Wednesday, August 29, 2007

 

Alaska Trip, Day 6, Skagway

(Day 06 Photos),
We had a very long excursion day in Skagway, so there was no rush to get off the ship, or back on it either. The plan was to pickup our rental car (reserved) and then drive up the White Pass. Once we got to the "rental car place," we noticed that the parking lot was empty. Yes, that was a bad sign - they were having mechanical problems with two of their cars and, sorry, they couldn't fulfill my reservation.

I was bummed since this was another cancellation following our Ketchikan cancellation, but again, things turned out OK. We got a referral to a small tour shop around the corner. People taking the train were paying between $100 and $200 - and they don't let you get off the train to walk around and see stuff. And to top it off, the train is likely going to be rolling around the whole time. This tour we took was only $40 each, and in a nice van with plenty of stops along the route. Both the train and road take similar paths due North to the White Pass.

We had a couple hours to walk around before the tour bus was going to leave. So the 4 of us (parents plus ES) just walked around the town a bit. The population of this town (soon to be a borough) is ~860, so when 3 cruise ships pull in, the town just gets overrun, probably increasing in size by an order of magnitude. The sidewalks were packed with people, and I got sort of sick of the crowds. Did a bit of shopping, and got some lunch to eat on the bus.

Headed out on the bus - the driver was just another bonus to what would have been a great tour (at a great price). He wasn't a Skagway native or anything, but he seemed to be sort of a naturalist, interested in the history of the town. He had a lot of stories to tell about the "old days" when Skagway was a major gold rush port for the Klondike.

We drove around the town for a bit for starters. He parked at one nondescript point on the street, and we got out to see, in the gutter of the street, there was a little stream and there were 4 or 5 salmon in there swimming upstream. Seemed improbable at the time. There are no doctors in Skagway, only a nurse. He said if you get injured or sick, it's a $300 ambulance ride to see the nurse, where she will tell you that she's not a doctor and that she cannot treat you. Then you take another $300 ride to the airport, where it's a $300 ticket to get to Juneau, and one final $300 ambulance ride to the Juneau hospital. Doesn't sound too wonderful to me! I asked him if anyone goes to Whitehorse for treatment, but he said that would be unwise.

Skagway is right at the mouth of a fjord where a glacier carved out the valley, and the deep water port. The water is 2000 ft deep at the center of the fjord, which was surprising since it is not very wide. And since the land Skagway was built on used to be under a glacier, the ground had significantly compressed under the glacier's weight. They have noticed that the ground is slowly uncompressing now as much as 8" upward per year. I have to assume that makes for tough times keeping your house from breaking apart.

Then we headed up the White Pass along the highway. This highway connects Skagway into the Alaskan Hwy system, so you could feasibly drive to Skagway from, say, California, but not sure why you'd do that. Along the drive we saw a handful of hanging glaciers, or ones that are just on the side of a mountain but not touching water. All of the peaks along this drive were rounded at the top except for a few very jagged ones. The jagged ones were higher than the ice that flowed through here X years ago, so the jagged ones would have just been islands in a sea of white at one time. Now, they look like saw teeth, so they are aptly named the Sawtooth Range.

We also saw a narrow waterfall coming down the mountainside. This waterfall is flanked by a pipe - the driver used to work for the power company, and part of his work was on that pipe. The pipe concentrates the water into an electricity-generating turbine (turbines are just so apt to generate power, aren't they?) which primarily powers the city, including during the winter. He flew with a Vietnam Vet chopper pilot to get to the top of that pipeline. Apparently the pilot was pretty risky in the way he flew.

So I asked the driver how he found his way to Skagway. I think it surprised us all that he was originally from New York City, and he drove cabs. Then once he got a fare that told him about Skagway: a city where there wasn't any crime, and they needed drivers. So he says he packed up and headed to Skagway - now he drives tour buses. Really seems like he found a good job match.

