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Published: August 21st 2012
Ketchikan to Juneau via the Western Passage
Trip to Alaska Part Two – June 2012 – Ketchikan to Juneau Intro
This is the second of a three part series and focuses on our trip through the western passage from Ketchikan to Juneau. Part One
focused on our trip to Ketchikan through the eastern 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 a link to Part Three once it is written.
As you read this, you will see photos embedded with the text. Continue on after reading to see several more photos.
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).
In midafternoon we headed for the Wilderness Discoverer staging area at the Cape Fox Lodge
, a place where I have stayed many times. It is a nice place, up on
a hill overlooking the city, and I always enjoy riding up to the lodge in their funicular. After listening to an enjoyable talk about Tlingit culture we boarded buses and headed back to the ship. As “ultimate adventurers” we were welcomed aboard with applause and high-fives from the crew. For the second half of the trip, we moved to a new cabin, 305 up in the bow; immediately, we were not too sure about the wisdom of the change and were missing our old interior cabin, 315. At the end of this blog, in the section “General Impressions, Observations & Lessons Learned” I give my thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of the two different cabins.
We headed down to the lounge for the welcoming brief and suddenly noticed that the ship was filled with all these new people! It seemed strange and we tended at first to gravitate to one of the other two couples who were also on the first half of the cruise.
The evening lighting was absolutely beautiful as we transited out of Ketchikan on the way to El Capitan Passage and the beginning of the next phase of our adventure.
El Capitan Passage
Wilderness Discoverer maneuvered through this narrow passage...
June 2012 – El Capitan Passage
Today was the type of day we had envisioned for this trip; cloudy, rainy and grey. The captain had hoped to transit the narrow El Capitan Passage this morning. There was too much wind, so the ship sat outside the passage and they used skiffs to shuttle us to our activities. We used the fastest skiff to transit to the beginning of our morning hike. Have you ever had rain come at you sideways so hard that the rain was traveling horizontally and hit you as hard as ice pellets? That’s what this was like; thankfully we were all dressed for the weather and were able to enjoy the ride. This area is rich in sea otters and, as we sped along, we passed a raft of six or eight otters, just floating along together, on their backs, seeming to not have a care in the world.
Today’s hike was advertised as a fast exploratory hike on a logging road. After some minor bushwhacking from the beach, we emerged on the logging road and headed out at a nice clip for about two and a half miles. It was an OK
walk, but, well, we were on a gravel road. On both sides of the road were beautiful temperate rain forest, but, we were on a gravel road. Overall it was good exercise and a nice opportunity to stretch our legs, but just not as interesting as other walks that we had done.
After returning to the beach, we hopped into another skiff and headed for El Capitan Cave
. El Capitan Cave is different than other caverns I have visited. It is significantly younger, only about 400,000 years old. We had a picnic lunch at the foot of the trail and then headed up the 370 cedar steps to the cave. At the cave we were greeted by two forest service rangers who provided us with helmets and headlamps. Unlike other caverns I have visited there were no installed lights and essentially no infrastructure; for the most part we saw the cave as it was without human interference. This meant that we climbed over rocks and slipped and slid a fairly short way in to see the various features of the cave. It is hard to describe the experience, but it was certainly worth a trip.
Back on the Wilderness
El Capitan Passage
Discover they had hot chocolate waiting for us as we disembarked from the skiff. By this time we were soaked to the skin, so, back in our cabin we peeled off our clothes, put on our bathing suits, poured a little cognac into our hot chocolate and headed for the hot tub. It felt good.
Once we were all back on board the captain was ready to make his slow speed run through El Capitan Passageway and the very narrow Dry Pass. It was exciting to see the ship maneuver through these incredibly narrow spots…definitely one of the many benefits of a small ship. In fact, it was so exciting I had to jump out of the hot tub, throw on a sweatshirt, grab my camera and record the event. It was still lightly raining and cold, but, fortunately, bartender Shaun came by and I was able to order a hot toddy to take off the chill (I did request that he head back to the hot tub to see if my wife would like a drink as well).
After dinner, a couple of local oyster farmers came on board and told us about their operation…there was a
rumor going around that they brought some of their fresh oysters onboard with them….
11 June 2012 - Klawock Native Village
We were originally unexcited about, and skeptical of, the scheduled visit to Klawock
Native Village. It turned out that it was not a native village in the way I envisioned a native village; essentially it was a small fishing village, whose residents are largely native Alaskans. Mike Peratrovich, our guide for the day wears many hats, harbormaster, head of public works, and many other positions within the town. He kept apologizing for being new as a guide, but he was incredibly knowledgeable, and he spoke so well, so honestly, so interestingly, and so much from the heart, that none of us would have ever known that this was new to him. We walked around town as he spoke to the history and culture of the place and of the Tlingit people.
