The Inside Passage
Day 15 - "Ernani couldn't find his brownie and looked greedily at mine" It was drizzling when we left the hotel for a walk that morning. I had hot cakes and tea at Cafè City, one of the few places serving breakfast we found at Franklin Street. Juneau is Alaska's capital, but it is a small city, looking closer to the image of an Alaskan city for me. It has no access by road with the rest of the state - you only get there by air or sea, like most of the cities in the Inside Passage. Most of its inhabitants are against the idea of building a road to link it to the rest of the state.
We went to Alaska State Museum, with displays about Alaska's native tribes and some of the state's history. It was a nice surprise to find an exposition of Bradford Washburn's black & white photographs of the Mt. McKinley area.
From the top of the State Office Building, we had a nice view from the city and the Gastineau Channel. We even saw our little cruise ship, "The Spirit of Alaska", docked nearby. It was fun to compare it with the huge cruise ships also docked there. We walked around the city and we saw flowers of exquisite colors. Some were pink, some yellow, some orange, but always blended with other colours. I believe they are not natural, but hybrids. We saw them in other cities too.
In a natural food shop, I bought fresh granola muffins to eat on the tour we had arranged for the afternoon, to Mendenhall Glacier. Before getting to the glacier, we stopped at the presbiterian Chapel by the Lake, built of spruce logs about 30 years ago, with a large glass window behind the altar, facing the lake and the glacier farther away. It was raining a lot when we got to Mendenhall Glacier, which spoilt the tour. This glacier is fed by the Juneau Icefield and is retreating at a rate of aproximately ten meters per year.
Back to town, I bought two delicious large brownies at the Alaska Fudge Co. - no, I did not eat them right away! You can see them preparing the fudge and it is the kind of sight that brings water to my mouth...
At 4 pm we were back to the hotel, for a music and slide presentation about Alaska's eskimos. They have a communal lifestyle, sharing equally the food and their tasks, working together. It was almost as communism was supposed to be, but the audience probably did not notice that. Communism in their own land, who would have guessed? And there is probably no better way for these tribes to survive in such an unhosptable environment.
After that, we were presented to the ship's crew and given some instructions before departing by bus to the dock. Our cabin (or stateroom, as they call it) was small, as we had already expected, but what surprised me was the noise! We were at the same level of the engine room and it sounded like we were inside it! We had a safety briefing, a cocktail, dinner and later that night Kathleen, our cruise coordinator, talked about the optional tours that would be available in the cities we would stop along the cruise.
Day 16 - "Who said that Friday 13th brings misfortune? It was a great day for us!" Delicious blueberry pancakes for breakfast. We were in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. A park naturalist, Julie, was brought the night before to spend the day with us. Created in 1925 as a National Monument, redesignated in 1980, the park is also a Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site.
We first stopped in front of two glaciers, Margerie and Grand Pacific. Although they are just beside each other, they are fed by different icefields. They are tidal glaciers, meaning they end on the sea. There was some activity and from time to time we saw a piece of ice falling from the glacier walls. This is called "calving". Sometimes the ice block is so big that we could feel the wave formed by its hitting the sea. But most of the time we could only hear the ice shrieking and thundering, making us expect a huge calving that did not happen.
Next stop was at Lamplugh Glacier. We saw basically the same thing. We were not allowed into Johns Hopkins Inlet because sea lion mothers were there with their puppies. They like inlets because orcas, their predators, do not usually go there, where the water is much colder due to the glaciers. We saw an orca later that day, though they are not common in the park's waters. We saw many sealions on icebergs, as well as eagles and kittywakes.
Sometimes we could see water flowing from inside a glacier, carrying silt. These "rivers" are formed by glacier melting carving the ice rock.
Icebergs varied in colour and shape. White icebergs have air bubbles trapped inside them, while blue ones are dense ice. Many people go sea kayaking in the park and they must be careful with the icebergs, that may suddenly turn upside down. Glaciers too have different colours: some are mainly white, some have blue shades, some have dark veins from rubble.
