Land of the Midnight Sun – Alaska, May 2019
What more can be said of a state which boasts 20 indigenous languages, has 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the United States (one of which is the highest in North America - Denali - at 20,320’), imposes no state income tax AND has an annual dividend payout to eligible residents? All this and awesome scenery which attracts millions of visitors each year. Not too shabby a travel destination for sure, and one I’m exploring for the next couple of weeks. This latest journey begins in Vancouver, Canada after boarding the newly-refurbished Celebrity Millennium just back from Asia and beginning her Alaska cruising season. As many times as I have visited this wondrous state, it’s my first time seeing it from the deck of a cruise ship….. I can’t wait.
Once settled into my port (left) side ocean-view cabin, I quickly unpacked before making a beeline to the Cosmos Lounge on deck 11, to watch the spectacular departure of our ship as she slowly slipped into Burrard Inlet, sailing under the Lions Gate Bridge and finally into the Strait of Georgia, heading north to our
first port of call in two days’ time.
Located just 679 miles north of Seattle and 235 miles south of Juneau, with a population of 8,245 permanent residents, Ketchikan is truly the beginning of the last frontier. Set at the southernmost entrance to Alaska's famed Inside Passage - a network of waterways that snake through some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful wilderness in the world - it is best known for three things: feisty salmon, idyllic scenery and an incredibly rich Alaska Native culture. The evidence of Native Alaskans is to be found everywhere here, from a colorfully painted city bus to Chief Johnson’s Totem Pole at the center of town; not to mention Ketchikan boasts the largest number of totem poles in the entire state, a collection that includes recently carved poles and some that are more than 100 years old. The Totem Heritage Center, which offers classes in Native arts, houses a large collection of artifacts, including several ancient totem poles, cedar bark baskets, beaded regalia, button robes, and other beautifully hand-crafted works of art.
As a result of the thriving, century-old commercial fishery, Ketchikan is known as
“The Salmon Capital of the World”, and locals are passionate about providing opportunities for visitors to catch and/or eat the best seafood on the planet. It is also a photographer’s dream: point a camera in just about any direction and you’ll capture an image suitable for framing. Misty Fjords National Monument with achingly blue lakes, and snowcapped mountaintops often shrouded in an ethereal mist, is the most beautiful jewel in the city’s crown. Ketchikan is located in the midst of the Tongass National Forest, a 17 million acre rainforest full of lush cedar, Sitka spruce, waterfalls, and wildlife. For local Native Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian artists, the Tongass Rainforest provides red cedar logs for totem poles and the cedar bark and spruce roots used in traditional basket weaving. The Native arts are thriving here and there are several museum collections and totem parks that showcase both ancient and more contemporary works. This art scene is not limited to just Native arts - an astonishing number of residents participate in Ketchikan’s art scene, which encompasses the full spectrum of visual and performing arts. A little bit of history:
Kitschk-hin, meaning “creek of the thundering wings
of an eagle”served as a summer fish camp for Tlingit natives for untold years, and attracted non-native tribes due to the abundant fish and timber resources. In 1885, Mike Martin bought 160 acres from Chief Kyan, which later became the township. The first cannery opened in 1886 near the mouth of Ketchikan Creek and four more were built by 1912. The Ketchikan Post Office was established in 1892, and by the late 1890s, nearby gold and copper discoveries briefly brought activity to Ketchikan as a mining supply center. By 1936, seven canneries were in operation, producing 1.5 million cases of salmon. The need for lumber for new construction and packing boxes spawned the Ketchikan Spruce Mills in 1903, which operated for over 70 years. Spruce was in high demand during World War II, and Ketchikan became a supply center for area logging.
Having set my watch back an hour to adjust to Alaska Daylight Savings Time, it was a very early sunrise – 4:42am – and twilight won’t happen much before 10:30pm. I awoke to find us slowly moving past Pennock Island, approaching the pier in downtown Ketchikan and preparing to dock. Outside temperature is 48F, with
a clear blue sky, bright sunlight and calm water, promise of a beautiful day weather wise is in store. Cruise ships dock just steps away from the town’s attractions and stores, and everything is within a short walking distance – you could probably walk the entire length of this wet spot in the road in less than 30 minutes! Like many communities in southeast Alaska, Ketchikan is surrounded by a vast wilderness and impassable mountain ranges. Lacking any road or rail connections to the rest of North America, everything must be brought in via air or sea. Yes its very small, extremely picturesque and rustic, but watch out when cruise ships arrive (5 in port today with a total of 12,125 passengers) – then it resembles an ant hill on steroids, when viewed from above.
