Wednesday, August 27, 2008

North to Alaska

Friday morning. Sitting back, sleepy, looking out the window of the silver double-decker AmTrak train, watching the Puget Sound pass by in the morning haze. For a moment, we watched a bald eagle flying alongside us, clutching a large fish. I took it as a good omen of things to come.

We were on our way, Anastasia and I, from Seattle to Bellingham, where we'd board the Alaska Marine Highway's flagship ferry, the M/V Columbia. Our departure, however, was not until 6:00 p.m. So, we had a lot of time to kill in Bellingham.

Not wanting to stray too far from the ferry terminal we spent much of the day just a few blocks away in the Fairhaven neighborhood, a charming community full of old buildings, fancy boutiques, cozy cafes, and bookstores big and small. We wandered, we ate, we napped in the grass, ate again, had a beer, then made our way back down to the terminal to prepare for our departure.

The Columbia was built in 1974 by Lockheed Shipbuilding in Seattle. It is approximately 418 feet long and 85 feet wide, and is designed to carry 932 passengers and 186 vehicles. There are 103 cabins on board for those seeking a little more comfort and privacy during the long journey through the inside passage. It is the largest ship either of us had ever been on.

Upon exploring the Columbia we found it to be a lot nicer than either of us had expected. There are two comfortable forward observation lounges, a cafeteria-style snack bar, a very nice dining room which serves great breakfast and dinner options (we never ate lunch there), a cocktail lounge straight out of 1970's Reno (Anastasia made a great joke, asking if there would be "ferry-oke" in the evening), a small video game arcade, gift shop, theater lounge, and plenty of outdoor seating, including a heated solarium.

Many passengers set up tents in two designated areas aft of the ship, using duct tape to keep them from blowing into the ocean. Others simply rolled out sleeping bags under the solarium, or in the theater lounge, or in any other corner of the ship they could find. Not us. We got a cabin.

Our cabin was a modest little thing. Bunk beds, a private toilet and shower, a small vanity, a place to hang your clothes, and a window to the outside. A cozy space all our own, away from the wind and the nighttime habits of other people.

On our first evening at sea, we sat in the forward lounge, enjoying the view, eating sandwiches I made (we'd packed a soft-shell cooler with us--a move we heartily recommend), and stealthily sipping red wine from a shared Nalgene bottle. We smiled to one another. And we listened to the captain announce that someone's blue tent was about to fly away, that they might want to check on it.

There are two important things I learned on the ferry. First, the inside of the ship is not the best place to spot wildlife. Bundle up, grab the binoculars and go outside. Second, seek out those salty characters who look as though they've never touched a razor to their face. Say hello. Talk to them. They have stories to tell.

Early Sunday morning, we finally crossed into the U.S. waters of Alaska and around 7:30 a.m. we docked in the city of Ketchikan. This would be the only stop along the inside passage that allowed us enough time to actually get off and explore for a few hours. We were hungry for breakfast and anxious to walk on land after being on the ferry since Friday, so off we went in search of a diner.

After walking a while and looking over our map, we soon realized that downtown Ketchikan was about two miles away from the ferry terminal. No matter, we needed the walk. Once we reached downtown, we found that the best thing about our walk was that it enabled us to see the real Ketchikan--the one made up of fisherman, mechanics, and waitresses--real people and real businesses to serve those who actually live here. Downtown, however, was a different story.

Downtown Ketchikan, being the first stop along the Alaska Marine Highway, is a tourist trap of epic proportions. Three gargantuan cruise ships dock here, allowing thousands of people with "Alaska T-Shirt Company" plastic bags to ascend upon the many shops chomping at the bit for their money. Nearly everything here is new construction made to look "old west" and in any direction one sees at least a dozen jewelry shops. It feels like there might be more jewelry shops here than people. Worse, very few of them are locally owned and the items they sell have absolutely nothing to do with this region.

In the end, we did find a small local diner and after devouring a satisfying breakfast, we took a cab back to the ferry terminal.

The ship made two more stops that day, at the towns of Wrangell and Petersburg. The 45 available minutes of exploration time proved to be more than enough, as it was Sunday and most everything was closed here.