With great excitement, we saw grizzly bears at the shore: a mother and two cubs. One of the cubs was larger and more active than the other. Nevertheless, they were siblings, probably a bit over one year old. Cubs are born in winter. Fertilized ovules only develop if food supplies are available. Mother Nature wisdom. As usual, we were told to keep very quiet not to scare them. We watched attentively their movements, feeding on shrubs. Then the mother lay down and turned on her back to nurse the cubs. It was a special moment.
Reid Glacier came next, right after lunch. There wasn't much activity on it.
The afternoon was spent far from glaciers. We saw beautiful islands and coves, with many animals, specially birds. We also saw two black bears, each one in a different place. Black bears and grizzly (or brown) bears do not differ only in color, they have distinctive faces. No whales were seen, though.
There are books available for the guests at the ship's lounge, most of them about the animals and places we see on the trip. I took one about Chilkoot Trail. As usual, bread and dessert at dinner were delicious. We often asked for more bread and a second dessert...
Day 17 - "The city consists of basically three streets and eight avenues" Before 8 am we were in Skagway, site of the Klondike Gold Rush National Park. Exactly 100 years ago, this was the starting point for goldseekers on their way to the Klodike River. Chilkoot Trail, starting at the nearby city of Dyea, was the steepest but shortest route and can still be hiked today. People were only allowed into Canada if they had provisions for one year, so they had to take many trips to carry all they needed. Many died on the trail. Artifacts were left on the way to relieve the weight and can still be found on the trail. Although a tramway was built to carry cargo, few could afford this transportation.
We took an optional tour, a train trip on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. This railroad was built as an alternate route to the Klondike. Although the gold rush was over when it was finished in 1899, it was still useful as a connection with the remaining mining towns and to provide goods into that remote part of Canada. Old cars and drivers using old costumes picked us up to take us for short ride around the town (which is very small, only a few blocks) before taking us to the station.
The train partially follows the Skagway River valley, offering us some nice views of the vegetation and some waterfalls. White Pass was another trail people took to the Klondike, longer but allowing the use of animals - many horses died on the trail and their bones can still be seen on Dead Horse Guilch. As we crossed the USA-Canada border, we can see the lake from where Yukon River begins. There was still some snow there. The train then started the way back and we arrived back to Skagway before noon. Though it was a nice trip, I thought it expensive for what it offers us.
We still had some time to take a look around the town, which preserves the façades of the historical buildings of the gold rush era. As soon as we all had reboarded the ship, lunch was served and delicious brownies were the dessert. I had two. I was too embarassed to ask for a third one...
After lunch we arrived at Haines, home of the Chilkat clan of the Tlingit indians who inhabit Southeast Alaska. At the Visitor Center, I asked about the Bald Eagler Preserve, off the town. It houses many bald eagles in November, but had no interest at that time. We first went to the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center, with displays about the history of the town and interesting Tlingit artifacts.
Also in town, Fort Seward was the army's headquaters in Alaska early this century and one of its houses is today the Alaska Indian Arts Skill Center. A totem pole was being carved there, but unfortunately not that afternoon. There is also a theatre where indians show their dances at night. One last visit was (I hope the name is correct) the American Bald Eagle Interpretive Center, with stuffed animals from Alaska's fauna. The man who runs the place explained about some of the animals. One of the most impressive things he showed us was the physical changes that salmon go through from their marine to their fresh water lifes, due both to the different food and their sexual maturity.
We had seen a fudge shop in town, but it was already closed when we went there, pity! But I had a homemade icecream instead, after checking some souvenir shops with local artwork. Small totem poles were the most common item.
Dinner had the Gold Rush as its theme. Later that night Kathleen gave us a lecture about whales, specially the humpback whales that are common in the area. As if to help illustrate her talk, two of them appeared for us. Their gestation takes 13 months and they give birth to one offspring about every two years. They don't suck milk from their mothers, but milk is ejected into their mouths! Whales do not form families and it is not visually possible to distinguish males from females. Orcas, on the other hand, normally live in large groups and their gestation takes 15 months. Male orcas have larger dorsal fins than the female ones.
