Alaska Cruise, July 2014
This trip was one that we had arranged so that the whole family (two children and four grandchildren) could be together with Molly and me for a cruise from Anchorage to Vancouver on board the Crown Princess. Cyndi, Christopher and Sammy had traveled to Fairbanks on July 5 and had slowly driven to Anchorage where we all met on Thursday (July 10) when the rest of the family arrived from Cincinnati.
We met everyone at the Glacier Brewpub in downtown Anchorage, just two blocks from our hotel. It was a great reunion and a good meal (in busy and noisy surroundings) but those who had traveled from Cincinnati were soon beginning to lag and Hayley actually left for bed before we finished our meal. Nevertheless it was a good start to the vacation and one of many meals together over the next ten days. It was about 10:30 (and still light) as we walked back to the hotel.
On Friday (the day before the cruise started), the Shepard family spent some time in Anchorage and then went out of town to spend the night in sight of Mt McKinley (which they DID see) before driving back to board the ship on Saturday). Meanwhile we were picked up by Christopher, Cyndi and Sammy at 10:15 for our trip to a glacier and the Alaska Conservation Park.
It was about an hour’s drive south from Anchorage to the Begitch-Boggs Visitor Center during which we experienced a few sprinkles of rain on a very misty and overcast morning. However, as we arrived at the Center, it started to rain in earnest and also became extremely windy. We quickly ran to the shelter of the visitor center from where we got a great view of a beautiful blue iceberg that had flowed downstream from the Porter Glacier that we had come to visit. The rain had now picked up considerably and was coming down essentially horizontally – but we still decided to take the 1.6 mile round trip path to the glacier.
The path was more or less level and well paved with gravel so it was a relatively easy walk and, on a nicer day, would have been extremely pretty. As it was, we followed a raging torrent of a glacial river and walked in a torrential downpour until the path ended in sight of the glacier. Christopher, Cyndi and Samantha tried to find a path to get to the actual glacier and touch some ice or snow, but were thwarted by several small streams and then the river itself. Despite that, we had a great view of the glacier that actually spans the river and could clearly see many deep fissures – about which there had been a number of warnings along the path. Clearly one of these had resulted in some separation to form the iceberg we had seen earlier.
The walk back was into the wind and rain so we arrived at the gift shop/cafeteria soaked thoroughly. The lady in the gift shop helped Cyndi and Sammy to get some clothes dried (and loaned substitutes) while we all ate a very good lunch in the cafeteria. When we were all more or less dried out we drove about ten minutes back towards Anchorage to the Alaska Conservation Center. Here we saw many native animals (elk, muskoxen, bear, bald eagle, moose, and wood bison among others) which were being held to preserve from extinction and/or increase their population and, in fact, a herd of wood bison were due for release back to the wild sometime in 2015.
By now the rain had more or less stopped and we had a very pleasant 1 ½ hours strolling through the various areas near the wild animals before starting our trip back to Anchorage. We arrived back about 6pm to a very pleasant evening with temperatures near 70F and ended our day with a good together.
Saturday was a much brighter morning as Christopher, Cyndi and Sammy left their B&B and picked us up at the hotel just before 10am. They had sent most of their luggage ahead to the ship so there was plenty of room in the trunk for our three bags.
We drove down the same inlet that we had traveled yesterday and arrived at the tunnel just north of Whittier at 11:30. This is a single road and rail track tunnel which opens for road traffic for twenty minutes in each hour in each direction, so missing a window can cause a one hour delay to the journey. However we made it through the small and general rough-hewn tunnel at the prescribed 25 mph and emerged to the town of Whittier well before noon.
Cyndi and Christopher had purchased tickets for the Porter Glacier cruise (on a small catamaran) as an anniversary gift for us and it turned out to be a wonderful way to spend a (belated) anniversary afternoon.
The cruise lasted 3 ¾ hours during which we saw about six glaciers, dozens of spectacular waterfalls, and tremendous views of mountain peaks, most of which were still snow covered. The boat stopped at two of the glaciers to give us a close-up view of the magnificent blue walls and we were lucky to see several examples of calving of the ice. Even though it appeared that relatively small chunks were being released, the cracking and falling process sounded like large claps of thunder. The captain said we were about 200 to 300 yards from the shear faces but it felt as though we could almost reach out and touch the packed ice. Certainly when he pulled within 200 feet of a massive waterfall, those of us standing on the forward deck received a very refreshing (!) cold shower.
