of us eh?” and I told him I would.
The next day we drove north to Bear Glacier a nice spot. Unfortunately it also was teeming with mosquitoes and other insects. Here we made breakfast and walked down to the glacier, which was quite an awesome site.
North to Alaska
Afterwards we packed up and headed north into Alaska. First we stopped at Stewart, which is just on the border. It was a nice town. One thing I noticed about Canada was an abundance of shops selling “Canadian-Chinese food.” This I found curious because I didn't know that Canada has quite a large Asian population. Soon we headed into Alaska to the charming hamlet known as Hyder right on the border.
We set up camp in a park and made some really incredible pesto pasta with broccoli and salad. Also on the premises were a laundry facility and a small bar. We made a fire and I hung out with Sam and John and Philip from Germany at the camp while others went to the bar.
The experience of traveling with people from different countries was quite enlightening for me. The subtle differences in language such as “football” for soccer and “bolloxed” for being drunk.
The next day we went on the ferry through the inside passage. We arrived early in the morning to check in and go through customs. This was all relatively easy and soon we were on board. The ferry voyage was a long one but the ferry also had a movie theater, a cafeteria, and a park ranger who did talks on local wildlife which he pointed out from the deck. The ferry drove along the coast through islands so we could see the coast.
On the ferry I spoke to Karin from Los Angeles for the first time. She had told about how she had been traveling since April on the Green Tortoise having been to Mexico and on the National Parks Loop. She had just gotten back from her second trip when she decided on impulse to go to Alaska. Repeat travelers on the Green Tortoise can get 'frequent Waddler Miles,' and each trip counts for points. Many win three day trips in this way. Karin, a young traveler, knew where everything on the bus was located, and acted as a sort of unofficial helper during the long voyage.
Later that night we went through the Wrangell narrows, a narrow channel where they have to have navigational lights because it is so close to the shore.
Next we arrived at Petersburg, a small fishing village. We checked out the town during the day and I purchased some socks because I was running low. Then we drove to a rocky beach and set up camp.
This beach was full of driftwood and rocks and seemed inhospitable. Despite this Sam decided to go for a swim. He returned soon after depressed from his experience. Sam had stepped on some rocks and also the water was very shallow and thus one had to wonder far out onto the shore.
The next day we took the ferry to Juneau, the capital of Alaska. This time some of us stayed at the hostel, which was ten dollars a night plus a small chore. The hostel is closed from 9am to 5pm because the proprietor works for the Alaskan government.
During the day I took the time to check out the town. I saw several large cruise ships docking.
Later on I went into town to see the Mendenhall glacier with Philip and Ohid. We went on a brief invigorating hike with some good scenery and took the bus back.
A shuttle daily ferries people to and from the glacier and there are many different ways to see the sights such as planes, boat tours, and other things.
After seeing the glacier, we were on to the Chilkat River, where grizzly bears and eagles feed on salmon. We camped in Kluane National Park and hiked up to the King's Throne to take in the magnificent scenery. Then we soaked in Tahkini hot springs.
Then we camped in Dawson City and spend a couple of days hiking, biking, and canoeing.
Next came Denali - also known as Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America. We got a back country permit and hiked into Denali National Park, where the scenery was breathtaking.
Finally we camped at the Chena hot springs to recover. The trip wrapped up with a visit to Homer on the Kenai Peninsula, where we did some fishing and kayaking.
A trip on the Green Tortoise is a unique opportunity that offers travellers a distinct and interesting prespective on seeing the country. In addition also I found that interacting with fellow passengers from abroad quite enlightening as well. Trips like this are best suited for people into the outdoors and hiking.
Sam Hartshorne is a writer based in South Deerfield. His travels have taken him to the Dominican Republic and the American Southwest.