So Crystal and I, along with her parents, just recently completed a nearly two-week visit to Alaska. It was wonderful. We were on a Holland America cruise for the first week. After that, we rented a car and drove the Denali National Park for a few days. Add in a few days for stopovers on the way, and there you have the itinerary. Cruises aren't my favorite form of vacationing, but there's a lot of Alaska that is best seen from the water (the rest is best seen by air). And we thought a cruise would be a good compromise in traveling styles between ourselves and Crystal's parents, Joe and Norma.
This was the longest vacation I can remember taking in a long time and I definitely reached the point of being ready to come home. Rather than recount all the myriad details of the trip, I decided to focus on one memorable moment from each day. Before going there, I can relate some feelings about the trip as a whole.
- It was great to get "off the grid." Yes, I checked mail periodically, but only to make sure that sales leads were getting looked after. No social media, no furtive mail review when in cellular range.
- Not only was I unplugged from work, but I was also unplugged from almost all the news. No election politics. No what-did-he-say-now Trump news. I did catch a bit of news about the earthquake in Italy, but missed the entire Colin Kaepernick national anthem drama. Being unplugged from the news cycle was a great way to recharge.
- Many of my best moments came from conversations with people we met. I met lots of people whose first impulse was to tell you about themselves, where they cam from and why, and what was cool about the place where they lived.
Day One: Vancouver Arrival
An unusual day: warm… and sunny. We head down to Harbour Centre and go up to the lookout for a 360' view of the city. It's clear enough to see Mt. Baker in Washington state. Next we wander around Gastown and have dinner.
Sunset from Harbour Centre
The Steam Clock
Joe and Norma Perusing the Menu at the Revel Room
Memorable Moment: two actually. Watching the steam clock ring in the top of the hour. Also, meeting some Aussies in the bar at the Revel Room, and hearing their stories of seeing heroin of junkies downtown selling stuff and shooting up.
Day Two: Vancouver Departure
Departure day. We've been warned that there are three cruise ships leaving today, so we might want to board early. Our plan is to get our luggage on the ship, then spend some time in Stanley Park before we board for good. Once we go through the customs and immigration lines, there's a small mutiny and it looks like we're boarding and staying on the ship. Cocktails, anyone?
We're on our way!
The Photographers at Work
Memorable Moment: Sunset
Day Three: At Sea
Today we're sailing; no stops, just whatever entertainment the ship has to offer. This is a good day to fulfill my intention to go work out at the gym. Only I can't, because the gym is closed. Why? A passenger has had some kind of medical emergency, and they're using the gym as a staging area for getting the passenger off the ship via Coast Guard helicopter. Coast Guard Alaska in real life! In the end, the USCG determined they couldn't safely evacuate the passenger via helicopter, so they pulled a boat alongside and got the person out that way. Hopefully there are OK! Meanwhile, I spent 30 minutes walking up and down the nine flights of stairs on the ship.
So, we attended a cooking display with one of the ship's chefs, as well as a mixology class hosted by our BFF Walter. Crystal got some hands-on practice with a Boston shaker. Learning can be fun!
Coast Guard Helicopter Circling the Ship
Mixology Class with Walter
Memorable Moment: passenger evacuation
Day Four: Ketchikan
Our first port of call. Time to see if Verizon offers cell service here. It appears not, since my phone is asking me if I want to sign up for international data.
We decide to head out to Totem Bight State Historical Park, a few miles away. There are lots of recreated totem poles out there, and information on the symbols and the different Native Alaskan tribes that lived there. It's an Anthropology geek's heaven. We opt to catch a cab there vs. take the cruise line's shuttle bus. The driver doesn't take credit cards, but he will stop at the Wells-Fargo on the way so we can get some cash. His stories are priceless. He tells about one brother who owns the cab company, who has to ship his taxis to Seward for repair. Why? Because the other brother owns the GM dealership in town, but he and the first brother hate each other. Then there's the boy who went to explore the secret Army dump in WWII, and died a month later of radiation poisoning. It appears the Army was dumping spent nuclear waste there; eventually a dozen townspeople died. The driver shows us the property where the owner has cleared the land (mostly hillside) of trees and can't understand why no one now wants to buy the property.
After our totem tour, we head back into town and walk along Creek Street (more of a wooden sidewalk) to see where the brothels were back then and to watch the the salmon swimming upstream to spawn.
