Alaska. A place so vast and wild not even the cruise ship crowds can diminish the power and majesty of the mountains, glaciers, forests, inky black ocean and very large marine mammals.
There’s only two ways to see Alaska. After flying into airports that are smaller than your local gas station, you can take the Alaskan Marine Highway ferries from place to place (well, not right now because they’re on strike and wouldn’t that suck if you had planned on seeing Alaska that way). Or you can travel in luxury aboard any number of cruise lines that now travel up the coast and stop in some of the “cities” and sail past some of the most beautiful natural scenery on this vast Earth. Alaska has more wildlife than humans, has less than 5000 miles of paved roads in over a million square miles of land, and has a very small population made up of people who are probably pretty hardy and adventurous. Sounds like my kind of place.
So I said yes when a friend asked if I would join her on her bucket list adventure of an Alaskan cruise. We left from Seattle on Saturday, July 6th, on the Holland America Line’s Eurodam at 4 pm. (I will go into more detail about the actual cruise in a later post. )
(I should probably warn you here that there are going to be a lot of photos.)
Sunday: At Sea
Sunday was spent at sea. It was incredibly relaxing as we’d had a busy three days in Seattle and the day to orient ourselves on the ship and to just do “nothing” was so welcome. We walked around the ship, we ate, we had a wine, we attended a couple of the talks given – one about humpback whales, one about the excursion – we ate some more, had another glass of wine, napped, read, sat out on the verandah and watched the ocean, ate some more, drank some more and so on. We were scheduled to stop in Juneau on Monday, Sitka on Wednesday, Ketchikan on Thursday and Victoria on Friday. We had booked excursions for the Alaskan ports of call but not Victoria as we had both been there before.
The capital of Alaska. The largest capital in the United States in terms of land mass but it only has just over 32 000 people in it. This does not include the over 1 million tourists that travel through this town every summer. It rains on average 222 days a year but when we visited, it hadn’t rained in three weeks, which constitutes a drought in this rainforested area. In fact, it was a record-breaking 30C (it was even warmer than Seattle!) when we visited and people were peeling off the layers they wore expecting Alaskan weather. Juneau has one main highway that goes from North to South and it’s called Egan Drive/Glacier Highway but really the locals just call it “The Road”. Eventually it ends. Juneau has ocean on one side and mountains on the other so the only way in or out is by water or air. There is one bridge that goes from the mainland to Douglas Island but you could walk across at low tide, if you wanted. A little known fact you might enjoy if you are a runner is that there is almost one run a week between March and September, including one that runs across the mudflats at low tide.
It was exciting to watch our ship dock in port because we had been at sea for two days. We started to imagine what the excitement would be like if we had spent the past two weeks on the ship, say, crossing the ocean as travelers had done not too long ago in our history.
We had docked earlier than expected so we had a chance before our excursion to pop into a few souvenir shops before meeting our group. At the meeting time, we all loaded onto a bus with our tour guide and were driven 14 miles to Auke Bay where we would be heading out in a small vessel holding approximately 20 people to find humpback whales.
We had booked an excursion for the day to go whale watching and then on a nature walk to Mendenhall Glacier. But there is enough to do in the ports of call that you don’t need to book an excursion if you would like to save some money or have a chance to see more of the town. In Juneau, there are two mountains you can hike – Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts. Mount Roberts can even be accessed by tram ($35 and a 3 minute travel time up to the summit). If you aren’t interested in souvenir shopping, then there are plenty of restaurants and bars to enjoy.
Humpback whales are migratory and the Northern terminus of their migration is Juneau. This why the tour companies can advertise “Guaranteed sightings!”. You may only see one or two but you WILL see humpbacks. Keep in mind that those spectacular photos of whales breaching or bubble net feeding are rare and you are most likely to see fins and tails, which is still really cool.
