Last year I was contacted by Deanna Sutherland from CDT Travel, Inc. in Newburgh, New York to present a birds of prey program in November of 2009. She thought the program might attract people who were interested in the natural world, and might therefore be interested in one of their many Alaskan cruise packages with Princess Cruise Lines. I tried to tailor a program more about Alaskan raptors for her, and as always had a fun time speaking to the many people who showed up.
The next day I received an e-mail from Deanna inquiring whether I would be interested in hosting my own group for a cruise to Alaska. Uhhhhh, let me think for a tenth of a second. Well, if you really want me to, okay, I guess I'll go. CDT Travel and Princess Cruises decided on the 7 day inside passage trip from Seattle to Glacier Bay and back from August 21 through 28. I sent out a mailing to our membership to see if anyone was interested in coming with me and mentioned the trip at public programs as well. I really had no idea how many people might be interested, hoping to get 10 or 12, but it turned out that 30 people signed up (who knew?), about two thirds of them DVRC members, some of whom I have known for a number of years.
Deanna and I decided that we would keep things relatively unstructured and quite casual. Ports of call were to be in Juneau, Scagway, and Ketchican. I would choose the activities that I wanted to do at each port, and people would be free to join me or do any of a hundred or so different things that had a greater interest to them. Each evening, most of us chose to eat together at a set time where we could meet and discuss the day's activities, but others chose "anytime dining" and went their own way. So here is how I spent my summer vacation.
I set my alarm to awaken me at 4:00 A.M. on August 21, which would give me plenty of time to arrive for my flight out of Newark Liberty Airport. I was still awake at 1:00 A.M. thinking about the trip, so maybe I slept for three hours. I had Googled and Mapquested directions the day before as well as programmed my GPS both by street address and GPS coordinates. Redundancy would prove to be a wonderful thing. All I had to do was get to the airport on time, and I would be on my way. Really, how hard could that be? My flight wasn't until 9:00, but you are supposed to arrive two hours early, so I left at 5:00. About a half hour into the drive, I realized that I placed my printed directions on the roof of my car, while loading my luggage into my trunk, and of course just drove away without them, so now I was depending solely on my GPS. No problem. The airport was in sight an hour later. I followed signs to the long term parking lot (I thought) and was surprised when I found myself back on the main road heading away from the airport. My GPS, whom I have nicknamed "Mona," announced in her calm voice that she was recalculating. She'll take me back. Except she didn't. I found myself on a deserted road in a less than upscale section of Newark when Mona announced that we had arrived. Uh-oh. The first thing I did was make certain my doors were locked, having visions of the mugging scene in Tom Wolfe's book The Bonfire of the Vanities. Lucky for me, although I started off with four ways get to the airport, I still had one more left. I set Mona to the GPS coordinates, and indeed she took me back where I saw the same set of signs to long term parking, realized my mistake, and safely arrived, still on time. Mona exhibited no remorse for her mistake.
Soon I was taking off in my window seat looking at the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty as the plane banked its turn. How cool is that? And so it begins. Hopefully I might get in a few hours of sleep. Nope. Directly across the aisle was a three year old who was not happy. About ten minutes out of every hour, he would wail throughout the six hour flight. I did bring a book, choosing not to watch the in-flight Jennifer Aniston movie. Besides, I had a window seat. Well, I did for a while. The woman sitting two seats over was reading and kept her right hand up in the air shielding her face, letting me know that the sunlight from the window created too much glare on her book. I felt like offering her sunglasses, but I closed the window instead. A few hours later though, I figured that we should be getting close to the Rockies, so I opened up my window, sun glare and prissy woman notwithstanding, in time to see the patchwork fields of the Great Plains giving way to the foothills and eventually the Rocky Mountains themselves. I looked around to see if anyone else was checking this out and was waiting for the pilot to point out how great it was, but most windows were closed, the flight crew remained silent, and parents chose not to point anything out to their kids. It was then I realized that I must be much too unsophisticated. I kept my nose flattened to the window the rest of the way to Seattle anyway. I'll try to act more sophisticated on the ship. After picking up my luggage (my zipper had broken) and meeting Rich Amon and his wife Rosemary, two of the many great people I would meet from my group (and not from my group), we boarded a bus to the ship, stopping at the base of the Space Needle for a quick look. On the bus ride, I sat and conversed with an upbeat woman from Texas who would be cruising on a different ship to Alaska. She was a fellow baby boomer maybe 5 years older than me, and something about her gave me the impression that she had probably been a high school cheerleader. Sure enough, a few minutes later she worked that fact into the conversation. I congratulated myself on my keen power of intuition, although it might have been her tiny skirt and the pom-poms under her seat that gave it away.
