North to Alaska: Post Cruise Trip Day 9

Seward

We woke to the gift of mountain peaks soaring above low clouds with more clouds stretching across the sky. My heart longed for blue sky to enjoy the majestic mountains I hoped to see on our excursion.

Our six hour tour to Kanai fjords National and glacier was through Major Marine tours and we boarded at the small boat harbor through the Harbor 360 Hotel late morning.

The low clouds began to lift as we departed, revealing other glaciers nestled in the valleys.

We cruised past Fox Island and saw a pod of Orcas with at least two pair of mamas and calves and one large male swimming about in Resurrection Bay. We spotted a few spouts and lots of iconic dorsal fins.

As we entered Aialik Bay a couple of rafts of resting sea otters floated by like a tiny fleet of canoes. Dozens of them. They looked small from the boat but the Alaskan sea otter males actually reaches about 120 lbs.

We continued into Aialik Bay and clearing clouds gifted us with blue skies for incredible views and scenery throughout the afternoon.

I was struck by how beautiful the water looked and how warm tropical waters and cold arctic waters can have the same blue-green quality.

Aialik glacier stunned us with its incredible deep blue and white colors. The occasional sight and sound of ice calving broke the stillness, and sea lions slugged about on the glacier ice.

I could have stayed there all day.

On our return trip we saw plenty more sea lions slugging about on the rocks of No Name Island along with lots of gulls, a few cormorants, and a bald eagle sighting on the other side of the bay.

Still no picture of our bear, but for our final gift of the day we saw the last puffin of the season floating about in the water. Not sure why he hadn’t left yet, but fun seeing him. I didn’t know what a puffin was until we saw the mural on the side of the hotel.

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North to Alaska: Cruise / Post Cruise Trip Day 8

Seward

Nothing like waking up at 5 Am to the rumble of the crane and the beep-beep-beep of vehicles backing up as workers on the busy pier off loaded luggage and on loaded supplies. A beautiful sunrise over the mountains greeted us on our balcony. We had hoped to linger on the ship since our check in at the Seward Military Resort wasn’t until 3 pm, but the ship was preparing to embark the passengers for the cruise back south to Vancouver and we were rushed off by 730 am.

As we walked off the ship, we started the second half of our adventure—Alaska on our own. We hoped the next part would be good, but I was a bit apprehensive, not knowing what to expect. Because we had the Kenai Fjords excursion planned for the next day, we would stay in Seward for three days, leaving on the last train of the season to Anchorage Sunday evening.

Since the Seward Military Resort was about a mile and a half from the cruise ship terminal and two miles from the downtown area, we would rely on the Seward City Tours shuttle, a free shuttle running through town. Thankfully, a couple were running for the cruise ship that morning and we were able to load our luggage on the second one to leave. I had called the military resort before we left for the cruise to see if there was a chance to check in early. Bobby, the extremely helpful desk clerk told me if the rooms were ready, we could. They were and she had us quickly checked in. The resort had laundry facilities for us to use, much like the military campgrounds we frequent. We spent the morning doing our laundry so we would have clean clothes for the next week.

The military resort rooms were furnished with microwaves, small coffee pots, and refrigerators. Around lunch time we walked the half mile to Safeway to pick up something for lunch and breakfast for the next two mornings. Lunch at Safeway had a wonderful secret to know. In the back, the store had a lunch counter with an amazing deal of chicken (tenders, bbq, sweet and sour, or sesame) and fries, along with a choice of different slaws. The gal behind the counter loaded a to go container our choice of each. At the time we were there, it was only $8! The cheapest we’d eat our entire time in Alaska.

After the laundry was folded and put away and lunches eaten, we took the 2 pm shuttle downtown. Seward lies on Resurrection Bay with 5000 ft mountains surrounding it.

We walked down to the water front, past the Alaskan SeaLife Center and along the start of the Iditarod Historic Trail.

As we walked harbor seals occasionally treated us by poking their little heads up out of the water. One even came up with a fish. But they were shy and made it hard to get a picture.  