I had booked a 4-hour excursion starting at 10:45am so once breakfast was over, it was grab-my-camera and head down the gangway time, ready to explore this exciting and new destination. Stepping onshore, I realized the wind had picked up and the mercury had dropped accordingly – it was edging fast towards cold, even in the brilliant sunshine. The tour staff directed
me to the building where my first sightseeing event would take place, a couple of blocks from the dock. The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is held daily during the May-September tourist season, on the original site of the Ketchikan Spruce Mill built in 1903. It closed in 1974 and sat empty and idle until 2000, when it was converted into the attraction I came here to see.
The covered seating area had padded seats and heaters, a blessing considering I was sitting in the front row but in a shaded area of the arena. For the next hour and a half, I was highly entertained by 4 timber-sport athletes – 2 representing USA and 2 for Canada – working their way thru 12 wood cutting/axe throwing/chain sawing events, displaying incredible speed, strength and don’t get me started on their incredible physique, with layer upon layer of rippling muscles in motion – my temperature still hasn’t returned to normal! Obviously they are all superbly fit being full-time lumberjacks, and with sleeveless open-neck shirts, it was very difficult at times to concentrate on the performances…. rarely do I get to see such a display of male pulchritude. The crew
consists of 12 men rotating with each 4-man performance and conducting 3 or 4 daily performances during the tourist season. My favorite events were the pole climbing (they fly up those things like monkeys), and the log rolling/balancing in the small pool. Photo and autograph opportunities with the lumberjacks abound at the end of the show and of course, there is a souvenir shop to traverse before finding the exit.
Leaving the show with my aging hormones still raging, I walked back to the pier where I boarded the historic trolley for a ride around the downtown area, weaving thru the narrow streets, and out to Saxman. Here you find the Village Carving Center, where craftsmen pass on their skill to eager apprentices. It’s an excellent opportunity to learn how modern day carvers differ from their ancestors and learn of their current projects around the world. The drive out to Saxman followed the beach line of the water. These “inlets” were carved out by glaciers eons ago and have a depth of around 960’. The year-round water temperature is just above freezing, so dry suits are a must if you simply have to get wet. I purchased
both of these tours as a combo unit from the Visitors Center at dockside for $59 plus tax (USD). Probably more expensive via the cruise lines. For those who refuse to pay those higher shore excursion prices onboard, make a beeline for this building soon as you go ashore – you can’t miss the large green-roofed building, its right in front of berth #2. It offers bathrooms and free Wifi. Staffed with representatives for just about every tourist event you can imagine (from sea planes, to kayaks, to whale watching, to jeeps and hummers for back country explorations and so on). The center provides a first rate Historic Walking Tour map, directing you to Creek Street (the former “red light” area of the town) and the Tongass Historical Museum. This map is also available online at www.tourketchikan.com
. Freebies for Ketchikan:
the city provides a free shuttle bus which covers the entire downtown district, making frequent stops enroute. It also goes out to Saxman Village. Two bus stops are right at the waterfront, the first one behind the security building at berth #2, and the second at the intersection of Front Street and Spruce Mill Way,
adjacent to the “stop” sign. A fantastic way to see the town and the price is right. Need to replenish some supplies and don’t want to pay those high tourist prices? Jump aboard the small white shuttle van for a free trip out to – wait for it – WALMART!!! Believe it or not, Ketchikan boasts of having the second smallest Walmart store in the world and yes, they even provide this transportation which stops at the pier. This very convenient shuttle bus is used by many of the ships’ crew who wait for this port of call just to go shopping and pick up much needed supplies.
Sailing the Inside Passage ensures very calm waters most of the time, and so it was for the remainder of that day and night. Awaking the next morning to yet another wonderful day in paradise – more cloudless blue skies, brilliant sunshine and temps hovering around the low to mid 60’s. The water surface resembled a mill pond, evidence of no wind to contend with, and as we approached our next port of call, I glimpsed a couple of seals frolicking close to the ship.
Strait Point is a privately owned tourist destination just outside the small village of Hoonah, Alaska. It is located on Chichagof Island and named for the nearby Icy Strait. Owned by Huna Totem Corporation, it is the only privately owned cruise destination in Alaska, as most stops are owned by the cities in which they are located. Huna Totem Corporation is owned by approximately 1,350 Alaskan Natives with aboriginal ties to Hoonah and the Glacier Bay area. A little bit of history:
The Huna Tlingit people have lived in the Southeast Alaska archipelago for many hundreds of years. They originally occupied the area now known as Glacier Bay but were forced from their village more than two hundred years ago by advancing glaciers. Russian and European explorers, fur traders, Christian missionaries, cannery and logging employees, and "outside" fishermen interacted with the Tlingit people from as early as the mid 1700's. Many settled in Hoonah and became part of its history. The Tlingit were also highly skilled navigators who traveled to places beyond the village in large, sea-worthy, hand-carved canoes. It is said that they thought nothing of paddling for days in any direction. Though
subsistence activities occupied much of their daily lives, many found expression as accomplished weavers, carvers and artists. For example, men and women decorated everyday objects with sophisticated, highly-stylized designs. This distinctive art form was a medium for the preservation of both history and culture.
