North, to Alaska (part 1)

Part 1, July 1-9, 2016

Cruise route
Cruise route

On the 1st of July, my wife and I began a trip that’s been on our bucket list for some time – a visit to that extremely rugged and scenic area purchased from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million (about two cents per acre), at one time called “Seward’s Icebox,”  and admitted to the Union as our 49th state in 1959.

Our adventure was divided into two parts; the first was a week-long, small-ship (100 passengers) cruise along with our very good friends from Florida, to the inland waters of southeast Alaska, beginning and ending in Juneau. In the second part we said a temporary goodbye to our friends and made our way to Denali National Park. At the end of that visit, we flew to Portland, Oregon to rejoin our friends for a brief exploration of the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood before we all returned to our respective homes.

Needless to say, my purpose was to see and learn more about Alaska and to take as many photos as I could. The remainder of this blog entry provides some description of the highlights reflected in the Alaska photos added to the site.

Juneau and Haines

Alaska State Flag
Alaska State Flag

The cruise included a series of tours so even before embarkation we visited the Mendenhall Glacier, located near Juneau. Just before lunch on board the American Spirit, we sailed out of the harbor initially heading south, then west, and finally north (all to get around Douglas Island, which prevents sailing directly north out of Juneau) heading for our next two stops, Haines and Skagway.

Arriving at Haines the next morning, we stopped cruising for much of the day for a land-based wildlife tour along the Chilkoot River and Chilkoot Lake and did manage to spot several bald eagles, including a nesting pair taking care of their young. We also visited a local museum where we enjoyed a presentation about some rescued eagles. Later that day we shoved off once again, this time heading for Skagway, also called the “Gateway to the Klondike.”

Skagway

Skagway was the north-most destination for this cruise; that is important mostly because at that latitude during the summer, the sun barely sets at all. We arrived on July 3rd and the town of Skagway was definitely planning a big Independence Day celebration including a local, small-town parade. But because the sun sets so late, their fireworks event was planned to start at just before midnight on the evening of July 3rd so it would be dark enough to see at the very beginning of the 4th. We heard the beginning sounds of the event and later heard that it was a great display. Unfortunately, that was one firework display that occurred way past our bedtime; I remember dropping off to the sounds of firework explosions.

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Children singing “America, The Beautiful”

The next morning (the 4th), we took a self-guided tour around the town and enjoyed the local city parade, including civic groups, fire engines, dog sleds, and especially some singing by children of the local day care centers.

After a shipboard lunch we enjoyed a bus tour up the very steep Klondike Highway all the way to Fraser in British Columbia, Canada. This highway parallels the original White Horse Trail that, along with the competing Chilkoot Trail, was used by tens of thousands of prospectors hoping to strike it rich during the Yukon gold rush near the end of the 19th Century.

At Fraser, after a simple immigration check by Canadian officials, we boarded the White Pass and Yukon Route narrow gauge railroad (completed a couple of years after the start of the gold rush to make the trip to the gold fields easier) for a even more scenic ride back to Skagway. Once there we were greeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs for a more rigorous passport inspection before we could leave the train and return to our ship.

That evening I managed to grab the only other sunset photo taken on this trip at 10:49 PM as we sailed south through the northern portion of the Favorite Channel on our overnight passage toward Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Glacier Bay
Glacier Bay

Early on the morning of the 5th of July the ship stopped briefly at the National Park headquarters’ pier to pick up a National Park Interpretive Ranger and a Huna Tlingit Cultural Interpreter to join our shipboard naturalist/historian guide for our day and a half Glacier Bay tour. The ship then headed toward the northern most point of  Glacier Bay to visit the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers.

Whenever our tour guides spotted something interesting, particularly examples of local wildlife, the ship would pause in the journey to allow time for discussion (and photos). We had our first grizzly bear sightings near Gloomy Knob and lingered for about an hour. While watching the bears, a humpback whale surfaced between us and the shore for a quick breath before diving again.

When we reached the two northern-most glaciers in the park a little after lunch we were able to see the significant difference between an advancing versus a retreating glacier. The Margerie Glacier is still rapidly advancing, and even treated us to a calving display as it dropped a small iceberg into the bay. The Grand Pacific Glacier, on the other hand, has been retreating for years and shows an almost completely dirt and rock face; it looks like it will not be long before it crosses the border into Canada.

On our way south, we stopped at, and examined, several other glaciers but were on the way to an anchorage for our overnight in the park. Given the 1,000 foot depth of the bay, places to drop anchor that are still clear of the cliffs are difficult to locate. Ultimately, we anchored somewhere around North Sandy Cove for the night.

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The following day we sailed to the National Park’s visitor center at Bartlett Cove, dropped off the two additional tour guides, and stayed in port for a few hours to replenish fresh water and other supplies. Passengers went ashore to either take an organized hike, visit at the Visitor Center, or otherwise amuse themselves.

I visited the lodge, the Visitor Center, some outside exhibits, and then took a solo photowalk around a portion of the Forest Loop Trail (all the while very conscious of the ship’s hard departure time of 1 PM).

Petersburg

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Soon after leaving Glacier Bay we were heading southeast toward Petersburg. Off of Chichagof Island we spotted Orca Whales and slowed town for a time for more discussion and photos. We sailed for the rest of the night and arrived in Petersburg early in the morning of July 7.

Some took a walking tour of the town while others of us took a narrated hike on the City Creek Trail. Later that day, the city educated and entertained us with some Norwegian dancing and some special dessert favorites.

Tracy Arm and Juneau

Many, many icebergs to avoid
Many, many icebergs

The ship departed Petersburg in the wee hours of the morning headed for the fiord known as Tracy Arm. We sailed deep into the fiord headed for Sawyer Glacier. The deeper we sailed into Tracy Arm, the more icebergs we saw. Although most of them were relatively small, a few were  a bit larger (but not something the size of the Titanic incident) and it was clear that the Captain of the ship took great care to avoid them all. Everyone on board knew that only one tenth of any iceberg is visible above the water and had no desire to meet the other 90% of any of them.While observing Sawyer Glacier (and participating in an amazing ‘chocolate fountain’ on the top deck) we were lucky enough to see another example of glacier calving.

Once we had exited the fiord, we continued up the inland waterway known as Stephen’s Passage on our way back to Juneau where we eventually docked early the evening of July 8. The following morning all passengers disembarked to where ever the next step of their journey took them.

My wife and I flew to Anchorage to continue our Alaska adventure (continued in the blog post, North, to Alaska [part 2]).

You can see photos of our Alaska trip, by visiting Ced Bennett Photography and clicking the Places menu item on the left, selecting United States, and then Alaska (or you can just click this link to go directly to the Alaska gallery). Then click on the first square thumbnail photo (or any of the thumbnails) to be able to click between each full-size photo along with its descriptive caption.

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