We drove into Canada along the pass - this border doesn't even have a guard shack for the Canadian side. The U.S. side has a newish building as part of an effort post 9-11 to tighten up border security. But there are plaques around at the pass commemorating the trust the two countries have over this porous border. Not sure how to connect that to the new guard shack on the U.S. side, but OK. The new border patrol agents are recently up from San Antonio. Sort of a change in climate for them.

At our turn around point, we were in a pretty wide valley that had some water flowing Northward. Water north of the border flows north. We were reminded by the stories of the gold towns that people had taken the route he just described on foot carrying hundreds of pounds of gear over weeks. One trail was called dead horse trail back in the day. They weren't too creative at naming things - the names were more warnings than anything else.

On the drive back, the driver read us two poems actually. Seemed out of the ordinary, but the guy had it all memorized and practiced. One was "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert W. Service - Google it to read it - it's a tall tale. There are lots of stories from this area, and we heard that folks like to tell them. I hate to link sites from here since I have no idea how long they'll be around, but here's one with lots of tales: WriteYukon.com. Overall, Skagway was interesting for its true tales also - it's a very colorful bit of history.

We did a quick trip to the cemetery - heard more about the town's history, and then headed up a hill a ways to see a waterfall. Along the way I noticed a plastic box in a rock crevasse. I uncovered it, and found out it was a geocache. Cool - forgot to mark it, so not sure if it's listed on the main geocache website. Looked new. My mom got interested though - we put in a business card from our hometown and then re-hid the box. Too bad we didn't have anything better to put in there, but we never expected to see a geocache.

Once we ended the tour, ES and I shopped around a bit. I saw a guy that had been in the same shop about 6 hours earlier sitting at a table selling his photo book of the Norther Lights (a.k.a. the aurora). I had no interest in buying the book, but seeing that he hadn't moved in 6 hours I thought I'd ask him a bit about how he takes the pictures. I could tell that it had to be brutal to get the shots. The best time to see the aurora is during the winter, and as close to the Arctic circle as possible. He told me that he uses 5-30 sec. exposures, and the pictures form this book happened to be mostly from around Skagway. He liked to get the landscape illuminated by a full moon to compliment the aurora. And since it gets so cold, he only uses mechanical equipment - batteries immediately die in that kind of cold.

 

Alaska Trip, Day 4, Ketchikan

(Day 04 Photos), our time in Ketchikan was very short, but based on the excursions available, it seemed like the most interesting. In hind sight, that was probably biased since we planned on doing our flightseeing in Ketchikan as my aunt and uncle had done. Flightseeing is a single propeller plane (de Havalland Beavers) which has pontoons allowing it to take off and land on the water. Lots of land in Alaska and Canada nearby are only accessible by this type of airplane. You can rent a cabin in the middle of nowhere, hire this type of plane to fly you and your buddies + gear + food to the cabin, and then stay out there until whenever you want them to come pick you up (1 or 2 weeks, say). Sounds like fun, if you're into fishing (I'm not). Lots of folks freakin' love fishing though, especially in Alaska.

So the problem with our flightseeing was that we had booked it through the cruise line, however due to a crash the company had 1 month prior with 4(?) fatalities, the cruise ship canceled those bookings. We were quite unhappy the day before when we found this out - if we had been informed sooner by phone or email, we could have rearranged for another excursion before leaving on the trip. But now we were stuck with no planned excursion in, what I had thought to be, the city offering the most interesting excursions! Frustrating. DM and JK had planned on doing kayaking anyway, so they were alright. But my parents and ES and I decided we'd just try to get off the boat as early as possible and hire a plane.

We found some tours right off the boat really easily, signed up, and headed out to see the town a bit - we had something like 3 hours before the flight. Got some coffee and breakfast on a hillside restaurant, and poked around at some of the gift shops.

