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Published: August 14th 2012
Trip to Alaska Part One – June 2012 - Juneau to Ketchikan
I have always wanted to visit Alaska. I have made numerous business trips to Ketchikan, but, they were, well, business and I really did not have time for more than minimal sightseeing around Ketchikan. On these trips to Southeastern Alaska, I learned that it was beautiful, it rained a lot, and that I wanted to come back. My wife and I knew we wanted to take a special trip to celebrate our 25th anniversary. Unfortunately, we did not have the time for some of our dream trips such as Australia and Southeast Asia. Knowing my interest in visiting Alaska my wife kept up-to-date on the travel news and noted that Innerseas Discoveries
, part of American Safari Cruises, was now doing Alaskan cruises on relatively small vessels; the large mega-ships did not appeal to us. After a bit more research, and a lot of discussion and soul-searching, we decided to book a two-week, “Ultimate Adventure,” cruise from Juneau to Ketchikan and back to Juneau. We recognized that this part of Southeast Alaska was just a small taste of Alaska, but it was a start.
Our ship, the Wilderness Discoverer
At the dock in Juneau
was relatively small (76 passengers max) and geared towards an active vacation; hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, etc. I think that one of the target demographics is aging baby boomers, like us. We had mentioned this trip to a lot of people; some thought it sounded great, others thought it sounded awful, very little middle ground there.
This is the first of a three part series and focuses on our trip through the eastern passage from Juneau to Ketchikan. Part Two
focuses on our trip back to Juneau through the western passage, and Part Three will focus on our “bookend” stays in Juneau, with a little bit about our partial day layover in Ketchikan. I will insert links to Parts Two and Three once they are written
As you read this, you will see photos embedded with the text. Continue on after reading to see several more photos.
2 June 2012 – Juneau – Embark Wilderness Discoverer
We arrived in Juneau late in the evening of 31 May 2012 and didn’t embark on the Wilderness Discoverer until late afternoon today, 2 June 2012, so we had most of two days to tour Juneau. Today started off cloudy,
Each night the crew would update this map...even though you have an itinerary, the ship is flexible and sometimes makes changes based on weather or other conditions.
but towards afternoon it became a sunny Juneau day.
After dropping off our bags at the InnerSeas Discoveries staging area in the Goldbelt Hotel
we walked to the dock across the street to check out the Wilderness Discoverer, our home for the next two weeks. She is small and a little old-fashioned looking. Just right. We did some touring around Juneau, which I will discuss in Part Three, then headed back to the Goldbelt for one last check on email and a Tlingit
cultural presentation, sponsored by InnerSea Discoveries, followed by embarkation.
As we boarded the ship they took photos of us so that the crew could associate our names with our faces. Captain Dano Quinn greeted us all as we boarded. A member of the crew then led us to our cabin, where we found out luggage waiting for us. We knew ahead of time that the cabin would be small, but, until we saw it, it didn’t hit us how small. It was pleasant and comfortable (especially the mattresses) and big enough for what we needed to do; it tended to grow on us during the voyage. It didn’t really matter that the cabin was small, as,
when onboard, we found it much more pleasant to spend time in the lounge with our fellow passengers and Shaun the bartender.
The first day on a ship always has some common elements; you embark, settle in a bit, have a safety drill, have a drink, meet some people, have dinner and just get a feel for the ship. All meals were open seating, which gave us the flexibility to sit with different people and quickly meet many of our fellow travelers.
3 June 2012 – Tracy Arm-Sawyer Glacier
On the Wilderness Discoverer you don’t need an alarm clock. At some point early in the morning the ship normally drops or raises the anchor. Today it was at 4:15 am.
We woke up to a beautiful sunny day and spent time on deck just enjoying the beautiful scenery as we cruised into Tracy Arm
on our way to South Sawyer Glacier. There was a certain degree of excitement as we cruised along and saw our first chunks of ice floating in the water. Their beautiful crystalline blue color and interesting shapes were a wonder to watch as we cruised along. As we got closer to the
...in Tracy Arm
end of Tracy Arm and approached the glacier we saw a lot of ice floating on the surface. On the way in we passed a larger cruise ship, which, due to its size, could not navigate in where we could. Let’s hear it for travelling on a small ship!
I spent a lot of time on deck enjoying the views, taking a lot of photographs and talking to other folks from all over the world (Australia, UK, California), mostly about photography, cameras and how beautiful everything was.