The rest of the day
was spent doing the things we'd been doing all weekend on the ship. We played cards, read our books, listened to the Forest Service's excellent presentations on bears, glaciers, and other wild things. I spent a lot of time outside, taking pictures, talking to people, and generally just enjoying myself as I looked in awe at everything around me. At some point I realized we weren't going somewhere anymore. We were already here. One need only to look around to know that. The mountains, the glaciers, the wildlife. All of it larger than life. I'd already spotted a male orca, a handful of humpbacks, sea otters, harbor seals, Stellar's sea lions, and groups of Dall's porpoises sending their rooster-tail spray into the air.

At 4:30 a.m. Monday, we docked in Juneau. The Juneau ferry terminal, like most others in Alaska, is miles away from anything, so the only way to get anywhere is to either walk a mile and a half to the nearest bus stop or take a cab. Not being familiar with the bus system, we opted for a cab ride to get us to the airport where the smallest plane I've ever seen was waiting to take us over to Gustavus, a tiny outpost with no bathroom outside of Glacier Bay National Park.

After landing (alive!) in Gustavus, we were shuttled over to Glacier Bay Lodge's handsome accommodations near the waters of Bartlett Cove. We both needed a nap at this point, but the room wasn't ready so we ate lunch and went for a short hike through the woods, keeping an eye out for bears all the while. Soon our room was ready and we went to sleep for a couple of hours.

We'd signed up for a "dinner and whale watching" cruise before our nap and we're glad we did. This was one of the big highlights of our trip. At 5:00 p.m. we boarded the double-decker catamaran and said, "Salmon please," when asked if we preferred the salmon or the chicken. We were in Alaska, after all. Who would ask for the chicken? The dinner was splendid, served with garlic mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, and eye-poppingly tall glasses of wine.

As we finished our meal and donned our jackets and warm hats, the excitement began. We were crossing Icy Strait and were almost to Point Adolphus, a place the lodge called "one of the most renowned whale feeding grounds in the world"--a grandiose statement, but absolutely true as we were about to find out.

I can't quantify how many humpback whales we saw that evening. Lots of them. There were at least two pods out there, including a calf or two. The calf was the most fun to watch. It was very playful, rolling around, lifting its head out to get a look at us, and breaching numerous times, seemingly for the fun of it.

For short periods the whales would disappear entirely as they dove, circled, and rose again to the surface, all together in a "bubble-net" feeding maneuver. We'd see six, seven, eight whales at a time, arching their backs gracefully into the water, a stubby dorsal fin followed by their sleek, shapely fluke, rising out of the sea and disappearing again. They'd blow water ten feet into the air and you'd hear it from hundreds of yards away. And they made noises I'd never heard before. Bizarre, emphatic exclamations about how great it is to be a whale.

We awoke early the next morning for our second cruise. This time an 8-hour tour of Glacier Bay. As per usual in Southeast Alaska, it was raining, but we tried not to let it bother us too much.

The catamaran left Bartlett Cove, moving southwest around a group of small islands, then north into Glacier Bay. On this day, we really bundled up with warm hats and multiple layers. Good thing, because the further into the bay we went, the colder it got. The rain and gray skies may have actually made this part of our trip better. The heavy rain created hundreds of small waterfalls, cascading down the steep ice-carved mountains surrounding us. The gray overcast skies made the dense blue ice of the glaciers that much more vibrant. At times, when the clouds hung low over the gray-blue glacial sea, the scene became otherworldly.

The glaciers were awe-inspiring, but what really got us excited was the wildlife. From South Marble Island to the Grand Pacific Glacier, we observed Stellar's sea lions, harbor seals, Dall's porpoises, tufted puffins, cormorants (a black, duck-like bird), and countless other species of bird.

When I heard there was a brown bear off the starboard side, my heart nearly jumped right out of my chest. The two animals I really wanted to see on this Alaska vacation were the humpback whale and the brown bear. Instantly, when I heard the words "brown bear," I ran to the other side of the boat, slipping twice and nearly falling on my rear. There he was. A big beautiful brown bear, paying us no mind, just walking along the rocky shore. At one point, the bear couldn't negotiate the rocks any further, so he lowered himself into the water, swam about ten yards, climbed out and then shook himself off like a gigantic dog. We watched him for a few more minutes as he made his way along the shore. And I couldn't stop smiling for the remainder of the day.