Day 18 - "I have just arrived from an extraordinary show of the humpback whales: the bubble net feeding!" I woke up very early and had some muffins while having the first look into Tracy Arm. The "main" breakfast later had cheese crepes with a berry sauce. And I had another muffin, too.
Tracy Arm is a fjord and it has some glaciers. The first one we saw was South Sawyer Glacier, which offered us the best glacier calving in the trip: after a strong thunder, a huge block of ice slowly fell from it. We saw many other iceblocks falling, but this one was really impressive. Later we saw Sawyer Glacier, beautiful too but less active. The ship's zodiac went close to it to grab a block of ice from the water, which was displayed at the bar. We placed bets about the day and time when the block would be have completely melted. I lost.
After lunch we were at Stephen's Passage. At some point some dall purpoises started to swim on the wakes in the front of the ship. We could see them slightly underwater, sometimes coming out of the water or farther from the boat and later coming back.
Of the many waterfalls on the way, the ship went very close to one - close enough to fill a jar with water and soak everyone at the front of the ship! The rest of the afternoon was, nevertheless, not very exciting. The weather was getting better, though, with clear skies and a warm sun.
It was late in the afternoon that we saw whales in small groups. By then we had already learned how to wait for the right moment to photograph them with their flukes outside the water. The white patches on their flukes act as a fingerprint, they are unique of each individual and are thus used by scientists to study them. We also saw a colony of noisy male sealions somewhere near a group of islands called The Brothers.
But it was after dinner that the whales gave us a big show. It is called "bubble net feeding". They feed on krill, very tiny crustaceans. In the rare occasions they do this bubble net feeding, whales blow out air in small bubbles while diving below a flock of krill. For some reason, bubbles make the krill get together. Then the whales swim vertically underneath them and open their mouths near the surface, capturing larger portions of krill inside their ballens. As I arrived at the deck, I saw maybe five whales just going outside the water, not far from the boat, with their mouths opened - it was so amazing! For many minutes the whales stayed around us, some farther, some closer. Suddenly two were swimming just beside the ship and we got wet with their blow. One swam sideways with one fin outside the water.
As the whales started moving away from the ship, three of them did the bubble net feeding again. We were marvelled and astounded with what we had seen. And the sunset that night - it was about 10 pm - was also simply perfect!
Day 19 - "There was a young female bald eagle that looked so sad in her cage..." We arrived in Sitka early in the morning. Sitka is a Tlingit name that means "by the sea". Under the name of Novoarkhangelsk, it was the capital of Russian Alaska until the USA bought Alaska from the Russians, in 1867. It is located in Baranof Island, named after Alexander Baranov, manager of the Russian-American Company that explored the region. They were particularly attracted by sea otters' fur, which were hunted almost to extinction.
Our walking tour started with a look at Mt. Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano, in the distance. We saw Castle Hill, were the acquisition of Alaska was signed, ending with over a century of Russian colony. In front of Totem Square, Pioneer Home was the first state-funded shelter for Alaskan needing long term medical care. After looking at the Russian Cemetery and quiet residential streets, we arrived at the end of the tour, near St. Michael's Cathedral.
St. Michael's Cathedral is a Russian Orthodox church first built in the 1840s. Destroyed it in 1966, when fire burned many blocks in downtown Sitka, a replica was built on the same site. The Orthodox Church was more easily accepted by the native tribes because its priests did not attempt to destroy the indigenous culture. A bible printed in a written version of the Tlingit language is on display in the cathedral. Over 90% of today's parish consists of Indians.
The Bishop's House was the seat of the Orthodox Church and the house of its priests. Nowadays it's a museum about the Russian period, administrated by the National Park Service.
We were advised not to miss the dance show of a local group, the "New Archaengel Dancers". This group was created in 1969 by women only - men did not like the idea to take part of it - aiming to redeem the city's Russian heritage through folk dance. It was interesting, with colorful clothes and cheerful dance, but I was curious to know the destiny of the six dollars we paid for, since they are a non-profitable group...
