You Surely Couldn’t Tell It

At least, you’d never guess by looking at my blog… but I’m now three weeks home from what surely is one of the most lovely vacation experiences I will ever have in my life. Despite sundry glitches here and there, and a ridiculous amount of frantic effort preparing for the event, all I can say about Alaska is that it truly was splendid! From “big cities” that felt more like hometowns to friendly little villages that made me feel like I could uproot my entire life and move there quite easily, from dusky, fog-shrouded mountains and waterways to the occasional blessing of a beatific patch of clear, celestial blue, from the shrill “Scree!” of dozens of bald eagles to the breathtakingly brief porpoise escort, Alaska positively overwhelmed my heart and soul with memories that I will truly carry with me for the rest of my life. I have nearly 4000 pictures here that will help. 😉

We were away for 15 days, the majority of which were spent traveling aboard the Royal Princess, a smaller cruise ship, which gave us closer access to some sites and ports than the newer lumbering giants can achieve. We like the smaller, friendlier boats, as they seem to encourage easy acquaintance among both fellow passengers and with crew members. For me, that’s a HUGE plus. I love getting to know people when I travel; it gives much more depth to the experience. Many feel they need a larger ship for the activities, but I have to say, I never lacked for things to do onboard, and often I had to choose one offering over another, much to my chagrin. All things considered, I had far less time than I’d expected for knitting, though I did find ways to sneak in more than a bit of time for my fancy – including a rather pleasurable celebration of World-wide Knit in Public Day, parked on a lounge chair beside the pool with several other fiber-addicted passengers. 🙂

FYI – Not sure where to put this, so I’ll drop this note in here… If you are planning to go to Alaska, don’t buy a coat! You will likely need one, but coats and jackets are profusely abundant at excellent prices and in souvenir styles that are likely to have you taking leave of your senses and buying a few regardless of whether you actually need another. Don’t ask me how I know…

Our ports included:

