Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Alaska Day Ten: Juneau

I'm sitting in front of my balcony window as we cruise rather rapidly through the Frederick Sound, an area that John Muir described as "countless forest-clad islands." He described sailing through these waters well:
"The ordinary discomforts of a sea-voyage are not felt, for nearly all the whole way long is on inland waters that are about as waveless as rivers and lakes. So numerous are the islands that they seem to be sown broadcast: long tapering views between the largest of them open in every direction."

We left Juneau about three hours ago, so following our naturalist's advice, we are looking for humpback whales in this area, which sometimes show up off the starboard side, where our balcony is conveniently located. So we are watching for the tell-tale sign of a puff of "steam" erupting from the water as the whales surface for air. So far, nothing.

In another hour we will participate in the highly cultured feeding frenzy of homo sapiens as they gather in the dining room for our second "formal night" on board. Tonight we shall dine on lobster, I understand.

We've been back on the boat since about 1:30 PM, following a morning of walking throughout Alaska's capital. We docked around 6:00 AM, just as we were waking. It was 52 degrees and raining. That did not stop us from going ashore for the day. It did affect our plans. We determined to stay in town and not take the shuttle out to the Mendenhall Glacier. For several hours we walked about town, dropping into art galleries, museums, and several visitors' centers. At the center located inside the Centennial Hall we inquired about walking trails accessible from the city. We received some excellent advice about a path that had not appeared in any of our literature -- The Flume Trail.

We climbed up the hill leading out of town and walked about three-quarters of a mile to the trailhead for the Mount Roberts trail. Across the road was the beginning of the Flume Trail, and mile and a half of boardwalk built in the rainforest on the side of a mountain overlooking a loud, white, rushing stream. Looking to the left, down the mountain, it was as if we were walking in the canopy of the forest. The upper third of the tall spruces and alders were at our eye level. To our right we were eye-to-eye with the roots and trunks of those growing higher on the mountain. The light rain continued to fall as we walked.

The trail emptied out in the Evergreen Cemetery, where the town founders now reside. We then wandered back through town to the docks and boarded our ship just in time to be seated for the luncheon served in the International Dining Room where we take our evening meals. We were seated with a man and his wife, Canadians from Vancouver. We began the usual chit-chat and learned that he was an artist and a nature photographer who had made thirty-two cruises up and down this coast while working for a cruise line. His wife simply announced, "I'm a shaman." I'd never had lunch with a shaman before. I had a thousand questions, none of which would have been appropriately polite in this cultured setting. She offered that she wrote poetry inspired by her shamanic "journeys." It was all so matter-of-fact.

Melinda looks lovely, dressed for the formal dinner tonight, wielding binoculars, scouting for sea mammals. I need to prepare for the same.

We will arrive in Ketchikan at 9:15 in the morning. We hope to see some salmon making their way from the sea to the rivers and to watch some native Alaskans demonstrating their way of life in a Tlinget village.

News item: Taylor and Amber emailed us to inform us that our grandchild, expected in November, is going to be another boy. Wow! Two of each!

Alaska Day 9: Skagway

Tuesday morning we woke up, opened our curtains to see that we were staring at a stone wall. Sometime during the early morning hours we docked at Skagway. We ate a quick breakfast and then walked across the gangway to a waiting train. The WP&Y (White Pass & Yukon) Railway train was departing at 8:10 to take us the twenty miles from sea level to the summit of White Pass at nearly 2900 feet. The ascent was breathtaking, as the narrow gauge train wound its way around mountain precipices, across wooden trestles, through two tunnels, alongside the Skagway River, and past tumbling waterfalls.

At the end of the line the engine disconnected from the train, passed us by on a sidetrack, and reconnected on the other end. Inside we passengers stood, folded our seat backs over so that they now faced the opposite direction, and exchanged places with the people across the aisle so that we would have a view of the scenery on the other side as we returned.