For dinner we stopped at the Alaska Seafood Grill near the small boat harbor and had their rockfish basket and seafood chowder. I was discovering that the hierarchy of fish (by price) is rockfish, cod, salmon, halibut.

I wanted to get a picture with the polar bear in the visitor center but Jon wasn’t with me when I found it. We still had two more days to do so. But I did get a picture of this little guy.

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North to Alaska: Cruise Day 7

Hubbard Glacier

On our last full day at sea we cruised into Disenchantment Bay on our way to Hubbard Glacier.

The rumbling and cracking of ice grinding against rock as the glacier slowly moved, settled, and pushed forward sounded like distant thunder. When we watched patiently, we’d be treated to seeing ice calve off the glacier into the ocean. If we waited to look until we heard the roar, we’d only see the enormous splash as the ice fell into the water.

I loved the glow of the blue green blocks of ice as they floated by. As the ship moved through the water, ripples in the cold grey waters propagated across the ba . When we pushed into the stretch of smaller chunks of ice, I heard their clapping hands, a song of ice, climbing to a crescendo. They sounded like the wind-chimes we have in our backyard. Or do wind-chimes sound like ice singing? 

Our traveling companions took the boat excursion to get an up-close look at Hubbard Glacier. Seeing them near the glacier gave a perspective on how big it was.

Disenchantment Bay seemed quite enchanting with waterfalls cascading down green slopes and white capped mountains peeking out from the clouds.

We found no bears at Hubbard Glacier, however, we saw Mt Fairweather from our balcony as we cruised along the Alaskan coast. The mountain soared above the clouds to 15,266 feet and lay approximately 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean on the border of Alaska and British Columbia.

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North to Alaska: Cruise Day 6

Skagway

Rain. Cold. Wind. 

Not the best tourist day, but definitely an Alaskan day.

What is it about gold that possesses a man’s heart? To what lengths will a person go to strike it rich? Near the turn of the nineteenth century, when economic depression caused many to succumb to the dream of “easy” rich gold, a hundred thousand people from all over North America and even from other parts of the world headed north to Alaska between 1896 and 1899. It became known as the Klondike Gold Rush.

Skagway, the homestead of a former steamboat captain named William Moore, swelled to ten thousand when prospectors tried to make their way to Dawson City by means of White Pass Trail. Today, the small town with only 900 year-round residents mostly shuts down when summer businesses close up, pack up, and leave for the season.

As we watched a film at the Skagway White Pass Railway station, I was delighted to learn about the lives of several women. History often only portrays us in dance halls and brothels. But we are so much more and during the Klondike Gold Rush women held occupations of miners, business women, journalists, shopkeepers, cooks, nuns, entertainers, teachers, physicians, and hotel proprietors. Some, like Harriet Pullen, made a living transporting goods with her horse team and cooked and baked up pies for hungry prospectors. She eventually owned her own dairy farm and the Pullen House, a fancy hotel in Skagway. Mollie Brackett’s love of photography led her to documenting many aspects of the gold rush in film. These are just two of the many who struck it rich their own way during the time of gold fever.

Interestingly enough, the cruise industry has become the new “gold rush” for Skagway. Tens of thousands descend on the town every summer via cruise ships. The founder of the town, Skagway, dreamt of an enduring town on Taiya Inlet at the end of Lynn Canal and certainly his dream lives on in the new millinium.

In the morning, walked around soggy Skagway and stumbled upon Klondike Doughboy. They served up Alaskan Fry Bread, made fresh when ordered. The shop was empty when we arrived and we had the pleasure of enjoying the first fry bread of the day.

Around the corner we stoped at Corrington’s Alaskan Ivory Museum & Gift Shop where we chatted with a couple of the women working behind the counter. My husband was quite intrigued about the idea of coming to Alaska to work for the summer and I almost expected him to ask for a job application. We soon discovered that many enjoy the Alaskan beauty by working summers then leave when the season is over.

Unlike some of the other Alaskan towns, Skagway can be reached by vehicle as well as ships and ferries. Klondike Highway 2 connects the town to the Alaskan Highway. Once the railway also connected Skagway to the outside world, but now it’s used for tourism.

