Alaska Cruise, Day 6 – Sitka, Part 1

Sitka was one of the most enjoyable ports we visited. Ignore my expression in most of the pictures; I really was having a good time, but I was at the absolute lowest ebb of my energy levels so I look grumpy. 🙁

The port is a tender port, meaning you have to take small boat from the cruise ship because the water isn’t deep enough for the ship to dock. That was especially fun since we got to ride in a life boat. Something I have secretly always wanted to do, except for the fact that if you’re riding in a lifeboat it’s usually not a good thing. Man, if they filled those things, it would be massively uncomfortable. Not to mention Natasha noted no rest room facilities. As a tender, they were great, though. Totally protected from the chilly winds of Sitka.

Making our trip by lifeboat even better was the sea lion siting we had as we rode in. There were a pair of them really close to the boat happily fishing! That was good to see, as there has been a tremendous (and complicated) reduction in the sea lion population. Everyone said it was amazing to see them in Sitka Sound.

This was our two tour day (adding to my tiredness, though I was still really excited to go) so we started out early with a Sitka cultural tour. First, we visited the National Historic Park, where we got to see more native artwork and visited a nature trail. There had evidently been a siting of a young bear there recently, but our guide and some of the local parks people pointed out that it was a while ago and the bear was gone. They pulled down the bear warning sign during our visit.

I can’t say enough about our tour guide, by the way. She helped us find edible berries on the nature walk, and had a lot of really interesting things to say about the wildlife and life in Sitka.

In fact, she told the story about her recent encounter with a mama bear and two cubs while camping, which a friend caught on this YouTube video.

It’s very scary to encounter a mama bear with her cubs, because, of course they can be very violently protective. Worst of all, the folks you here them talk about (one of whom was her husband) were down on the beach fishing with piles of fish next to them. Right in the path of the bears. Thankfully, they managed to slip away when the bears approached. Lost their fish, but it’s a good trade.

After the history center, we went over to the Alaska Raptor Center, where we got to meet eagles and other Alaskan birds close up. The raptor center cares for and rehabilitates birds, mostly for re-release unless for some reason they couldn’t survive in the wild. We met Sitka there, a bald eagle who had lost a toe, making it impossible for her to catch food on her own. She has become one of the newest representative birds there, who get to meet humans as a representative of their species. It was really breathtaking to finally see these birds close up and fascinating to get a chance to learn all about them.

The next stop on our whirlwind tour of Sitka was a show by the New Archangel Dancers. They are a group of ladies who perform traditional Russian dances. Great show, and our multi-talented tour guide even sang harmony on the Alaska State Song.

After that, to continue our dip into Russian culture, we stopped by the beautiful Russian Orthodox Church in town, St. Michael’s. The art on display there was amazing!

Our next stop was for lunch and then on to a wildlife cruise…more on that in the next entry….

Alaska Cruise, Day 5 – Skagway

Following up the reality of the Juneau day, we visited Skagway. Skagway is very much the Alaskan theme park. Fun, but according to the people we talked to from there, it pretty much folds up as a town during the winter. The town itself centers around the White Pass Railroad, which is an awesome journey up into the nearby mountains on a handsome old steam engine.

The town is mostly shops and museums, including the Red Onion Saloon, where you can meet some of the original ladies of the evening of Alaska. (Well, okay, not THE original ones, that would be gross.) There are authentic wooden sidewalks and re-creations of some of the historic buildings.

Our train ride took much of the day, so we didn’t have a lot of time to explore the town, but we did poke around a bit and take some pics in the morning.

Riding into the mountains was awesome. At this point, we were, on some level, saying, “Oh look, it’s just another majestic snow-capped mountain. I’ll bet there’s waterfalls somewhere, too.” If you’re a train buff, the old steam engines and passenger cars are absolutely fascinating. And the station offers a lot of the history of the railroad, along with a display of genuine items from the early trips. All in all, a fun day.

Alaska Cruise, Day 4 – Juneau

Juneau was really the first stop on our tour that felt like a real Alaskan city to me. This was probably helped along by the fact that we had a snarky local student tour guide driving our bus.

“You guys paid a bunch of money to see some ice. You know that, right?”

Well, it’s ice in the form of a glacier. We went up to Mendenhall Glacier, which, as usual for Alaska, was awesomely beautiful. Once again everytime I took three steps there was another jaw dropping nature picture to take.

Our naturalist gave us a bear talk on the ship. (Naturalist! Not naturist, so not that kind of bare. She was talking about the 1000 pound bears with huge claws and teeth.) According to the bear census, I think, there’s about one bear for every square mile in Alaska, so people tend to run into them on the way to the grocery store. And they are very dangerous, though, oddly, not as dangerous as moose.

Anyway, some of the nature trails around the glacier were actually closed because of bear activity. (Though the guides there told us actually that was old news and there weren’t likely any bears in the area.) The bears tend to show up there because they have a stream that the salmon run through…

Seems salmon are bears number one treat, so anywhere you have fish, you have to especially be on the lookout. (Juneau was the first place we encountered the bear-proof trash bins, too. They even have to have a special handle on the lid that you have to press to open them.)

Bear-resistant trash can in Juneau, Alaska
Bear-resistant trash can in Juneau, Alaska

After we left the glacier, our tour guide answered a bunch of questions about Alaska in his enjoyably sarcastic manner. Someone asked something about the primary industries and he pointed out that jewelry was one of them. Much like the Caribbean, there are “discount” jewelry at most stops in Alaska.

“I went into the supermarket the other day, to get milk for my Lucky Charms. I came out with a ring.”

Yes, jewelry everywhere, it seems.