This railroad was built in two years (1898 and 1899) to take people and supplies north to make the journey into the Yukon following the Klondike Gold Rush. It has been selected as one of the civil engineering marvels of the world alongside such structures as the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the Panama Canal. The bridges and trestles span enormous gorges and masses of solid granite had to be removed to make way for the rails.

The train had us back to our ship by lunch time. We went back on board, ate lunch, and rested a while. Then we left again to find the Dewey Lake trail system just outside Skagway, and spent the afternoon hiking alongside loud mountain streams and deep green spruce forests. The climb was a bit strenuous, but it was worth it.

The trail eventually emptied us out on the streets of Skagway. We found the local Starbucks and visited the museum sponsored by the National Parks Service commemorating the Klondike Gold Rush. They had a film describing the event and then a park ranger delivered a lecture with photographs and quotations from letters written by a man from Detroit who participated in the insanity.

A short walk brought us back to the Diamond Princess and we changed clothes and joined our dining partners in the International Dining Room for "Italian night."

The interaction with creation that this cruise affords makes it worth the investment. Naturalist John Muir said that Nature has lit the fire and spread the table, inviting us to warm ourselves and feast. That is what the Alaskan wilderness offers so lavishly.

We have now set sail from Skagway and are cruising toward Juneau. We shall arrive early tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Alaska Day 8: Glacier Bay National Park

I grazed like a moose today. First breakfast was a continental one delivered to our stateroom. Then we went up to the forward deck for whale watching. At 8:00 AM we were entering the Icy Straits on our way into Glacier Bay National Park. Today was the reason I have wanted to come to Alaska. It was everything I had hoped it would be. The weather was so beautiful that the guides, park rangers, and our ship’s naturalist kept going on about it. We saw dozens of humpback whales, some just off the port side of our ship. We saw bears, sea otters, steller sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagles, puffin, and a dozen other kind of water fowl. By 10:00 it was time for second breakfast, so we got a plate of Belgian waffles and cups of coffee that were being served on the deck.

We’d been standing in a cold wind for a couple of hours and enjoyed the opportunity to sit for a while. At 10:00 a team of National Park Rangers joined our ship for the day. One of them, Laurie, offered an lecture about Glacier Bay National Park at 11:00, so we took advantage of that. She was outstanding.

The voyage into the park took us past more wildlife and several active glaciers. The scenery was magnificent. (I need more adjectives.) The bay was formed by glaciers and was filled with one as recently as two hundred years ago. These glaciers began a rapid retreat over the past two centuries and the valley they had created is now filled with a deep turquoise water. The shoreline is made up of cliffs and mountains, still covered in snow. Waterfall descend hundreds of feet delivering melted snow to the bay. The end of the trip was the Margerie Glacier, an enormous tide water glacier that extends more than sixty miles back into the ice fields around Mt. Fairweather. Our ship sat in the bay for an hour or so, allowing us to watch the calving of the glacier. A loud crack like the sound of shotgun would be announce portions of the glacier breaking off and falling hundreds of feet into the water. Then a sound like thunder would follow. The ranger estimated that one of the pieces we saw fall was 250 feet high.

During the journey into the park, most of the action was on the port side of the ship, so we remained on the deck. But for the trip out, we returned to our starboard side state room and sat on the balcony as we watched the sights roll by once more. (It was now 2:00 and time for another trip to buffet. We brought pizza and a salad back to our room.) The captain took us up the Johns Hopkins Inlet (named for the university) to see the Johns Hopkins Glacier. This sight was perhaps the most awe-inspiring vistas so far. The huge glacier wound back into the mountains. Two large, jagged, snow-covered peaks loomed behind it. The water in front of it was the deep aqua blue. Once more the captain allowed the ship to sit at rest while we took it in.

At 5:30, we hit the buffet line again for a light snack and then joined the park rangers on the forward deck for wildlife viewing again. The rangers left the boat at 7:15 and our ship’s naturalist took over again. The whales were plentiful again. She claimed this was the best day of whale sightings she has had.