The captain took us out of the marina and into the open water. As we travelled, our tour guide, Maureen from Gastineau Guiding taught us a little bit about humpbacks – how they feed, where they migrate to, how they raise their young, etc. The captains of all the vessels looking for whales keep in contact with each other when whales are spotted. And we were told that if we saw the telltale sign of the water blowing out of their blowhole, to shout “There she blows!” and give the clock position to alert the guide and captain of where they are. We started out slow, seeing only one or two at a distance. There is a pattern to their swimming. First the blow can be seen (and if close enough heard). Then they roll their backs out of the water and you see a segment of their backs and their dorsal fin. You may not see their tail this time. They may blow five times before their deep dive. When they dive deep, their tail comes up out of the water and down straight. This whale will not be seen again for about 15 minutes. Each humpback has markings on the underside of their tail and this is often how the are recognized.
I’d never been whale watching before but now that I’ve done it in Alaska, I don’t know if I will ever spend the money to see them anywhere else. They were incredible. We stopped in two different places and saw about seven different whales. We spent two hours on the boat, watching the whales bob and dive. The first two whales we saw weren’t very close and I definitely needed my telephoto lens. Then we moved and happened along several more that were very close. The boats aren’t allowed to run their motors within 100 yards of the whales so there were about five or six sightseeing vessels just floating around while these whales, including a mom and calf, swam around us. I easily took over a hundred photos. And there were times I didn’t take any photos and just watched mesmerized as they crested the water just a few metres away from us. I could have stayed forever. And it seemed that the whales were totally fine where they were as well. They weren’t leaving the area and we couldn’t start the engines to head back to the marina until they did.
Whales weren’t the only creatures we saw either. There were eagles, otters and of course, lots of gulls on this sightseeing tour as well. I have no photos of the otters but one eagle decided to hang out near all the vessels and do the rounds so I got some photos of him.
After having to tear ourselves away from these beautiful creatures and this stunning scenery, we headed back to the marina to get back on our bus. Next, we were going on an hour-long nature walk through the Tongass National Forest to view the Mendenhall Glacier. Along the way, as we ate the brown-bagged snacks that were provided and rehydrated, we learned about the Tlingit people (the indigenous people who’ve lived in Alaska forever) and the behaviour of glaciers.
Glaciers are masses of snow that have never melted and have over time compressed into ice. Now, here is the part that I had to wrap my head around. Glaciers flow. They flow downhill. Which means that when a snowflake falls at the top of the glacier, it takes about 250 years for that snowflake to finally compress into ice and flow downhill and then eventually melt. So the Mendenhall Galcier has no part of it that is older than 250 years. But the glacier as a whole has been there for about 3000 years.
You with me so far? Because the glaciers are retreating. So if the ice is flowing downhill, and continually being renewed with new snow, how is it getting smaller? The rate of warming is now much greater than the rate of snowfall. The analogy that we were given is that it’s like your hair. Your hair always grows but if you continually cut it shorter than it can regrow, eventually you will end up with no hair at all.
Here’s a really cool (scary?) video of the glacier’s retreat from 2007 to 2014.
When we arrived at the Visitor Centre, we started on our nature walk. Our guide, Dave, told us a bit about the ecological succession of glaciers and how forests grow after the glacier has retreated. We were told to remember the acronym MASH – moss and lichens, alder, sitka spruce and then western hemlock. Our nature walk took us through these stages of regrowth before we came to a viewing point for Mendenhall Glacier.
It looked rather small to be honest. But that’s the reality of it. The glaciers are retreating. From the Visitors Center, we only see a tiny piece of the giant glacier beyond but in 40 years, tourists to the area won’t even be able to see that. There is no way to walk to the glacier anymore but you can boat to it and there are excursions in the $500-$600 range that can fly you via helicopter or small plane over the glacier. The helicopter adventures can actually land on the glacier and you can walk on it. All gear is provided.
Then it was time to head back to the bustling metropolis of Juneau. We were looking forward to relaxing at the Red Dog Saloon but alas, there were now five cruise ships in port and there was hardly room to move down the sidewalk, much less find an empty table in the whole of Juneau. When we got to the Red Dog, the lineup was out the door so instead we went on the hunt for chocolate bars and chips.
One thing I was not told before going on a cruise was there was no junk food on the ship! No chips, no chocolate bars, no small shop selling candy. Nothing! And I was seriously craving a chocolate bar.
Juneau’s small, walkable downtown is filled with brightly coloured tourist shops selling jewellery (like, diamonds and other gems) as well as indigenous art and regular tourist kitsch. There are also bars and restaurants that line the main roads near the piers but one thing we had a hard time finding was a convenience store.