Huna Totem Corporation was established as a part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act signed into law in 1971. The Act was intended to resolve the long-standing issues surrounding aboriginal land claims, as well as to stimulate economic development throughout Alaska. The corporation purchased the site in 1996, and Icy Strait Point was first opened for cruise ships in 2004, with Royal Caribbean International and its sister company Celebrity Cruises, being the two lines to initially make use of it. They would continue to be the main lines, but subsequently Princess Cruises began making some stops there for several years, as well as Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas and Norwegian. Only one cruise ship is present at any given time. In 2016, a 400' floating dock suitable for cruise ship docking replaced tendering to Icy Point. By 2008, cruise stop business accounted for a quarter of Hoonah's employment, and by 2011, there
were some 73 cruise ship visits arriving for the summer season. By one calculation, the cruise business accounts for more than half the local economy.
Just 30 miles west of Juneau, the village of Hoonah along the scenic Inside Passage, towering evergreens blanket its steep coastal mountains. The forest has been pushed back in places by seaside communities which crown this majestic wilderness. There are bears in the forest, fish in the sea, and gold in the hearts of those who live here. Its beauty is breathtaking - its riches worth experiencing. Hoonah is a largely Tlingit community with no ATM machines or banks. Here is where you come to whale watch, zipline, hike in the nearby mountains and shop for Alaskan souvenirs. You can’t get lost – it’s too small a place for that and besides, it’s an island and only accessible via plane or boat. The Hoonah Packing Company ("HPC") built in 1912, was one of eight canneries operating in the area during the early 20th
century, representing Hoonah's major industry at the time. HPC was sold several times until coming to be owned by Wards Cove Packing, which also owned Hoonah Trading. The cannery
ceased operating in 1954 but continued in use by commercial fishermen for storing and repairing their boats and gear.
We docked at Icy Strait Point just before 10am and being the only vessel in port, the majority of passengers rushed to “beat feet” onto solid ground. There are no rental cars or taxis here – it’s a 5-10 minute walk from the dock via a covered walkway to the Cannery Shopping Building containing 12 different retail locations, including local and native owned stores. Hoonah Village is approximately 1.5 miles away to the east of the complex. There is a shuttle bus to Hoonah located close to the kayak center and security gate at the Cannery Complex.
Halfway thru the cruise and today we get the longest shore time of all (14 hours), to enjoy the capital city of Juneau. With more wildlife than people, more miles of trails than roads, and more glaciers than you can ever see in one day, Juneau is Alaska’s wilderness capital. It is many things: a natural wonder, a wildlife viewing paradise, an outdoor Utopia, a cultural jewel rich in history, art, music, and Native heritage. It’s a shopper’s
treasure trove, and a food lover’s dream. This is a mountain city, a coastal city, a college town and a transportation hub. Pretty good I would say, for a tiny oasis of civilization in one of the largest wilderness areas within the USA. Surrounded by intercoastal waterways, dense rainforest, steep mountainsides, wildflower-filled alpine meadows, and of course awe-inspiring glaciers, most famously the Mendenhall Glacier, without a doubt one of the world’s most accessible. A little bit of history:
Long before European settlement in the Americas, the Gastineau Channel was a favorite fishing ground for the Auke and Taku tribes, who had inhabited the surrounding area for thousands of years. They had a village and burying ground here, which is now known as Indian Point. They annually harvested herring during the spawning season and celebrated this bounty. Since the late 20th
century, they have resisted European-American development of Indian Point considering it sacred territory, both because of the burying ground and the importance of the Point in their traditions of gathering sustenance from the sea. They continue to gather clams, gumboots, grass and sea urchins here, as well as tree bark for medicinal uses.
In 1880 Richard Harris and Joe Juneau, guided by Tlingit Chief Kowee, discovered gold at the mouth of Gold Creek – Alaska’s first major strike and the rush was on! Soon came miners, trading posts, saloons and missionaries. While fishing, transportation and milling all played economic roles during the next 60 years, Juneau remained a gold town. Until 1944 when WWII forced their final closure, the city’s mines produced nearly $150 million (USD) worth of gold which is $7 billion USD in today’s money.
