Monthly Archives: September 2017
As we have travelled north it has got noticeably cooler and some of the woollies are coming out of the bags. Unfortunately, the weather has also turned cloudy and wet to go with the cold. We arrive late in the morning and settle in at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge beside the Nenana River for the night. This lodge is also closing tomorrow so we are here for one night.
Allthego had made arrangements for a water rafting expedition down the canyon section of the river in the afternoon. Homealone avoided this and was going to hang around the lodge and await Allthego’s return. Allthego hasn’t been rafting for many years, the last time with Mitchell on a river near Coffs Harbour maybe 25 years ago. There was only one other person in our raft that had also previously done it. So the guide really wound everyone up with tales of being tipped out and how to survive in the river etc. We had a few oohs and ahs along the way. Allthego held tight to a cold bar. It rained a bit and water splashed into the raft as we bumped our way down the river. The trip down the canyon took a bit over 2 hours and we went through about 10 rapid sections, grades 2 and 3 with one 4. I think 6 is he highest rating. They were pretty tame but a good experience. The guide said that because we were late in the season the water levels were down and the rapids were not quite as vigorous as earlier in the season. The river is fed by glaciers and is very silt laden, apparently there are few if any fish because of the heavy silt content. We finished up back at the lodge around 5 pm for dinner and bed.
It was to be a 6 am start the next morning with a tour out into Denali National Park. We had another chilly start when we set off in the National Parks Service bus and accompanying guide. Because of the weather the outlook from the bus was bleak. The trip takes us past the tree line and looking out of the window you can feel how vast and remote the park is. We don’t get a view of Denali because of cloud cover. No animals. It would be good to see the park at another time of year in warmer weather. Back at the lodge it was a quick lunch before boarding the bus to head for Fairbanks.
Fairbanks was to be the end of the road for us on the way north. It is about 180 miles south of the Arctic circle. In contrast Hobart, in Tasmania, is 1630 mile north of the Antarctic circle. We had 2 nights here in Fairbanks at the Princess accommodation before it too was closing for the season! We then left our fellow cruislings for another couple of nights in town. The major attraction in Fairbanks are the Northern lights, they are completely natural of course and although predictable to a certain extent, seeing them is weather dependent. If there is cloud then there is no seeing the lights. Fairbanks is a prime spot for the experience. The day we arrived the night skies were clear but we sought of overlooked going out ( feeling too ragged in other words to make it) thinking we had another 3 nights to do it. Guess what? The next 3 nights were cloudy so no lights! Maybe there will be another time or place to see them.
The Princess people had arranged a couple of tours for us to catch some Fairbanks sights. First up was an old Gold Dredge historic site just out-of-town. Gold dredges were apparently an invention of our Kiwi mates in the late 1800s. They were used to mine alluvial gold in streams or on ancient river flats. Enormous quantities of water were required to blast away overburden material, the dredge then scooped the gravels up, washed them and extracted the gold from sludge along washing boards. Quite efficient at a certain level but totally destroys the environment. Their use petered out after the 1920s as cost structures escalated and environmental controls made the method uneconomic. Haven’t heard of these machines being used in Australia and this is probably because of the large quantities of water required. Part of the experience here was doing some panning. Everyone was more or less guaranteed to ‘find’ some gold. We each got a small bag of gravel to wash, probably ‘salted’ with about $10 worth of gold. We dutifully found our gold and were then funnelled into a weighing room to ‘value’ it. We were then mined ourselves to put our small pile of gold into various styles of trinkets. The trinkets would have cost almost nothing and sold for a minimum of twice the ‘value’ of the gold. Some trinkets were like 10 times the ‘value’ of the gold. Quite a seductive little operation which got a fair few of us in. Written off by Allthego as an experience.
Then off onto the Chenna River for a riverboat cruise, along the way seeing some indigenous life experiences, dog sled racing and general river scenery. An interesting feature of the Chenna River is that it freezes over to a depth of 5 or more feet in winter. Locals take advantage of this and make winter short cuts across the river on ‘ice bridges’, more than one driver has stretched the season out and sank into a chilly thawing stream.
