North to Alaska
As I write this account, I am sitting in our Stateroom on-board Sapphire Princess as our vessel cruises around Glacier Bay, Alaska.
Our voyage began five days ago in Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada. Joining us are our semi- regular cruise companions; Huckleberry B’s brother Y and sister ML and their spouses, C and D. We’ve had a rollicking good time; days full of food, trivia quizzes, food, laughter and more food. Huckleberry B and I have even made it back to the gym for some long overdue cardio- vascular exertions. If we disembark without having gained any weight, it will be a good result.
Speaking of food, I will long remember our welcoming dinner when the six of us met up in Vancouver, the night before our cruise began. Huck B and I had been in town for about nine hours – and had slept for most of them – when we stumbled down to the lobby of our hotel to meet up with the others. Such a strange thing seeing familiar faces in an unfamiliar setting.
Huckleberry B had done a marvellous job making reservations at a restaurant lying a maximum of 25 meters from the front door of our hotel, called Cardero’s. Just as well she did because it was Friday night in Vancouver and the Harbour-side restaurant was packed. We strode happily past a long queue of impatient would-be diners as we were shown to the table which had been sitting in wait for us since it was reserved some six months earlier.
Not long after sitting down, we were disturbed by a loud clanging noise and the sight of some nautical flags being hoisted towards the ceiling. After this startling event occurred a second time, we asked our waiter to explain the significance. It turns out this was the method Cardero’s deploy to advise those still languishing in the queue that their table was now ready. Upon arrival, waiting diners are given a flag to carry. Once he or she espies the replica flag hanging proudly on high, it’s safe to exchange the flag for the pleasure of a seat at a table and some eating utensils.
Having not eaten for almost 24 hours – desire for sleep having trumped desire for food both during the second half of our flight and upon arrival in Vancouver – I have rarely suffered such ravenous impatience whilst waiting to place my dinner order. My affliction was so obvious that Huckleberry was compelled to apologise to her siblings, on my behalf, for my restless fidgeting. The immense New York steak which eventually landed in front of me was, therefore, hugely welcomed and soon devoured.
My stomach full and my hunger sated, I looked forward to the week ahead. The Sapphire Princess would take us ‘way up north’ along the Canadian west coast to Alaska, where we would visit the ports of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan as well as fabled Glacier Bay.
There are two reasons.
Firstly, because we heard it was well worth the visit. Secondly, and more importantly, to silence our cruise-loving critics.
Every fellow cruise lover we meet – particularly American ones – react with limitless shock and unrestrained horror when Huckleberry B and I convey that we have never traveled to Alaska. Apparently, voyaging along the Beagle Channel and the Drake Passage in South America, on the way to the Northern Peninsula of Antarctica, is insufficient. The Fjords of Norway and the Island of Spitsbergen also, evidently, fall short of the wonders of Alaska in American eyes.
And so we finally embark upon the most popular cruise route on the planet. It will be interesting to see how it compares to the majestic wonders which have enthralled us elsewhere on the globe.
The Iceman Cometh…
Our Alaskan experience got off to a truly memorable start.
On 24 September 2012, we walked across the frozen expanse of a glacier.
That morning, we docked at Juneau, which we were surprised to learn was the State Capital of Alaska. We had always assumed that it was Anchorage. What makes this piece of trivia even more remarkable is that there are only two means of accessing the Alaskan Capital; by air or by sea. Even now – in the 21 st Century – there is no road access. In Alaska, no roads lead to Juneau.
Yet when in Juneau, do as her Juneau-ites do…
Actually, I have little idea what a Juneau-ite would do other than eat salmon, hunt bear or sell tacky gifts to tourists. So we did something else instead.
And that ‘something else’ was spectacular.
Huckleberry B had arranged for Y, C and I to travel 15 minutes by helicopter, over a nearby mountain, and land on an immense glacier. Once the helicopter made its somewhat tentative landing, we unbuckled and walked on the ice. Thankfully, we had been given some ice shoes which fitted over our sneakers to permit reasonably confident walking. However, even with the these shoes, there were some spots which remained slippery and careful treading remained well-advised. I concentrated on taking short steps and even ensuring one foot was secure before lifting the other.
The view was spectacular!
