Alaska
By James Wyman
jwyman@iglou.com

For the last 20 years, my wife and I have traveled to most of the lower 48 states. We have always driven (she mostly) in our van. Currently we use a 'Rollx' converted Chrysler Plymouth with a dropped floor. But this year (1998) we decided to go to Alaska. Our first thought was a cruise, but I was concerned on how accessible a cruise boat would be to my narrow adult electric wheelchair.

After some research on the internet, I found Paul Sandhoefer of 'Alaska Welcomes You'. He suggested Princess Cruises and sent me info. on his tours of Alaska. He was very knowledgeable about accessibility on cruises and Alaska. So in early June 1998 we decided to take the Dawn Princess inside passage cruise from Vancouver Canada to Seward Alaska August 15 - 22. Then we would go by bus to Anchorage August 22 am. There Paul would provide a four day tour of Anchorage and Denali park.

Making these plans in June, August 15 seemed a long way off. But August 15 did come and we had to be at the Louisville, KY airport at 6:15 am. We flew to Minneapolis, MN (2 hr flight) and had a one hour layover. I told them in Louisville that I could use their wheelchair in Minneapolis (a mistake). We next had a 4 hour flight to Vancouver. It took at least 30 minutes for them to get me off the plane, because there were several traveling in wheelchairs. Next it took over 30 minutes to get my electric wheelchair and find the batteries and get it back together. The one individual who was assigned to do this was very busy because several were in wheelchairs and another power chair had been damaged. Finally they got my chair assembled and me in it. It worked fine and we were on our way.

We next found the Princess cruise representatives and they had previously collected our luggage from the airplane. The buses that they use to transport everyone to the ship did not have wheelchair lifts. They already knew about this problem, so they called a lift equipped taxi to transport us to the ship. The taxi was a raised roof mini-van with a lift in the rear. Because I sat high I could only see the road around the van. A poor design but we did get to the ship. Finally we arrived at the Dawn Princess around 5:30 Louisville time (2:30 Vancouver). After we checked in at the dock, we boarded the ship by ramps.

Our stateroom was specially designed to ADA standards. It had a roll-in shower and left nothing to be desired. Though small I had ample room to maneuver. I was pleasantly surprised to find all areas to the ship to be accessible. I found only one narrow door that I could not get through. However there was an alternate obvious route.

On August 17 we docked in Ketchikan. I thought they would have ramps, but there were steps. They transferred me to a manual chair and carried me down the stairs to the dock. Next they brought my own chair down and we were on our way. I had previously decided that we would see what we could on our own. This proved to be the right decision. The morning was pleasant and curb cuts were every where they were needed. We went to two museums and from a bridge we watched the salmon swim upstream. Got back to the ship around 11:30 and they had me back on board in less than 10 minutes. If it had been raining it would have seemed longer.

On August 18 we docked in Juneau. Previously we had purchased tickets to do the 'tramway' and take a tour of Mendenhall glacier. We were supposed to be on the 9 am tour to Mendenhall glacier, but we got a call in our room at 7:45 asking if we could be on the dock at 8:15. We said OK. They had a bus with a wheelchair lift. At first the lift wouldn't work, but after several tries it seemed to work fine. We were on our way. However after we started it seemed that this tour wasn't the one that we thought we purchased. This tour did include Mendenhall glacier and several more stops. We finally got back to the ship around 12:30 instead of 10:30 that we had planned for. All stops were totally accessible including the restrooms. Actually Mendenhall glacier was not totally accessible, because they were working on it to make it so! Princess did attempt to bill us for the more expensive trip, but after complaining they corrected this error. Next we did the tramway. This is accessible, but all windows are too high to properly see out of from a wheelchair. I explained to them that all they need to do is get into a wheelchair and look out the windows. They were sympathetic, but I doubt that any changes will be made. I would not recommend that anyone do the tram if they can't stand. Possibly someone several inches taller than I (5' 9") might do OK. We did a little shopping in Juneau and found curb cuts and ramps where needed.

On August 19 we docked in Skagway. Previously we had purchased tickets for the 3.5 hr train ride at 1 pm. So for the morning we decided to walk into Skagway approx. 4 blocks. They got me off and on the boat in Juneau and Skagway the same as in Ketchikan. Several buses were waiting to transport any to Skagway for $1 however they did not have wheelchair lifts. I did see one with a lift and wheelchair symbol, but the driver said the lift was broken. The weather was beautiful and most people walked to town. The town has wooden boardwalks and they have ramps at every corner. I found only one place where it was missing and here it was a short distance to an access point. Went back to the ship for lunch. They could now get me on and off the ship in less that 10 minutes. After lunch we got on the train which had lifts on special cars with accessible restrooms also. We boarded the train within one block from the ship. If we had been on the Regal Princess we would have been within 100' from the train. We had a very scenic ride with excellent views.

My only negative comment concerning the Dawn Princess is that during the mornings and evenings when the cabin stewards were cleaning up the cabins they would leave their carts in the narrow hallways. Most of the time my narrow adult chair could just get past these carts. A 27" wide chair would have problems. Sometimes we would have to move the carts to get by. I've had the same problem in motels. On the boat however, one hall was over 600' long. We would take this route because we could get an elevator faster and beat the crowd.

On August 22 we left the ship for the last time and were bused to Anchorage (3 hr trip). They dropped us at the Eagan center. We then called Paul Sandhoefer and he promptly arrived in his lift equipped 10 passenger bus. He gave us a short tour around Anchorage and left us at an outdoor market in downtown Anchorage. We ate at the market and then walked 4 blocks to the Alaska museum. Next we called Paul and he picked us up and continued our tour of Anchorage on our way to our motel.

On August 23 Paul picked us up at 7 am and headed toward Healy, AK. Paul already knew what was accessible, so we had no problems at all stops.

On August 24 Paul took us to Denali park. Here we were scheduled for the 9 am 7 hr round-trip park provided bus tour. They had only planned for one wheelchair and there were two. The problem was the wheelchair tie-downs wouldn't work because of dirt. Finally at 10 we were on our way. It is a 66 mile trip over 46 miles of unpaved bumpy roads. I got pretty shook up, but did see many animals and fantastic scenery. Weather was great in the morning, but it started to rain and turned cold when we got to the end by lunch time. The return back was not as scenic because of the fog and rain. We never saw mount McKinley and didn't expect to. The odds of seeing it are 1 out of 5 or 20%.

On August 25 we went back to Anchorage with several sight seeing stops along the way.

On August 26 Paul took us for more sights around Anchorage. He was quite flexible and we spent one hr at the airplane museum. Around lunch he dropped us off in downtown Anchorage. We did more shopping and then called him to take us to the airport for our 7:45 flight to Detroit. This time I said I wanted my chair back in Detroit since we had a 3.5 hr layover. It probably took over 20 minutes for them to get me off the plane, but my chair was available within 5 minutes and the batteries had not been removed. This was a large plane with over 200 passengers and they didn't get me off until everyone else is off. Our flight back to Louisville was the same but on a smaller plane. Again they did not remove the batteries. All four flights were on Northwest. Northwest went on strike 36 hrs after we got back. Sometimes your lucky.

I have tried in this report to limit it to those areas where accessibility is a factor. Much more could be said about taking a cruise. This was an enjoyable vacation. We stayed busy the whole time. Many sights that we saw required that we pass up other sights because we didn't have enough time. Everyone was friendly and helpful. Alaska is accessible and easily enjoyed.

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