Well, we've finished our summer trip -- this time to Alaska. It was mostly a small-ship cruise with an overland component as well. As usual this is in my usual rambling style so if you're interested in the details, great, otherwise read until you get bored and then get on with your life.
We started out by flying to Ketchikan. This is the fourth largest city in Alaska, which means the population is over 10,000. The airport is on an island across a channel from the city, and you have your choice of Alaska airlines or Alaska airlines. This probably explains the expensive tickets. It is cheaper to fly to Paris than Alaska.
We got on the ferry to get to town, and while waiting for a gap between seaplanes taking off so we could cross the channel we saw our first bald eagle. Not a bad start! Ketchikan has a touristy downtown that turns into a real town about a block from the water. The tourists from the large cruise ships pretty much swamp the area. These ships hold around 2,000 people each and Ketchikan has socking space for three cruise ships and sometimes they get a fourth that offloads via ferries that are basically big lifeboats. Obviously this totally dominates downtown, except that they all leave around 2:00 in the afternoon and all the locals come out of hiding. This was kind of a theme of the trip. Our ship had fewer than 100 passengers so we didn't have much impact on a town, but we could really tell when a cruise ship was in the area.
Most of the nicer buildings in Ketchikan were originally brothels, which were legal until the 1950s. One's a nice museum, another's a restaurant, you get the idea. They seem pretty proud of their heritage. It's actually pretty similar to that of San Francisco with a gold rush and so forth, just a little later.
We had arrived before our cruise started so we had a good chance to check out the town on our own, which is nice. Of the coastal towns in southeast Alaska it was the only town where it was big enough to have something other than tacky gift shops, but small enough to be walkable. Most trips in the area just use it as a staging area and you don't really get to see the town which is a real shame. If any of you should consider a similar trip do consider getting there a day early so you can check it out.
Ketchikan was also where we started to understand some of the labor issues in Alaska. The line they like to use to describe the weather is "nine months of winter and three months of relatives." It turns out that not only is there a ton of seasonal labor to service the tourist industry, and other summer related industries (like construction) but that there are people who have spent the last 20-30 years working Alaska during the summer and elsewhere the rest of the year. Many of our guides, bus drivers, etc. are really school teachers, school bus drivers, etc. in the lower 48 and this is how they spend their summers. Some of them don't really make any money off of the deal, it's basically just a break-even vacation. Some people lead pretty much transient lives where they'll work river rafting in Alaska during the summer, and the rest of the year will follow the work to South Africa, Chile, or whatever. There also appears to be a big labor shortage -- our waiter for dinner one night was a bus boy for lunch the next day at a different restaurant. He had just arrived from San Diego a couple of weeks prior.
While I'm talking about general issues, the other line they like to throw out to describe the male/female imbalance (Alaska is one of just a couple of places in the US where there are more males than females. The only other one I know of is Silicon Valley.) which attracts a certain number of women looking for a mate, is "The odds are good but the goods are odd." Thisis one of those jokes you'll hear daily. The other danger you'll run into is Robert Service poetry. Robert Service wrote a lot of poetry about Alaska around the turn of the century, and as far as I can tell every Alaskan in the tourism industry has memorized one of four poems and will share their rendition given even the smallest excuse.
Anyway, back to the trip. The second day in Ketchikan we met up with the tour group. They were about what you would expect on the surface – older (relative to us, anyway), fairly well off [Somebody else who was on the same cruise read this and disagreed. I guess it depends on your standards]. Lots of retired school teachers and engineers of one kind or another. Three chemists. Mostly Americans, but with some folks from the UK, Australia, etc. One 60 year old American guy with a 26 year old Ukrainian wife. Suffice to say they were mostly a nice enough bunch of folks although with any group of 100 people you're going to get some stinkers.
We got on the boat. Again, this is a small ship. I have a photo of it next to a Princess cruise ship and the logo on the Princess ship is about the size of our ship. We were introduced to the crew (captain, 1st mate, 2nd mate, hotel manager, tour director, 4 deck hands, 1 chef, 3 prep cooks, 1 engineer, 6 CSRs (housekeepers/waitresses/etc) and the all important bartender). By the end of the trip we would know most of the crew by name.
The basic pattern for the trip was established early. Wake up call at 6:30 but most people were up before then (when the sun comes through the window at 4:00 AM you pretty much wake up), cruise around or go to town for the morning, lunch on boat, cruise around or go to town for the evening. It would very nearly get dark around midnight.
The first evening we just went for a dinner cruise and then back to dock to pick up some late luggage. The schedule throughout was pretty flexible so this wasn't a big deal for them. We spent the next morning in Misty Fjords, which is a pretty area but there wasn't anything particularly stunning about the landscape if you've been to Yosemite and so forth. If they'd put it at the end of the trip we'd all be napping but it was a nice start. Two park service naturalists kayaked out to us in the morning and stayed on the ship while we were in the park. This kind of thing happened a lot and really added a lot to the trip. It's apparently something of an experimental program they're running with the small ship cruise lines, which tend to have passengers more interested in viewing the wildlife and are small enough to actually do it.