As it was explained to us many times during our trip, brown bears and grizzlies are really one in the same. Biologists (and most Alaskans), however, refer to the bears of the interior as grizzlies and the coastal bears as brown bears. One reason for this distinction is because the coastal bears tend to be larger than the interior "grizzly" bears. This is because coastal brown bears eat a lot of salmon and other fatty, protein-heavy foods. Kodiak bears are also of the same species, though, some biologists argue that they're a unique sub-species because they are geographically and physically isolated to Kodiak Island.

For more bear viewing, we'd considered chartering a float plane from Juneau to Camp Creek on Admiralty Island, but we ultimately decided the cost of the plane was beyond our budget for this trip. Native Tligits call this island "Kootznoowoo," meaning "Fortress of the Bear," as Admiralty Island is home to the highest concentration of brown bears in the world. Maybe next time.

We returned to Juneau that evening and checked into the Capitol Inn, a beautiful bed & breakfast located across the street from the state capitol building. After talking a while with Linda, the owner, we tossed our bags and made our way down to the waterfront for dinner. At Linda's suggestion, we found The Hangar. If you're ever in Juneau, eat at The Hangar. What was once an open-air waterfront hangar for sea planes--back when the place was owned by Alaska Coastal Airlines--is now a cool restaurant with views of Gastineau Channel and the mountains of Douglas Island. The place has a great vibe, really good food, and a lot of different beers on tap.

Wednesday morning, we joined Linda's other guests for a family style breakfast at her big dining room table. "There are a couple rules at my table," said Linda. "First, no leftovers. Everyone clears their plates. Second, no religion and no politics." We laughed and agreed those were good rules. We passed around plates of pancakes and sausage and carafes of juice and coffee. We talked about what we were all planning to do that day. A family from Seattle was heading out to Admiralty Island to watch the bears feed on the salmon runs. A couple from Brazil was headed home. This breakfast marked the end of their Alaska adventure.

We got to talking with some folks across the table and realized we all wanted to see Mendenhall Glacier and the black bears, often observed feeding at Steep Creek, a short walk from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. We decided to travel there together and we decided further that a trip to the Alaskan Brewery afterward would be a good idea.

Mendenhall Glacier
is just one of 38 huge glaciers that flow from the 1,500 square mile Juneau Icefield--North America's fifth largest accumulation of snow and ice. From the Icefield, Mendenhall Glacier is pulled by gravity, grinding its way downward 13 miles to Mendenhall Lake.

The glacier was stunning, but we had bears on the brain. We set off on the short, elevated trail above Steep Creek, a common feeding ground for Black Bears. Unfortunately, we didn't see any bears here. I asked a park ranger if he'd seen any today. "No, not a one today," he replied. "You shoulda been here yesterday. It was like an all-you-can-eat buffet!" We could easily imagine. As we'd walked around the trails we'd seen dozens of salmon carcasses strewn atop large areas of matted down grass.

After a brief stop at the Alaskan Brewery where we sampled a variety of tasty beers (I "sampled" the same beer three times), we caught a bus back to downtown Juneau where we found lunch and a lot to explore.

"You guys missed it!" Linda yelled. We'd barely walked through the front door of the bed & breakfast before she was in front of us, telling us all about the bear in her kitchen. "I was standing over here by the stove," she said quickly, motioning to the side of the kitchen furthest from the door which opens to the patio outside. "I hear something behind me. I turn around and holy shit! There he was. He's been here before you know. Well I threw my hands in the air like this"--Linda reached both arms straight up toward the ceiling--"and I yelled, 'Get outta here bear!' I tell you that bear turned right around and ran right out that door."

Anastasia and I stood open-mouthed and wide-eyed as Linda went on.

"I shut the door quickly behind him and took a moment to catch my breath. But I could see he was still out there, so I threw open the door, went out a few steps and again yelled, 'get outta here bear!' That's when he charged me." Anastasia gasped. "And a ran back inside and shut the door and I was just so pissed off at myself for not holding my ground! I knew it was probably a false charge. I shouldn't have ran. I should have asserted myself."

To me, that's the key word: "probably." It was "probably" a false charge. We'd heard many times on the way to Alaska about bear behavior and false charges. According the experts, about nine out of ten bear charges are a bluff. And with bears, you never run. You always stand your ground. Unless, that is, you've got a kitchen door right behind you and you're worried about that one out of ten chance that the bear isn't bluffing.

Linda went on to show us the dirty paw prints on the outside of the door and then the claw marks on the tree outside from previous visitations.