We finally found the Alaska Cache Liquor Inc. that sold chips, chocolate, smokes, wine, beer and other miscellany that convenience stores everywhere stock. I think this shop was the most authentic shop we saw in that little tourist strip on Franklin St. I grabbed a bag of Cheetos as well as two chocolate bars and the guy behind the counter asked me if I wanted a bag. I told him straight up that the cruise ships don’t have cheesies and I don’t need a bag because I’m going to open this bag on the sidewalk right outside his store and inhale the whole thing right there. He smiled, nodded and said, “I like your style.”
We had a few hours left to spare before All Aboard but honestly, after our six-hour tour and then coming back to the tourist crowds, we just headed back onto the ship to enjoy a nice, quiet glass of wine before dinner.
Tuesday: Glacier Bay
I really had no idea what to expect this day. But it turns out the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is huge. MASSIVE. And absolutely sepctacular. It’s a bay that is 65 miles long and since a cruise ship is required to spend four hours in the Upper West Arm and an hour at the face of the glaciers, it’s a full day experience.
Here is a fantastic article on how the National Park Service is managing the massive amounts of tourists to this spectacular site.
Our NPS Ranger boarded around 6 am when we entered the bay. At approximately 1 pm, announcements started over the PA system explaining some of the features we would see. She would also announce if there were any wildlife sightings. We stayed in our room, on our verandah but if you had an inside cabin, you could go out on deck to view everything. It took hours and even though the ship was going extremely slowly, Patricia and I literally could not take our eyes off of the landscape. It just pulled us in. We felt that the second we looked away, we’d miss something.
And yet, it was so slow. And quiet.
And in all of my travels, it will always be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
And it struck me that no matter what ecological damage cruise ships do to this pristine wild glory, it can’t be worse than letting all these tourists onto the land to wreak their own messy havoc.
I don’t have anything to add beyond the article posted above so I will just leave you with a gallery of photos. These are the photos I feel show off this spectacular place the best but as always, they pale in comparison to the stunning beauty of it in reality. (Click on the photos to see full-size images and captions.)
Today the Margerie Glacier and the Grand Pacific Glacier don’t touch, as you can see in the panoramic shot above. The ranger said that if you had taken a cruise five years ago, you would have seen them touching. These glaciers lose about five feet of distance A DAY. While we did not see any calving, we could hear the quiet, deep thundery echo of calving happening somewhere within the glacier.
If you want to see glaciers in Alaska, you need to go soon. They won’t be visible much longer. Our grandchildren will never have the opportunity.
Not every cruise line goes to Sitka. Sitka sees “only” 150 000 tourists during the summer, which means Sitkans get weekends off from us. Because of this, Sitka feels like a real city, instead of a tourist town. We docked 6 miles out of the city and took a shuttle in. Many of the people in Alaska running the tours, the shuttle buses, and the tourist shops are not from Alaska. But in Sitka, we actually met people who are Alaskan. Sitka is the biggest city in the US in terms of area. Its area consists of almost the entirety of Baranof Island, as well as part of Chichigof Island which is 4 710 square miles. In comparison, the city of Los Angeles is 502 square miles. Yet Sitka only has 14 miles of road. Travelling from the ship to the city covers almost half of that.
Sitka plays a really important role in Alaskan history. It was the first settlement in Alaska and it was Tlingit. Then the Russians took over and it became the capital of Russian American in 1808. In my final year of Russian Translation at university (no, I no longer speak Russian), one of my assignments was to translate a 19th century Russian sea journal about Sitka, which is part of the reason why I wanted to stop here. The Russian influence is still seen in its souvenirs of matryoshka dolls, Lomonosov china and folk paintings as well as the heart of the city – St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral, the first Orthodox Cathedral built in the New World. Eventually America bought Alaska for $7.2 million dollars in Sitka in 1867.
The Tlingit people also have a significant population in the city and the area. There is a boarding high school that is for rural kids (mostly indigenous kids) and it’s known for its championship-winning boys’ and girls’ basketball teams. The art in the shops is often locally made as well.