So we're cruising around and what should we see but two Orca. They're
just amazing animals -- very fast, very big, but barely disturbing the surface
of the water. We followed them around for a bit before they dove deep
and left the area. Then, in the afternoon near the island of Metlakatla
we saw a humpback whale very close -- it was hanging out near a dock on the
island. This is when we started to recognize the basic whale behaviors
-- you can tell when they're going to dive deep because they'll take 4 or so
deep breaths, and each time their back arches back more and more until finally
on their last pass their tail goes out of the water and you won't see them again
for quite a while. This whale was cooperative so we probably spent 15
minutes watching it before docking.
Metlakatla is the last remaining Indian reservation in Alaska. They're actually Tsimshian Indians, which usually live further to the south but these followed a charismatic Christian leader up to Alaska a couple of generations back. They seem to be proud of both heritages and produce some amazing native art. Their economy is pretty much in collapse since Ketchikan got their own airport (they used to be the airport for the region) but there's still a certain amount of salmon fishing and so forth.
The third (ship) day we spent the morning in Petersburg which is a little fishing town. A dozen of us went on a hike with a local naturalist through rain forest and through muskeg (peat bog). It was fun, and useful because we would recognize these same odd plants throughout the trip.
The evening was spent seeing how we could get up LeConte bay. At the end of the bay is LeCont glacier, which has produced a huge ice field leading miles down the channel which it had previously carved. So they just kept sailing further up the channel, avoiding the larger icebergs and pushing the smaller ones to the side until it finally got too thick and we had to turn back. In the thicker areas seals were sunning themselves on the ice (with babies!) and there were all manner of birds.
The fourth day we visited Frederick Sound and Tracy Arm. In other words, glaciers, glaciers, glaciers! We did get to see glaciers calving – pieces of ice were dropping into the water creating waves big enough to rock the ship. The glaciers in this area are very pretty -- much more blue and "clean" (less rocks and debris) than the ones we were to see in glacier bay. But since they're up narrow passages, the big ships never get near them. That day we also saw just how capable the ship was, when the captain pointed the nose of the ship towards a big waterfall and started working towards it. He eventually got the nose of the ship within a couple of feet of it. That day we also got quite close to a black bear that was walking along the shore eating shellfish.
Glaciers really are blue, by the way. So are the larger icebergs. They actually glow (the blue is from the light that passes through the ice. You need a lot of very clean, clear ice with no bubbles to see the effect but glaciers pump it out by the ton). And every glacier is different (and constantly changing) and every iceberg is different. If I thought anybody would be interested in seeing the results I could have shot any amount of film just on that one day. And every day was like that. I don't know what the people with videotape did when they got home with a half dozen hours of amazing footage each day -- who's going to watch it? As it was I culled 41 rolls of film pretty heavily, throwing out half my shots and it still fills a couple of photo albums.
They actually collected up a pretty decent chunk of ice with a net and had a little contest to see who could guess when it melted. Hey, it may not be a Broadway quality show but we had fun! That day we had a bar-b-que with everything from salmon to hot dogs. Really good stuff – the food in general was really quite good.
The next day we went to Sitka. Sitka is the old Russian capital. There isn't a huge amount of Russian stuff left simply because the Russians all left after they sold the state, but there is a Russian Orthodox church (rebuilt after a fire but they saved the icons) as well as some old battlefields left over from some unpleasantness with the natives (the natives won, incidentally). More interestingly, Sitka has tons of bald eagles (they call it the "Sitka Pigeon" there) and a raptor rehabilitation center where they try to heal and reintroduce birds that have run into power lines and so forth. There's also a nice forested area with a trail that goes by a couple of dozen totem poles. We saw totem poles all over the place, but mostly either old ones in museums or new ones commissioned by the city in a park. This was really the only time we saw them out in more of a natural setting. Sitka also has the Sheldon Jackson museum which is an extremely cool native-oriented museum.
This is the point where we realized that we weren't made for bus tours. After a wasted hour we bailed on ours and headed out on our own. This is a pattern we would repeat throughout the trip -- skipping the scheduled activities when they just didn't make any sense and doing something we wanted to do.
We spent some time cruising after that. We saw everything from more humpback whales, brown bear, to a tree that somebody had placed a dozen or so pink flamingos in various positions. That evening we were up on the bridge (the ship had an open bridge policy and the Captain encouraged everybody to visit at least once and check it out) and the Captain had a lot of time to kill. Whenever he spotted a porpoise he'd aim at them and try to get them to play in our bow wake. Eventually he got some Dall's porpoise (which look like baby Orca) to do it. They'd swim in the wave on one side of the ship, then dart under the ship and do it on the other side. He took the ship into a circle because they'll do it longer if you don't leave the area. This went on for quite a while. It was just amazing, and just a couple of us saw it because it was around 11:00 pm. For those of us that saw this, it was probably the highlight of the trip.
The next day we spent the entire day in Glacier Bay. The big ships basically cruise to the main glacier and leave. Only two big ships are allowed into the bay per day, and three ships of our size (considered a "touring boat" by the park service). We had another park ranger all day who was just an amazing source of information. During breakfast she gave a presentation and showed us what all of the various birds we were likely to see were called and a little about them.
