12.05.2008 - 14.05.2008 7 °C
Since my first attempt at this entry was lost this is going to be a very bridged entry as time is getting short and I’ll be home before I’ve finished. I had put in heaps of detail about our sailing paths and weather conditions but now you’ll just be getting the bare essentials.
We awoke in the port of Ketchikan on day 3 of the cruise and it was just as I imagined, grey skies, rain and lines of quaint wooden houses lining the mountains. Thankfully we had booked the Lumberjack Show for our morning activity and not the bike riding or hiking like some others. The show was a short walk from the pier and we were greeted by being placed in either the Canadian team of Spruce Mill or the US team of Dawson Creek. We were on the side of the Canadians and there was lots of humour and heckling with the opposite team. Very talented lumberjacks entertained us with many of their skills with probably the most entertaining the log rolling in the water. I felt for the poor men as they stood afterwards posing for photos in temperatures of about 7 degrees.
One of our Canadian team members attempted to make a rabbit from the trunk of a tree using a chainsaw. Very cute work until he “slipped” and chopped its ears off. Anyway to cut a long story short , he turned the rabbit upside down and turned it into a mini chair. He then needed someone small enough to fit the little chair. Of course it was the perfect fit for Mackenzie who was chosen to come onto the stage and see how it fit for size. We chose to leave it behind rather than try to get it through customs. As cute as it was, a photo memory will have to do.
Ketchikan was only a short stay and we were required to embark by 2pm so this really only gave us time to have a wander through the streets and discover what Alaska is famous for- diamonds and other precious gems are all duty free and nearly wholesale prices. There are as many jewellery stores as souvenir shops and that’s saying something!! For example a diamond I tried on that was tagged at $9990 was available to buy for around $2500. Definitely the place to go for beautiful quality jewellery but unfortunately not on our shopping list this trip!!
We returned to the ship and were quickly left behind as the kids darted off to the kids club as if they were already suffering withdrawal symptoms. This left us to disappear to the dining room to enjoy a very pleasant high tea in peace and partake in some more adult conversation.
We set sail for Juneau about 2.30pm and enjoyed calm seas through Snow Passage and Sumner Strait. The scenery was amazing from both sides of the ship as we sailed between islands and mountains, mostly snow capped and incredibly close, it was so relaxing to sit back and watch such pristine wilderness pass by.
During the night we sailed through Frederick Sound and along the Stephens Passage to dock in Juneau at 8am. Juneau is the capital of Alaska however is totally inaccessible by road. The only way in is by plane or boat due to the glaciers that block all other access. Quite a unique place with an amazing history the town is spread out along the waterways and up the steep mountain side.
We had pre-purchased a whale watching tour over the I’net with Captain Larry and Orca Enterprises with his purple jet boat. We were taken by bus out to the marina in Akuke Bay where we boarded along with about a dozen others onto his purple jet boat.
Apparently whales like purple and the jet engines are quieter than other options. With over 40 years experience in Alaska as a skipper and naturalist we were in for a real treat. Capt Larry used only sight and knowledge to locate the whales, no electronic devices. We were instructed on how to look for their exhalation that lingers just above the water and told that it was easier to see on grey, cloudy and cool days, even better if it’s drizzly rain. Well we were happy with the cloudy, cool day, there was no wind and no rain and everyone was thankful for the calm waters of the bay.
Within a few minutes of being told what to look for there was a sighting, everyone rushed to the side of the boat to see but thankfully there was also open deck viewing from the back and on top. It was great to be out with a smaller crowd and not the 100 that some of the tours take. Capt Larry and his mate Sean, our guide, were both a wealth of knowledge about these amazing animals, the area and other wildlife we managed to see which included Arctic seals, bald eagles, many sea birds and of course the mighty humpback whale. We were informed it was unlikely to see orca’s as they move through the waters so quickly you have to be lucky to get a look. The kids did manage to see a pod of orcas from the ship on their first day at sea while they were in the kids club but I’m afraid the only ones I have seen were at Sea World back in San Diego.