Long story short, we had to fly separately, 2 and 2. We could have flown in the morning, but we opted for a later flight. The main area that these plane tours cover is the Misty Fjords national forest, due East from Ketchikan. The morning was definitely misty.... downright foggy. We went for the later flight thinking some of the fog would burn off. Actually all of it did and we had essentially clear, blue skies. Going in the mist would certainly make for a completely different experience. As it was, we all still saw some neat stuff.

A van picked us up to take us to the "seaplane port," I suppose you'd call it. The driver's boyfriend (significant other, she said) was going to be our pilot. Nice people, actually. The flight was 70 minutes, which included a landing in a remote lake. The landings and takeoffs of these small planes was so smooth. Our pilot landed us in the middle of a lake, while my parents, flying with a different company, actually got off the plane onto the shore of some other lake. I assume there are many lakes out there where these planes land. Our pilot, Brian, let us out of the plane and onto the pontoons, though. That was neat - and he got some pictures for us. The water was quite clear, but I still didn't want to fall in. Then we loaded up and headed back to town. The pictures from this tour are must-see.

We were back on the boat by 1p, I believe, as we departed for Skagway around that time. I took some photos as the boat navigated away from the mooring using its side thrusters until we got under way. The boats have quite a bit of manuverability. Used to be this type of mooring would only be accessible with tugboat assistance, or a craft would have to launch smaller boats to ferry people to shore. Neat engineering to simplify the process.

Then by 3p, we had signed up for some wine tasting. This went quite slowly - everyone but me at our table wanted to slam back the wine and get on with the day, however the guy M.C.'ing the tasting insisted on a slow session. He introduced each wine with many memorized details on the wine's properties, describing how to properly approach the wine, smelling, visual inspection, tasting. And he had some good jokes, too. I didn't mind drinking the wine slowly - it was basically relaxing and probably better pacing for a vacation, vs. the go-go-go attitude. Anyway, fast tasting makes everything blend together. In total, it was 4 wines and 1 desert wine. We kept the desert wine glasses (pictured) - they were nice. I mostly liked the wines they offered, all but one I think.

Finally we ended the day with dinner and drinking. JK had some cold soup that was beef broth. It was congealed, with a jello-like viscosity. He said it wasn't bad tasting, but he'd prefer it warm. I have to say that the food was quite unique, and well presented. The flavor wasn't unbelievable, however there was some good variation to make it interesting - service was good though. We had heard to not expect much RE: the food quality, and that was pretty accurate.

 

Alaska Trip, Day 3, At Sea

(Day 03 Photos), Not a whole lot to say about this day since we were at sea the whole day with not a lot going on outside the ship. It was mostly relaxing. We explored the ship and got familiar with what was where.

I was looking out the balcony and noticed an animal in the water. I got ES and my mom out there and I got some pictures of what ended up being some dolphins. Lots of dolphins, really - perhaps 30-50 of them that we could see on our side of the boat (port side? The left.). At first I was too slow with my camera, but I tried some other settings and got the burst mode going - 5 frames per second. Then I was able to get some neat shots.

We had the formal dinner that evening - see pictures for what we wore. Some people really like the formal dinner, however I didn't think it was any better than the normal dinner nights. Great dinner rolls though - had bleu cheese infused. Dan got a "to go" order of them wrapped in an aluminum foil swan.

Friday, August 24, 2007

 

Alaska Trip, Day 2, Leaving Vancouver

A continuation of the day-by-day blog of my trip to Alaska. A link to pictures is included below...

(Day 02 Photos), Woke up at a reasonable time to go on a morning tour of the city. We thought this would probably be the best way for DM and JK to see Vancouver a bit since they only had that morning before we got on the ship. A tour bus took us to see a few sights in town like a tall building with a look-out deck, Stanley park, and to a fish-market shopping area. We spied the Sapphire Princess from the tall building, n' got some pictures. Stanley park is pretty nice, but we saw a lot of that the day before. This time we saw a suspension bridge which connects Vancouver to North Vancouver, and apparently that's the road to get to Whistler, too.