By the autumn of 1881, the village had a population of over 100 and was known as Rockwell, after Lt. Com. Charles Rockwell. Later it was known as Harrisburg after prospector Richard Harris. On December 14, 1881, a miners' meeting of 72 persons decided to name the settlement Juneau after prospector Joe Juneau who, according to legend, successfully campaigned to change the name by buying a few rounds the night before the vote.
Another glorious sunny day greeted me as I drew back the drapes, to find the ship already docked at berth #1 of the four available, all of which are within short walking distances of most
attractions, shops, restaurants and pubs. After breakfast I made my way onshore to photograph the buildings along the wooden sea walk, including the world-famous Tracy’s Crab Shack, known as “the best legs in town,” with its very distinctive red and white façade. What local chef Tracy LaBarge started in 2006 with a small shack behind the public library devoted to king crab, has snowballed with new restaurant openings, a weekly food truck event and fresh enthusiasm for locally sourced fare. In 2014 she doubled her restaurant footprint by moving to the current location on South Franklin Street. Open daily from 10:30am to 9pm, the extensive menu ranges from $8.75 for a 8oz bowl of Crab Bisque, to $125 for the large King Crab Bucket weighing over 3lbs! Beer and wine are also available. In addition, she opened two more restaurants the same year, the upscale
Salt and the Indian restaurant Saffron. The former serves creative food with an Alaskan accent, like hamachi crudo with pickled onion or crab carbonara. The latter specializing in Indian comfort food, is more unexpected in the cold climate.
You simply can’t visit Juneau and not visit the Red Dog Saloon.
This drinking establishment at 278 South Franklin Street (just a couple of blocks from Tracy’s Crab Shack), has been recognized by the Alaska Legislature for its longevity as the oldest man-made tourist attraction here. Founded during Juneau's mining era, the saloon has been in operation for decades. For a time, "Ragtime Hattie" played the piano in white gloves and a silver dollar halter top. Later, in territorial days, the owners would often meet the tour boats at the docks with a mule that wore a sign saying, "follow my ass to the Red Dog Saloon." Who could possibly resist such an invitation? The saloon hosted an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show just after Alaska became a state. Open most days from 9am to 11pm, the memorabilia on display is well worth a look, especially Whyatt Earp’s guns which he checked but never reclaimed when enroute to Nome in June 1900.
Another worthy mention is the Alaskan Brewing Company at 5364 Commercial Boulevard and open 11am to 7pm daily during the summer season. This is the actual Tasting Room location – to shop for souvenirs (no beer) and various gourmet items. You have to visit the Alaskan
Brewing Depot at 219 South Franklin Street, open daily from 9am to 9pm in the May-September season to hoist a few brews. Alaska has a rich history of brewing beer - from the explorers of the 1700s through the Gold Rush, many a thirsty Alaskan has been able to enjoy local brews. In 1986, 28-year-olds Marcy and Geoff Larson reignited that tradition when they opened the Alaskan Brewing Company, the 67th independent brewery in the country and the first brewery in Juneau since Prohibition. Alaskan beers reflect many of the same characteristics of beers that were brewed here during the gold rush era. From the historically based Alaskan Amber recipe to alder-smoked malts and Sitka spruce tips, Alaskan beers reflect Juneau’s local brewing history and innovation. Fuzzy Fact
: The Juneau City and Borough spans more than 3,200 square miles from the coast of the Inside Passage to the Canadian border, making it the largest US capital city.
Time to visit the most famous Juneau attraction – Mendenhall Glacier. It is named after Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, a noted scientist who served on the Alaska Boundary Commission that
was responsible for surveying the international boundary between Canada and Alaska. In 1892, this glacier was renamed to honor Mendenhall. One of the founding board members of Ohio State University, Mendenhall never actually visited Alaska, however it was his techniques that ended a long-standing dispute over the actual boundaries of the country. Located about 12 miles from Juneau, the glacier is approximately 13.5 miles in length and has retreated 2.5 miles since the year 1500. Canada is not far away. A short helicopter flight over the mountains will take you into British Columbia, just 40 or so miles to the east. This icefield is the reason that Juneau has no roads running in or out.
When I checked with the ship’s shore excursion desk and found out how expensive their tours to the glacier were (around $179), I opted to go and check with vendors at the Visitor’s Center dockside and grabbed a great deal for $45 instead. The Glacier Shuttle is a quick and convenient way to travel to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors’ Center and is provided under a permit with the US Forest Service. Bus schedules are set to the arrival and departure of cruise
ships each day. The Visitors’ Center, open daily from 8:00am to 7:00pm in the summer months, sits on the edge of the Mendenhall Glacier, one of 38 large glaciers that flow off the Juneau Icefield. The narrated journey lasts approximately 20 minutes each way, with the driver introducing passengers to Juneau history, pointing out famous sites, and giving tips on how to make the most of a visit to the glacier. Upon arrival at Juneau’s natural treasure, there are a number of hiking trails depending on physical fitness levels. Consider exploring Nugget Creek Falls (minimum hike time is 45 minutes round trip), Photo Point Trail which winds along Mendenhall Lake to an unobstructed view of the glacier’s face, or the East Glacier Loop. Pickup and drop off is conveniently located dockside next to the Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway.
