Somehow, I find it hard to believe there isn’t constant chuckling in this newspaper office….
Having only ever really cruised the local Florida waters before, it was an odd experience to pull into our final port and know there was still 4000 or so miles between us and home, and many hours before we could start that journey. When we made our way up to deck for breakfast and I sat looking out at the cold, damp, misty mountains, I found myself thinking about the things I hadn’t gotten to do in Alaska. I hadn’t walked on the side of any of the majestic, snow-covered mountains. I hadn’t seen a bear, despite being told there was one every square mile. I hadn’t seen a moose, even though I was told they were very, very dangerous — even moreso than bears. Would I regret not having done those things? Probably a bit. Ahead of us was our long final shore tour that was described as a trip up a tramway to have lunch at a resort, and then a trip to the airport to sit around a few hours and wait for our flight.
And yet there were still surprises left. Like the fact that once we were comfortably ensconced in our motor coach, we would have to travel through a very odd tunnel. The tunnel that leads out of Whittier, which is the only way in or out of the coastal town in a ground vehicle, is 2.5 miles long and a single lane. It was built by the military when Whittier was a military town, and was there to provide the military supply train a way to get to the base. Now, vehicles can drive through for $12. There’s a set schedule as to when the tunnel is open in each direction to what kind of vehicle. For example, our buses had a window from 10 – 10:15 am.
And I say buses because, although they could fit us all on the one giant motor coach, they had to split us up when we went through the tunnel. You see, in case of catastrophe, there are pull-offs arranged throughout the tunnel with supplies, air, protected areas, and they are sized for a specific number of people. So a single vehicle can only carry a certain amount of people.
Credit to military engineers, I found the tunnel to be very safe-seeming and had a blast driving through it. I kind of wish there was a tour. It looked like an amazing piece of engineering. Though our tour guide told us if you drive through with your windows rolled down, it’s kind of smelly.
After that we paused to take a peek at the Portage Glacier, and collect the rest of the travelers on our bus from the tunnel overflow bus. Then we proceeded on to the first surprise of our tour, a stop at the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center.
Yes, fate had heard my thoughts. Here we were, pulling into the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a beautiful, huge nature preserve where they take in animals who, for whatever reason, are no longer able to live in the wild. At first, we were just rolling through in a motor coach with a guide aboard chatting about the animals. There I was, snapping some fairly crappy pictures through the windows of the coach, thinking, “Just let me out here. I’ll get a taxi to Anchorage!” And sure enough, we get to the brown bear area and we get to leave the coach! Woohoo!
The brown bears there were AMAZING! Giant! Stupendous! Aboslutely terrifying. And yet, somehow, cute. While I was taking the pictures, I saw some space further ahead and started to jump forward into it when the biggest bear in the enclosure, right in front of me, stands up on it’s hind legs and just towers over me. I’m standing there, looking up, going, “Holy sh– wow — oh, my!” And then I think, camera! And of course, the bear drops back down. Still, it was amazing to having this giant, furry, clawed and toothed wall of hair towering over me. I’ll trade the pictures for that moment of OMFG. Lest you worry about us, the sort of flimsy fence between us was labeled “electrified”, and the bears didn’t seem interested in getting past it. They seemed perfectly happy in their huge environment. And best yet, they seemed happy and curious about us. As we hopped back on the bus, one of them was floating on his back in the water with his paws sticking up. The perfect image of some little tourist statue labeled something like, “Getting Bear-Naked In Alaska!”
I thought we were going to get trapped back on the bus for more riding around, but they took us over to the visitor’s center and dropped us off to let us explore a bit. I was ecstatic! I got to see just how big mooses actually are. And how absolutely stunning a red fox is. So brightly colored, and the eyes are gorgeous! It look just like a little dog as it made it’s little turn and sat down in front of me, soaking up some sunshine with its eyes squeezed tight in satisfaction.
The black bears looked and acted amazingly like dogs for as big as they are. The one I have pictures of just flopped himself in front of the tourists, looking like a contented hound. When he’d had enough of our clicking away with our cameras, he went and checked out some bones that looked fairly worked over. Finding not much to chew off them, he started using it to scratch his face and head. It was absolutely cute in a sort of morbid, glad that isn’t my bone kind of way. You have to keep thinking, as you watch these bears, how absolutely huge and strong they are. I think I’ve said of Alaska before, Nature there left me feeling small.
I was almost sorry to jump back on the bus, but I was hungry for both food and more adventure. Our next stop was the Alyeska Mountain Resort. Driving up to it, there’s a quaint little town of artist houses. One house has beautiful stained glass in the windows. Another, through the big bay windows you can see a giant stuffed bear. I must be in the wrong line of work if artists can afford these kinds of houses!
