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Alaska

Alaska, the last great wilderness, or as John Muir said “To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world”. This mythical area was next on our wanderings, a mere 4 days after landing back in Vancouver from our explorative and adventurous Yukon trip. In the 4 days in-between we had worked, packed up, cleared up, partied our goodbyes and left Vancouver to begin our 5 months backpacker trip home via the America’s.

Unlike what is to be a more rough and ready, stuff all your belongings into a 60 litre bag, turn up in a city and wonder how to get to an eclectic and eccentric hostel, we had given ourselves one last parting gift in the form of a 10 day cruise from Vancouver, up to Alaska, before heading south finally alighting in San Francisco.

Purchased in 1867 for $7.2 million from the Russians to become America’s 49th state, this great landmass spans over 586,000 square miles, is inhabited in only 5.3% of its phenomenal landmass, and is home to some amazingly adaptive creatures and amazingly awe-inspiring scenery.

As we departed, teary eyed from Vancouver late on Saturday we wandered around the 10 floor bulking cruise liner and wondered if 24 room service really was free, if we really could dine at 4 course exquisitely decorated dining rooms, where the gym was, what temperatures the sauna, outdoor and indoor jacuzzi’s were, and what time the 12 station buffet closed (it turns out it only closes for 15 minutes between 5pm and 5:15pm).

Was this really us, was this what we were after, could Hannah take in the obvious show of money and glorification? Maybe not, but now we were on board we decided to revel in the fact that we could order chocolate cookies at 10pm to our door and enjoy as much of the time as possible. It also served two other purposes; firstly that it would be a great time to relax and recuperate after a manic fortnight previously; and secondly that we would be seeing Alaska and some of the coastal cities and history that surrounds the area. Some of these cities and towns are only accessible by sea – in fact Juneau, the state capital, has no roads leading in or out of it, and thus it would be the easiest way to see some of the core sights of the state.

Our itinerary was in the form of the following plan:

  • Day 1: Depart Vancouver
  • Day 2: Day at sea
  • Day 3: Juneau
  • Day 4: Skagway
  • Day 5: Glacier Bay
  • Day 6: Ketchikan
  • Day 7: Day at sea
  • Day 8: Vancouver
  • Day 9: Astoria
  • Day 10: Day at sea
  • Day 11: Alight in San Francisco

With a slight rocky evening as we left our home for the past 2 years, the first day at sea opened our eyes to what luxury cruising is all about. As I headed off to take the crown at the 10am table tennis tournament, before wandering past the champagne art auction and talks on diamonds, landing at the 3pm mixology class we couldn’t quite take everything happening on board. Live piano, solo guitarists, or late night discos and cabarets meant that boredom was stemmed some what, and although I had forgotten by Tuxedo for formal night, the casual dress down buffet served us well for dinner and we enjoyed and relaxed on board.

As we embarked at the state capital of Juneau early on the next day Han and I headed to the tourist information, wandered around the town, took a hike up Mount Roberts, just one of the local mountains that almost completely surround the town, and tried to work off some of the previous days gluttonous indulgences.
After the relatively steep but short hike to the top, and a local tram back down, we jumped on a local bus to visit Mendenhall Glacier. ‘If there was ever a reason for the “see it before it melts” motto’, our guide book wrote “ … it is this glacier”. Receeding 600 feet in 2004, this stunning glacier is framed by a rushing thunderous waterfall to one side, and often has ‘small’ icebergs (the size of a small trucks) floating away on the lake in-front of the mystical blue and white frozen edifice. It was well worth a visit, with some enchanting and smooth eagle watching thrown in, we really enjoyed the little excursion.

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Being the bureaucratic centre for the state, the city can boast a year round population of 3000 (rising to 5000 in summer), and certainly does not solely rely on summer tourist throughput as much as some of the other towns we were to visit. This was evident in the spread of city and the skyline of higher, greyer and more officious looking buildings that gave a front drop to the dramatic mountainous backdrop.

Nevertheless, with over 20000 tourists pushing through its centre yearly, the main downtown area houses the usual array of tacky tourist shops, diamond touting stores and your fair share of bars and taverns. One of the most famous, originally for being the oldest, but now I suspect being so tackily overdressed that it actually works, is the sawdust floored Red Dog Saloon. As we settled in to table overlooking this wondrous colourful scene of cleavage popping servers and a live humorous country singer, we ordered a couple of local beers and laughed and cajoled along with the crowd.

Wandering back on board in time for the next food serving, the ship slowly pulled away and 2 whales swam with us for a short time, blowing water and dazzling us with their flukes, giving the 2000 passengers a wildlife visual feast. It wouldn’t be the last time we saw a whale on the cruise; sightings were often passed around the ship in some form of magical chinee whispers; news of sightings seemed to propogate amongst the passenges without any real verbal communication. Later we settled down, stuck a film on and dozed off to sleep

We struck anchor at 7am the next morning in Skagway, a town of only around 900 permanent residents, and practiced our routine of finding the tourist information, finding out about a local hike, and asking about what other adventures can be had. Before departing Vancouver I had spoke to my uncle who has taken a few of these cruises in the past, and he mentioned the only one he would want to recommend is the narrow gauge railway in Skagway that heads north on the way to Whitehorse (in the Yukon), stopping at the Canadian border before turning around and heading back the same way.