Returning from the glacier, I had more than enough time take a ride on the Mount Roberts Tramway, which is one of the first things visitors see when they disembark in Juneau. Maximum capacity is about 60 people per car and the trams run every five minutes. The best time to ride is in the morning when it’s not
as busy. All-day passes are $35 adults, $18 kids 3 to 12, free for 2 and under. The only tramway in Southeast Alaska, the cars rise 1,800’ from dockside thru the rainforest to the Mountain House. In operation since 1996, the tram makes a six-minute ascent of 3,819’ Mount Roberts. A restaurant, theater, nature center and retail shops are located at the top of the tramway, as well as connections to trails leading both up and down the mountain. One trail up the mountain leads to a large cross erected by Roman Catholic Father Brown in the early 1900s. Tourist Tip:
try something with wild blueberries at the restaurant, along with a gin and tonic.
That evening I had been invited to the Senior Officers’ Dinner to be held at Qsine (obviously a play on the word cuisine) on deck 11. Does the word “whimsy” mean anything to anyone? When I first walked in, I thought I had fallen down the rabbit hole and landed at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, but I didn’t see Alice or the Queen of Hearts seated at the table. The ceiling lamps have upside down
shades, sleek high-back chairs are placed next to lower ornate ones, and our extended table for 10 had an actual chain suspended from the ceiling and secured to the centerpiece. Wine glasses resembled water tumblers and were placed at a “tipped” angle, but it’s the food presentation which easily won the quirky prize. Courses were served as shareable dishes and we were encouraged to play with our food. Qsine takes its cue from worldwide culinary styles -- Chinese, Indian, Peruvian and Iranian to name but a few. There is a total of 20 countries represented on their menu. Although the dishes really are creative, they're not that crazy. Most of the innovation lies in the incredible presentation, so while the plating and garnishes might seem “out there”, you're still ordering what are essentially spring rolls, shrimp cocktail, chips, dips, steak, salmon, chicken, cheesecake, beignets and ice cream in small portions. No wine glass was allowed to stand empty for more than a few seconds. No sooner had I taken a final sip and replaced my goblet on the table, when a waiter appeared at my right shoulder pouring a refill. Is it any wonder I wobbled to the elevator at
the conclusion of dinner? At this rate, it won’t be long before I’m a lifetime dues-paying member of Alcoholics Anonymous! This specialty restaurant has a charge of $55 per person, but discounts are usually available on the first night of the cruise.
Skagway, a name derived from the Tlingit word for beautiful woman, and it’s the nickname of Kanagoo, the mythical woman who transformed herself into stone at Skagway bay and who, (according to legend) now causes the strong, channeled winds which blow toward the town of Haines. A little bit of history:
One prominent resident of early Skagway was William “Billy” Moore, a former steamboat captain. In 1887 he and his son, J. Bernard "Ben" Moore, claimed a 160-acre homestead at the mouth of the Skagway River. They built a log cabin, a sawmill, and a wharf in anticipation of future gold prospectors passing through. The Klondike Gold Rush changed everything. In 1896 gold was discovered in Canada’s Yukon Territory. On July 29, 1897 the steamer Queen docked at Moore's wharf with the first boatload of prospectors. The population of the general area increased enormously and reached 30,000, composed largely
of American prospectors. Some realized how difficult the trek ahead would be enroute and chose to stay behind to supply goods and services to miners. Within weeks, stores, saloons, and offices lined the muddy streets of Skagway. Due to the sudden influx of visitors to Skagway, some town residents began offering miners transportation services to aid them in their journeys to the Yukon, often at highly inflated rates.
Between 1897 and 1898, Skagway was a lawless town, described by one member of the North-West Mounted Police as "little better than a hell on earth." Fights, prostitutes and liquor were ever-present on the streets, and con man “Soapy Smith” who had risen to considerable power, did little to stop it. Smith was a sophisticated swindler who liked to think of himself as a kind and generous benefactor to the needy. He was gracious to some, giving money to widows and halting lynchings, while simultaneously operating a ring of thieves who swindled prospectors with cards, dice, and the shell game. Smith was shot and killed by Frank Reid and Jesse Murphy on July 8, 1898 in the famed Shootout on Juneau Wharf. Smith and Reid are now interred at
the Klondike Gold Rush Cemetery, also known as "Skagway's Boot Hill”.
