Picture below: John Hall’s Alaska Tour group at Alaska/Yukon border. Dale and Colleen – front row, left.
I promised in my previous post that I’d tell you more about how I became a tour guide in Alaska. If you read that post, you know that Dale and I took a two week trip to Alaska in the summer of 1993. We were sitting in a pizza restaurant in Skagway, AK when it occurred to me to ask the waiter how young people got jobs like this in a seasonal town like Skagway. I was curious because our son, Kevin was going to be graduating from high school the following year and I was thinking a job like this might be a great experience for him. The young man replied that this restaurant was owned by the cruise line, Holland America, and he game me a phone number for a job hotline we could call to get information about seasonal job openings.
A couple months later I called the phone number. Not only did I learn about restaurant and hotel jobs all over Alaska, but also that Holland America owned the Gray Line of Alaska tour bus company. The recording spoke of the need for driver/guides for all their division in Alaska and listed where their training sessions would be held. Seattle was the primary location. That’s about a 1 1/2 driver from where we live in Olympia, but it caught my attention, because during our trip the previous summer, I had actually contemplated what a cool job it would be to drive a motorcoach up and down the Alaska highways.
I had never driven a large vehicle before, and frankly, I wasn’t sure if I was even remotely capable, but after contacting the human resources department, I was assured they could train just about anyone to drive a motorcoach. I went through the hiring process and by February 1994, I was enrolled in their 13 week training program. I completed my training with a class-B CDL and on June 6, 1994 flew to Anchorage for my first summer as a driver/guide with Gray Line of Alaska.
That first summer in Alaska was quite an experience. I spent a lot of time transferring people to and from the cruise ship port of Seward, AK. It’s a beautiful drive, but can get a little old when you sometimes have to drive the 127 miles a total of 4 times in one day! I also learned how to wash a bus as quickly as possible, get up a 2:00 am, dump the toilet holding tank, sleep in bunk beds with 4 other drivers to a room, and the list goes on. I can’t say it was any easy job, but I still managed to have a lot of fun. I was 44 years old and most of the other drivers were young college kids, so that alone kept me energized!
Holland America has an incentive program that awards a free cruise to seasonal employees who complete two summers in Alaska. I think when I first started I figured I’d do the two years and take my free cruise and that would be the end of it. That first year I shared a small room with a younger gal who was working her 5th summer in Alaska. I wondered how she could possible have done it that many years. When I came back for my second season in 1995, I really thought it would be my last, but Alaska had other ideas for me. I came back one more year to drive out of Anchorage, and on the fourth year, I switched divisions and began another three year stint working out of the Fairbanks division. This gave me the opportunity to drive different highways and to get into the Yukon Territory of Canada. I even got to drive the haul road up to Prudhoe Bay where the oil fields are. For my seventh year I went back to Anchorage to drive some longer charter tours that took me through the complete circuit – Anchorage all the way down to Skagway, up through Whitehorse and Dawson City, Yukon, and back up to Fairbanks, down through Denali Park and back to Anchorage. I also learned to fully narrate all the tour routes I drove; thus the title, Driver/Guide.
Picture below: John Hall’s Alaska tour bus at Matanuska River overlook with King Mountain in background.
By the year 2000 I felt I had gone about as far as I could expect to go with Gray Line. In August of 2000 I drove a couple charters for a small company out of Minnesota and that’s when I met John Hall for the first time. He ran one bus in Alaska and needed a second coach and driver to handle the large number of guests who were signed up for these two tours. An old Gray Line friend of mine was driving John’s single bus, and recommend that John request me to drive these two charters. By the end of the second tour, John had asked me to come to work with him the following year since he was adding a second motorcoach to his fleet. That was the beginning of what has now been a seven year run with John Hall’s Alaska Cruises and Tours. (John now has four motorcoaches in his fleet!)
Working for John has been a completely different experience than working for Gray Line. Instead of wondering day to what what I’d be doing the next day, I now know my schedule for the entire summer ahead of time. I have my own motorcoach (and the responsibility to keep it clean), I sleep in my own hotel room, and most of my meals are included as well. I also have a lot more independence when it comes to planning my tours. Of course I have to follow the published itinerary, but I have my choice of picture stops and any extra activities I can fit in along the way. My personal opinion is that John Hall tour members get a much better organized and comprehensive tour than with the larger companies like Holland or Princess.
In June of this year, I’ll be heading back to Alaska for my 15th season. Who would have guessed in 1994 that this seasonal career would have lasted this long? I’ve also spent just about every March in Alaska working a volunteer position for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. (more on that in another article.) I guess you could say, “Alaska has a hold on me.”
As for our son Kevin; in 1994 he ended up working for Holland America’s Westmark Hotel in Skagway and continued to work several more summers in Skagway after that. He now lives in Anchorage, AK and manages a tire store.
So what’s the take away?
I guess the take away is that you’re never too old or too young to find new adventures in your life. Prior to my time in Alaska I had a pretty normal life; raising a couple kids and working some very ordinary jobs. But once the youngest child was out of high school, I seized the opportunity to do something extraordinary and it changed my life completely. I’ll be 58 years old this summer as I drive my motorcoach thousands of miles around the northland. I figure I have a couple more good years in me and maybe then I will retire. But I can guarantee you that I’ll never leave Alaska for good.
If you’re interested in Alaska motorcoach driving jobs, I recommend you start with a company like Holland America Tours or Princess Tours. They will train you to drive and you’ll have the opportunity to learn the tour material for the routes you drive. Both companies have non-driving seasonal job opportunities available as well. Visit their web sites for more details.
If you’d like to see more pictures from my Alaska tours, check out my web site: MooseAndBears.com