I felt very much like a Hobbit this morning as we had our first (continental) breakfast followed an hour or so later by our full second breakfast of red velvet pancakes. I’m going to need to get some more exercise this week!
The weather continued to be beautiful as fourteen of us took a skiff to South Sawyer Glacier with Ryan, the bosun, at the tiller (actually the outboard) and our guide Kim. It was quite a bit of fun to get close to some of the waterfalls along the sides of the fjord, as well as with the various types of floating ice. We were within a quarter mile
of the glacier itself and did get to see some minor calving; it was neat to see the ice fall into the water followed by a rumble that sounded like thunder. We were out for a very enjoyable hour or so, and then sadly had to head back to the ship.
It was actually quite warm, so upon our return we put on our bathing suits and jumped into one of the two hot tubs on the stern. It felt very nice to soak and enjoy the dichotomy between those of us wearing bathing suits in the hot tubs and the people coming off the skiffs all bundled up with multiple layers of clothing, hats and boots.
After lunch we began our transit out of Tracy Arm on our way to Thomas Bay
and Baird Glacier. On the way we once again were able to enjoy the various floating ice and icebergs, both the new ones and those that looked familiar. We also passed a bald eagle, trying not to look too condescending as we all stood on deck and took multiple photos.
En route we slowed down for some whale watching. We all crowded on deck with
our cameras and binoculars to look for the whales. As usual, they were taunting us by keeping their distance and popping up at irregular times and places. We were probably close to a town; someone on the deck above me probably had cell phone reception as he was talking on his iPhone and describing the whale watching.
In the midst of the whale watching there were suddenly fourteen (14!) eagles flying near the ship, and swooping into the water to catch fish, and I think a few seagulls as well. Fourteen! It was a magnificent sight to behold.
4 June 2012 – Thomas Bay-Baird Glacier
As I said, no need for an alarm clock here, we were once again up with the anchor; and it was another beautiful sunny day.
Tonight will be a full moon, so the moon was impacting the tides such that the tide shifts were more pronounced than usual. This meant that the sandbars near our landing tor Baird Glacier were shallower than normal. We had to wait an extra hour or so for the tide to come in before departing on our glacier walks. One of the things I love
...spotted while whale watching en route to Thomas Bay.
about travelling on a small ship like this is that you tend to have fellow travelers who take this sort of thing in stride and you hear little or no complaining about unavoidable problems and delays.
Hiking from the beach to Baird Glacier you need to be very careful not to disturb tern eggs; the nests sit on the ground and the eggs look a lot like smooth stones. The requirement is that you stay approximately 820 feet from the nests; of course you don’t know where the nests are. My wife came A LOT closer than 820 feet to a nest, and in fact almost stepped on the eggs. Fortunately, she did see the nest in time and we quickly moved as far from it as possible (after taking a few quick photos, of course).
The area just in front of the glacier is referred to as the moraine
. This is where you find silt created by the glacier grinding up rocks as it moves. In the wet environment of Alaska, the silt forms mud with interesting properties. There is the “boot-sucking mud” which has the consistency of very firm pudding; you need to move quickly
Trail to Baird Glacier
along this mud or your boot will start to sink in. Once your boot is in the mud it is very difficult to then pull out because the mud is also very sticky. In some areas, you will not sink in, but, if you stand there too long, you feel like a fly on flypaper as your boots will stick to mud. Finally, the silt forms these marvelous patterns in the water…everyone took a lot of pictures of the patterns.
This hike turned out to be the field test for our new rubber boots. I must say, it was very empowering to be able to walk through wet areas that I know would have left my hiking boots (and my feet) soaking wet, and still have nice dry feet!
One thing you are always told about hiking on a glacier is to watch out for crevasses which can be deep and hidden by water. We had a real-life demonstration of this. My wife and I watched our guide, Mark, disappear up to his chest into one of these crevasses while walking across a small melt pond. I had a choice between taking a photo and offering to help
Mark. I offered to help, so there is no photographic evidence...and wouldn't you know it, he didn't need my help.
Due to our late start we got to enjoy a box lunch on the glacier. One disappointment of the hike is that we never did reach the white, pristine looking section of the glacier; rather we were on the dirty front end known as the till
, or the gravel pit. It was really quite amazing to be walking on what seems to be rock, but is actually dirty, rocky ice, which was melting all around us. One particularly neat formation was the remains of what was probably once an arch.