Whilst we had flown over the length of the glacier, we landed at the bottom, near ‘the toes’. Looking up, we could see a crest and the remainder of the glacier rising majestically beyond. We were told that the snow which fell at the mountainous peak would freeze into ice, join the remainder of the glacier, and then begin its immensely slow slide down the mountain to the valley far below. The entire process would take over 300 years.
The ice we were standing on, in September 2012, had fallen from the sky – as snow – at the top of the mountain over 250 years ago; before Captain James Cook sailed the seven seas.
The ice beneath us still had another 50 years or so to reach the bottom, before it would finally melt and be released as water. Unless I live to beyond my centennial year, it is unlikely to occur in my lifetime.
Looking around, the glacier was mostly a grayish white color. However, there were a multitude of blue streaks which emblazoned the vista. Not far from where our helicopter landed, a small river had carved a sharp ravine in the ice. Despite the fact that the ravine was just wide enough to accommodate a falling man and deep enough to make escape very difficult (but not impossible), we were not warned to stay away. Indeed, every man with a camera had congregated around this spectacular sight.
I, however, remained a safe distance!
After 15 minutes on the glacier, we were reluctantly ushered back to the helicopter to make our return to Juneau.
On the ride back I happily reflected that Alaska had already given us an experience which Antarctica and the Norwegian Fjord had not.
The Train to White Pass
The day after Juneau, we awoke to find ourselves in the gold rush town of Skagway.
Our port information sheet informed us that the original name of the small town was, in fact, Skaguay. However, the local post office unilaterally deleted the `u’ and substituted a `w’.
The town itself was very quaint and was reminiscent of the wild western towns seen in Hollywood movies, complete with buildings with pastel coloured facades and saloons with swinging doors. During its heyday, whilst the Alaskan gold rush was at its most rushed, Skagway boasted a population upwards of 30,000 people. However, the permanent inhabitants now number several thousand at best. Temporary residents arrive during summer – otherwise known as `cruise season’ – to man the jewellery shops, but head to the Caribbean during winter. Even during the height of the tourist season, the arrival of two or three cruise ships triples the population for the day.
Incidentally, during our voyage we were tailed, for the most part, by one or two Holland America vessels. We were told that most of the Alaskan ports could accommodate as many as five ships at once, resulting in the small, isolated towns being swamped by as many as 10,000 tourists!
In any event, the six of us only spent a short period strolling along the streets of Skagway, before boarding a train to make the journey into the mountains to White Pass and the Canadian border.
Huck B and I had enjoyed a similar train journey last year at Flaam, in Norway. Once again, the view was spectacular as the train made its way slowly towards the heavens, past water falls, and through the pine forest.
On this occasion, we were tracing the path plodded by the gold rush pioneers from Skagway to the Yukon Territory. At the Canadian border, we paused whilst the engine of our train detached, chugged its way to the other end of the string of carriages, before being re-attached so that it could commence the long journey back down the mountain…
Sled Dog Training
Our afternoon in Skagway saw Huck B and I head back up the mountains surrounding the bay for a truly extraordinary experience.
During the Alaskan winter, the local sled dogs compete in long distance races across the unforgiving snow clad landscape. The most famous race is the Iditarod, which traverses a grueling 1,100 miles across Canada’s central territory to the Bering sea and back.
During the summer, the sled dogs train for their winter racing season. Today, we gave them our assistance!
The sled dogs we met were not the beautiful, cuddly grey and black Huskies we had seen on television. They were lean and hungry beasts, mostly cross-bred with greyhounds and labradors. The ideal sled dog, we were told, had the long legs and strength of a racing dog and the coat of a Husky to withstand the cold.
At first I felt a little guilty making the dogs run. After all, we are used to our adorable, but lazy, CKCs, whose ideal afternoon was a long snooze after chewing on a big bone. However, it soon became apparent that our sled dog training partners were anxious to get the training underway…and not a moment too soon was soon enough…
Our job was to provide the weight for the dogs to pull. Upon arrival in the forest training camp, Huckleberry and I were hastily ushered onto a trolley with wheels and a number of seats. No less then sixteen sled dogs, coupled in pairs, were already strapped to the front of the trolley. It was clear from their restless and incessant barking that they were impatient for the fun to begin. Even their trainer was anxious for us to sit down and put on our seat belts as quickly as possible.