Fairbanks is really a stepping off place to explore the wilds of the north. We hired a car for the last couple of days and drove around a bit, managing to get to North Pole to check out Santa’s Christmas operations . Santa was winding up operations for the season and doing some renovations to his premises in time for the Christmas rush period. Enjoyed a Big Mac here at North Pole McDonalds, tasted much like Big macs taste at other places.
It is now time to leave Alaska and head south on Alaska Airlines to Seattle where the journey continues, in hopefully warmer weather. On this part of the journey the internet has proved fairly slow at times and the blog is behind a bit. We are now actually back in Vancouver, having come up by train from Seattle. Tomorrow we head to Houston to see Mitchell and Piper, will catch up the blog when we are there. Have to rise at 2 am to get to the airport for a 6 am getaway, so it is to be early to bed.
We are now on our way north to Fairbanks. This section of the journey is an extension of the cruise arrangement up the Inland Passage. We are hooked into Princess Cruises travel and itinerary arrangements. So the train we get on in Anchorage for the first stage is a special train arranged for us being hauled by a big loco all ablaze with Alaska but pulling dome carriages ablaze with ‘Princess’. During this train trip we get the ‘usual’ views of pine studded snow-capped mountains and rushing streams. The Aspens are turning golden with the onset of fall and it is truly a great scene.
The train comes to a stop to allow us a chance to photograph Denali for the first time across a shallow river. A very impressive mountain. We alight the train at a town called Talkeetna, a bit over 100 miles north of Anchorage. It is in an ideal possie for tourists with another great spot beside the river for Denali photo taking. A local tells us that today has been the best day of the season for seeing the mountain in relatively clear skies. After wandering around town and having lunch at the local brewery we board a Princess bus bound for the Princess Mt McKinley Lodge, a further 30 miles up the Parks Highway and just inside the Denali State Park, not Denali National Park.
As my readers will know Allthego is rather partial to some fish n chips and in Talkeetna he had some of the best so far in the brewery and washed them down with a flight selection of the local brews. This was the best fish n chips so far on the trip. When the journey concludes in Seattle in a few days time there will be a reflection on the fish n chips encountered.
We arrive at the Lodge around 5pm in time to book in and to go on a short trail walk through the forest. Homealone spotted a vole, a very small rodent like creature hiding in the grass. Too small for the blog unfortunately. There is another great view of Denali from the Main Lodge complex’s balcony.
It is here we learn of the fact that the Lodge is closing the next morning for the season, 7 ft of snow fell around the lodge in the 2016 fall/winter season. It reopens in May 2018, just in time for the next cruise ship passengers heading north! This has a familiar ring to it! We are to be out early and on our way to Princess’s Denali Lodge another 120 miles north and just outside the Denali National Park, of which there will be more next time!
We have a brief stopover in Anchorage on the way north to Fairbanks. Just enough time to have a short wander through the streets and catch a trolley tour of the town before hitting the pillow cases. Anchorage has a couple of claims to fame. The major one being the victim of a big earthquake in 1964, one of the main streets was split in half with one side dropping 15 ft or so, not sure whether the ‘facts of quantum ‘ here are totally correct. But we did see a section of bushland that had slumped by about that amount due to the quake, quite an impressive sight. The tunnel we had travelled through earlier was not affected. The other famous thing is Anchorage is the traditional start of the Iditarod dog sled race that goes for over a thousand miles into the north-east, takes over 20 days or so to complete. Sometimes the race has to start further north due to lack of snow in various sections. It is a big race, the Melbourne Cup of Alaska!
Anchorage and also the north-west coast of North America shares some common history with Australia. Captain Cook roamed around here on his 3rd voyage looking for the north-west passage. But Anchorage in particular really acknowledges his impact in a big way. There is a statue of him overlooking Cook Inlet, the point where he turned south to Hawaii after abandoning the north-west passage search. Our hotel the ‘Captain Cook, is adorned with all sorts of Cook memorabilia. Bronze busts, copies of famous portraits, an original copy of the book that was published of his voyages, maps and even a copy of the Kangaroo painting are all over the place.