On the glacier, it was rather cool and several people added extra layers and gloves. Due to the unusually warm and sunny weather, once we left the glacier it quickly felt very warm and everyone started to reverse the process and remove the layers.
We thought it might be fun to do some kayaking in the afternoon. Perhaps it should have told us something that, as we were heading out, everyone else was heading in. It was very rough out there. Once we started moving, we
had to deal with our usual kayaking issues of paddle coordination, and navigation. My wife was in the back working the rudder as I yelled out orders:
“Hard to starboard”
“Slight turn to port”
I don’t think she appreciated my “help.” Due to the roughness, we only did one very long loop around the ship and then headed back.
Later that afternoon, Paul, the ship’s engineer gave a talk about the history of the ship and then tours of engineering spaces. They are very tight, but it is interesting to see what makes the ship tick. If you find yourself onboard, take the tour, you will enjoy it.
We had hoped to watch a lunar eclipse this evening, but we were tired and it just gets dark way too late up here! We fell asleep.
5 June 2012 - Thomas Bay
Since they didn’t raise or lower the anchor this morning we slept in and didn’t get up until 6:00 or so. I started the day with a turn on one of the elliptical machines and my wife took advantage of the yoga. Hot tubs, elliptical machines, yoga and
...flowing into Thomas Bay
a sauna, what more could you want as you cruise through Alaska?
Today was our first bit of foul weather; it was cloudy early with some sunlight peeking through and lighting up the snowy peaks. By the time we began our skiff tour of Thomas Bay our first rain began; considering the predicted weather, we have really been fortunate so far. By the way, we found some of the skiff tours to be boring compared to the other activities that are offered. The only excitement on this tour was when the outboard motor died and the bosun had to come out and fix it.
In the afternoon a group of us kayaked over to the Cascade Creek trailhead to begin our hike; one hour up, one hour down. This is a great trail, but you need to be careful. Due to both the weather and the mist off the cascade, the trail was slick and could be a bit treacherous. It began with a cedar “boardwalk”, which, in most places, was one log wide. After that you hike over rocks, mud and roots (trust me, it really is beautiful and fun, just watch your step). From the beginning
you go up and up and up, enjoying the forest primeval of the temperate rainforest. It was absolutely beautiful. A lot of old growth trees, with various types of moss on everything and the roar of the cascade always in the background. Being in bear country, we needed to make noise as we went, so that the bears knew that we were there and knew to keep away. This was both a beautiful and challenging hike, especially for all of us aging baby-boomers trying to show that we still “have it” (so far, so good). After stopping for photos by the cascade, we all felt a lot of satisfaction in reaching the beach unscathed. For this trip I opted to hike in my rubber boots (or, as they say, Alaskan sneakers) rather than in my hiking boots. This worked quite well. My Bogs boots were comfortable and had good traction; being able to step in any and all mud without worrying about flooding out my hiking boots was, again, empowering.
Back at the ship, a bit footsore and soggy, we were all happy to sit down with a celebratory beer!
6 June3 2012 – Thomas Bay to
I guess I might need an alarm clock after all, I slept through anchor this morning, but I did wake up to a beautiful morning which led to a beautiful sunny day. The morning lighting was so beautiful that I jumped out of bed and ran around on deck in my shorts-and-tee-shirt pajamas to take early morning photos. I went around and around and around the deck, taking pictures as the scenery and lighting changed with the ship's movement. The lighting on the snowcapped peaks and the cloud formations was breathtaking. Finally, the morning chill drove me in to grab a sweatshirt so that I could do several more laps of the deck taking more photographs.
The transit to Wrangell
was the longest day time transit we have done so far. It was a very peaceful experience. Due to the beautiful weather many of us were on deck taking pictures, watching for wildlife, or just resting and reading. As we approached the town of Petersburg
, we saw harbor seals, just lying there and enjoying the sun, on most of the navigation buoys. There were eagles perched on several of the fixed navigation lights or sitting on
the rocks, again, looking at us with disdain as we all snapped their photographs.
I missed our approach to Wrangell on Wrangell Island as I was busy trying on wet suits for tomorrow’s snorkeling. Wrangell is a small working town, not at all touristy. Unlike Juneau, you don’t have all sorts of tacky gift and jewelry stores near the docks, just the types of stores that people use in everyday life, a couple of supermarkets, hardware, automotive, etc.