We rode a tram up to the house. Our tram driver closed the door and yelled, “Lightspeed!” Nice! Made me feel like I was at home. (“Lightspeed to Endor!”) At the top, we got to pick out a little boxed lunch kind of thing in the snack bar, which turned out to be fairly yummy (Natasha and I both had crab salad sammies) and included a, to quote Natasha, “cookie as big as my head!” After lunch, we explored the mountaintop. Yes, I wanted to walk on a mountain, but in the end, I decided I didn’t want to walk very close to the edge with all the ice and wet mud around. But the view was still amazing, especially since the sky was full of para-glider thingies. They have a tandem service up there for people who want to learn or try it. It looked amazing. The tandem team that was up there while we were basically were able to swoop back and forth around this little sort of rounded valley between the peaks, right near the visitor center. Swish! They’d fly over to the edge of the mountain and just catch a wind coming back and shoot back to their launch area, until they finally shot off the side and glided over the valley. Must be exhilirating. I would have peed my pants!
Our next stop was the Alaskan Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. It’s a fascinating living museum covering all the native cultures in Alaska. There are your typical museum pieces in a small area, but there are also native artisans right there, answering questions and selling their wares. If you’re more into living culture, there’s a stage where the gregarious young cultural instructors were playing music and teaching people native dances. Outside, arrayed around a lake, there are examples of the kinds of dwellings the native people build. Each one has a small stuff of cultural reps who can tell you about traditional native life. One of the reps there showed us a rain chaser, a kewl, whizzing device you spin on a string. He said he’s used it that morning to make the rain go away. I have to admit, it looked pretty miserable in Whittier, and it was cold. But by the end of our tunnel ride it had warmed up and we were gifted with a sunny day for our explorations, so I think there is some magic in Alaska!
Anchorage brought back a little bit of home. I knew we must be getting close when I saw the Sears, and the Target shopping plaza under construction. Soon enough we arrived at the airport, and soon after that our giant metal raptor was whisking us away from the frozen north. With one last look out the window, one last look down upon the glaciers rumbling down the majestic mountainsides, I said “Thanks” to Alaska, for showing me there was still wilderness out there, in my very own country. Still hardy settlers, struggling to survive surrounded by the immensity of the natural world. I’ll take home the absolute conviction that we need to protect every bit of this we can.
Cruising into College Fjord was like being the first explorers to travel through Alaska. Early on, the wind was whipping down the deck into our faces and low clouds covered everything around us, lending a mysterious, ominous feel to the trip, as if we could suddenly sail off the side of the Earth, as early explorers thought. Early on, we did a “running catch” of a small boat, which whipped up along side the cruise ship to drop off the harbor pilots that would guide us through the ice fields around the fjord. Here I thought the might stop the ship, but instead the tiny boat just plowed right up to a hatch at water level and settled in with engines buzzing to match speed and have the pilots jump aboard. An exciting process to witness.
Knowing I was going to a fjord was exciting to me, in a total geek out kind of way. I don’t think I had ever seen one in person before, but I’d been fascinated with them since Douglas Adams had introduced us to Slartibartfast, the Magrathean coastline designer in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. “Lovely, crinkly edges indeed! As the first edges of the fjord came into sight and the clouds began to lift, I could certainly see why Slartibartfast won an award for doing fjords. They’re certainly an art form.
It’s amazing to see the smaller glaciers on the way up College Fjord. They’re like tremendous ocean waves, frozen solid in the act of pouring down the mountain. A sculpture of water, frozen in the act of shaping the Earth. And yet not frozen, as you begin to see the heaps of fertile ground atop and in front of the glaciers. Rich land that will provide all kinds of new potential for life. These are the titanic beings of the planet, like Tolkein’s Ents, moving slowly, geologically consideringly, shaping the mountains just the right way.
And all around us is the sea of ice islands. And then you look closer, and there are tiny brown dots in the water. Through the camera lens, I can tell the dots are sea otters. Some dive beneath the water as our cruise ship passes, frightened by the giant monolith rolling through their home. Others paddle backwards slowly, watching warily, and when I get the close-up lens on them, I realize they are pairs — a momma sea otter with her baby gliding along on her chest, sleepily looking up at us as we rolled past. As our guide on the nature tour yesterday pointed out, mom is reluctant to dive under the water with their babies, as they have to then lick the water off them and untangle their fur, which is a long and tedious process. Once again, they prove to be the cutest animals I have ever seen.
Our naturalist, Michelle, tells us the story of how the glaciers were named. E.H. Harriman, a rich railway entrepeneur, was told he needed to take a chill pill and go on vacation. His idea of a vacation was to take eminent scientists, artists, and naturalists up to Alaska and explore. They collected all kinds of information, and named all the glaciers in the fjord for famous colleges. It’s an amazing story. I think if I were an Internet millionaire of the current age, that would be my kind of vacation. Take an adventure and bring along the best and the brightest. Kind of like Star Trek, boldy go!