After the show we walked to the Sitka National Historical Park, a beautiful preserved area, on the way to the Laska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, a hospital for birds. There we saw bald eagles of varying ages. They acquire their characteristic aspect of brown-feathered body with white-feathered head at the age of five. Before that, they display a variety of tones of brown as they grow up. We also saw an owl and a peregrine falcon, but any bird found injured is brought there for treatment.
Before going back to the ship, I checked the souvenir shops looking for nested dolls, but the pretty ones were also too expensive. Back to the ship at 1 pm, we saw many bald eagles feeding on the effluent of a fish cannery, allowing us to have a close look at their flying skills.
The sunny afternoon was very pleasant on the deck, but we saw no animals, except for a few birds. Crackers with brie cheese for cocktail, chicken cordon bleu for dinner.
The entertainment that night was very interesting, with games that gave us "halibucks", fake money that we would use later that night in an auction. I wanted a polar bear, but it was not offered. With the help of Ernani, who gave me his halibucks, I managed to get the ship's recipe book - not a bad deal, even if it costed me more than 14000 halibucks! I asked one of the guys from the crew to have it signed by all of them.
Day 20 - "A tedious morning, an exciting tour in the afternoon, a quiet end of the day." Fruits, bagels, cereals and muffins were my breakfast. They bake too well... We were going along Petersburg, in Wrangell Narrows, founded in the end of last century by Norwegian settlers that came to fish salmon. Some of today's inhabitants opted to live without electricty or running water.
Wrangell Narrows has very shallow waters and the ferry schedule is regulated by the tide. All this region is part of the Tongass National Forest. Logging is practiced in all areas of the forest, under governmental control, and reforestation is left for Nature. The scenery was beautiful, but the lack of action made me sleepy.
After lunch we arrived in Wrangell, on the mouth of Stikine River. It was a cloudy afternoon, though not cold. We had arranged an optional tour: flightseeing LeConte Glacier. A bumpy flight that did not please Ernani at all, but I enjoyed the spectacular vistas from above the glacier, specially the amazing blue lakes and the impressive depth of the crevasses. We could also see some calving. The waters near the glacier were filled with icebergs and on some we could see sealions. We could also see Shakes Glacier and some fishing areas.
Following the flight, we were taken to a beach to see some petroglyphs - prehistoric rock carvings which some believe to be more than 8000 years old. Some are spirals, some resemble fish and masks. I regret that they are so exposed - not only to the sea, but people can touch them or step on them, and we even saw kids selling imprints of them.
We were taken close to Chief Shakes Island, but the guide had no time left to show it to us. I walked there later - the city is, as usual, very small. In the island there is a reconstructed Tlingit Tribal House and a few totem poles representing indian legends. Contrary to many people's idea, totem poles have no religious meaning.
There was a show called "Wild Wrangell Revue", played by locals, telling about the goldseekers that went to Alaska and that, despite not finding gold, were enchanted by this new land and decided to settle there.
Many shops in town displayed indian handicrafts. I found an interesting example of nesting dolls - actually nesting cats - which were unfortunately not for sale. I had an icecream before reboarding. Delicious veal for dinner and, as usual, terrific bread!
Cities in Southeast Alaska live mainly on logging and fishing, though tourism is increasing its share. The royalties the state collects from oil are set aside in a fund and every year each citizen living in Alaska for more than one year receive a share of it - something around US$1300. And they don't have to pay state income tax!
Day 21 - "I hate this 'end-of-party' feelling!" I had my best sleeping night: the ship was anchored... Noise in the cabin is the big complaint I have about the ship. I woke up later than usual, but still early enough for having English muffins with cream cheese from the continental breakfast, and later I had also delicious granola pancakes at the main breakfast. Oh, my! Maybe I should also complain about food being so good!