It's here the most anticipated sightseeing event takes place: the narrow-gauge railway over the famous White Pass, which follows the original route of prospectors headed to the Klondike Gold Fields in the late 1800s. The 19th
century was the era of railroad building, and an easier mode of transportation into the north was of interest to everyone. Two men appeared on the scene with essentially the same idea - build a railroad through the White Pass. Sir Thomas Tancrede, representing investors in London, and Michael J. Heney, an experienced railroad contractor interested in finding new work for his talents, joined forces. Tancrede had doubts about building a railroad over the Coastal Mountains, while Heney thought otherwise. “Give me enough dynamite and snoose” he bragged, “and I’ll build a railroad to Hell.” They met by chance in Skagway, talked through the night and by dawn, the railroad project was no longer a dream but an accepted reality. It was a meeting of money, talent and vision. The White Pass & Yukon Railroad Company was finally organized in April 1898, and on May 28, 1898, construction began on
the narrow gauge railroad. It took 2 years, 2 months and 2 days for the tracks to be laid from Skagway to Dawson City.
It was a cold, windy and wet morning which greeted my first view of Skagway. Thick white mist shrouded the surrounding mountain peaks, blotting out much of the scenery. The mercury had plummeted into the low 40’s – a pretty miserable start to the day but such is life. This location is in such a sheltered area enclosed by high mountains, there is no satellite television or internet available currently onboard. Probably won’t have it until we sail later this afternoon and clear the Inside Passage. Freebies for Skagway:
there is only one place in Skagway which provides free internet, and that is at the Public Library in the center of town. A free shuttle bus runs from the pier to downtown approximately every 10 minutes, with the first and last ones scheduled to the arrival and departure of the cruise ships.
My proposed rail adventure began at 11am when disembarking to meet
the tour bus which would first provide a drive thru the downtown area, complete with commentary from the driver. So far, so good. However, after cruising up and down the main drag, stopping by the Gold Rush Cemetery and driving up to the highest lookout point, it became obvious something was amiss - we were long passed the time we should have already been onboard the train. Sure enough, next thing I know we are headed back to the parking lot immediately in front of the ship, where we learn the train has developed a mechanical problem and we won’t be riding the rails to White Pass today. Refunds all round but there was a lot of unhappy people who, unlike myself, aren’t doing a back-to-back cruise and won’t have the opportunity to return here and try the train excursion again next week.
A day of cruising awaited as we sailed into Disenchantment Bay to view the magnificent Hubbard Glacier, the largest tidewater glacier (meaning it flows directly into an ocean) in North America – a glacier which may be a bit of sleeping giant. Located off the coast of Yakutat - 200
miles NW of Juneau - Hubbard is certainly gigantic: it's more than 6 miles wide and 76 miles long. It’s also been very active in the past having had two major surges in the past 30 years, at one point moving more than 7’ in one day! Those surges were big enough to cross the bay, turning the fjord into a lake and threatening to flood the coastal town of Yakutat. For now the glacier isn’t surging, but you could say that it’s a pretty light sleeper - it does calve a lot. Large chunks of the glacier break off into the ocean on a regular basis, in a process known as calving. Most tidewater glaciers calve above sea level, causing huge splashes as the new icebergs strike the water. If the water is deep enough, glaciers can calve under water. This glacier face is up to 400 feet tall, and icebergs 3 to 4 stories in height aren’t uncommon. Granted, most of that ice is below water, but the ice can be so thick that cruise ships can’t get too close.
We entered the Bay around 8am and over the next 3
hours, we moved closer and closer to one of the world’s wonders – Hubbard Glacier – finally stopping just 750’ from the rugged face of this frozen monster. If you listen very carefully, the glacier speaks…from faint creaking sounds, to pops and low growls as ice crystals begin to shatter along crevasses, and finally a loud thundering bang as yet another calving happens and a chuck of glacial ice slides down to a watery grave. It’s constant movement sings a song for the ages to an eagerly awaiting audience onboard cruise vessels. There are simply no adequate adjectives for what I saw today. It is so awe-inspiring, majestic and breath-taking, words seem feeble with any effort to describe how beautiful this gift of nature is. Suffice it to say, you simply have to come and see for yourself, or, see the multiple images captured via my camera. I did have the massive luck to catch at least 7 small calve events, which gave immediate birth to mini icebergs which then floated out into the Bay, and eventually will melt when entering the Pacific Ocean miles from their creation.