I’m troubled to think the Exxon Valdez disaster happened not too far from here. How horrible to think of the whales and sea otters and sea birds and seals covered in oil. Dying unknowing what this muck was that did not normally flow in the seas. Brought here by us. Dumped there because we were negligent in our duties to protect our home above all things. They told us how the natives of the area erected a “shame” totem pole to Exxon. They deserve one for every single thing they damaged or destroyed. A crime against us all.
I zoom in on some of the ice islands near the glacier and I can see whole colonies of sea lions there, lazily sunning themselves. They’re giving the otters a run for their money in the cuteness pageant. Here and there, one even claims a small island for itself. They watch us curiously, locals eyeing gaping tourists. “Hey, it’s just a big piece of ice.”
The captain turns the ship giving each side 25 minutes of viewing time. I can’t figure out why, considering we’re all on deck and can just walk around. I guess there are people who can’t stir themselves from their cabin or chair at the buffet. Why the heck would you come to Alaska and not get up and look around? It’s awesome, gigantic, incredible. And it needs to be seen firsthand, with no glass in the way.
As the ships thrusters slowly rotate the ship, they stir up the water, and sea birds dive down into it, to be blown around on the surface, spinning like rubber duckies in a strong bathtub current. Our naturalist tells us it’s because the thrusters stir up yummy things from the bottom for them to eat. I’m not so sure. I don’t see them eating. I think maybe they like the warmer water, or just enjoy the spinning ride I see them repeat, flying up and spinning back.
The Harvard Glacier is massive. Sitting in front of us, dwarfing the ship. It’s a mile away and blocks an entire mountain valley. And it groans! Every so often there’s this deep, keening walla that echoes all over. The glacier speaking its slow Ent-language. Haroom! The native Alaskans call it “White Thunder”.
Whatever you think about global warming, about oil…isn’t the Earth, the wonders like this, worth the effort of turning out a light, or recycling, or driving a smaller car? Maybe you’re a big human. Maybe you tower over all of this inside. Not me. I know my place. Humility is lesson one. This world, creation, is so much more than just you and I.
If I seem a little momentous here, I plead, “Big place, big thoughts.” And the sea otters are too cute. I want them to be around a long, long time.
We started the second half of our day in Sitka with lunch at Victoria’s, a local restaurant near the church that was recommended by our tour guide. (Always, always, ask a local where the best place to eat is. It’s an eternal rule of travel.) The fresh caught halibut and chips there was delicious enough that I think it went straight from the hook to the coating to the fryer. Yum!
After that, we proceeded out to meet the fish, on a wildlife cruise. The tour company offered a refund if you didn’t see “a sea otter, a bear, or a whale.” For them, I think that’s like a New York City tour guide offering a refund if you don’t see a tall building, a bus, or a wino.
Almost immediately we saw a grey whale surfacing, which they said was rare in that area at this time of year. Then we went over to visit some sea lions and a raft of sea otters. The first group of otters we saw got scared off. The guides were saying someone in the general area of the boat I was in was using a flash, which they take great pains to get people not to do, including offering painters tape if you can’t or don’t know how to turn your flash off. One thing they hadn’t considered, I think, is the auto focus assist beam on most new cameras, which actually fires before the flash. It can be bright and fairly continuous on some cameras. That’s something I might drop them a note about.
Quite frankly, sea otters are the cutest animal on the planet.
After that, we moved into an inlet where the water was so clear you could see the jellyfish and sea stars under the water. I almost expected to see a sponge with a jellyfishing net. (It’s a Spongebob Squarepants reference…) There was also a fenced off area leading to an inland lake. They use the fences to run the salmon through some fish counters — only when the count reaches a point where they can sustain the salmon population do they allow salmon fishing there. Just seeing that gave me an appreciation for why eating natural and not farmed salmon is the way to go. They take great pains to try to maintain the natural population, but the fish farms that are dropped in areas like that cause all kinds of concentrated pollution that destroys the environment.
Going back our captain got word of some whales nearby. We pulled up near a fishing boat and got another spectacular view of a pair of humpback whales, probably a mother and a calf. Our knowledable guides were able to stay carefully behind the whales and time out exactly when they should be surfacing. At one point, the water just erupted a hundred feet or so off one side of the boat as the tale of one of the whales slapped the water! What an incredible view!
This was just the part of my appreciation of the natural wonder and uniqueness of Alaska that really changed the way I look at the world. While I intellectually know it’s important to protect the wilderness, coming this close to it gave me an appreciation for why. I had never seen anything quite at this scale in my life. And it speaks very directly to the soul about how important it is that we appreciate these areas more than any diamond they might be offering in the Diamonds International store back in the town.
Although, technically, there’s no DI in Sitka. Like I said, it’s a real town, with a tourist industry that is more homegrown than imported.
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….
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.
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.)
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.
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….
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.
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….