It’s that time of the year when Alaska vacations are the hot deal. Last year I took a cruise up to see a few of the 100,000 glaciers in that state and never having been to Alaska I did not know what to expect and had always thought cruising was really about sunny hot days and lying by the pool, having lots to eat and drink and dancing the night away. But while this is certainly possible on an Alaska cruise if the weather cooperates, I was so impressed with the coastline and scenery all the way up the BC Coast into Alaskan water. The highlight really is the glaciers in Glacier Bay.
In constant motion, glaciers creep ahead at speeds of several feet a day, and occasional have sudden surges of as much as 300 feet. Glacier Bay National Park is home to 16 active glaciers, with snow-capped mountains, plunging fjords and freshwater rivers steaming down from the fields above. I stood watching as huge chunks of ice split off glaciers and crashed rolling into the sea. It’s absolutely thunderous as fragments ‘calve’ off and hit the water. This area is a Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to an ecosystem of protected plants and animals within this ever-changing natural landscape. Standing on the deck of the ship in the cool afternoon air, one can appreciate the absolute majesty of this untouched wilderness…and we can only pray it stays that way. On cruise tours to Alaska you can spend an entire day making the 60 mile passage, passing many glaciers while seeing all sorts of wildlife from Eagles to seals and occasionally Orca whales. It is a beauty unparalleled in all the world.
We stopped into Skagway is where the Gold Rush began; a turbulent staging point for prospectors hell-bent on the Klondike gold fields. Its a vital stop on a cruise to Alaska in 2012 more than a hundred years after the Gold Rush. I guess a cruise tour to Alaska is the new gold rush. In 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike, and more than 100,000 prospective miners poured through towns like Skagway! Between 1897 and 1898, Skagway was a violent and untamed town, described by a member of the Northwest Mounted Police as “little better than a hell on earth.” Fights, prostitutes and liquor were the life on Skagway’s streets. Now of course as we stroll the weathered boardwalks and drop in to old-time saloons or shop for gold nuggets. No sight of outlaw Soapy Smith, a notorious thief who swindled prospectors with cards, dice and the shell game. Smith was shot and killed in the “Shootout on Juneau Wharf.”The only swindling now may the overpriced trinkets in the shops, but that’s just my opinion.
Skagway was also one of the settings for Jack London’s book The Call of The Wild. While my travelling companions and I did not ride in the vintage parlor car up to the historic White Horse Pass (the prospector’s quickest route to the gold fields) we did hop into a local’s tour van. White Pass is pretty cool both aesthetically and temperature wise and the trees are about one foot tall. Makes you feel rather gigantic and makes for interesting photos.
Ketchikan was another stop, nicknamed the “Salmon Capital of the World,” this distinctive fishing village is built on stilts over the water, making it a favorite destination for an Alaska cruise. Its a town with boardwalks and weathered stairways that cling to the granite cliff shores of Tongass Narrows and I can only imagine what it’s like in the snowy winter. I strolled along the waterfront district and toured the historic and former “Red Light” district lined with gold shops, gift shops and restaurants, but didn’t see any red lights beckoning. Apparently, three indigenous Pacific Northwest Indian tribes lived and travelled extensively throughout Northern British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. Traditional Native dance performances are performed regularly at the Saxman Tribal House and come complete with drumming and singing. Ketchikan is also home to the world’s largest collection of Native American totem poles, which can be viewed at Saxman Native Village, and at various places around town – even in front of local residences. There are still carvers and their apprentices sculpting poles, canoes, paddles and masks in Saxman. Awesome.
Back on the boat, next day standing at the rail I was mesmerized by forests in a hundred shades of green, contrasted to turquoise glaciers. Imagine 7,000 foot mountain peaks and nearly vertical rock cliffs. Tracy Arm – a narrow 26 mile long fjord, 1,200 feet deep at its deepest point, and one of Alaska’s most dramatic glacier settings. Tucked away at the end of this remarkable waterway are two very active reminders of the Ice Age – the twin Sawyer Glaciers, calving icebergs into the jade-colored inland sea. The ice creaks and cracks as it thaws, and mixes with the sound of the many waterfalls along the waterway. Kittiwakes, mountain goats and seals are all over. I searched for bears along the shore and think I caught a glimpse of a brown one moving between some clumps of trees. I will at least believe I did :) They do show occasionally though. One of the great things about Alaska cruise trips is the ability to see what the past looked like. Those of us from the city don’t really get the chance so often to see the wilds.
And so on to Juneau. Nestled at the feet of snowcapped Mt. Juneau, Alaska’s stunning state capital is nicknamed “Little San Francisco” because of its narrow streets and flights of wooden steps hugging the hillside on which its multicolored houses are built. Having been in San Fransico, it’s definitely kind of a “mini me”, and a nice town to explore. You can go whale watching, pan for gold, or you can take the Mt. Roberts Tramway up 1,800 feet to see sweeping views of downtown and the Gastineau channel. Up top you can explore the mountaintop complex with its extensive trail system, Nature Center, bald eagle exhibit, and bear viewing platforms.
You can also see the enormous stuffed Kodiak Bear in the Juneau Airport just to remind you how big they actually are and a last reminder of how wild and untamed this place still is. I can heartily recommend travel to Alaska. It was wonderful.