By 8:15 it was time to (guess what?) eat again. We changed into appropriate attire and joined our British friends and another Pennsylvanian couple for dinner. I had only a soup and salad. For some reason I was not all that hungry.

Melinda asked our head waiter (Luis, from Mexico) half-jokingly when we were going to have Mexican food on the menu. He told her that was not scheduled, but that he would take care of that for her. So Thursday night she is having vegetarian fajitas.

So now it is 11:30 and we have an early train to catch. More tomorrow.

Alaska Day 6: Talkeetna to the Diamond Princess

While we’re on the ship our postings will be limited to descriptions. At seventy-five cents a minute, the Internet connection will be as brief as possible. I’ll edit these posts and add photos later.

We stayed up late last night to watch the sun set behind Mt. McKinley around 11:15 PM. The majestic mountain revealed itself to us for the third straight day, which all the locals found amazing. The best view of the day was near sunset, when the entire mountain range was clearly in sight, but at the very moment of sunset a cloud moved between us and Denali and obscured its peaks.

This morning was cold and heavily overcast, so after breakfast we just hung out in our room and in the lodge waiting for our 11:30 AM coach to take us to Talkeetna to catch the Alaska Railway train to Whittier.

The “train station” from Talkeetna was simply a gravel parking lot with some logs for benches. Our coach arrived a few minutes before the train. Before long five hundred people were boarded and headed toward Whittier for the Diamond Princess.

The rail journey took us through some beautiful wilderness areas. But it was the final stretch between Anchorage and Whittier that was the most amazing. Our path followed alongside the Turnagain Arm, an inlet with tide variance that is second only to the Bay of Fundi. The difference between high and low tide may differ as much as 35 feet, and it all comes in at once in a huge wave called a bore tide that surfers sometimes ride into the bay. The water fills the miles and miles of the bay. When the tide is out the mud flats are exposed. The mud is made up of a fine flour-like dust from glaciers, deposited over thousands of years. The mud is several thousand feet deep, and to attempt to walk on it is to guarantee death. You cannot be extracted from it. Signs along the way issue the warning.

As we passed by the bore tide was coming in and the bay was quickly filling with water. Snow-covered mountains surrounded the huge bay and waterfalls of snow melt rushed down to meet the incoming sea water. A bald eagle flew over the clear dome of our railcar. Dall sheep clung to the steep rock cliff that rose up on our left.

The last bit of the journey was through solid rock. The train passed through two miles of tunnel that brought us out into the fjord where the Diamond Princess was moored. No other ship was present. In minutes we were passing through security and boarding the vessel that would be our home for the next week.

We found our room, found some food, walked about the ship for a while to get our bearings, and then retired for the night.

Alaska Day 7: Sunday on the Diamond Princess

We started the day in the Wheelhouse Bar. That’s where the interdenominational worship service was held. One of the ship’s cruise directors conducted a service of hymns and Scripture reading, with a brief exhortation. At 9:30 we were required to report with our life jackets in tow to a “muster drill,” telling us what to do in the event of an emergency (a little less reassuring than the typical safety drill on airliners). At 11:30 we attended a lecture by the ship’s naturalist, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable lover of Alaskan flora and fauna. She narrates portions of our cruise from the bridge, pointing out whales and otters and bears (oh, my!).

After lunch we fought the crowds in the buffet and then went to the forward deck to watch wildlife as we sailed into Yakutat Bay. It was cold and rainy for the first time today. We were supposed to see the Hubbard Glacier, but we were unable to do so. We endured the cold, misty voyage into the bay and enjoyed it nevertheless. Dinner was formal tonight, so we returned to our room and changed. We met two of our dining partners (Jerry and Edwina from London). The other four chairs at our table remained empty. We also met our friendly waitstaff who hail from Thailand, the Philippines, and Mexico.

We left dinner and went to the theater for a presentation of Piano Man. Then back to bed in preparation for a long day of viewing Alaska from aboard the ship.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Alaska Day 5: Slow Down

Today is intentionally slow -- late breakfast (7:30), hiking the walking trails adjacent to the lodge property, some reading, then lunch. Right now (2:00 PM) I'm sitting in the Great Room of the lodge where the WiFi is available and Melinda's returned to the walking paths with the camera to capture some of the colorful Alaskan wildflowers we saw this morning.