We had lunch on board (the set meal was fish and chips – although these were American chips!) but alternatives were available. The food was certainly adequate and the service and commentary by the crew were excellent. There was a US Forestry Ranger on board to offer insight into the glaciers and surrounding lands as well as to point out sea life and birds along the route. She also provided children under 15 with a chance to become a Junior Ranger by completing four aspects of a quiz book – and, of course, Sammy took to this with relish and was duly given her badge at the end of the journey.
The weather stayed beautiful for the entire afternoon and it was even nicer (clear blue skies) as we settled on the Crown Princess for our departure from Whittier. Following the requisite life jacket drill, Cyndi, Christopher and Sammy joined us for dinner (very good) and then Molly and I joined Chris and Elizabeth for a late night drink.
It was almost 9:30 before Molly and I got up on Sunday morning and went for breakfast in the buffet. This was to be a day of sailing so there were no shore excursions scheduled but later in the afternoon we were anticipating getting close to our first glacier on the large ship.
We were sailing into Yakutat Bay in the mid-afternoon and sailed right alongside and up to two beautiful glaciers where once again there was some calving and lots of small “icebergs” in the surrounding waters. The whole region was stunningly beautiful with glaciers, icebergs, snow-packed mountains and blue water in all views. Unfortunately a leak developed in our cabin and I spent a good deal of time making vain attempts to get it fixed, with communication with the mostly non-English speaking staff resulting only in a very noisy fan being placed in the room to dry out the carpet.
We did, however, have a pleasant dinner with the whole family on our this first formal night and of course we had family portraits professionally taken – the whole family and each “sub-group”.
Monday was another day of up-close glacier viewing, this time in Glacier Bay.
Once again the scenery (and the weather) were magnificent but I missed some of the sights while “negotiating” with the Princess staff on really fixing the leak in the cabin.
When we awoke on Tuesday we were already docked in Skagway, together with three other huge cruise ships.
Molly and I took a shuttle ride into the town (about a mile), strolled around the attractive 1890s downtown (the Gold Rush here was at that time) and then walked back to the ship. I had an appointment with the Customer Service representative at noon to discuss a possible move of cabins,so I canceled my shore excursion, although in truth I was somewhat reluctant to go too far from the ship with continuing stomach issues.
So, I spent the rest of the day doing some computer work, had a little lunch and – for one reason or another – climbed the stairs between decks 5 and 15 several times! I am claiming that as a substitute for my daily walk.
Molly had enjoyed the White Pass railway journey (which we knew was spectacular as we had both taken it on a previous Alaska cruise) and returned to the ship about 7:30pm. Meanwhile arrangements had been made for us to move cabins and have our contents transferred while we were at dinner. Unfortunately – and for reasons that no-one has been prepared to discuss or explain – this transfer did not occur so we had to postpone it until the next morning.
I had an appointment with the doctor on Wednesday morning (we were now in Juneau, the State Capital) at which she said that she saw no reason to visit a local hospital. I walked into town, meeting with all members of the family who were doing their own shore excursions ranging from whale watching to dog sled riding. Molly enjoyed her visit to the Glacier and on a cable car ride close to the ship and we were all back on board and set sail soon after 4pm.
The ten of us had dinner together once again and, it being another formal night, everyone (at least at our table) was in their finery, with Sammy sporting another beautiful outfit and Hayley wearing one of her mother’s formal dresses. It was an excellent dinner and a very enjoyable time before most of us retired around 10:30. We believe Elizabeth and Chris were headed to the casino!
On Thursday when we docked in Ketchikan, each family had different shore activities planned so we didn’t see Elizabeth, Chris, Christopher and Cyndi until an “all adult” dinner and we didn’t see our grandchildren all day. However, the tour that Molly and I took was 4 ½ hours on the water in the passages and fjords mostly to the east of the island on which Ketchikan stands.