We pulled into the dock and there she stood, the aptly named Golden Princess. She was huge and beautiful, and I immediately started exploring the ship after dropping off my carry-on at my stateroom, where I was greeted by name by my steward, Chris, and found a message awaiting me to let me know that everything is ready for my onboard presentation tomorrow. These Princess Cruise staffers take care of everything. In the middle of my ship explorations an announcement was made summoning the passengers to pick up the life preservers in our rooms and to meet in specific areas, where we would be instructed on how to die in the proper manner in case the ship sank. If for some reason the life boats were not accessible, after donning your life preserver, you were supposed to hold it in place with your left hand. Using your right hand to hold your nose (I'm not kidding), you were to step, not jump, over the side, falling to your doom in the freezing cold ocean where you had about an hour and a half at most to live before dying of hypothermia. (They left out that last part, but we all remember Leonardo DiCaprio in the Titanic movie). Apparently I was the only one who found this funny, and, perhaps because I get a bit silly when I am tired, I was laughing hard enough that tears were starting to form before I remembered to work on my sophistication skills. I regained control immediately.
After returning my life preserver back to my room, I continued exploring as we set sail (not really, there are no sails on the Golden Princess) and made my way from the gloriously elegant Grand Piazza Atrium on deck 5 to the top deck where I stood all alone at the bow of the boat, not another person in sight (a much better Leonardo "King of the World" moment). Exhilaration and peace at the same time. My Alaska endorphin buzz had begun. After fifteen minutes of that surreal experience I rounded the corner and saw my long time friend Bob Astegher leaning on the ship's rail looking out at the ocean. I snapped his picture and then greeted and hung out with him for awhile. Neither of us could believe where we were, and it was only the beginning of what was to become an incredible adventure. Bob's wife Julie joined us shortly thereafter. It was then that we saw our first dolphins (Dall porpoises) swimming and jumping off the starboard side (that would be the right side for those of you who may not be the sophisticated cruiser that I am). By now it was getting close to dinner, so I returned to my room, and a few minutes later met my dinner companions for the next week in one of the two main dining rooms on board. At my table were my friends Bob Astegher, Paul Osmer, and Amy Curry. I had known them all either personally and/or professionally for a number of years. Although I had met Bob's wife Julie, Paul's wife Anne, and Amy's husband Jim, it wasn't until this trip that I would really get to know them better. New to me at my table were Kathy and John Kearns. Everyone was truly excited to be there. We had no personality clashes and we all would enjoy each other's company throughout the cruise. The waiters, Edwin and Caesar were professional and attentive. The four course meals were perfectly prepared, and the food would prove to be excellent throughout the voyage.
The next morning our group graciously sat through my Powerpoint presentation about eagles. I had trouble with the computer in the beginning, which flustered me. Give me a live bird over a slide show any day. Eventually I stopped stammering, my ear color turned from crimson back to their normal flesh tone, and I finished. Now we could get back to enjoying ourselves. The rest of the beautiful sunny day was spent on the open ocean where you were free to make use of the ship's amenities and, of course, eat. The onboard naturalist (now there's a guy who knows how to use Powerpoint) gave his first of what would be four presentations about Alaska in the Princess Theater, getting everybody psyched about our first shore excursion in Juneau the next day.
About half of the group chose the same excursion that I did, which was the Mendenhall Glacier and Whale Quest. We boarded a bus at the dock and rode through Alaska's state capital, Juneau. Our bus driver was a college student in his sixth year and had an entire comedy routine based upon that fact. He kept everyone entertained until we boarded a whale watching boat. The young woman on the boat, another college student, was extremely knowledgeable about the biology of the humpback whales we were guaranteed to see. The Alaskan mountain landscape was incredible no matter where you looked. Bald eagles were seen sitting in the Sitka spruces along the shoreline, and I saw my first whale about 15 minutes into the mini-cruise, a solitary humpback hanging out offshore near a lighthouse. The boat maneuvered fairly close, but not close enough to disturb the whale. You could see and hear the spray coming from her blowhole. We stayed with her while our guide educated us about humpbacks and then set off to find more whales. On the way we stopped at an island loaded with Stellar's sea lions basking on the rocky beach. Soon we came upon a group of seven humpbacks hanging together, which apparently is quite unusual. We watched their huge pectoral fins come out of the water, which made it look like they were waving to everyone, before their tails lifted out of the water when they started their dives. It's tough to think about anything else when you are in the presence of these magnificent mammals. When we docked, I talked to the student about her whale research and future plans (grad school and PhD), hoping she might eventually teach on the university level. She should because she was a natural. Only a handful of my past profs were as gifted teachers as she was. Then it was off to Mendenhall Glacier, which is accessible by road travel.