Totem Park was on a hill overlooking the town and the water, with beautiful views of the mountains. As Mike explained it, these are “third generation” totem poles, as they were relatively new replicas of the previous set of replicas which had been
in bad condition and could not be repaired. He also pointed out that they really don’t know how old the “first generation” totems were, or how many generations preceded them. As we studied the totem poles, Mike explained their various purposes and places in the Tlingit culture
At the Lodge House, Mike explained both its traditional and modern uses. Walking around and examining the Lodge House, we were finally able to understand how all the parts we had seen in the carving shed in Wrangell (see Part One
) fit together to build a Lodge House.
As our final stop before returning to the ship, we visited the spot where the now-replaced “second generation” totems poles are stored. It was easy to see why then needed to be replaced; time and weather have not been kind to them.
The sun emerged as we left Klawock and began our long transit to Saginaw Bay. En route the ship slowed down to do some whale watching, but, after a week and a half on the ship I think I have become jaded. I put the long lens on my camera, went on deck and took some shots, but it was
cold and I quickly descended back down to the forward lounge.
To help past time during the transit, Shaun did a beer tasting. He explained how beer is made, then we enjoyed tastes of eight different beers, several from Alaskan brewery, but a few from other breweries as well. It was fun, and sure did taste good. When cocktail hour rolled around, we decided to enjoy the appetizers, but hold off for a bit on the drinks.
After dinner, it was very peaceful when we spent time up on the bridge, just first mate Danny, my wife and me. We were cruising along on glassy smooth waters, just enjoying the beauty and tranquility, occasionally spotting a spouting whale in the distance without any thought of grabbing a camera and running out to take a picture.
12 June 2012 – Saginaw Bay
It has been said that one sign of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. I must be insane because today I went snorkeling in Alaska for the second time hoping for a different experience from than the first time. One thing that was encouraging was
Snorkeling in Saginaw Bay
the bright sunny Alaska morning that greeted us, meaning there would be sunlight illuminating the shallow sea life. First impression, the water here was colder than in Yes Bay (see Part One
), but it was also significantly clearer and more sea life was apparent. Again, I spent a bit over an hour happily skimming along in the shallows, taking in the scene and snapping photos. The whole area was covered with live barnacles of all sizes with their tendrils extending from their shells flailing about in the water. There were numerous starfish, hermit crabs (including one without a shell, and one who lost his footing and went tumbling down a rock), as well as sea anemones, sea cucumbers, jelly fish and fish. When we finished, there was a great deal of kelp between the shore and the dive boat, so it was like swimming through the Sargasso Sea to return.
We spent the afternoon in a leisurely paddle around Saginaw Bay, revisiting the areas where I had snorkeled and my wife had hiked, and then, just generally exploring the bay. Some curious harbor seals were following us as we paddled about and would occasionally pop their heads out of the
Snorkeling in Saginaw Bay
water to check us out. As soon as they saw that we saw them, down they would go again.
As I mentioned, a couple of days ago, some oyster farmers came onboard to talk about their oyster farm, but, more importantly, the rumors were true and they had brought along some fresh oysters for us. Tonight it was a beautiful evening, so Captain Dano and Bosun Amanda shucked and served up both cooked and raw oysters; we ate them while enjoying cocktails on deck. I’m not usually an oyster fan, but these were delicious; very clean and very fresh.
13 June 2012 – Frederick Sound
Due to the fact that several people camped at Saginaw Bay last night, we had to wait until this morning to transit to Frederick Sound. Unfortunately, this meant that for most of the day we were all cooped up on the ship getting restless, which, unfortunately, boiled over later in the day.
While transiting, we enjoyed some of the best whale watching I have ever experienced. We encountered a large pod of humpback whales and for about an hour had them swimming and diving all around the ship. It
En Route to Frederick Sound
was magnificent and, once again, showed the benefit of traveling on a small ship. Once we encountered the whales we were able to slow down and enjoy our whale watching. Everyone was up on deck enjoying the show.
After we entered Frederick sound we took a skiff tour to see some sea lions. It was a nice colony of males, and I enjoyed photographing them, but, after getting up close and personal with sea lions while visiting the Galapagos a couple of years ago, sea lions are old hat for us. As we bobbed along, my wife fell asleep.
One thing the Wilderness Discoverer really needs to work on is the sign-up procedure for activities. For hikes and similar activities, they are usually limited to the number of people who can fit on a skiff, usually 10 or 11 plus a guide. After being cooped up on the ship all day today, there was a somewhat unruly scrum for activity sign-up as everyone jostled for position to get their favored activities for tomorrow. It was one of the darker episodes on the trip.
The day did end a high note. There was an Alaska trivia contest after
dinner, and our pick-up team, the Flukes prevailed over two other teams, proving that old age and cunning can prevail over youth and exuberance. Our prize was a drink from the bar which we enjoyed up on the bridge with some of our teammates. As someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time on Navy ships, it seemed strange, even though we were anchored, to find an unattended bridge. We just hung around up there, enjoyed our drinks and watched a smaller boat anchor off of our port bow.
14 June 2012 - Port Houghton
This morning I went on a hike off the Salt Chuck in Port Houghton. This was a pretty typical hike for this region. It was rated at a level 2, but it was really closer to a level 3. As there are very few established trails in this Wilderness area, most hikes entail a certain amount of bushwhacking. It was very beautiful in the temperate rain forest as we made a circle and headed in from the beach and then back out. Highlights included our guide, Alison finding a bear skull and Alison read poetry to us at each rest
stop. From the signs of bear scat, it seemed that a bear was either following or observing us, though we never did see the bear. Back on the beach we chatted with a couple of crabbers preparing for the Dungeness crab season which opens tomorrow…then we plunged back into the woods. This time the trail was a bit easier and we found our way to a pretty little cascade before returning again to the beach…all told, about 2.5 hours.
After walking in the morning, a paddle back to the Salt Chuck sounded like a fun idea. It wasn’t. This was the paddle from hell. The tide was running against us and we sometimes felt as if we didn’t make any progress at all. To add insult to injury, our paddles kept getting tangled in kelp. The only positive note was our sighting of a mother and baby moose on the shore. After paddling for almost two hours we had to turn back without quite making it to the Salt Chuck. The tide was so strong that we were back at the ship in only five or ten minutes!
The day’s activities concluded with the “polar bear plunge” where
several of us jumped two stories from the upper deck into forty-something degree (Fahrenheit) water, then swam a short distance to a ladder on the fantail, back onto the ship and then up to the hot tub. It was exhilarating! After I hit the water, it seemed like it took forever to float back up to the surface. Looking at my wife’s video, I was amazed at how quickly I actually did pop to the surface. I was happy to do this once; the two boys on board did it four times each.
15 June 2012 - Endicott Arm-Dawes Glacier
As we entered Endicott Arm on a partially sunny morning we saw the beautiful Dawes Glacier in front of us and harbor seals on ice floes all around us. These are female seals who come to have their pups in an area that is somewhat protected from their chief predator, the orca. We went out on what turned out to be one of the better skiff tours. We slowly moved around the ice enjoying the magnificence and beauty of the glacier. Several times we got to see the glacier calf with a sound like thunder. Alison
With seals floating on the ice in the foreground
read us a poem as we bobbed along, watched the seals and watched and listened to the glacier.
Then, a brief bit of natural drama. A seal gave birth and an eagle went after the bloody after-birth on the ice floe. The seal, fearing for the safety of her pup, pushed it into the water to protect it from the eagle. Too soon we needed to return to the ship. As we boarded the ship, we observed a nearby mountain goat with a kid. It was a very full couple of hours!
Our final activity for this trip was a very pleasant independent kayak paddle around Endicott arm. As we paddled, we stopped for several minutes to watch a bear munching on grass. Strangely, on both halves of the trip, the only time we saw a bear was on a last day and from a kayak. A curious harbor seal followed us for a while, periodically popping her head above the water to keep tabs on us. We then paddled off into the distance to visit our own personal iceberg. It was about 30 feet across, was blue-blue in color and had a narrow channel running through it.
We bumped up alongside so that we could reach out and touch it. On our way back to the ship we nudged the nose of the kayak into a narrow crack in the rock to get up close and personal to a pretty little waterfall. Again, too soon we needed to return to the ship; but, upon our return, we did get to enjoy one last dip in hot tub!
As with the first half of the trip, we ended the evening with a slideshow that encapsulated the trip with pictures of passengers, crew and places we had visited. Then, except for chatting with our friends, the formal part of the trip was over. My wife and I made one final trip to the bridge, one of our favorite places on the ship. It was a good way to end our voyage.
General Impressions, Observations & Lessons Learned (this is based on the total trip and is repeated from the end of Part One)
• 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 storage space 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.
• If 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, with a couple of exceptions, 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 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.
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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