We took a high speed catamaran to the Misty Fjords region of the Tongass National Forest. The Misty Fjords area is now designated a National Monument within the wilderness area and so is completely uninhabited and unspoiled. The scenery was spectacular and both Molly and I commented how similar it was to that we had experienced during our Russian river cruise just last month. The only significant difference was the few snow-capped mountain peaks and the generally more mountainous landscape here versus Russia, but the type and density of the forest was strikingly similar.
The ride to the Misty Fjord was a 110 mile round trip and was billed as a “luxury” cruise. Indeed the two deck seating was very spacious and comfortable and we were served three small but very enjoyable snacks during the trip. In addition, the guide was very good, pointing out places and animals of interest (we saw a whale, several seals and a number of bald eagles) as well as giving us a good overall history of the region and the life in and around Ketchikan.
The whole National Park area is a rain forest and generally receives about 165 inches of rain per year. However, both the on board guide and a local Native American artist who talked about his life in this area were concerned about the lack of rainfall this year and its potential impact on the forest, the salmon spawning and other aspects key to the local ecology. So, while we as tourists were thrilled to have a clear day to enjoy the scenery, the locals were less enthusiastic for the area that they want to thrive and continue in its current form. As the guide put it so well, the whole natural state is so dependent on its parts in order to be preserved, citing as just one example the fact that salmon returning to their spawning grounds depend on a flow of fresh water (from rainfall or snow melt) within the salt water basin to find their “home”.
The Native American (probably in his late forties) compared his early years in a small village to the life that he now leads and how dramatically things have changed just in his generation. The implication was that the lifestyle that perhaps had existed for centuries or even millennia (there is evidence of human habitation here dating back 10,000 years) had almost disappeared within about 50 years, which is quite a sobering revelation. He was not critical of the forces of change (“Westernization”) nor of the lifestyle he now enjoyed but was rather sanguine and conveyed a sense of inevitability, but at the same time it was clear that he was proud of his ancestry and felt a need to protect its history – even if his only contribution was to talk about it (to us) and to record it in his new life as an artist. I believe we all sense some nostalgia for the life we knew as kids and generally regard it with a certain fondness – but his descriptions seemed to go beyond that and (while he did not put it this way) it was akin to that of the naturalist on board as she spoke of the many endangered species of animals in Alaska.
The Misty Fjord itself (a three thousand foot gorge cut by millenia of glacier movement) was certainly a magnificent sight but was not as impressive as I had expected and not on a par with those we have seen in Norway. However, the weather was great (for the tourist!), the scenery in general was spectacular and the cruise ship, its personnel and the service on board were first class, making for a very enjoyable and relaxing day out.
We sailed from Ketchikan around 6pm and enjoyed a “grown-ups” dinner while the grandchildren entertained themselves with food and movies in their cabin.
Friday was another “at sea” day, and the final full day of the cruise, so we began the process of packing, form-filling and “winding down” on our final leg to Vancouver. We were invited to a very interesting and informative tour of the bridge during which we saw first-hand the technology that makes possible the efficient movement of this small floating city (about 4500 people with passengers and crew). We learned a number of interesting facts about the navigation and propulsion system on board but it was the enormous numbers (people, fuel, supplies and waste product) supported that were staggering. As just one example, 60 tons of desalinated water are produced on board every hour, which is about equal to that used every hour the ship is at sea.
The rest of our day was one of relaxation before we enjoyed our final family dinner on board and prepared for our early morning arrival in Vancouver. Today (fortunately for us) was the only one where there was a lot of rain since the cruise started and there was a few hour period of relatively rough seas. In fact, the outer promenade deck, which I had walked around about two dozen times in the past week, was closed for a time as it was considered too dangerous for passengers to be out. However, things calmed down towards evening as we headed south and no-one suffered any ill-effects.
Yesterday (Saturday) was a relatively early start as we had to vacate our cabins by eight and disembark around ten. So, by mid-morning our cruise together as a family was over but the vacation was not quite ended for any of us. Christopher, Cyndi and Samantha picked up a rental car and headed to Vancouver Island by ferry where they were to stay overnight with a visit to Butchart Gardens being the main attraction. Elizabeth and family were to stay in Vancouver for two more nights before flying home on Monday and Molly and I also stayed in the city trip home on Tuesday.