The peaks of Denali are occasionally visible through the heavy clouds. This morning the cloud cover was so heavy we saw no blue sky at all. Things are clearing some now. We may have a mountain again by the time the afternoon is over.

Here are some fun facts about Denali. The lower summit was first reached in 1910, the higher one in 1913. It has been scaled by an 11 year old boy, a 12 year old girl, a 70 year old man and wife, and a man who was a double amputee. No excuses. Although the earth has more than 20 other peaks higher than Denali, most in Tibet, its mass is greater than Everest. The summit of Everest is 29,029 feet above sea level and Denali only 20, 320. But the base of Everest is at 17,000 feet above sea level and Denali only 2,000. It is sometimes visible from as far away as Fairbanks (150 miles) and Anchorage. The first team of climbers who reached the summit included Hudson Stuck, who was born in Paddington, England, but who immigrated to Texas and served as an Episcopal priest in Cuero and Dallas.

Well, Denali is back in the clouds and I'm going to sit outside and finish The Diary of a Country Priest. Tomorrow we take the shuttle in to Talkeetna and then board the train for a four hour trip to Whittier, where we will board our ship and begin the cruise home. Thanks again to all who made this journey possible. Wish you all could be here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Alaska Day 4: On to McKinley Wilderness Lodge

Alaska Day 4 began with an early breakfast and a morning of hiking. We walked from our lodge, across the Nenana River to the Horseshoe Lake trail. We'd seen the lake when we first arrived, since the railroad passes just above it. As we passed it on Tuesday we saw a cow moose wading in the waters. The hike took us to an overlook and then down to the lake itself. From the overlook we could see our lodge across the river. A family of beavers had dammed up the far end of the lake.

Retracing our steps, we came to the trailhead for the Taiga Trail that would take us back to the DNP Visitor's Center. We arrived just in time to catch a film about Alaska through the four seasons, drink a cup of excellent coffee (plenty of coffee shops here with good coffee. Starbuck's is absent), and then catch the McKinley Station Trail back to our lodge where we ate lunch and waited for the coach that would take us to our next lodge.

The drive from the Denali Wilderness Lodge to the McKinley Wilderness Lodge took about two hours. We were once more blessed with perfect weather and indescribable scenery. As we approached our lodge we could once more see Denali clearly above the clouds. We checked into our rooms and gathered with dozens of others on the deck of the main lodge to gaze at this giant mountain, towering 18,000 feet above the smaller ones in the foreground. We were only 40 miles away this time, about as close as you can get without hiking in. Denali currently has 238 climbers on the slopes attempting to attain the summit. The success rate this year is just under 50%. The photos cannot do the scene justice. The white mass in the middle of the background IS the mountain, with clouds on either side and at its feet. (You might find some better photos by visiting the blog of one of our traveling companions who has a much more powerful camera.)

In an hour or so, the clouds once more cloaked the mountain and we retired to the Mountain View Restaurant for another delicious meal.

Tomorrow many in our group are heading out for one excursion or another. We plan to stay here, do some hiking, reading, and writing. We have so much to take in.

The Tundra Tour

We had to get started early for this day -- up by 5:30, breakfast, and then board the National Parks Tundra Tour Bus with driver and guide Rick Miller for a sixty-mile, eight hour drive deep into the 6 million acres that is Denali National Park. We hoped for sightings of Denali’s “big five”: caribou, grizzly bear, moose, Dall sheep, and gray wolves. First prize, though, would be a glimpse at Mt. McKinley, known as “Denali” (the great one) to the native Alaskan people.

Denali must have been a mysterious entity to those ancient people. It rises to more than 20,000 feet, bright white and cloud-like always. But this largest mountain in North America has the capacity to disappear. So much moisture accumulates on its slopes that it creates its own weather, forming clouds that cloak its very presence. Now you see it; now you don’t. Four of five visitors to the park never get to see the giant. And only three or four days of the summer is it completely visible. Today was one of those days.