Disembarking the bus at the Mendenhall Visitor's Center I became friends with John Basta who was traveling in our group with his sister Dorothy. On the way to the glacier, we walked over a bridge where you could see the salmon swimming in the stream underneath, saw a porcupine in a tree, and found out later from some of our group members that we had just missed a black bear fishing. How do you describe the magnificence of a glacier? Beautiful hues of rugged blue ice cannot really do it justice. To the right of the glacier was a huge waterfall on the adjoining mountainous landscape. John and I took each other's picture and entered the visitor's center where we could learn about glaciers in general and the Mendenhall Glacier in particular. Leaving the center we saw a bald eagle sitting in a tree quite close. At dinner, everyone discussed their day. Amy and Jim Curry took a helicopter ride, landing on the glacier where they could get out and walk on the ancient ice. How cool must that have been? That evening I missed an excellent onboard presentation by Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod dogsled race. Instead, I walked in to picturesque Juneau and did some shopping, picking up among other gifts, a Red Dog Saloon T-shirt for myself. The following morning we would dock in Scagway.
After eating way too much the first days on the ship, I vowed to eat less and exercise more. At home I walk my dogs about three miles every morning, and since my internal clock never really reset for Alaskan time, I found myself awakening about 3:00 A.M. most mornings. Although I could drift in and out of sleep, usually I was up before 5, when I would shower, grab oatmeal and fruit at the food court, and start walking the ship on the promenade deck watching the sun come up. Three laps equaled a mile, so I needed nine laps to stay with my morning routine. That morning I was on deck to watch the ship dock in Scagway. The captain actually parallel parked the ship, pulling forward and backing in next to another ship while the crew threw out their weighted lines attached to huge ropes which encircled the pier supports. I met and spoke to Meemie Sullivan that morning who was also a morning deck walker. We talked about, among other things, life with our dogs. Dog people are the best, and Meemie was no exception, not to offend you cat people out there (I once had a great cat too). I would go kayaking with Meemie's husband Alan Steere a few hours later. Traveling is not just about the sights you see, it's also about the special people that you meet.
Alan was the only other person in our group who chose to kayak with me on Chilkoot Lake in Haines. The jetboat to Haines took us through the beautiful Taiya Inlet with mountains, waterfalls, and bald eagles on each side of us. On the way, a loose screw in my glasses caused a lens to pop out. Perfect. Not finding a screwdriver small enough, I asked the crew for duct tape, the staple in any tool kit. I was able to reattach the lens and manifest my inner nerd at the same time, remaining totally uncool for the rest of the day. In Haines, we boarded a bus to Chilkoot Lake. When we were close to the lake, on our right we passed a stream where the salmon were running and watched a brown (grizzly) bear walk along the stream before disappearing into the woods. A few minutes later we saw a mother brown bear only feet from the bus. Her two cubs were up in a tree by the side of the road. Chilkoot Lake is a pristine glacial lake surrounded by mountains with waterfalls. We were outfitted by professional guides, one of whom was a native Alaskan, not a college student from out of state. She guides during the summer enabling her to ski bum in Utah during the winter. We paddled the lake for an hour and a half looking at mountains, rainforest, and more salmon in the lake while watching and listening to bald eagles and Stellar's jays. No cars or sounds of machinery of any kind were heard. Try finding a place like that sometime. If things weren't idyllic enough, after kayaking, we had the best smoked salmon ever, locally smoked in Haines. That afternoon I walked around the very funky town of Scagway, which was like stepping back in time with its restored buildings and old railroad. A slight rainfall resulted in an afternoon rainbow over the town when the sun reappeared, as if it didn't already have enough cachet. That day Kathy Kearns met me for a short hike into the rainforest. We picked up the trail head in Scagway, crossed a stream with yes, more salmon, and headed out on what was supposed to be an easy hike, but instead turned out to be a steep uphill climb late in the afternoon on an unusually hot and humid day. As I mentioned before, Kathy and her husband John ate at my table. John is an affable man who seems to be the smartest guy in the room, with an incredible overall knowledge of any trivia you can imagine. The fact that he decided against the hike left me no doubt that he was indeed whom he seemed. After a half hour of climbing and sweating, Kathy and I decided that we might be crazy but not stupid and headed back into town. On the way back to the ship, I met and spoke to the ship's naturalist, who is having one of his books about living in the wild of Alaska adapted to a movie he hopes to direct himself. We would leave Scagway that evening, and the next day cruise into Glacier Bay, having been told by the naturalist that it would be the high point of the trip. Really? Could it get any better? It could.