We made the short trek from the docks to the petroglyph beach
. Along the way we got a feel for life on Wrangell Island. At the petroglyph beach we were not too successful in finding petroglyphs. Of the allegedly forty petroglyphs, we found three or four real ones and one that I will probably tell people is a petroglyph, even though I’m pretty sure it isn’t one.
The rest of our visit was spent just strolling about town and trying to find a travel mug (the mugs in the ship’s dining room are just too small). One of our stops was the “carving shed.” Wrangell is rebuilding their Lodge House for a potlatch ceremony next May or June, and
the carvers are shaping the cedar logs that will be used in the construction. It was hard to envision how all the parts went together, but, after visiting other Lodge Houses later in the trip, it all made sense.
7 June 2012 - Yes Bay
Early in the morning, ten of us, looking like penguins in our wet suits headed out for an hour or so of snorkeling. The first thing you learn about snorkeling in Yes Bay is to go with the flow. There is a great deal of tidal flow in Yes Bay and trying to swim in the other direction is definitely a losing game. The water was very murky, so it was necessary to stay near the surface to see much or to take any photos. It was very enjoyable to drift along the shore of a tiny island, as well as in and out of numerous indentations to see what I could see; a lot of hermit crabs and some starfish. I was very excited when I spotted some fossilized trilobites, but, unfortunately, the current carried me away before I could take a picture, and then I could not find the
spot again (as I said, the water was murky). Once we returned and stripped off our wetsuits, several of happily hopped into a hot tub to relax and warm up while sipping hot mulled wine.
One way to really enjoy the peace and serenity of this part of Alaska is to go out alone on a kayak. For about an hour and a half this afternoon I happily enjoyed a little bit of alone time as I paddled around, surrounded by nothing but quiet and the beauty. Due to the rain, which I hardly noticed, there was only one other kayaker on the water; I kept my distance so that he could enjoy his alone time as well. The only sounds were the wind, the rain, my paddles in the water and an occasional far off voice from the ship. It was very peaceful and reinvigorating.
It can be a bit disconcerting to have your kayak launched into the water and then have the Wilderness Discoverer head off and leave you behind. Fortunately, the plan was for us to meet up with the ship at her mooring after a two
Yet another waterfall...
You could paddle in under this one
and a half hour guided paddle. Kayaking is a wonderful way to explore the fjord. We spent our time paddling close to shore, observing interesting sights such as the bottoms of waterfalls, starfish and mussel encrusted trees.
Approaching the ship we noticed everyone converging towards a brown object on the beach. A bear! Finally! We sat in the shallows by the beach, watching the bear dig into the ground as a couple of ravens stood by, taking whatever the bear dug up and didn’t want. Finally, we realized that the water was awfully shallow and, if the bear had a mind to, it could charge us. Slowly and quietly we backed up and headed for the ship.
The final activity of our trip was a cruise into Rudyerd Bay with a pair of U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Rangers. These two rangers are responsible on keeping an eye on the environment in an area the size of Connecticut, yet there is not sufficient funding to pay them as full time employees. In government budget terms, we are talking amounts that are chump change and rounding errors for larger programs; penny-wise and pound foolish.
Rudyerd Bay, a deep fjord
branching off Behm Canal, is part of the Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness. Words cannot describe the beauty we saw as we cruised down the bay; hopefully the attached photos will help. Some notable formations are the stark Punch Bowl Wall, rearing 3000 feet above Punchbowl Cove and the “Bird Rookery”, a somewhat greener wall with many indentations where the birds make their nests. It was fascinating to watch a seagull fly a zigzag pattern as it cautiously approached its nest.
As we transited to Annette Island
, where we moored for the night before entering Ketchikan
, we had a whale sighting, so we all rushed up on deck with our binoculars and cameras to watch or take pictures of the humpback whales as they appeared around the ship. At one point I looked up from the water and noticed the beautiful lighting on surrounding mountains and I cajoled everyone to forget the whales for a few minutes and to enjoy/photograph our beautiful surroundings. I don't know if anyone paid any attention or not, but I did get some beautiful photos.
The last night on board is the Captain’s dinner with cloth tablecloths and a complimentary glass of
wine, followed by a slide show of our week on Wilderness Discoverer, including some of my underwater shots. Except for tonight’s transit, and tomorrow morning’s entry into Ketchikan, this was the end of the first leg of our trip. The week went by very quickly.