The town has all the usual tourist traps. One in particular was interesting. It sold ‘wool’ and various knitted up items from the Muskox. Proceeds benefit the indigenous people from the north who collect the ‘wool’ during the short period when the Muskox shed it. It is not cheap $US90, about $A120, for one ball of it. Homealone was consequently reluctant to acquire a ball to add to her collection of crafty projects in hand. A modest jumper would require about 16 of these and end up at around $1920…….
The next day we will leave by train to head for Fairbanks. Along the way we overnight a couple of times to view (from various angles) Denali, formerly Mt McKinley. It is North America’s largest peak at 20,320 ft and is claimed to be quite a sight! There are of course a few other things to do as well.
After landing in Whittier we disembarked the ship and boarded a bus to take us across the peninsular to Anchorage. Whittier is a very small village and had its origins in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour in WW2|The Americans wanted to establish a deep water ice-free port to act as a base for part of its Pacific fleet, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour they wanted to disperse the fleet as a tactical measure. Whittier was an ideal spot it seems in part because of the lousy weather. A lot of days of extensive low-level cloud cover provided ideal protection from attack. But it was cut off from Anchorage by a ‘big rock’ and a 2 and half mile tunnel had to be cut through the mountain. Today it remains a one lane tunnel which doubles as a train line and vehicle passage. It goes one way at the ‘top of the hour’ and the other way at the ‘bottom of the hour’ there is a wait in between for the gases and smoke to be cleared out. Interesting experience queuing up for the trip.
Along the way to Anchorage we stop for a visit to an animal protection place where a selection of the Alaskan icons are on display in an open range situation. So if you don’t see them in the wild well you get a good look at them here.
The Caribou are a particularly scary beast our driver said……… ‘Cari-boo’…………, very funny………….perhaps. Caribou are actually wild reindeer it seems, the reindeer is a domesticated version of the same beast. Also, as we all know, reindeer fly and caribou don’t.
After an hour here we headed off in the bus to Anchorage and the Captain Cook Hotel for the night.
Our final two days at sea have us heading north by north-west out of the Inland Passage and across the Gulf of Alaska. First viewings of the glaciers are in Glacier Bay, the day is heavy with cloud which covers the tops of the mountains on either side of the Bay. At the start it’s wet and rather cold, beanies and weather jackets on but as the morning advances it clears up a bit. Still no blue skies for those postcard like views one sees in the travel brochures, apparently the weather we have is more the norm. The glaciers though are still impressive and the quiet misty waters surrounded by mountains really emphasises that we are in a quite remote and special part of the world. Our big ship moving very slowly around the Bay seems out of place, an invader if you like!
We get to the end of the Bay in front of the Margerie Glacier and the ship does a slow 360 pivot several times so that all can get a good view of the scene. Many of the glaciers in the bay are clearly in retreat up their valleys, others seem to be close to having their noses crawl out of the sea. No more pieces breaking off and plunging into the water. There is one though that is still advancing, the Johns Hopkins Glacier. Apparently it is fed by part of the Ice field on Mt Fairweather which still gets enormous quantities of snow each year. Mt Fairweather was named by Captain Cook on his 3rd and final voyage when he was searching for the long hoped for North West Passage across the top to Europe. Unable to find it he turned back near present day Anchorage and headed south for Hawaii.
We leave Glacier Bay around lunchtime and head across the Gulf of Alaska. Our next viewing is in College Fjord late in the afternoon the next day. College Fjord is found not far to the south of Whittier which is our final port and where we leave the ship for the land journey to Fairbanks. College Fjord and many of the glaciers along side it are named after the famous American Universities. So at the end of it is Harvard Glacier, Yale Glacier is beside it.