Glacier Bay consists of many fiords, from about 1,000 feet deep when you step off the shore at the base of the mountains, to 3,000 feet deep in the center. These fiords were carved out by glaciers and were completely covered by glacial ice as little as 200 years ago. Most of the glaciers that exist at the edges of the inlets of the bay are retreating although a few are advancing. Without getting too New Agey on you, Glacier Bay might just be the most powerful place I have ever visited. Like the Grand Canyon, its vastness fools your eye. A glacier that looks hundreds of feet away and 1,000 feet wide is actually five miles away and a mile and a half wide. That morning I saw tufted puffins floating by in the ocean below (they were on my must see list), sea otters floating on their backs, and the first of the many humpback whales I would see that day. In advance, we were alerted to a decaying whale carcass on shore off the port side that had been there since April, and were told that maybe we would see bears there. A short time later the carcass came into view, and indeed, there stood a huge brown bear tearing away at it. The ship then cruised around Russell Island through Tarr Inlet to the magnificent Margerie Glacier, where we stopped for a while. I watched a huge block of ice calve off the leading edge of the glacier while the ship rotated to give everyone a great view. I met Ann and Ken Cartwright from our group on the Promenade deck that day, an absolutely delightful British couple in their eighties. For hours we watched whales while running from starboard to port whenever they were spotted. Ann carried a monocular rather than binoculars. She wore no glasses and she consistently spotted whales before the Glacier Bay National Park Service naturalists announced them from the top deck. I remarked to her about her superb eyesight, and she said she actually only had vision in one eye, which made me laugh until I realized how insensitive I may have been acting. When I apologized for laughing, Ann replied, "Not at all. It is rather funny." To which Ken replied, "You don't think she's playing Long John Silver with the monocular do you?" The high point was still to come later in the day. Whales were being spotted consistently. Alan and
The next stop would be Ketchican. I actually got some sleep that night and felt the ship dock when I was still in bed. Ketchican is a true Alaskan fishing village. The harbor was loaded with small boats, and salmon were jumping out of the water everywhere you looked. In Ketchican, I joined Ann and Ken, John and Dorothy, Amy and Jim, and John Drinkard and Eileen Kopec where we would jet raft to an island rainforest. We were
Walking the deck I met a man from Washington who was a retired teamster that sailed his own sailboat. We talked for over an hour, and I said about the only thing that could make this trip any better would be to see killer whales (orcas are the largest dolphins in the world). He said that there is a pod that hangs close to where we dock in Victoria so there is still a chance. Late afternoon I found myself on the top deck at the bow again, nobody around, reflecting on the trip and maybe being lucky enough to spot that orca pod. There I met a man from Japan who had just come from an activity onboard where he learned about the ship's operation. He shared all his new knowledge with me. I snapped his picture, asked for his e-mail, and a few days later when I was home, I sent it to him, thanking him for everything he taught me. He replied that I taught him as well about image stabilized binoculars and the floating barges being towed on the ocean. You never know how you may impact other people's lives and they yours. It was getting close to dinner when I saw some small jet crafts zooming from shore into the ocean. I thought maybe they had spotted the orcas, but eventually they disappeared, and I went to dinner. Five minutes later it was announced that orcas were on the port side, and lucky for us, that was where our dining room windows were located. I ran to the window and there was a pod of at least five, maybe seven orcas, their huge 5-6 feet dorsal fins appearing and disappearing as they swam together. A short time later, one of the orcas breached about half a body length out of the ocean affording a great look at his beautiful black head and white underbelly. My trip was now complete. After dinner, I ran into the trucker who
The next day we arrived in Seattle. Leaving the ship, I watched someone's bag rip open, and out spilled about a half bushel of oranges, peppers, a pineapple, and other fruits and vegetables as well as a bottle of ketchup. They went rolling down the ramp, the mortified pilferer trying to scoop things up. While others frowned in distaste, I had to laugh and remarked to the man behind me that I never considered keeping a bottle of ketchup as a memento of my trip to Alaska. I bussed to the airport with two people I had met previously and befriended during the voyage, and as I said my goodbyes, the last spoken words my friend said to me were, "Well, I try not to take myself too seriously." Words to live by. That is how I spent my summer vacation. I hope you enjoyed my long-winded essay. Feel free to critique it and send me a grade, and consider coming with me in August of 2011. We're going back, this time to Denali.