Suddenly we were hurtling through the forest at breakneck speed on a narrow dirt track which weaved its way through the tall pine trees. At first, I was alarmed to find that there was nobody steering the trolley as it proceeded at terminal velocity along the barren path. Remarkably, however, the female dogs at the head of the pack knew the way. They even knew how to adopt a `race line’ by cutting the corners and running the shortest distance to each bend.
Some of the sled dogs liked to gallop. Others preferred taking quick steps. Some dashed forward facing the direction of travel. Others found it easier to pull at a forty-five degree angle. Most remained quiet during the run, but one dog, in the fourth pairing from the back, enjoyed barking at the dog next to him and to the rear as he ran. Faster! Faster!
Our four laps of the training track were a thrilling experience. At the end we laughed whilst the dogs panted and waited for the next group of training `partners’ to arrive. They wagged their tails as their trainer introduced us to them in pairs. Some wore a green badge on their collars to signify completion of the arduous Iditarod.
And, as quickly as it began, the training was over. Alaska had given us its second unique experience.
Now I’m wondering how I can implement what I have been taught at the sled dog training camp in Alaska. If only there was a way I could strap our four girls to my lawn mower and teach them to run in circles…
After a day of scenic cruising in Glacier Bay – where we saw two majestic glaciers – we arrived in drab Ketchican; the world’s salmon capital.
Our visit saw us, once more, take to the air; this time upon a sea-plane. B had arranged for us to enjoy a scenic flight over Misty Fjord, which proved to be another very enjoyable experience.
Given the noise created by the small plane, we were given headsets to wear during the flight, which allowed our amiable pilot to pump some music into our ears in between stints of commentary. His choice of songs, however, was both intriguing and somewhat daunting.
As our sea-plane bumped across the water and bashfully took to the sky, we were listening to the 80’s classic ‘Forever Young’, the lyrics of which posed the timely question: ‘Do you really want to live forever? Forever young?‘
Successfully airborne, and the outskirts of Ketchican below us, the wistful lyrics of ‘Life in a Northern Town‘ filled our ears.
Not long afterwards, as the small plane soared between two mountain peaks – whilst being buffeted by a mischievous alpine air stream – Tom Petty began wailing about the joys of ‘free falling‘!
Finally, as our sea-plane descended and skipped to a landing on the surface of Misty Fjord, as song of unknown pedigree was heard to include a chorus about being ‘surrounded by cold water‘.
As I climbed down the stairs to stand on one of the sea-plane’s floats, I asked the pilot whether the remarkably apt playlist was designed on purpose to fit the circumstances and he gave every indication of having no earthly idea what I was babbling about. Huckleberry – who had independently reached the same conclusion as I – assisted to explain. The pilot just chuckled and said it was a coincidence.
We don’t believe him. It was such a stitch-up!
Standing on the float, we were able to enjoy the fresh air of the remote fjord and marvel at the beauty of the vista. Not far from our position on the water, a waterfall loudly disgorged a mountain stream into the otherwise tranquil waters. The surface of the fjord itself was so clean that it gave the appearance of being protected by a thin film of glossy black oil. Though tempted to dive in, I held on tightly to the wing of the sea-plane to avoid being immersed in the freezing water.
Before long – and inevitably too soon – the pilot politely asked us to re-enter the plane in order to return to Ketchican. I wondered out loud what music awaited us on the return journey; ‘Living on a Prayer‘ perhaps? ‘El Condor Pasa‘ maybe?
The End of the Journey
As our voyage nears its conclusion, and a return to Vancouver, I also return to the question I posed earlier; why Alaska?
Whilst the scenery from our stateroom balcony was pleasing, it was not as dramatic as what we saw in Norway. I even wonder whether Fjordland National Park in the south western corner of New Zealand’s South Island is more spectacular. Doubtless, Antarctica remains our most memorable cruise experience and is unlikely every to be vanquished.
Thanks, however, to Huckleberry B’s careful research, Alaska did provide us with a number of new experiences, which we are unlikely to ever forget, particularly walking on a glacier and helping some very enthusiastic sled dogs with their training.
Greatly enhancing the experience was the company we kept. I am indebted to Y and C, D and M for their cheerful company and entertainment. The thought of parting at cruise-end makes my heart heavy. However our reunion in Sydney will not be too far away.