Our first stop was at an island that's a bird sanctuary. We saw all kinds of birds including a bird that was related to penguins . . . except it's on the wrong side of the planet and it flies. We saw both horned and tufted puffins. It was the first time I've ever had a really good look at a puffin in the wild so that was a major thrill. There were a few dozen sea lions, and a humpback whale breeched near the ship. You're not allowed to get near the whales in this area -- in fact if you see one in front of you, you must change course, but we had a number of good whale sightings that day including another breech later that day when the whale completely cleared the water. It's just as improbable looking as it sounds.
Next we went skulking around inlets looking for bear. We were all very quiet and if we stayed that way and the Captain took his time he could get the boat quite close to bears and they wouldn't pay any attention to us. Apparently anything out in the water just doesn't really concern them. We were able to get good views of both black and brown bear, including a bear up a tree. These sightings were on order of 15 minutes, and when we came back out of the inlet the bears would often still be there, eating shellfish, seaweed and so forth. We also saw mountain goats including a couple that were lost and quite low to the water (usually mountain goats basically look like dots, including in binoculars because they're so high up).
Eventually we went to go see the glaciers. The largest, which carved the bay in the first place, is actually kind of a nasty black color. It's just filthy with the remains of the land it's been shoving around. Some of the smaller ones were quite pretty. Again, we saw calving, and we saw a large cruise ship which added some nice scale. The glaciers dwarfed even the large cruise ship.
The next day we visited Skagway in the morning. Skagway has the largest dock capacity in Alaska with room for five cruise ships. Five cruise ships carry more people than live in the town by a good margin so you can only imagine the quantity of tacky shops near the waterfront. But what we were interested in was the railway -- there's a narrow gague railway that heads into the mountains, which are lovely, at improbable angles, over wooden trestles that look like they're put together with toothpicks over thousand foot drops, and they let you ride on the little platform on the back of the car. I rode the entire way up and down the mountain (3 hours) outside of the car.
Next we went to Haines. Haines is 14 miles by boat and 400 or so by car. The terrain's just that nasty. Haines is a small artist's community, with no real dock, so the big ships don't go there (although they may offer it as an option from Skagway). We went on a raft down a river through a bald eagle preserve. We saw dozens, including eagles hanging out on the banks waiting for salmon to get caught in the shallows. Sometimes they'll just walk out and drag the thing to shore. We're talking lazy eagles! The valley was carved by glaciers, and the river is glacial melt. 37 degrees and so filled with silt it looked like milk. The water is very shallow, and you spend a lot of time scraping bottom.
The next morning, we were done with that phase of the trip. We said goodbye to the crew, and set off into Juneau. Juneau's the capital and the only way in is by boat or plane -- there are no roads. I don't have any more to say about Juneau than I would about Sacramento, but we did take a couple hour helicopter ride which landed on a glacier a couple of times so we could walk around. You don't realize the scale of these things until you've walked on one. And on the rocks, in the middle of tons of ice, was lichen. It's amazing how stubborn life is.
After that things weren't nearly so jam-packed. We flew to Anchorage (nice enough town, we'll visit again and spent a couple of days but you really need a car to get anywhere) and then by rail to Denali. Denali's the park with Mt. McKinley (they've managed to rename the park but not the mountain. Long story). We saw moose (with babies!), marmots, mountain sheep, caribou, a brown bear very close up (luckily we were in a park service bus at the time), momma bears with cubs, a red fox, and the mountain itself which only 30% of the visitors see from the park. It's actually easier to see it from Anchorage or Fairbanks because it usually has low clouds that obscure it.
After that we took a bus to Fairbanks and were on our own. Fairbanks is about the size of San Leandro and depending on if you use city limits or just the area it's the second or third largest city in Alaska. In the winter it gets to –66 degrees and in the summer as hot as 99 degrees which is the record spread between minimum and maximum for a place where people live. When we were there it was about like here in the bay area. Fairbanks is around 150 miles by road from the Artic Circle and we were there for the solstice. This means that the sun "set" around 1:00 am -- but it just stayed red, it didn't get dark -- and then rose back up around 3:00. They start a baseball game at 10:30 at night and don't need illumination. There's a "midnight sun" festival downtown that runs from noon until midnight. It's your basic small town street fair with food, crafts, kids showing off what they've learned in dance class and so forth. We like that sort of thing so it was pretty cool.
There's a surprising amount of stuff to do in Fairbanks. The university has a great museum with an amazing show on the northern lights (with real time video footage taken with a super sensitive camera) as well as a botanical garden and a musk ox farm. There's a paddle wheel riverboat that is a little touristy but a heck of a lot of fun. It's a good way to check out sled dogs -- it makes some stops along the river and they have demonstrations and as so forth. There are some hot springs, which we didn't make it to but we're told are very nice during the winter. You can sit in the hot springs and watch the northern lights without freezing. And the people are generally pretty cool -- they're more likely to be 2nd or 3rd generation Alaskans simply because newcomers are likely to be further south.
Well, if anybody got this far congratulations. The amazing thing is that I've just skimmed the surface of the trip, and that the trip just barely skimmed the surface of Alaska. We'll be going back!