The fish market / wharf area was fun, though we were really rushed there. One could certainly purchase some fresh vegetables, fish, meat, or anything there, seemed to me. It was a busy area, though I couldn't tell if it was locals or tourists that made it busy.

Finally we got dropped at the dock to get on the ship. Customs went quickly, and we got on board. I had never seen a cruise ship up close before - and it's big. They had huge cranes loading many pallets of food. I could be mistaken, but it appeared that the whole week's worth of food for everyone was loaded right there in Vancouver as most-if-not-all of the other ports we stopped at had no such facilities.

Everyone quickly navigated to their staterooms - our luggage was right there in front of the door, so that made things very easy. If they hadn't shuttled the luggage as they did, I think it would be a huge hassle to get everyone's bags to the right place. When people just get on board, they don't know where they're going, and the hallways are narrow, and they've got a ton of stuff they need to move. This was very smooth. My parents had the room on the left, ES and I had the center room, and then DM and JK had the right most room, all in a row. The balconies were connected, which was really cool. It made it easy to hang out with everyone since we could just run next door and enter through the sliding door vs. knocking on the front door. After everyone assured that their liquor made it through in the checked luggage, we breathed a sigh of relief and headed to the safety meeting. They just covered what to do in emergency.

Finally, at 5p, we embarked towards Ketchikan. They had a party on the top deck as we were leaving Vancouver. Live music, booze, it was a lot of fun. We were all really caught up in the excitement of getting the trip started. I snapped some pictures until we got to the Burrard inlet when it got a bit chilly and I headed back to the room. We had dinner all together plus a couple from Oregon/Arizona.

 

Alaska Trip, Day 1

I decided to post a series of entries for the recent Alaskan cruise I went on with family + ES.

(Day 01 Photos), got up at 3:30a to make a 6a flight to Vancouver. Flew on Alaska airlines, everything went smoothly. Checked in 3 bags; I usually avoid checking bags, but we needed a lot of stuff for this trip. We got stuck in line at baggage check behind this family with 4 kids, all under 6 - ES later accurately identified it as a litter. They just had a mountain of luggage, and the kids were all clamoring for various amounts of attention. Took them nearly 20 min to just get their bags checked.

Arrived at 9:15a, and had the whole day to see Vancouver. Took a cab from the airport, and the driver was the nicest guy - told us all about Vancouver. He'd lived in many cities around the world, but Vancouver was where he was staying. First song when we got into the taxicab: something by Celine Dion. Oh Canada!

My parents met us as we arrived at the hotel - it was a very nice place with views over Coal Harbor. There was a sea plane company running flightseeing tours with take-offs every 10 minutes or so. It is really a sight to see those planes land and take off from the water - actually every single stop we made on this trip had sea planes. 1 in 6 people in Alaska have a pilot's license, and 1 in 34 owns a plane.

We all took a little walk, and split ways. ES and I hiked around Stanley Park - it's a nice park area within walking distance of the west end of Vancouver, as it's called. Swans, geese, ducks, were all in there. There is an area called "seawall" on which a mason supposedly worked for 36 years of his life. Then we saw signs that it was "closed" since it was "unsafe." Bummer for that dude :)

Found a bike rental place - too bad we didn't find that sooner, since it would have been fun to bike around and see even more of the city.

Saw a tree growing on what looked like the 25th floor of a condo - BIG tree, too. Then had some lunch at a bar looking out into English bay, and headed back to the hotel. Went out to dinner - couldn't convince my parents to try Brazilian BBQ, so we had some great food (and superb service) at a place called, the keg, i think.

ES and I walked around town after dinner - it was a Friday night, and the streets were packed with people shopping. Got some liquor to take on the boat - 3 flasks of rum!

Brother and his friend made it to town after dinner, so after saying, "hi," ES and I called it a night.

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