Sunday, August 5, 2018

No road leads to Juneau

Where the river is windin' big nuggets they're findin'
North to Alaska, go north, the rush is on.

Our trip to Alaska was wonderful ...

And ... a little disappointing.

Everything came together without a hitch. Months of planning, anticipation, and anxiety finally found the seven of us safely in Seattle on July 21.

Chelsea and Robert had a dawn flight and arrived before Neil and I had even left home. Kandace, Ryland, and Chris had landed before we boarded.

We had a 4 pm flight that landed at 10 pm, but we got 3 hours back. We hailed our first Uber ride ever to the hotel. Wait, do you hail an Uber? Or summon one?

At the hotel we had time to say hello to the kids - the ones staying there at least - have a snack, and hit the sack. After a nice breakfast, we shared another Uber ride with Kandace and crew to Pier 66.

Chelsea and Rob lodged elsewhere and we didn’t see them until we were on board.

We cruised on the Norwegian Pearl. We enjoyed our Norwegian cruise to Hawaii in 2014 on the Pride of America. The ships are almost twins, except the Pearl has a casino. We set sail on Sunday afternoon, in balmy weather.

Monday was a sea day. It was also overcast, windy, and hazy. There wasn’t much scenery to distract us, so we spent time exploring the ship, relaxing, and reading. Chris and I played bingo. We didn’t win. Neil and I went to a show in the theater about Alaska. The kids sampled the drinks menu.

On Tuesday we docked in Juneau. We had sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s. All the kids went whale watching.

Neil and I took the Mendenhall Glacier Adventure Hike. We took a minibus ride to the trailhead. Our guide, Mathew, told interesting stories about Juneau.

There are no roads to Juneau. You can only get there by air or sea. Unless you are born there, like Mathew, who said that he arrived by canal. Hey, he said it. The biggest industry in Alaska is government, followed by tourism.

The hike was in the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest, and while it boasted some nice views of the glacier, we weren’t really close to it. I suppose I should have known we wouldn’t be hiking on ice or even getting close enough to touch any, but I didn’t expect to be sweating.

I struggled a bit with the hike, which had some fairly steep climbs. I may have been the slowest hiker, but I was also probably the oldest. Two kids on the hike scrambled up like mountain goats. I stopped to rest a few times. Oh well. You can only do what you can do. And I did it, it just took a little longer.

It was fun. The Tongass covers most of southeast Alaska, surrounding the Inside Passage. We saw no bears. We did see eagles, a baby porcupine, salmon in the streams, a perfect mirror lake. We had plenty of water and granola bars. But we could have been anywhere. It didn’t feel like we were in Alaska. I’m not sure exactly how I thought Alaska would feel. Colder? Wilder? More glacial? Less rainforesty?

Back in town, we had the option to get off the bus, but after the hike, a mile walk back to the ship wasn’t appealing. Even the souvenir shops weren’t enough to tempt me. And I have a rule about not paying for any meals when I’m on a cruise with 24/7 dining included.

Besides, there really wasn’t a lot of time to spare, although the kids don’t have the same rule, and Chelsea and Rob stopped for crab legs after their whale-sighting excursion.

Wednesday found us in Skagway, a tiny burb about 1/10 the size of Juneau. Skagway is, however, accessible by rail. Along with Kandace, Ryland, and Chris, we took a bus tour into Canada’s Yukon Territory via a slice of British Columbia. We made numerous brief stops at scenic outposts, winding our way to Caribou Crossing and its namesake, Car Cross.

When we assembled for the excursion, our guide, Morgan, said there was good news and bad news. The good news was we had another bright, clear, dry, warm summer day. The bad news was, the sled dog ride part of our excursion was cancelled. It was too hot for the furry huskies to exert themselves. Instead we got to see a few bored, disinterested puppies.

After lunch (included) we went on to Emerald Lake, then headed back toward Alaska and the White Cross Railroad. I slept on the bus. We boarded the train for the last 30 miles or so, a two hour ride with some pretty scenery and points of interest as pointed out by a train tour guide.

We decided to walk back to the ship from the train station. It was hot, Ryland was dragging, so we bypassed the gift shops and made a beeline for the boat, followed by a pre-dinner soak in one of the hot tubs. That was the only time my swimsuit saw daylight on the trip.

On Thursday - could it possibly already be Thursday? - we toured Glacier Bay National Park. The only way to Glacier Bay is by sea. It is nonetheless a bonafide National Park, one of 10 in Alaska. There’s a ranger station there, and at 8 am, 3 rangers boarded the cruise liner to talk us through the history and wonders of the park.