We were only a half hour into our drive when Rick, our guide said, “It is going to be a good day today. You’ll be able to see Mt. McKinley. I know that because I can see it now.” He pulled the bus over for us to look. From eighty miles away its two peaks towered over the closer range. Even uncovered the mountain was deceptive. It would have been easy to have missed it, taking it for a large white cloud bank on the horizon.

Later in the day, from a perspective many miles closer, we could see nothing. The giant had shrouded itself in a cloak of invisibility and was no longer willing to be seen.

Along the way we paused to see caribou grazing on the tundra, to observe golden eagles in flight just beside us on the mountain, to watch a cow moose gathering leaves from a willow, to notice blond grizzlies sun bathing on the side of a mountain, to witness two Dall rams butting heads while others perched on a mountainside looked on, to see wolf pups wrestling on the gravel of a braided river bed, and to attend to a gray wolf hunting ground squirrels or snowshoe hare right beside us on the road. We saw the big five.

Roadways were littered with Alaska’s wildflowers in their prime -- red Arctic Roses, Bluebells, yellow Cinquefoil, purple Lupine, red Eskimo Potato, white Dwarf Dogwood, and pink Fireweed. Until we passed the 3000 foot tree line, we saw the thick forests of spruce, alder, and birch. Above the tree line we entered the low vegetation of the tundra.

We returned to the Visitors’ Center for a dog sled demonstration. DNP is the only national park with a kennel. They have twenty-nine sled dogs that work hard during the winter patrolling the park and hauling materials in an -30 degree Fahrenheit environment unfriendly to both humans and machines. The demo run the dogs made included a “lead dog in training” who is not quite there yet. Almost back to the finish line she had a fight with a dog behind her and brought the sled to a temporary halt.

We got back just in time for our scheduled 6:09 PM dinner reservation (the restaurant manager run his reservation schedule like golf tee times). Wonderful food -- sea salt seared salmon with a delicious sauce over risotto (Melinda) and Asiago-crusted halibut over risotto (Robert), followed by homemade blue berry ice cream and coffee.

Tomorrow is a leisurely morning that will probably involve an early hike around Horseshoe Lake, followed by a two hour coach ride to McKinley Wilderness Lodge for a couple of days. I’m forgetting what the real world is like. I’ll probably need to be retrained.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fairbanks to Denali

I am choosing these words carefully, after considerable reflection. I have lived more than 21,000 days. Today was in the top 50, perhaps the top 25 of them. It was an amazing day. Seriously. Way up there.

Melinda and I were up early and had our bags ready to be picked up by 6:00 AM. We grabbed a cup of coffee and prepared for the day. By 7:20 we were on our bus along with the 41 other members of our tour. making our way to the rail depot in Fairbanks. The weather was perfect. Perfect.

We boarded one of the Princess Ultra Dome rail cars attached to Alaska Railroad’s Midnight Sun Express to make the four hour, 125 mile trip from Fairbanks to Denali National Park, my first trip by rail. We were seated at a table on the upper deck across from Norm and Sally, travelers from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. They have been married only three years. Norm is 90 and Sally is only 84. He kept referring to me as “young man.” They were old enough to be our parents. (Aside, we are one of the two youngest couples on this tour.)

About thirty minutes after leaving the station we were invited below to have breakfast in the dining area. I had a breakfast skillet of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, onions, cheese, peppers, and reindeer sausage. Melinda had the blueberry “flapjacks” with reindeer sausage. (Reindeer and caribou are the same animal, but reindeer are domesticated. I don’t know if it was Dancer or Prancer, but it was good.)

After breakfast we took the stairs back to the upper deck and watched an endless parade of the most beautiful country you can imagine pass by our eyes. A gray, glacial melt river ran beside us much of the way. Tall, thin birches and spruces crowded the valleys and mountain sides like so many blades of grass. Civilization seldom showed its face. The parade lasted four hours and only got better as we drew near our destination.