We had a whole day in Sitka so we were able to get souvenirs in the morning before meeting for our excursion. The shuttle dropped us off right downtown where all the excursions meet and there are public washrooms and the public library in the square. The public library has wifi, if you need it, since wifi on the ship is a kabillion dollars. Again, everything is within walking distance and there is enough to see in Sitka if you choose not to book an excursion. I would have loved to have had more time in Sitka. Not only are the shops more “real”, selling things that aren’t tourist souvenirs like bath salts, linens, furniture, yarn and foodstuffs, there is plenty to see. You can go into St. Michael’s Cathedral, go for a walk in Sitka National Historic Park and look at totem poles or enjoy a leisurely lunch at one of the many restaurants.
A short note on excursions. This being my first cruise, I didn’t realize that when you book an excursion, you are giving up a lot of your sightseeing time in the town. While the ship has a departure time, the All Aboard time is earlier than that. Plus, if you dock earlier than the shops are open then you lose that time as well. As it was, we felt rushed to buy souvenirs and we didn’t get to explore the towns we saw in any depth. So it’s a trade-off. You need to decide which you’d rather do because you can’t sufficiently do both.
After lunch, we met our excursion group and we were set up to go sea kayaking in a small, calm cove a short boat ride away. It was another gorgeous day and I can’t say how lucky we were to have such great weather (even if they desperately wanted rain). It rains 3 out of 5 days in Sitka and the excursions run rain or shine.
Our guides were Connor and Rebecca from Alaska Travel Adventures and they were hilarious. As we made our way to the boat house, they gave us all the safety info we need, interesting tidbits about Sitka and stopped for any wildlife sightings that might be interesting, all with entertaining banter. We happened across a massive bull sea lion and an eagle (we’d seen a lot of eagles at this point but this sea lion was the first.)
When we arrived at the boat house, we were shown a quick demonstration on how to put on the life jackets and kayak skirts. The idea of sea kayaking might seem daunting, especially if you’ve seen photos of humpback whales swimming under the kayak but this gorgeous, secluded cove was calm and gentle, more like lake kayaking.
Patricia and I both have a fair amount of experience canoeing. Which made our first foray as a team into kayaking quite the comedy of errors. We christened our kayak the The Drunken Kayak because we couldn’t get it to go straight. After a while, we got into a rhythm with each other and as you’ll see in the video below, our form significantly improved though I highly doubt we will ever qualify for the Olympics. We went down an estuary that was once used for logging. We paddled as far as we could, considering the tide and then turned around to head along the shore to look for marine life. We saw mussels, sea stars and sea urchins, none of which I got a picture.
We eventually had to head back to the boathouse. But there was clam chowder and buns waiting for us.
At 3:30 pm, we caught the last shuttle back to the ship and said goodbye to Sitka.
Like Sitka, Ketchikan is on an island and like Juneau as well, the only way to get to it is by either water or air. It is surrounded by the Tongass National Forest. Ketchikan is on Revillagigedo Island (the locals call it Revilla Island) and it is named after the creek that fills with salmon each year. This creek is what attracted the Tlingit people to the area and Ketchikan means “thundering wings of an eagle”. It’s main industries are lumber, fishing and pulp.
We arrived early in the morning before many of the stores were open and we got off the ship in a drizzly rain. It continued to rain with varying degrees of force the rest of our stay. We were bound to have at least one rainy day. And in all honesty, considering how rainy Alaska is, it felt right that we should have one excursion in the pouring rain.
Today’s excursion was a three-part adventure – a backcountry Jeep drive, a canoe across a lake and then a nature walk hosted again by Adventure Travel Alaska . We were picked up at our meeting spot and then we picked up more people at the Princess cruise ship. Then we headed on our way.
Our first stop was the Jeep part of the adventure. We were four to a Jeep. Patricia had no intention of driving and considering I own a Jeep, when Evan said he really wanted to drive, we let him. Evan’s wife wasn’t interested in driving either. If you don’t own a Jeep or another 4×4 vehicle capable of driving off-road, then that aspect of it probably makes it a lot of fun. Evan was having a blast and was stoked to be the only driver in our group. He and I talked for a bit about the Jeep as I gave him some specs and details and he looked to his wife pleadingly, saying they could easily trade in their Subaru.