I would have to describe the views as impressive, remarkable, spectacular even, yet somehow not breathtaking. The first time I saw a glacier, in the Canadian Rockies, when I was 20, I was shocked by how gray and dirty it looked. My vision had been of majestic pristine giant icicles, frozen cloudless rivers. Glaciers I’ve seen look more like snow. In Manhattan. A few days after the snow fell.

The geology of glaciers is amazing, thought-provoking, and troubling, thanks to changes in earth’s atmosphere that are causing our glaciers to disappear. Seeing the glaciers calving is both wondrous and ominous. I’m a fatalist though. While I’m not happy about damage caused by humankind’s carbon footprint, I think cosmic evolution is inevitable. If the thunder don’t get us then the lightning will.

OK, enough with the deep thoughts, this is summer vacation. The rangers departed by mid-afternoon. The ship sailed on south to our next port, Ketchikan, where we woke up on Friday.

I can’t think of much to say about Ketchikan. We were only in port for 7 hours or so. As a group of 7, we strolled into town and wandered in and out of the shops. I bought a couple of small prints from an Alaskan artist who signed them for me. Chelsea bought one too, Kandace bought some sparkly glass earrings.

We were back on board for lunch and a 1 pm departure for the long haul to our final port, Victoria, on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia. We said goodbye to Alaska before I felt like I’d really absorbed it, left any trace of my soul there. Of course, in a remote state approximately as large as 1/3 of the entire lower 48, you can’t hope to do more than scratch the surface on a weeklong cruise. And that’s what we did along the south-easternmost sliver of number 49.

We pulled in to Victoria about 6 pm on Saturday. Again we had all of 6 hours or so to spend there. Kandace and Ryland stayed on board, the rest of us headed to Butchart Gardens, a glorious oasis of flowers conceived and seeded more than 100 years ago on the grounds of a played out limestone quarry.

Among the madding crowd we wended our way through a fantastic fiesta of flora, a glorious explosion of colors and scents, and a little fauna in the shape of a small rabbit. Far too quickly twilight fell. At dark there was a light show and fireworks display, after which we rushed back to our busses to return to the Pearl. If it’s Saturday, this must be Canada.

And if it’s Sunday, it’s debarkation day back in Seattle.

We said goodbye to my family at breakfast, our last one in my favorite outdoor buffet spot at the bow of the ship. It amazes me how the ship’s crew serves breakfast, then moves right on to lunch, without a pause, just like every other day, except in this day they’d be feeding a whole new crowd of cruisers. Staterooms are turned over in a small matter of hours, and by that night Dennis, our cabin staffer, was turning down beds for our replacements.

This goes on nonstop throughout May through September, when the ships move to balmier climbs for the winter trade, rinse and repeat.

Everyone I know who has cruised to Alaska has loved it. I liked it. Would I do it again? Probably not, although I’d definitely take another cruise to Hawaii one day. If I go back to Alaska though, I’ll do it differently. I might fly there directly and spend time at a national park or two. I have some interest in seeing the southwestern coast, which might be by boat, but I’d try to avoid the long sea days if I could.

All in all, I’m happy I went, happier still that my kids were able to go, happiest of all that everyone had fun and we got to spend a very rare week with each other. It doesn’t get much more perfect than that.

My absolute favorite photo from the trip
Neil, me, Ryland, Chris, Kandace, Chelsea, Robert

Photos in this post taken by me, Neil, Kandace, Chris, Robert,
a tour guide and a kind stranger.

Up next: the red-eye home, the books I read, and our first week back.

North to Alaska, go north, the rush is on
North to Alaska, go north, the rush is on

Big Sam left Seattle in the year of '92
With George Pratt his partner and brother Billy too
They crossed the Yukon river and they found the bonanza gold
Below that old white mountain, just a little southeast of Nome

Sam crossed the Majestic mountains to the valleys far below
He talked to his team of huskies as he mushed on through the snow
With the northen lights a-runnin' wild, in the land of the midnight sun
Yes Sam McCord was a mighty man in the year of '91

Where the river is windin' big nuggets they're findin'
North to Alaska, go north, the rush is on
North to Alaska, go north, the rush is on

George turns to Sam with his gold in his hand
Said Sam you're lookin' at a lonely lonely man
I'd trade all the gold that's buried in this land
For one small band of gold to place on sweet little Jenny's hand

'Cause a man needs a woman to love him all the time
Remember Sam a true love is so hard to find
I'd build for my Jenny a honeymoon home
Below that old white mountain, just a little southeast of Nome

Where the river is windin' big nuggets they're findin'
North to Alaska, go north, the rush is on
North to Alaska, go north, the rush is on.

(Mike Phillips © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

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