At the Denali Wilderness Lodge we moved into our rooms, shared a light lunch at the King Salmon Restaurant (one of the best portobello mushroom sandwiches I’ve ever had), and took the shuttle to the Visitors’ Center at Denali National Park. We selected a trail and hiked in the mountains for the next two hours. The trails were lined with wild roses, dwarf dogwoods, and a thousand other wildflowers in yellows, blues, and white. Around 5:00 we returned to our lodge. I drank an Americano and answered email in the foyer of the lodge, looking out on the river and mountains as we waited for our dinner theater experience.

Dinner was served family style (cole slaw, biscuits, bbq ribs, baked salmon, corn on the cob, and garlic mashed potatoes, followed by strawberry shortcake and coffee). Then our serving staff performed “The Music of Denali,” a musical account of the first mountaineers to scale the tallest peak in North America.

It is 9:00 PM, and still daylight as I write. Melinda has fallen asleep on the couch and I’m pretty tired. Beautiful weather, indescribable scenery, train rides, hiking, great food all shared with her. Really, one of the top 25. Maybe 20.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Alaska or Bust

Last year about this time the people of University Baptist Church expressed their generosity to Melinda and me by giving us an Alaskan Cruisetour with the Princess line. It was a going away present after our partnership of nearly 23 years. I have told people they gave it to me for leaving, but that doesn’t sound quite right.

After a year of waiting and anticipating, the day finally came. On Sunday we drove from Waco to Dallas, flew on Alaskan Air from DFW to Seattle and then on to Fairbanks. When we left Seattle we were greeted with some amazing sights of huge mountain peaks protruding through the solid cloud cover and into the blue sky through which we were flying.

We were taken to the Fairbanks Princess Lodge at about 10:00 PM. It was still broad daylight, and remained so until nearly 1:00 AM. It never really did get dark.

Today, June 21, is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The people of Fairbanks celebrate that big time. Yesterday they held a huge fun run (Midnight Sun Run) and tonight some semi-pro baseball players will play a traditional game beginning at 10:30 and played past midnight with no lights. At midnight they’ll pause to sing the Alaskan flag song and then continue with the game.

Fairbanks is a city in a valley of about 35,000 proper, with another 97,000 or so living in the surrounding hills. It is Alaska’s second largest city, behind Anchorage. Today was a beautiful sunny day, with temps in the upper 70s. It can reach 90 in the summer and -60 in the winter. We are only 200 miles form the Arctic Circle.

This morning we met with our tour group for breakfast and then went by bus to the river boat dock where we boarded the Discovery III, run by a family who has been steering stern-wheelers up and down the Chena, Tanana, and Yukon Rivers for 110 years. We paddled down stream for an hour and a half to where the Chena and Tanana Rivers joined.

Along the way we stopped beside the home of Steve Butcher, a musher and sled dog trainer who lives with his daughters in a log cabin beside the river. Steve’s wife, Susan, is a legend. She won the grueling Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race four out of five years in 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1990. She died of leukemia in 2006. Steve did a demonstration of his dog training and talked to us from the shore via radio. Later, when we returned, Lance Mackey, a four-time Iditarod winner and the current musher superstar was on the dock to greet us.

We watched a bush pilot take off and land his Piper Supercub on the Chena River and we ate some smoked salmon with cream cheese. We also docked at a replica of an Athabascan Indian village and debarked to visit the place.

After lunch Melinda and I took a shuttle to downtown Fairbanks and went on a walking tour of the city for a couple of hours, stopping for some freshly roasted coffee at McCafferty’s in downtown. Tonight we have a three course meal awaiting us and then we’ll hang out beside the river for another glimpse of the Midnight Sun.

Tomorrow morning we board a train for a four hour trip to Denali National Park. If we are blessed with another beautiful day like today, we will be able to see the mountain (Denali, also known as Mt. McKinley) that is often cloaked in a mist. More tomorrow.