After that we went to the Gold Creek Salmon Bake. I was looking forward to getting some genuine grilled salmon. I started out with a savory and delicious cup of chowder, which I kind of wanted to get more of, but it appears you only got it on your way in, as they didn’t man that station after everyone had their food. The salmon was great, but I wasn’t big on the glaze they painted on it as they handed it to you. It was very, very sugary and a little gritty. Almost turned my first piece into candied salmon. Natasha didn’t mind it so much, but I really wished I’d gotten my fish without it. The rest of the food was similarly meh-ish. They had ribs, chicken, beans, all the normal barbecue type stuff at your typical buffet quality. The atmosphere was nice, kind of rustic, with picnic tables, and even a couple of fires for toasting marshmallows. I suspect some of it was lost on me because I don’t really like eating outdoors, but it was okay.

The bake also came with a folk singer who pretty much sang every song in the John Denver repetoire. He also sang Daddy Sang Bass and did all the bass and tenor parts, which he really shouldn’t have. The folks at the bake really enjoyed his rendition of Big Rock Candy Mountain though. Personally, after listening to the horrible music on the Carnival ship the first few days, I was hoping for something a little more contemporary, so I didn’t really have the ears for it that day.

The really wonderful part of the salmon bake we almost missed. We were thinking of getting on the busses back to the ship when someone mentioned that you could go panning for gold behind the bake buildings. At first, I kind of groaned. Having seen a swarm of no-see-ums over the swampy water up front, I had no desire to go anywhere near the water. But we decided to take the walk to the back and were rewarded with yet more of the natural beauty of Alaska, including, yes, another waterfall.

They had dressed up the area with a fake mine. (Well, I think it was never really a mine. Who knows?) We skipped the gold panning. (The pans were in some more standing water with no-see-ums around.) But we had tons of fun taking pictures back there.

Alaska Cruise, Day Three – Ketchikan

Day three of our Alaskan vacation took us to Ketchikan, our first real port stop in Alaska. When Natasha and I first ventured off the ship into the town, I had this notion that we were in the Alaskan equivalent of 192 (which is where all the tourist t-shirt shops are here in Central Florida). I mean, the first building we ran into was the Tongass Trading Company, full of screaming eagle eggs and moose poo items, so you’ll forgive me for kind of thinking, “Oh, Alaska is just the same as everywhere else…”

So I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for our Native Village and Lumberjack Show tour as being very much more than the sort of cardboard tourist stuff I’m used to here. Wow, was I ever wrong! Our first stop was the Saxman Native Village, an authentic native village tour run by the Tlingit (which, for some odd reason is pronounced “klinkit”). The tour centers around totems and their place in the culture of the Tlingit. Considering that totems are not only art, but architecture, literature, and history, it makes them the perfect way to access the Tlingit culture. It’s kind of kewl to picture the storytellers of the Tlingit sitting down next to a totem pole and telling the story that the pole illustrates. The culture really takes on physical presence.

Natasha even got to dance with the local Tlingit dance group.

Our next stop was back in town, the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, where I learned why it’s okay to be a lumberjack (or jill) — something Monty Python never bothered to explain. So evidently I had completely missed the fact that there is something called Lumberjack Sports that shows up on ESPN from time to time. The lumberjack show is a chance for these athletes to show off their chopping, climbing, chainsawing, log-rolling, and furniture-making skills. Yes, it’s very touristy, but, I have to admit, when they cranked up the overclocked chain saw (called a “hot saw”), I had that moment of “Holy crap! Someone is going to lose a limb!” And, if you’re into male eye-candy, the lumberjacks are probably worth a look.

That night, as we sailed out of Ketchikan, we had our first whale sightings. These first pics are blurry, because I was shooting in low light and having to spin around to try and catch the whales as they surfaced, but they give you an idea of what there is to see. It really kind of amazed me that people go on an Alaskan cruise and spend a bunch of time on the whole 4-hour “dinner and a show” experience when nature is giving you a show right off the bow.  Our ship even had a naturalist onboard who was making announcements when she would spot interesting wildlife, which means we always knew when to rush up on deck. Much more fun than watching your poor waiters perform “Hot Hot Hot” with flaming desserts balanced on their heads….

Alaska Cruise, Day Two

Some pictures from the second day of our Alaska Cruise, as we slowly wind our way up the inside passage in British Columbia. We got our first hints of the majestic scenery that was going to become commonplace throughout the cruise. We also got to meet eagles, the first of many different kinds of wildlife we’d get to see.

Alaska Cruise, Day One

Natasha and I are shaking the snow of the Alaskan glaciers off after shipping out for a week of Alaskan cruising on the bonny ship Carnival Spirit. I just finished posting pictures from the first day on our Picasa site.

Visiting the last great American wilderness was awe inspiring! Truly, Alaska is an amazing place. Very early on in our trek, I realized I could just point the camera randomly, press the shutter, and take an amazing photograph. Visitors to Alaska are surrounded in natural beauty. And I found the people of Alaska to very much appreciate the natural beauty and wonder of their “home” state. (I use quotes on home, since many of our tour guides lived part-time in Alaska, and might not have been official residents, but you could tell they still felt a powerful ownership of that wonderful place.)

The first set of pictures in mainly of Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada, where our ship departed civilization. It’s a pretty city that is undergoing massive construction in order to prepare for the upcoming Winter Olympics. Just like our voyage, the really majestic pictures are coming later. I’ve geo-tagged some of the pictures in Google Earth if you want to see them on a map. (There’s a button to see the map on the Picasa web page.)

Between Natasha and I we took like 2000 pictures. (Seriously…2000… Thank goodness for digital cameras! The processing fees would have bankrupted me!) I’m going to weed through those to find the best and post them. I started filtering some of them during the cruise, but there were more and more good ones!

Enjoy! More to come….