Welcome to Ketchikan!
Recreated Totem Lodge at Totem Bight State Park. The Small Entrance was for Defensive Purposes.
Memorable Moment: Our cab ride/narrated tour. This turned out to be a theme during our trip.
Day Five: Juneau
Next stop: Juneau, the state capitol. Almost immediately after you get off the ship you're walking uphill. We head up to the Capitol building to get a picture for Brian; unfortunately it's under restoration so you have to imagine the final product. Next up, we're boarding a bus to go to the harbor and take a whale-watching tour. The weather is cool and overcast, sometimes a bit foggy. But there are smoked salmon Bloody Mary's on the boat, so we'll manage. After a stop at their lodge for lunch we're off to look for whales. We eventually spot some humpbacks, as well as Harbor Seals and Bald Eagles. Plus we get to try the pickled kelp on the boat--not bad. After our whale watching tour, we're off to Mendenhall Glacier for our first up-close glacier look. Crystal and I leave Joe and Norma in the visitor center so we can take a short hike to see the salmon swimming upstream.
Thar She Blows!
After our tour, we find the local Ben Franklin's to buy a replacement suitcase for Joe and Norma's that broke. We get the parents a duffel bag, sans wheels. This turns out to be a critical error. We've worn Joe and Norma out with all the walking. so we send them back to the ship and stop in at the Red Dog Saloon for a beer and some country music. As the singer says, "you can enjoy the music, or just keep d***ing around with your phones."
A Well-Deserved Beer at the Red Dog Saloon
Memorable Moment: Our narrated tour. The driver is reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite. His stories are hilarious. His best one: the man who eventually admitted that the bitchy woman they had to go back and pick up at the glacier visitor center was his wife. "Why didn't you tell me when I asked who was missing?!," asked the driver. "Because I wanted some peace and quiet," said the man. "Best two hours of my entire vacation!"
Day 6: Skagway
Skagway, once the jumping-off point for gold miners ("sourdough's"). Today the only industry is tourism. Crystal and I take a walk around the town while we wait to start our sled dog adventure. Another narrated bus ride up the river valley and into the hills. Our driver is a former Wall Street type that one day decided to get off that train and head to Alaska. Another common theme up here. He says it was the best decision he ever made.
We arrive and the dogs are going nuts; they can't wait to run. They look like muts, slighter in build than I would have thought. These dogs are bred for speed vs. pulling a load. Noah’s talk on mushing was fascinating. 12,000 calories a day for the dogs! Sleeping on top of your sled for 90 minutes at a time, dogs sleeping on straw despite -30 to -60 weather. Noah's best record for the Iditarod was 11+ days. Not my cup of tea.
Beer and a snack at the Skagway Brewing Co (Blue Top Porter and Sitka Spruce Tip Amber) and then it's back to the ship for us.
Our Crew is Ready to Go!
Sled Dog Puppies
Memorable Moment: The sled dogs. OK, we're dog lovers so we're a bit biased. But experiencing the joy of these dogs getting to run, learning about "mushing" and handling the puppies was a great experience.
Day 7: Glacier Bay
When we wake up we're in Glacier Bay. It's a complete and total overload. Panoramas in every direction. We take a zillion pictures, hoping that the next picture will fully capture the scale of the place. Seeing glaciers was like seeing the volcano in Hawaii; it makes you feel quite small. We saw Bald Eagles, no whales but Stellar Sea Lions and Puffins. And some Harbor Seals. There are glaciers everywhere you look. The glaciers crush the ground below them as they move, resulting in "rock flour" which turns the water gray near the glaciers and a milky blue-green elsewhere, due to minerals. Iso-static expansion (aka Post-glacial rebound) means the ground is rising more than one foot a year due to retreat of the ice and removal of its weight.
One of Many Glaciers We Saw
More Glacier Scenery
Memorable Moment: Glacier Bay, hands down.
Day 8: On to Seward
Today we head west toward Seward. We're following the Alaskan coast so most of the time there are mountains in the distance. My sore throat from yesterday has blossomed into a full-on head and chest cold. So I spent a lot of time in my bed. I was happy with the gentle roll of the ship as we crossed the Gulf of Alaska; it helped me sleep. We wen to the Indonesian tea ceremony on the ship, but it turned out not to be a show-and-tell but more just another chance to eat. Back to bed.