9 June 2012 – Ketchikan
We arrived in Ketchikan on a beautiful sunny day! That is not something you will hear very often for the city that averages 13 feet of rain a year! We said our farewells to people who had become close friends over the course of the week, and then headed into town to explore Ketchikan (see Part Three).
General Impressions, Observations & Lessons Learned (this is based on the total trip and will be repeated at the end of Part Two)
• Even though I have mentioned the names of some on the Wilderness Discoverer’s staff, there is no guarantee that you will encounter any of these people. Everyone works some weeks on followed by some weeks off; for instance, in Ketchikan the bosun, chef, chief steward and engineer all rotated out for a few weeks; in Juneau it was the Captain, one
guide, the second mate and the wellness coordinator. So, you could encounter totally different people in your voyage. As the staff changes, the feel of the ship changes. It doesn’t change for the better, or the worse, but it does feel different. You can see bios of some of the crew members here
• We felt that the itinerary on the eastern (Juneau to Ketchikan) leg was more interesting than the itinerary on the western (Ketchikan to Juneau) leg. There was not anything wrong with the western passage route, but, in the end, I’m thinking that we should have only done the eastern passage route, and then headed for Denali as did many of our fellow travelers. It would have provided a more varied trip.
• The food on the eastern (Juneau to Ketchikan) leg was better than on the western (Ketchikan to Juneau) leg. I’m not sure if this is because we changed chefs in Ketchikan, the ship was better provisioned when we left Juneau, a combination of the two, or some other factors.
• Based on two data points, (cabins 315 and 305), cabins that open to the inside passageway are better than cabins
that open to the deck:
• When the weather is foul, you don’t need to go outside to access other parts of the ship
• You can store your wet boots and wet clothing in the passageway…essentially expanding your storages pace and keeping wet clothes out of the cabin (all 300 level inside-facing cabins have two sets of external two hooks, except 311 and 324, which only have one set each).
• The cabins that open in have a nice headboard with a shelf and two electrical outlets, the exterior cabins (or at least our cabin) did not have the headboard and only had one electrical outlet above the sink.
• Overall, the interior cabin seemed to have more nooks and crannies for storage
• On the other hand, sometimes it is nice to be able to just open your door and step on deck to enjoy the view….
• The passageway on the 300 deck to the ship’s interior is located between cabins 305 and 307 on the starboard side, 304 and 306 on the port side. It is not uncommon for folks to wander into these cabins thinking that they are going into the passageway.
the bed can be configured as a double or two singles, go for two singles, otherwise it is very difficult for one person to get in and out of bed.
• As I said earlier, we thought that the skiff tours were pretty boring and lame. If you can’t get the activity you want, just hop into a kayak or on to a paddle board during open paddle…it is far more fun.
• Most of the time, the ship has an open-bridge policy. It can be very peaceful to spend time up there with whoever is on watch, and just enjoy the scenery and tranquility of your surroundings. It is also a good way to warm up if you have been on deck for a while.
• Clothing and Footwear:
• I brought my rubber boots, hiking boots and a pair of Keen sandals.
• The sandals were ideal for wearing while onboard the ship
• I made good use of both sets of boots. On some trails it is better to use rubber boots due to the amount and depth of the water and mud. If you want to hike in rubber boots, get good quality boots
Why I'm glad I wore my rubber boots...
....here, my wife wore her hiking boots...
with a reasonable sole and removal inserts if you typically put orthotics in your shoes.
• Bring a fleece vest. I found it very comfortable and useful as an insulating layer while hiking, and just hanging around the ship.
• When putting on layers for kayaking, keep in mind that on top of your clothing you will be wearing a cockpit skirt and a PFD (personal flotation device, aka life preserver), which will also provide some warmth.
• In the same way that rain gear keep the rain out, they also keep sweat in. Keep this in mind when dressing for vigorous hiking in damp/rainy conditions.
• Bring a thumb drive (16 GB or bigger) with you even if you don’t have a computer. It is useful for sharing pictures and/or saving pictures. Someone else is bound to have a computer.
• Make sure that you have spare SD or CF cards for your camera, as well as a sufficient number of batteries.
• Bring along dry bags for your cameras as you spend a lot of time in skiffs and kayaks.
• Hikes are rated 1 to 5, but, due to the uncertain terrain, a
level 2 hike can quickly become a level 3 hike, and vice versa
• There are generally no established trails, so some degree of bushwhacking is usually required
• All the guides have some specific area of expertise; learn what they are and take hikes that play to their strengths.
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