End of the line as
we dock early on the final morning in Seward, the fourth largest city on the Kenai Peninsula and port of entry for Anchorage approximately 120 miles away. It’s said Alaska starts here with a warm welcome to a breathtaking land shaped by glaciers, nestled between mountains and the ocean. This is the ancestral homeland of the Sugpiaq people and the gateway to the spectacular Kenai Fjords. Explorers and pioneers have been drawn to Resurrection Bay since Alexander Baranov first sought refuge here from a storm in 1792. He later established a fur trading post where Seward is today. Since then, adventurous travelers have made the journey to Seward to hike stunning trails, experience abundant wildlife, paddle and fish vibrant waters and explore a historic community. A large portion of the city was damaged following the 1964 Alaska earthquake and the resulting local tsunami.
I’m keeping it really simple today with a 5-hour Kenai Fjord cruise around Resurrection Bay and indulging in a salmon bake onboard. Disembarking into drizzle, heavy mists and cold temps, it was a short walk to Seward Terminal and the waiting converted school bus, to make the short trip out
to the pier where our cruise boat awaited. The boat has a capacity of around 250 people in total – there were a few empty seats on the upper deck, which I decided would aid in my getting any decent wildlife photos – this proved to be the case. We virtually zig-zagged from one side of the Bay to the other, chasing any wildlife sighting possible. During the next five hours we saw mountain goats clinging to mountainsides, dozens of dozing sea lions, otters floating on their backs and finally humpback and orca whales frolicking in the icy waters. Bald eagles were nesting in the high pine trees along the shores, bird rookeries, even a puffin made an appearance in the midafternoon. I was able to capture some incredible pictures, one where an orca breached and the second where it broke the surface to spout water feet into the air – the money shots for sure! A buffet lunch of prime rib, baked salmon, black beans and rice, salad and bread were served a couple of hours into the cruise and about an hour later dessert showed up with cheesecake, fudge brownies and fruit salad. It turned out to be
far more delicious than I ever would have expected from such a tour group operation. Overall it was the best $129 I spent on a shore excursion considering the photos, the lunch and the long cruise around the bay. Several companies offer day cruises of the park's fjords. Cruises range in length from about 3 hours to 8 or 9. The shorter cruises are good for wildlife viewing, while the longer ones include this as well as opportunities to watch glaciers calve icebergs into the ocean. Quite often while standing around the waterfront waiting for your cruise to begin, you can see a harbor seal or even a sea otter there. Although beaches along the coast east and west of Resurrection Bay were once covered in oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, clean water filters through the area once again and thanks to extensive coastline and water purification efforts, there is little evidence of the massive ecological disaster that occurred.
Another very popular sightseeing location is the Alaska SeaLife Center, Alaska’s premier public aquarium and Alaska's only permanent marine mammal rehabilitation facility. Open since May 1998, it is dedicated to understanding and
maintaining the integrity of the marine ecosystem of Alaska through research, rehabilitation, conservation, and public education. It is the only facility in the world specifically dedicated to studying the northern marine environment and the only one designed at the outset to combine research with public education and visitor components. Hours vary depending on the season, with adult ticket prices starting at $29.95, with reduced rates for military and kids. Freebie for Seward:
Seward City Tours operates the Seward Free Shuttle which runs from 8am to 7pm whenever a cruise ship is in port, and from 10am to 7pm otherwise. Simply let the driver know your desired destination when boarding the vehicle. A total of 14 bus stops are on a designated route, including the cruise ship terminal, with the entire 5-mile circuit taking approximately 30 minutes.
A picture-perfect day was on tap when we docked a second time in Skagway – today I’ll not be thwarted – I’m getting on that narrow gauge train no matter what! The train tracks run parallel to the ship’s berth but it’s still a short hike from the
gangplank to where we actually boarded the train. At 11:30am I was happily seated on the port (left) side of the carriage facing the three engines which would pull us up the mountains, and promptly at noon the train started to roll. Tourist Tip:
for those visitors who are only taking the roundtrip train journey and not getting off in Canada, it doesn’t matter which side of the carriage you sit on. You will get to repeat the ride on the return trip and not miss a single fabulous sight. However for those who alit in either British Columbia and/or the Yukon on other train excursions, make sure you grab a seat on the left – the return trip via coach just isn’t the same. Also your passport must be shown to Canadian customs officers when disembarking.