The roads we were driving on were old logging roads and were no rougher than the road to our tiny cabin in the woods. But for me, what really stood out was that we were driving through this incredible wilderness. And I don’t mean wilderness that is surrounded by civilization on all sides. Or wilderness that you can’t really get lost in because if you walk long enough, you’ll hit a road. This is wilderness that is almost endless. The Tongass National Forest is 68 000 square kilometres in area. I mean, we drove two different logging roads (The Upper Road and The Lower Road) and they both ended at some point and we had to turn around. And there was nothing beyond them but mountains and forest and lakes and mist and bears and spirits, for all I know. Yes, these roads were rough and narrow but they were also extremely isolated. We drove into a landscape that certainly has parts of it that have never been touched by a human. Parts of it that could surely kill you if you went in unprepared. One might think that Alaska, being a part of the US, couldn’t be THAT wild. Yes, indeed it is. It’s dense and dark and a little bit scary. Add in mist and what the landscape lacked in definition, it made up for in mood.
We finished our Jeep adventure at the shore of a mountain lake. Here we would paddle across the lake to where we would walk along a nature trail in the rainforest. The canoes were large and could hold up to 28 people. As we paddled across the serene water, surrounded by trees and hills on all sides, we had fun playing with the echo. We had mountains on one side of us, not that we could see any and the echoes were astonishingly perfect.
We also noticed brown trees that looked like they weren’t faring too well. Our guide Jesus explained to us that these trees need at least 4 ft of snow insulation over their roots in the winter. Last winter, they didn’t get that much snow and the roots grew too cold and went into shock. The trees died. Could’ve just been a warm year. But I think we all know what these changes in weather really mean.
It took us about 15 minutes to get to the dock by the “camp” set up by the guides in the forest. Jesus led us on our nature walk around a short loop path, through the rainforest and even though I was really quite wet by this point from the rain, I couldn’t help but marvel at how verdant and sparkling everything was up close and how ethereal in the distance because of the rain. He would periodically stop to explain some of the natural phenomena that happen in a rainforest. I honestly can’t remember too much of it other than that which reinforced what I had heard in Juneau – colonizing species of plants, plants the Tlingit had used for medicinal purposes, etc. After about 25 minutes, we were back at “camp” for some grub. Again, we tourists got a bowl of hot chowder and a cup of hot chocolate and cowboy coffee with a mint chocolate dropped in just for love.
The tour guides aren’t just pretty faces either. Every morning, they arrive at the camp and prepare all of the food. Along with the chowder and breads, there were jams and this amazing salmon spread/salad that I had on its own because I couldn’t eat the chowder or bread (stupid gluten). They use six large salmon, fresh every day to make this divine concoction and I could very well have stolen the whole container and devoured it lost in the woods somewhere. There was nothing better for the soul on a cold-ish and rainy day than cowboy coffee brewed over a campfire and steaming chowder.
Okay, this is going to be a short entry since we arrived late and only had a few hours here. First of all, we were late docking and we arrived around 6:30 pm. By the time we got off the ship and through customs, it was rounding on 7 pm. Then a 25-minute walk from the pier to downtown. Plus, we’d both already been here. The last time I was here was in 2001, coming back from a year teaching English in Japan and travelling across Canada to get home to Ontario. The last time Patricia was here was when she lived in nearby Saanich in 1993.
It was so comforting to step off that ship and step onto our home and native land. I know America is closer to Canada in culture than any other country in the world and I travel to the US frequently enough to feel pretty comfortable there. But there is nothing like being able to use a debit card again or not having translate exchange rates or even just remembering which street to get which souvenir, even after several decades. Home, sweet home. At least for the next few hours.
Victoria was still alive and happening even as the sun was setting and if there is a list of cities that are worth visiting at night, Victoria would be one of them. It is a gorgeous historic city with stone buildings and fun shopping and an enchanting waterfront. And the lights are magical. We didn’t get any further than an Irish pub for some grub. The food on the cruise ship is spectacular, for sure, but at this point in our vacation, so close to home, we just wanted nachos and beer and some live kitchen party music.
After a fabulous dinner, we headed back to the ship for our last night at sea.
The ship set sail at midnight but we were fast asleep before then. And when we awoke, we were back in Seattle. Full circle.