We got to see many whales and also some great tail shots. The best was the time we had spotted a humpback and she had started to come closer to the boat so Capt had just cut the engines. The rule is that boats cannot approach the whales closer than 100metres but the whales don’t understand how far that is so at times they decide they want a closer look. All was quiet and everyone had their eyes peeled ready to see where she would surface, I was looking over port side of the boat when suddenly a burst of air shot within a few metres of me and there she was, so close I felt I could almost touch her. She did a slow swim by then dived beneath to swim away and was gone. Such a privileged moment, it was incredible to be so close to this enormous and beautiful animal of the sea.
We returned to Juneau, buzzing with excitement, especially since the kids were told not to tell anyone else on the jetty that the “whale kissed our boat”, it was too much to bear.
We caught a glimpse of the Mendenhall Glacier from the bus as we travelled along the highway and couldn’t believe how close it was to the town so later in the afternoon we caught the shuttle out for a brief look and hold some glacial ice and walk in glacial silt. Quite different to the glacier in the Canadian Rockies as the ice in front of the glacier had melted so there were chunks of ice floating in the lake.
We returned later to the ship and decided to take the opportunity for all of us to go out together for a nice meal in one of the 4 special themed dining rooms. The ship was not departing Juneau until about 9pm so things were a bit quieter and we were able to get a table at our choice of time. We had chosen to do anytime dining while on the cruise to offer us more flexibility rather than in the same table at the same time each night. Obviously this option suits many people but definitely not us We had bought the girls a nice outfit each so thought they should get the chance to wear it, plus they were very keen to try out the 5 course meals we had been telling them about.
Our arrival in Skagway was at 6am and interestingly the view from the balcony was a steep rock face covered in graffiti of various ships’ and countries’ flags. I never did find out the significance of these but later in the day I noticed some advertising painted on a rock face and when I asked a guide about it she said it was there from the gold rush days.
Skagway was an amazing little town with a population of only about 800 people. On a busy summer’s day this population can expand to well over 10 000 as 3 or 4 ships fill the dock. This place definitely survives on its summer season tourism population and it made us very happy to be here at the beginning of the season before the crowds. Apparently Juneau will often have 7 cruise ships in port on the one day. The days we were in port there were generally 2 others not creating too many crowds.
Obviously being such a small place there is not too much to do in Skagway so we decided to have a sleep in and a slower start to the day after the last two early mornings and late nights. The sun isn’t setting now until about 9.30pm so the days are getting a lot longer the further we travel north, sunrise is at 4.30am but I haven’t managed to see any of them yet!
We decided after checking out what to do, that Skagway was famous for its gold rush history and the Yukon, White Pass Railway. With the history surrounding it we decided to step back in time and ride the rail road for a couple of hours and supposedly see some amazing scenery. The kids were very happy as we discovered quite coincidentally, their friends they had met from Bombay were also booked for the train and in the same car.
As it turned out we didn’t get to see too much of the pas at all. After about an hour out of Skagway the snow started to fall in the biggest snowflakes I had ever seen. We thought we had seen snow in Canada but this was amazing! The tracks and ground were covered in no time and it just kept on coming so thick it was incredible. The biggest treat for me was to see out new friends from Bombay, who only yesterday had seen snow on the ground for the first time, get to see snow falling all around them. It was a very special moment and a great to be able to share their elation.
The return bus trip was a little slow and cautious as the roads were also covered in snow, quite unexpectedly, so none of the vehicles or drivers were prepared for the conditions. We all returned quite safely with lots of stories to share.
Interestingly, when you take this tour you actually cross the Canadian border and enter the Yukon. At this point, the train stops and customs board the train to check everyone’s passports. It’s not a simple walk through either as I expected, a very serious affair with some people singled out and questioned in more detail. Crazy enough, on our return down the mountain, crossing back into Alaska, the bus stops and on get customs to check you back into the states!! Go figure??