  • Seattle, where we embarked after spending a very nice morning enjoying our first ever Duck tour, an experience that rather defies description, followed by a leisurely exploration of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, in order to earn cancellations in our National Parks passports.
  • Ketchikan, a most picturesque little town that looks exactly as if it had been lifted off of a model railroad. My breakfast that morning was my traditional room service, enjoyed on our balcony (a first time experience for us) under the watchful eye of a bald eagle, who swooped in just as I sat down, threatening to make me miss my first shore excursion in a frenzy of picture taking, while my heart pounded so hard I doubted a one of them would come out clear. How was I to know that just an hour or two later, I would find myself literally in the midst of a flock of 2-3 DOZEN of them, swooping and soaring above and below me as I stood on the deck of the Aleutian Ballad, snapping photos like crazy, all the while believing I’d wake up at any moment to find it was just one of those dreams…
  • Juneau, a state capital with charm, one of the most approachable cities I’ve ever seen. It felt as comfortable as my hometown, actually! I wasn’t overly enchanted with my first shorex here, as it fell far short of living up to the description that had convinced me it was well worth the $200 price tag, but it did net me two of my most treasured photos – one of Stellar sea lions, and the other the only whale tail I saw clearly in the entire two weeks, despite the fact that the whales were feeding heavily.  My afternoon outing was an unplanned surprise, as my original choice was canceled at the last moment. In a desperate desire to do something other than ride on a sightseeing bus for a few hours or go to a salmon bake, I managed to conquer one of my deepest fears and boarded a float plane to go sightseeing over 5 local glaciers, offspring of the Juneau Icefield. After the eagles, I figured I’d more than used up my quota of “thrill” for the trip, but this little venture proved me wrong – and coerced me into capturing nearly 400 pictures in just 40 minutes. You can’t begin to guess how terribly difficult it was to just pick two of them for this post! It was a spectacular experience, and the second of the two memories of Alaska that will forever vie for top position as “the best.” Both the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman Tour and this sightseeing adventure are very highly recommended and well worth the price.
  • Icy Strait Point, Hoonah, Alaska would have had to make a much better show of itself to be a thrill, and it didn’t even have the weather in its favor, as we suffered an afternoon rain, which added quite a damper to this less than thrilling port. For me, it got off to a bad start with a bear watch, which turned out to be a VERY pricey walk in the woods to meet the infamous Alaskan mosquitoes, view one sandpiper, one American robin, and one red squirrel. In case you are wondering, yes, the mosquitoes really do have FAA numbers on their rumps.Although the walk through the muskeg was somewhat interesting, it being a novel terrain for me, my census of fellow passengers over the next few days turned up that the several dozen folks who had ventured out on each of the five bear watches that day showed that not one of us had actually seen a bruin of any color. My suggestion is to do your homework. If the salmon aren’t running, don’t waste your money – unless seeing robins and muskeg are worth over $100 to you. In the afternoon, I took a Hoonah sightseeing tour, then went to a cultural show. Sightseeing in the rain is even worse than the normal bus tour, since it doesn’t even afford the opportunity to jump out for two minutes to snap the same photos everyone else is grabbing. The only thrill I could have had on this trip was lost, because the juvenile bald eagle was frolicking on the other side of the bus, and oddly enough, no one over there was offering to trade me seats (or even listening to the guide at that point, for that matter!) 😉 The redeeming value of Hoonah was definitely the cultural dance performance, nicely and homily presented for the small group of damp tourists puddled on the much larger bleachers in the lodge. It was a very pleasant interlude in an otherwise lackluster day.
  • Kodiak struck me as a very homey place in many ways. It’s not everywhere that a tourist asks for directions winds up with a private tour of the town in a patrol car! I enjoyed my “on my own” visit to the small Alutiiq Museum, but I wish I’d had more time available – and that the items in the museum shop had been a good bit closer to my price range, as there were some really awesome offerings. A few members of the local Su’nash tribe put on a dance performance in the middle of the town late in the morning, and despite the paucity of number and the atypical female drummer, it was nice to see. My afternoon shorex was called a Russian Heritage Tour. Perhaps my expectations were a bit high, having been so enamored with St. Petersburg, but I still think this could have been much better with only a few small changes. First and foremost, the guide, who gives every indication of having developed the entire tour on her own, chose to not take us to the Baranov Museum, which is there for the express purpose of sharing the Russian Heritage of Kodiak. I would have far preferred to see that museum than to take the rather wearying bus trip through the town, which did nothing to focus us on the actual point of the tour in the first place. Secondly – and I don’t know if there is such a place in Kodiak, but I saw them in several other towns we visited – instead of our rushed shopping stop in a local gallery, it would have been a nice touch to have gone to a Russian shop. I’m glad I bought the lacquer box in Juneau instead of waiting! The high point of this tour for me was the delightful Father Erasmus of the Russian Orthodox church in the area, who led us through the church and the seminary chapel. The tea at the end was a quaint and homespun affair in a church basement. The food was far from authentic, at least compared to the fare I had in Russia, but it was tasty if a bit sparse. The entertainment was similar – mostly Russian music, mostly sung in English, well performed by sometimes amusingly costumed musicians who obviously loved what they were doing. All in all, it was definitely less than I’d hoped, but it also wasn’t a Hoonah Bear Watch. 😉