From Juneau, I Liked This Tattoo Parlor Sign.
From Skagway: Can I Take Him Home??
Memorable Moment: Sleeping. Also seeing sperm whales spouting in the distance.
Day 9: Overland to Anchorage
The ship drops us off at Seward, and provides a bus to take us to Anchorage. As with other bus rides, this one comes with a narrative. There's marathon mountain, so named because there's now a race every year to run up the mountain-are you crazy?? Traveling along the Kenai Peninsula is beautiful. The landscape is beautiful, and we learned about what happens to people who attempt to walk in the mud flats created from the glacier deposits (think: quicksand). We also hear the story of the guy who drove his truck out at low tide and got stuck when the tide reversed. The tides change up to 38 feet so he had to call the Coast Guard for help... who said that, technically, he wasn't a vessel in distress.
Once in Anchorage, we (with some difficulty) get our gear onto a shuttle that will take us to the airport so we can pick up our rental car. Then it's over to the Fat Ptarmigan for pizza (since this place was closed on Sunday). The bus driver has some good advice about driving the Richardson Highway: "watch when the white line gets wavy.” I'm thinking the highway is going to give way to a gravel road but that turned out not to be the case. From here, it's on to Willow for a stay at a B&B. We passed through Wasilla on the way, but couldn't see Russia; maybe it was cloudy.
The Panorama From our B&B
Memorable Moment: Listening to our host as he tells us about each of the hunting trophies in his house.
Day 10: On to Denali
Up and on the road. We take a detour to Talkeetna (meaning, "where the rivers come together"). It's a bit like Boulder Creek--kind of touristy. But it's the closest spot (only 40 miles!) to Denali so it's a hopping off point for climbers. After that it's on to Denali. We're early arriving at our motel so we continue on to Denali and explore a bit. We stayed up in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights but that didn't seem to happen.
Yes, That's a Runway
Local Politics in Talkeetna
Outside Our Room at The Perch
Memorable Moment: Seeing the stars at night, including the Big Dipper and the North Star—just like the state flag.
Day 11: All Day in Denali
Denali National Park is six million acres, with one road running through it, and driving is restricted to the first fifteen miles of the road. You pretty much have to see it via a bus, unless you're striking out overland on your own. The scale of this place is incredible. You're seeing valleys that were cut by glaciers, mountains forty miles in the distance. We learn about the permafrost, a couple of inches below the soil surface. It's very spongy to walk on and creates an acidic environment that causes the trees to only grow ten or twenty feet high. The brush is about four to five feet high, meaning that brush movement is often your first clue to seeing an animal.
We got to see moose, caribou and Dall Sheep. We didn't see bears, but they are no doubt around. Our tour made two stops, each of which featured an Athabascan guide who told us about the land and their history with it.
Denali in the Distance
Nails. That's One Way to Discourage the Bears
Lots of Scrub, Stunted Trees
Fall Arrives Early in Alaska!
Memorable Moment: Being in Denali National Park. Our only wish was that we could spend a day or two in the back country.
Day 12: Return to Denali
Most days were governed with a "we have to get there right away” agenda. Today we were able to change that. We went back to Denali National Park, dropped the parents off at the Visitor Center and then spent an hour or so hiking to Horseshoe Lake. We had a chance to practice our “hey bear!” warning calls as we hiked. We got to see the trees downed by beavers and the huge dam they created at the lake. Lot of berries and wildflowers along the way. We also got to see the train arrive at the park depot.
Denali showed me that I need to be in nature, not just see it from a bus. I have to be in nature, give it time to talk to me.
Following our hike we drove through to Anchorage. We stopped for photos of Denali from the north side, also awesome.
That is a Beaver Dam
What Beavers do to Trees
Yay! I Made It!
Memorable Moment: Our hike to Horseshoe Lake. It was very rewarding to get out and spend time off the road for a bit.
Day 13: Headed Home
We're back on the "get there right away" agenda. At the airport three hours early; not even the gate agents are here yet. Worse: the bar isn’t open. I manage to get a Kodiak Brown Ale before we go. It's been a great visit, and we can't wait to get back.
That Dark Spot in the Center of the Picture is a Moose. A Big Moose.
Time to Go!
Memorable Moment: Remembering Denali.