We crossed the shallow and narrow channels of Prince of Wales Island - the third largest in the USA, after Alaska's Kodiak and Hawaii's Big Island. The water was so still that amazing reflexes formed on the margins, creating strange patterns. Blacktail deers were sometimes spotted in the woods near the margin. We could see some logging areas there too. Again, reforestation is left for Nature, so that all normal stages of vegetation diversity can occur. It is believed that about 120 years are needed for a deforested area completely recover. I really enjoyed the quietness of the ship sliding through this lovely region.
The ship stopped in a small peninsula, so we could go out for a walk in the woods. Unfortunately, it rained a lot while we were there. There were some roads used by logging trucks. We could see many types of plants of this temperate rainforest.
Lunch would be served in the deck. That was the idea, but rain spoilt it and our barbecue buffet was served in the restaurant. Cookies were divine...
Nothing special happened in the afternoon, we still had the same scenery, I read some books and spent some time on the deck and on the bridge. No sea otters - the last item of my check list. But for cocktail, there was shrimp and cream cheese arranged in the shape of a sea otter! It was so cute that almost everyone took pictures.
Our last dinner was special, with the presence of the captain and a toast to celebrate the success of our trip. And to make it complete, sea otters! There was a large group of them floating not far from the ship, but they seemed scared and swam away. Maybe they know that their ancestors were mercilessly hunted by us humans... It was a nice view for us anyway, even if mostly through binoculars.
The evening entertainment was a variety show by the ship's crew. It was fun.
Day 22 - "So this was Alaska. It was worth it! Beautiful places and so many animals!" Bagels and muffins for our last breakfast on board. We were in Ketchikan and left the ship before 9 pm, with all the crew outside to say goodbye to us.
I took the optional tour to Misty Fjords by floatplane. Ernani gave up on this one, after the bad experience in Wrangell.
Misty Fjords National Monument is a beautiful preserved area with bays, cliffs, glaciers, waterfalls and lakes. There is a 1000 foot (300 m) waterfall fed by Big Goat Lake up on the mountain. After making turns over many of these beautiful spots, the plane landed in one of the fjords and we saw a mother bear with two cubs on the descent. The place is amazingly quiet. It is not surprising that kayaking tours are offered in the area - it must be an unforgettable experience. The only noise came from a group of sea lions on an islet. Silence. Wilderness. A great way to close the trip to Alaska. Nobody liked when the pilot asked us to come inside the plane to go back.
Back to Ketchikan, I went to Southeast Alaska Visitor Center, which has displays of about the rainforest and the Tlingit Indians. It was also interesting to learn how both the natives and the colonizers make use of the natural resources. There was a miltimedia show about the Alaskans. A Tlingit artisan named Holly Churchill was showing a little bit of the basket weaving tradition of her people - something that was almost lost. Nowadays she teaches her skills to other natives.
It was the last opportunity to buy souvenirs: t-shirts and smoked salmon. On the way to the hotel from where we were going to be transfered to the airport, I took a walk on Creek Street - houses linked by boardwalks on Ketchikan Creek. This used to be a red-light district, but the houses were converted into restaurants, souvenir shops and art galleries. It is possible to see salmon swimming upriver in the spawning season.
From the top of the Westmark Cape Fox Lodge, we had a great view of the town. It was possible to see our ship, dwarfed by those huge cruise ships, getting ready to receive a new group of tourists and start its way back north.
On the other hand, we flew south to Seattle, to spend two days in the area, visiting Olympic National Park. We were not lucky with the weather, a lot of rain, even if not cold. The mountains were hidden behind clouds. The valleys were beautiful and there are many trails available (no, not in all that mud!). We were told not to miss the low tide early in the morning, when we would be able to see sealife trapped in tidal pools, but it was raining so heavily when we got there that we didn't stay much. We saw some starfish on one of the rocks, at least. And then we went back to Seattle, from where I flew to visit friends before coming back home.
From Anchorage South
From Anchorage North
The Inside Passage
Geography and History
Rio de Janeiro, September 15, 1997
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