  • Seward was a bit of a mad dash, as there were things we wanted to see in the couple hours we had before our cruise. First stop was the Kenai Fjords National Park office for our passport stamps, then on to the Sealife Center. What a terrible disappointment it was to have to leave there so soon! I highly recommend several hours of exploration in that delightful place – and don’t bother booking a tour. It’s extremely accessible from the city bus that makes constant rounds through town. This is the place to see all the mysteries of the deep up close and personal, touch sea urchins, get photos of puffins… Then when you are done, swallow some motion sickness pills and get on one of the tour boats that will take you on a most lovely exploration of Kenai Fjords National Park! Despite the cold, fog, rain, and general atmospheric gloom, I’d consider this a keeper of a trip. This is where I finally saw sea otters, which made it a hit for me right there. How totally enchanting it was a bit later to be suddenly joined by a small group of porpoises boisterously leading our boat through the swells and thrilling those of us braving the elements and hanging over the bow of our little vessel! I do so hope I can eventually figure out how to share the video I took of that fantasy come true! Equally interested in us for awhile was a small pod of orcas, and we also saw humpbacks, puffins by the dozen more sea lions, and gulls by what was likely the millions in their rookeries! This is an outing to choose by menu. The homemade cookies were great – but the chicken wrap sandwiches and watery lemonade were as dismal as the weather… and the other company offers prime rib and a National Park Ranger… but doesn’t pay Princess a kickback, so…
  • Skagway, as a stop, gets good marks, though the town definitely doesn’t have it all together. It’s a wonderful little place, looking very much like I would picture a gold rush town, but where that digresses from those days is that now Skagway rolls up its streets in the late afternoon, even when there is a cruise ship in port. I found myself with money to spend, an ideal souvenir in mind, and nowhere to buy it! Everything else about this stop was quite good, though, and it’s why I wasn’t in town much earlier. We took a bus trip out into the Canadian wilds, through some picture puzzle scenery and into the Yukon, where we gulped a hurried lunch, panned for gold, and rode on a summer training dogsled (and believe it or not, I actually knit a few stitches on said sled just to say I’d done it!), before heading back to Fraser. There we boarded the White Pass & Yukon Railroad for an inspiring trip back to Skagway, spotting wild caribou and our only grizzly bear of the trip. This is a must do trip, even though it could be improved by skipping Carcross and adding the unsatisfying 15-minute rip through that town to the Caribou Crossing stop. I doubt the people of Carcross would agree with me on that, though. 😉 I will add that the shop at the train station in Skagway is absolutely the single best souvenir shop I’ve seen anywhere on American soil, and I can think of only one I’ve seen anywhere else in the world that might rival it in my mind.
  • Victoria, British Columbia… For some reason, our shore excursion options were just really lacking, and I’m glad I didn’t feel driven to take one. Instead, I ventured out on my own, enjoying a harbor ferry tour and a carriage ride, plus a mini yarnshop crawl. I only wish I’d had more time, as I so wanted to wander through Thunderbird Park… and once I got there, I found that the waterfront around the Empress and the Parliament was inhabited by street vendors with lovely Native handcrafts that enticed me as I rushed past… sigh…
  • Glacier Bay and Tracy Arm Fjord we viewed from the comfort of our ship. Both were lovely and definitely made for enjoyable days, but they also brought some disappointments to one who had expected to see some superb wildlife and the excitement of glaciers calving. In Glacier Bay, there was plenty of cracking and groaning, whetting our excitement, but the glaciers couldn’t be bothered to do more than spit a bit, and my biggest excitement for the day turned into seagull shooting – a la camera. This would be a Black-legged Kittiwake. Wanna guess how I know that? Tracy Arm Fjord was simply magnificent. However, there is a bit of a catch 22 with glaciers, and we got stuck at the wrong end of it. Having been promised that Tracy Arm is where we’d be able to see the big action, I was more than eagerly anticipating this day, especially after the calving bust in Glacier Bay. Well, the glaciers were doing their thing, alright. In fact, they were doing it so well that the fjord was clogged with ice, and it wasn’t safe to take the ship past the last turn so we could actually SEE the glacier. Instead, we got to sit in the middle of a magnificent, ice-filled fjord, messing up the photos of the passengers on the bigger ship which couldn’t get even as close as we did. I didn’t realize just how massive were my surroundings until our ship’s four-passenger rescue boat went out on a photographic expedition and nearly vanished into insignificance in the scenery. It was impossible not to be impressed, glacier or not. See if you can find the boat in this photo. Two hints: 1. It’s orange. 2. It’s partially hidden behind an iceberg. (And you can expand this photo by clicking on it!)

Honestly, this is such a tiny capsule summary of the trip that it scarcely does it justice, but Alaska rather defies any sort of compaction. Just the small part of it I tasted in that two weeks was much bigger and more wonderful than I could have imagined, and I well know that I barely stuck my finger in its wonders! This, for us, was a trip of a lifetime sort of deal, one that has been nine years in the making. Often when something like that has come and gone, there’s a bit of an empty feel, but oddly enough, I didn’t come home flat from this adventure. It was a very satisfying journey, and despite my gripes about some wasted shorex money, I’m content.  However, I’m also already planning my next trip to Alaska! 😉

%d bloggers like this: