Saturday Aug 29 – Whittier Alaska

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August 31st 2015
Published: August 31st 2015
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Star PrincessStar PrincessStar Princess

at dock in Whittier Alaska
Today is our last day in Alaska - assuming the flight leaves on time tonight. But before you get started on this, be advised that photos have now been added to Aug 28 (College Fjord) blog entry.

We set our 2 bags in the hallway last night (47.5 & 48.5 pounds), so we were down to a backpack and small roller bag. We got up and packed our final things as we did not have to be out of our cabins until 8:00, so we met the Sieberts in the hall at 7:55 and went up to the Horizon Court for a final breakfast on the ship. Our steward (Mar) was waiting in the hall to bid us farewell and to get started cleaning our cabins for the next set of passengers. The food court must have been bedlam an hour or so earlier, but we found it mostly empty but still brimming with food. So we had a relaxing meal and then went down to the Vista Lounge.

This was our designated spot to wait until we could go to the Princess Theater. The theater is where they dispatched most of the people from
Billings GlacierBillings GlacierBillings Glacier

which overlooks Whittier
the ship, but our tour/transfer did not leave until 11:00 so they gave us a relaxing place to wait while being out of the way for all the cleaning that is necessary around the ship.

Jim and Kathy went down to the Internet Café to use the last of their internet minutes. One of the perks of our platinum status with Princess is that we get a supply of free internet minutes. We weren’t sure how many minutes we would use during the cruise (satellite internet is much slower than we are used to from the cable company) but we each had about 40 minutes of our original 150 remaining.

We actually went to the theater about 9:30 and it was almost empty, so we settled down to await our “departure excursion”. There were 20 or few people waiting for our tour at 10:00, when the theater manager asked us to leave so they could begin rehearsal for that evening’s show. We explained that the Shore Excursion people had scheduled us there, so we got to watch the first part of the rehearsal. Two of the people with us were Everett and Kathy who
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from Passage Channel
had been on the pre-cruise trip through Canada. Anyway, at 11:00 we were escorted off the ship and we claimed our luggage before being handed over to the tour leader.

Our bags were loaded on a bus for later in the day and we were admitted to the largest hi-speed catamaran in Alaska (the Alaskan Explorer). We had been assigned to the table closest to the bow of the boat on the main level – a real premiere viewing position. Our group of 20 was joined by more than 200 others who had come from Anchorage before joining the ship for the return cruise to Vancouver. That was the main reason for the lateness of our departure. Anyway, we were set for a “26 Glacier Tour” to begin.

There was a Park Ranger who gave us commentary over a microphone, but sometimes the captain would interrupt when he spotted some wildlife for us to see. For example, we were less than 15 minutes out of Whittier when we came across a prod of Orca whales. This actually started by seeing one of them breach (essentially jumping out of the water and splashing back into the sea). David was not able to catch that with his camera, but he did get quite a few other pictures.

We also saw some Sea Otters swimming, and a Sea Lion sunning himself on a shallow island. We saw bald eagles when we were near the shore, we even saw a few Dahl Sheep high on a rocky mountainside, and a variety of birds. They were all interesting and we enjoyed seeing them. But the main purpose of the tour was to get to see numerous glaciers.

On our way out of the Whittier area we were shown the fault line which caused the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. That earthquake had a 9.2 rating on the Richter scale and is understood to be the 2nd strongest earthquake recorded anywhere in the world. The ground on the right side of the fault line dropped 9 feet and is clearly visible from where we were. The epicenter was 35 miles from Whittier and it caused a Tsunami in Whittier Bay that was 42 feet high and which virtually wiped out the whole town.

The weather was good and clear, although it was
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swimming by himself
a bit chilly when we went out on the open deck, especially if they were zipping along at 30 knots. Whittier get about 200 inches of rain in the Sound each year, and up in the mountains they get around 100 feet of snow. That is an incredible amount of rainy days in this area, and we have had two surprisingly clear days (although sometimes windy and chilly). One more thing – the past couple of nights we have been able to see Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) during the middle of the night, although it clearly alighted the horizon but did not show dazzling and shifting colors in the light – oh well.

Yesterday the Star Princess had taken us far into College Fjord for a close look at the glaciers (including Harvard Glacier at the very end of the fjord). However Whittier is close enough that we revisited College Fjord again. We had spent unscheduled time looking at wildlife in the beginning of the cruise, so we could only go part way, but the air was so clear we could still see them well even at about 15 miles away.

One of the
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getting some sun
highlights of today’s tour was proceeding into Harriman Fjord and getting up close (less than 1000 yards) to the face of Surprise Glacier. This is a tidal glacier which means the icepack extends all the way to the water. We were fortunate enough to be there when part of the face broke loose and fell into the water. David had just completed panning his camera across the whole glacier face in video mode, when the ice calved a small iceberg into the water. Unfortunately the camera was still writing from memory to the sim card, and he was not able to get pictures of the even (missed it by just a couple of seconds). But we all saw and heard it, and have it in our own memories.

While we were in front of Surprise Glacier, a couple of the crew went “ice fishing”. That term usually implies try to catch fish through holes in the ice. In this case they lowered a net into the water and caught chunks of glacier ice to bring onto the ship. They put a large chunk into an even larger bowl for anyone to go and touch if they wanted.
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in Esther Passage
They also cleaned the ice and then used it in drink served the rest of the afternoon. The ranger gave us an estimate of the size of the whole glacier and the age of the ice we had brought on the boat. It is about 8 miles long, roughly 300 feet thick, and ¾ mile wide. The ranger estimated it contains about 376 billion gallons of ice. The ice field which feeds this glacier (and others) is estimated to be 5000 and 10000 years old and is 500 to 1000 feet thick. The longest glacier in Alaska is far from here, but is said to be 120 miles long. Although most glaciers are receding, there is still a lot of ice remaining right at this time.

Next we went over to another channel and got up close to Barry Glacier and Coxe Glacier. Again we were able to slide up comparatively close to the face of the glacier, although neither of these are known to drop much ice at this time of year. We also had great views of Cascade Glacier, Cataract Glacier and many others from a farther off. Where there isn’t a glacier, the mountains
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from 15 miles away
are heavily wooded as we have been in the Chugach National Forest much of the day. However there are is a very distinct “tree line” where trees do not grow above. In this region it runs somewhere between 1000 to 1500 feet because the winter are so harsh above that height that the trees just really succeed.

We had a terrific day of cruising the waters and viewing these incredible sights. We returned to the harbor where we had started the trip and we docked almost next to the Star Princess. There are a series of trains which bring the bulk of the passengers to the cruise ships, and one of them was discharging their passengers who were eagerly heading for our old ship. Access to Whittier is through a single lane tunnel, which is shared by both cars/buses, and by trains. There is a coordinated schedule to traffic heading toward Anchorage on the hour and heading to Whittier on the half hour. So after boarding our bus after the tour, we had to wait until it was 6:00 for our bus to be able to leave. After going through the longest vehicular tunnel in North America, we saw another train and several buses waiting for the half hour to be able to bring more passengers to the ship.

We drove toward Anchorage but stopped along the way at a place where Sochi Salmon and Chum Salmon were spawning in a small creek. There is a footbridge across the creek and we could look down and see them clearly. We only had a short visit and then it was back on the bus. The road runs besides a long estuary where we also saw (at a distance) some Beluga Whales feeding on the salmon.

The bus dropped passengers at about 5 hotels in Anchorage and finally took the rest of us to the airport. We got checked in to our United Airlines flight to Denver, but with very little assistance (nor apparent interest) by the counter staff. It was painfully apparent that we no longer were in the tender care of Princess Cruise Lines and back to the “real world”. We had not gotten to the airport until about 8:30 and almost 9:00 by the time we got through the airport rituals. Although Janet had been given TSA Pre-Check status, they
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near Surprise Glacier
still gave her a thorough examination (including pat down and explosive residue testing). Anyway, we were pretty hungry by now. The tour had included a tasty lunch but that had been about 1:00 and we were people who had been conditioned to eat every few hours. We ate at a Chili’s restaurant that was very busy so we didn’t get dinner until about 10:00. However we got dinner and made our way to the gate.

The plane was a 737 with 3 seats on each side and every one was taken. We actually were given the option of checking our roller bag because they expected all the overhead bins to be full. So we got charged for our first two bags at the counter, but the 3rd one was free – thank you. That left us with just the backpack and Janet’s shoulder bag for the laptop, camera, and other important items. We did board on schedule and got sandwiched into our seats for the long flight home – the flight left at 11:50.

There are a whole lot of pictures today - probably more than can fit without going to the Additional Pictures
face of Surprise Glacierface of Surprise Glacierface of Surprise Glacier

in Harriman Fjord

To hear the remainder of our story, tune in one more time for our final episode on Sunday.

Additional photos below
Photos: 15, Displayed: 15


Jim & KathyJim & Kathy
Jim & Kathy

at Barry Glacier
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Salmon Spawning

two types at same time

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