Beginning at sea level at the Skagway Train Depot, we started the 45-mile roundtrip adventure by paralleling the Skagway River, passing the maintenance shops where necessary railroad repairs are conducted and engines restored. We were moving very slowly at this early point, probably less then 5mph, making
it easy to take photographs from either inside the carriage or standing out on the open platforms, located at each end. At the 2.5 mile marker, the Gold Rush Cemetery passed on the right side, the final resting place for many of Skagway’s first notorious residents, including Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith and Frank Reid. Approaching the 6-mile marker, we crossed the east fork of the Skagway River located close to the Denver Glacier Trail, a very popular hiking spot leading to the base of this glacier. A donated caboose from the railroad has been converted into a cozy “cabin” and is available for rent through the US Forest Service, on a “first come, first served” basis. This caboose sits just a few feet away from the tracks – I can only imagine how cool it would be to sit on the steps and watch the historic trains go by.
The higher we climbed, the more spectacular the vistas became. Watch for the Buchanan Rock just below the US Border Station at 8.8-mile marker. Here you will see a massive hand-painted slogan “On to Alaska with Buchanan”, which is a tribute to the man
who brought under-privileged kids from Detroit to Alaska each year between 1920 and 1930. As the train approached the 11.5-mile marker, we were alerted to get our cameras ready – Bridal Veil Falls was about to appear (again on the left side of the train). This incredible waterfall cascades some 6,000’ from the Mt. Cleveland and Mt. Clifford glaciers and can only be viewed from the train. It’s breathtaking, and as there is a gap in the tree line lasting approximately 12 seconds, there is more than enough time to snap some awesome pictures.
At 2,275’ elevation and the 16-mile marker, we crossed over the yawning chasm of Glacier Gorge with the floor of the gulch some 1,000’ below, before entering our first tunnel in Tunnel Mountain. Back into daylight on the other side and another mile down the tracks, we reached Inspiration Point…..which gives an unparalleled vista of the Lynn Canal, Mt. Harding and the Chilkat Range. It is from here you can actually see the cruise ships docked back in Skagway Harbor, 17 miles away on the horizon. The mad dash to the outside open platforms of each carriage was enough
to almost sway the train off the tracks, but thankfully that didn’t occur, and we all ended up with amazing photographs.
The 17.5-mile marker is Dead Horse Gulch, the final resting place for approximately 3,000 horses which perished due to neglect and overloading, during the stampede to the Klondike Gold Fields in 1898. As we approached our second tunnel adventure, we first passed by the original steel bridge constructed in 1901 which at that time, was the tallest cantilever bridge in the world, and in use until 1969. In that year, a 675’ tunnel was hewed thru the mountain and a new bridge replaced the old steel one.
Finally we crossed the US/Canadian border marked with a shack belonging to the North West Mounted Police, at White Pass Summit with an elevation of 2,888’. A monument and two flags mark the international border of the two countries and the scenery for 360-degrees, is mountain after mountain after mountain range, as far as the eye can see. This is where we made a loop around and started back down the way we came. For other excursions, it
is another 8 miles to Fraser, BC where transfers to coaches for the Klondike Highway are made, and where Canadian customs is located.
At one time, the White Pass and Yukon Railroad extended to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, another 90+ miles north of the summit, and was the transfer point from train to steamboat for the original prospectors. Today it’s a major transportation, trading and government hub for the Yukon. The train does continue on to the Canadian cities of Fraser and Bennett in British Columbia, and Carcross, YT and that extended journey ticket can be purchased in Skagway.
The actual “Gold Rush” era was a relatively short one, beginning with the cry of “Gold! Gold! Gold!” as the headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on July 17, 1897. The news flashed around the globe like wildfire and tens of thousands promptly quit their jobs (and their stagnating lives) to make their fortune in the Klondike. It basically ended in the early years of the 20th
century but gold is still mined, and fortunes still made today on an annual basis throughout the Yukon Territory during
the summer seasons.
The WP&YR continued in operation for decades after the gold rush era, carrying significant quantities of ore and concentrates to Skagway to be loaded onto ore ships at the harbor. During WWII, this railroad was the chief supplier for the US Army’s Alaska Highway construction project. By 1982, metal prices around the world had plummeted, mines closed, and the railroad suspended its operations. But all was not lost – in 1988 it reinvented itself into the tourist attraction we know and love today, and the line was reopened to operate as a narrow-gauge excursion railroad between Skagway and White Pass Summit. This was extended to Bennett in the 1990’s and to Carcross in 2007. My $139 roundtrip ticket was worth every penny. The railroad company schedules train service to coincide with cruise ship arrivals, allotting one train per ship to accommodate the average number of passengers. Some of the trains have at least 14 or more carriages and utilize 3 engines to make the journey.
This rail trip is so incredible, it should be on every Alaska visitor’s “must see and do” list
of activities. Many of the stunning views are only accessible via train, and there is something about hanging out from the open platform over a trestle and watching the ground hundreds of feet below, to get that old adrenaline running. Go on, step back a hundred years and step on this train – you won’t regret it.
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