It was with this is mind that we booked ourselves on for the 12:45 trip, allowing us 3-4 hours to hike up to mirror-like Dewey Lake, trek through the rough trail system around that area, before heading back to ‘take the train’.

Built in 1898 in just 2 years, financially backed by the British, engineered by the Americans and contracted to the Canadians, to support the ever growing amount of stampeeders who were in search of gold northwards in the Yukon and to join up the two cities of Whitehorse and Skagway, the train line is am amazing feat of engineering twisting and turning up the immense valley 110mils to the North. We were only taking the initial 20miles but in that distance we crossed 3 tressle bridges and went through two mountainous tunnels, climbing a staggering 3000 feet with an average incline of almost 4%. The narrow gauge railway, one of only 3 still working in the Northern America, rickety rocks you slowly up through the scenery as the guides chat away to you about the history, stories and geography surrounding the area. It was a great splurge for us and well worth the trip.

By the time we got back into town, we had time for another small hike to Smugglers Cove across the water and Yukatana Point before once again alighting and sleeping our way through the evening, in preparation for the visual feast that was to be Glacier Bay the next day.

We awoke at around 8am to a wondrous site of white peaked mountains majestically rising above and beyond sight from our room balcony, slowly drifting past tree lines smaller hills, islands and outcrops, while a warming sun and calm waters were invitingly asking us to take in the scene and enjoy the day out on deck. The day, although entirely ‘at sea’ with no port stops, was taken up with moving in and out of various Glacier Bay coves, stopping at 3 or 4 glaciers, while day long tannoy commentary by Glacier Bay park rangers who had climbed aboard earlier was enlightening us and placing the views and scenes into context with the history, sounds and wildlife.

We were lucky, September up North in Alaska can be harsh and biting, but with the sun being out, although a chill was definitely in the air, we could enjoy the sights out on deck and we had a great day seeing the glaciers as they made their gun-shot-like cracking and popping, watching ice sheets fall off into the water with amazing grace and elegance, seeing seals lazing around on icebergs floating in the water, seeing a grizzly on shore wondering along the coast and in one far off moment, seeing 5 white specks that we were informed were mountain goats grazing on a steep grass slope. After 6 hours the ship dropped off the park rangers back at their base camp and we were once again out at sea, making our way North one final time to Ketchikan, before heading South back to Vancouver a couple of days later.

There’s an old Ketchikan joke that goes:
Tourist to a young Ketchikan girl “How long has it been raining here?”
“How am I supposed to know, I’m only 5”

And so it was that the town did not disappoint as we alighted to cold, grey, wet leg soaking weather. We had an original plan of hiking up the local mountain (as per protocol) but seeing as we couldn’t see the top of the relatively low peak, we decided to scrap that plan and wander around the ‘Salmon capital of the world’.

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Originally a harsh rough and tumble town that has its roots in commercial logging and fishing, and only more recently slightly spruced up for the booming tourist industry, you can see still the old sawmills and canneries that line the opposite shores slightly away from downtown, and the town still has a feeling that some of this history lives and breathes beneath the downtown boutiques and tourist salmon shops with a harsh way of living present still being taken up by many of the residents.

We first huddled up and shuffled to Creek Street, the main tourist attraction in downtown. The ‘street’ that sits over a river used to be a source of solicitous gambling, drinking and ‘the oldest profession in the world’, with some shops having trapdoors where sailors could sail beneath late at night to get get crates of alcohol or otherwise. But it also is a great platform to watch the thousands of salmon attempting to make their amazing journey upstream to lay their eggs before dying. The river was literally swarming with salmon jumping and flipping up the rapids; it was lined on the shores by ones that had either failed or accepted the shore was far enough; with seagulls and a couple of seals feasting off the masses. It was quite an amazing sight that we had both heard of, but, as always, was vastly different to see.

We tried to get slightly away from the main tourist drag however and had a nice walk along the soaking rain driven pier and up into the fish hatcheries and fish ladders a kilometre inland, before trying some free samples of the freshly caught salmon then alighting back on deck and into the dry and warmth of our state cabin.

With the next day at sea being one of the usual luxury, jacuzzi driven splurge and gluttony, we enjoyed some films, some cruise-ship-esque stage magic and the usual array of relaxation and imbibing before getting excited to pop back to Vancouver one last time. However as we slowly cruised southwardly with an umbrella of intermittent grey and blue dotting the sky were were graced by a playful pod of 30-40 dolphins who jumped, flipped and soared over the waves the cruise ship was making, thoroughly enjoying the water playround that the ship was creating for them. This went on for 3-4 minutes, when seemingly unspoken they all at once didn’t pop up again and were gone. It was an amazing sight and it really placed a proverbial nail in the visual coffin for the trip.

In Vancouver we were meeting up with our friends for brunch and coffee, before finally accepting that we were backpacking for 5-6 months and leaving our home for the past 2 years in its stereotypical ‘I heart raincloud Vancouver t-shirt’ way.

Alaska had been home to set of sights that are unique unto itself – the scale, the size, the mountainous backdrops to the harsh logging and fishery towns and the wildlife that inhabit this deserted state, both amaze and astound me, and have a much slower pace of life that is in no rush to catch up with the fast paced ways of the crowded city living elsewhere. I liked it, I loved it, I enjoyed our way of seeing it, I occasionally got soaked in the rain from it, but most of all, I appreciated what humans have done in the past to live in it.