Despite the rain, or maybe in spite of, we took the White Pass Rail excursion. With the unfavorable weather, I mostly had the outside landing to myself. I listened to rhythmic clack of the train over tracks, creating echoes of times past. Swaying cars cars carried us past mountain tops shrouded in grey clouds and rain—what locals call liquid, albeit cold, sunshine. We rode along the river’s roaring water tumbling down rocky crags and were gifted with glimpses of waterfalls between the pines and rocks. Several times we were encompassed in the inky darkness of tunnels and the air grew colder and colder as we climbed ever upward.

We found our Skagway bear at the train shoppe.

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North to Alaska: Cruise Day 5

Juneau

We arrived with several other cruise ships, which—I’ve come to find out—means crowded streets, shops, and restaurants, as well as clogged cell towers. I’m amazed by the size of these floating cities and how many of them pull into these tiny port cities/towns and descend upon them for a day. All summer long. Since it’s late in the season, we’ll soon discover how many of the small towns close down and clear out for the winter.

Juneau feels and looks more like what I expected Alaska to be. It’s definitely getting cooler and cloudier.

I’m impressed how this city nestles in the shadow of looming mountains and hugs the waterways. As Alaska’s capital, it’s interesting to note that the only access into and out of the city is by plane and boat. No road access. I’m sure it gives the state government an appreciation for the challenges many of its residents face.

We signed up for one of the ship’s excursions: the Mendenhall Glacier and Whale Photo Safari with Gastineau Guiding Company with tour guide Claire.

Claire told us about the local vegetation as we walked the Trail of Time through the Tongass National Rainforest. Along the way, Claire pointed out the various vegetation (lichens, mosses, mushrooms, trees like spruces, hemlock, alder, willow, and bushes like squash berry and devils club). We encountered no bear or any other animal encounters but Claire mentioned that spring mama bear had used an area tucked between tourist walkways as a napping place for her and her cub. Apparently she felt it a safe place for her young one.

The Trail of Time has time markers (hence the name) to indicate the location of Mendenhall Glacier in years past, giving us a sense of glacier melt. The rock, over a mile from the glacier, says “ice limit 1926”.

We could feel the cold air flowing off Mendenhall Glacier along the trail as we approached—even before we could see it. We finished our hike at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center with a view of the glacier and Mendenhall Lake (which did not exist before 1910). The glacier has retreated approximately 2 1/2 miles in recent centuries.

We met up with Captain Mitch at a marina on Auke Bay. His safari vessel is specifically designed for maximum wildlife photo encounters. The sheltered cabin has large panel windows that keep photographers dry enroute and open for unrestricted views when idling.

As we boarded the vessel, we saw lots of gulls and bald eagles fighting over the dead salmon washed up on the shore. The sight gives a different perspective of the majestic eagle. We cruised Auke Bay, Stephens Passage, and Favorite Channel and were taken to two whale encounter locations. At the first stop we met Captain Hook, a lone transient Orca, named because of his hooked dorsal fin.

Then we found the pod of humpbacks—about a half dozen—including calves with their mamas. We saw lots and lots of spouts and tail fins as they feasted on anchovies, herring, sand lance, and sardines in the cold waters. They needed to fatten up before their winter migration to warmer waters in the lower latitudes. During migration and calving season they don’t eat but rely on their fat stores for energy. (For more information on the humpback whale visit the International Whaling Commission).

Captain Mitch said humpback whales eat about 20 hours a day during the feeding season and gain about 12 pounds a day. 12 pounds! A day! It’s kinda how I feel on this cruise with the all you can eat buffet and desserts.

On the way back to the marina we paused near an ocean buoy where some sea lions were taking an afternoon nap.

On the bus ride back to the ship we asked Claire for a recommendation for lunch and she pointed us to Alaska Fish & Chips Company located at the Flight Deck near the cruise terminal. We sat outside on the patio; I had the Seafood Chowder and the husband had a halibut sandwich—which we both thoroughly enjoyed.

Our traveling companions took a ride on the nearby Goldbelt Tram up the mountainside, but with the low clouds and visibility, we opted not to do so. Maybe next time.

We found our Juneau bear in one of the gift shops.

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