That night, as Anastasia and I lay in bed reading, we heard yelling outside. We immediately wondered if it was Linda and if she needed help. I opened the window to the street below and then heard a man yelling to his dog, "No! Leave the bear alone!" I pictured this poor black bear, sitting up in a nearby tree, probably scared and wondering when this damn dog was going to go away.

And that's Alaska for you. Even when in town one must be aware of bears.

The following morning, we all sat down to breakfast again, except for the family from Seattle, who had gone bear watching on Admiralty Island the day before. Nobody had heard them come in during the night and they were nowhere to be found this morning. We worried a little about them having to spend the night out with the bears, but it was hard to worry too much, because Linda had made us a mouthwatering breakfast of King Crab Benedict, with a light hollandaise sauce that had just the right amount of flavor so as not to overpower the delectable crab meat.

Not long after breakfast, the missing party came through the front door, looking chilled and happy to be back. Their float plane couldn't make it in the previous night's weather. They were rained in. Lucky for them, there was a cabin on the island where they spent the night with a couple of park rangers. A small part of me is envious of their adventure, but then I remember that I spent the night in a warm, comfortable bed and woke up to a breakfast of King Crab Benedict.

At 4:00 p.m. Thursday, we boarded the M/V Malaspina, bound for Skagway, the northernmost community of the Alaskan Panhandle. The ferry ride from Juneau to Skagway may be the most beautiful part of Alaska's Inside Passage. The surrounding mountains launch straight out of the water and seem higher than those we've already seen. Often, they are capped with snow and ice from which glaciers creep to the sea. Some glaciers end abruptly, thousands of feet up, the ice melt becoming waterfalls taller than any I've ever seen.

Skagway is a small community of only about 900 full-time residents. This population doubles in the summer months to accommodate the over 900,000 visitors to the area. It's clear this is a tourist destination right when you step off the docks. The great thing is, however, that over 100 of the buildings making up the historical district are original buildings from the days of the 1898 Klondike gold rush.

Skagway's perhaps best-known resident was a man by the name of Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith. Soapy was a big-time con man who thought of himself as a "Robin Hood" of sorts. On the surface, Soapy was the nicest gentleman one might ever meet. He stopped lynchings and even gave money to widows and "fallen doves" (ex-prostitutes). However, Soapy also lead a group of thieves who bilked rookie prospectors of their money with cards, dice, and slight-of-hand games. He also ran a telegraph office that charged five dollars for each message sent to "anywhere in the world." Problem was, there was no telegraph service in existence to or from Skagway until 1901.

Skagway's greatest attraction is the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, a narrow-gauge railroad (meaning the tracks are closer together, allowing for tighter turns and less mountain-blasting) that winds its way through the Skagway River valley and up 2,864 feet to historic White Pass, British Columbia. The train once operated all the way to Whitehorse, the capitol of Canada's Yukon Territory--word is, Canada is working to re-open their end of the route.

The train ride to White Pass was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The sun was was even shining.

Upon return, Anastasia and I had a great time exploring historic Skagway. We walked the wooden sidewalks, ducking into local art shops, and we each had a burger and a couple of beers at the Skagway Brewery.

At locally owned Skagway Art Works, we found a framed print that we both loved, called Raven Feather in Snow, depicted in the native style of the region. It's a beautiful piece, now hanging above our fireplace.

We also each purchased a silver ring, portraying the Eagle and the Raven, their beaks touching. Eagle and Raven symbology plays a major role in native Tlingit culture and folklore. One might think of them as a similar concept to what the Chinese call the Yin and Yang. The Eagle is all business, representing power, peace, and friendship. The Raven, symbolizing creation, prestige, and knowledge, is also known as a playful trickster. Additionally, Tlingit tribes are broken up into clans, the two most prominent being Eagle clan and Raven clan. Historically, Tlingit people have always arranged marriages between the Eagle and Raven clans.

When Eagle and Raven are portrayed together, their beaks touching, they are known as the Lovebirds.

On Saturday, we ferried back to Juneau and on Sunday we flew back to Seattle. On one hand, it was great to be home. We were exhausted from all of the traveling. On the other hand, it was hard to leave Alaska. We'd seen so much, but had also just scratched the surface.

We'll be back.

For all of our Alaska photos CLICK HERE.

1 comment:

Karen said...

sounds wonderful!