Harvard Glacier was responsible for carving out College Fjord, before retreating and having its valley inundated. A number of the glaciers are still well in the water and are known as tide water glaciers. All of them though are receding and one wonders how long the current scene will persist? It has been pretty gloomy and cold in College Fjord as well. At the end of the Fjord we do a few half pivots in front of Harvard Glacier and a little patch of blue sky appears above the glacier. Not for long though!
We now head off to Whittier and the end of the cruise early on the following day.
We’re going on a bear hunt
We’re going to catch a big one
We’re not scared
What a beautiful day
We are still at Skagway and are off on a tour to see if we can see some wildlife in the wild. Particularly a grizzly bear or two. We have seen black bears and a grizzly (brown bear) would be good. Now a grizzly is very distinguishable from a black bear because it has a hump on its back behind its head. Its snout is also a bit longer. It is also a bit more aggressive if annoyed, challenged etc.
We are off to Haines which is a town on an inlet about a 45 min boat trip away from Skagway. There is a small river here that runs down into the bay. It is a spot were the salmon run. And the salmon are running strongly when we arrive. Our transport heads up the river and stops for all to alight to check out the river and the salmon, there are lots of sea birds flocking around and the salmon are going this way and that.
The ones that haven’t spawned yet are heading up-stream and the ones that have spawned, well they are dying and thrashing around in the shallows and pooling against the river bank. On the bank itself we have to be careful where we tread as there are lots of dead salmon lying around on the ground. Bellies slashed open and innards exposed. These have been the victims of bears it seems.
Bears like to eat the roe of the yet to spawn female salmon and don’t worry too much about the other parts, so just leave them lying around to rot away. Apparently, a bear can pick the female salmon from the male salmon and so the male may well feel more secure in his travels. Comforting thought if you are a male salmon.
We then come across evidence of bear, a modest size bear paw print in the muddy bank. There is a lot of interest shown in this bear paw print by our fellow travellers. Cameras are working hard.
THEN someone gets excited and calls out BEAR, and on the other side of the river this grizzly comes out of the brush beside the river and proceeds to gaze at the stream. Then with a bit of a splash she wades into the water and starts chasing fish around. Our guide lets us know that this grizzly is about 2 and a half and is ‘learning’ how to fish. For about 40 minutes we follow this bear up and down the river as she chases salmon around the shallows. She is sometimes up to her neck in the water and at others plunging around after fish. Quite a show.
Our guide said that the bear would have known we were around watching the performance, but being on the other side of the river was not in an insecure place. So she was quite happy to put on a show for us! We lingered a while watching this inter play of nature before heading back down to the river mouth to see some seals patrolling the river mouth and eagles flying around cleaning up fish pieces drifting by into the bay. We finally headed back to Skagway for an 8.30 sail away.
We are now at sea for a couple of days making our way north-west to Anchorage …………… but before reaching it we will check out a few more glaciers. You could well ask whether once you have seen a few glaciers do you have to see any more? Only time will tell it seems!
Well the reasonably good weather has continued for us as the journey continues north up the Inland Passage. We have an early start in Juneau. This city/town is the State Capital of Alaska, it is unusual in that it is landlocked. There is no way in except by sea or air, no roads out! In the morning we are off on a tour taking us to the Mendenhall Glacier. This is not far out-of-town and is a major attraction as you can almost walk up to the nose of the glacier, although with it retreating the nose is getting further away. It is an interesting walk through the rainforest to get to one of the viewing platforms.
Along the way there are markers indicating where the nose was in years gone by, the first marker is 1916 and it is a fair way back from where the glacier is now. What is fascinating is how the forest has reclaimed the area vacated by the glacier. At the 1916 point there is a very significant area of rainforest which slowly ‘thins’ out as you move towards the viewing platform.
Leaving the glacier we then head off to the harbour for the second half of the trip out onto the water to search for a few whales and other sea life. The group is led by a photographer who passes on photo taking technique tips. We search around the waterways and eventually find a couple of humpbacks entertaining the crowds in a number of boats with fluke waves and dives. We also sight a ‘gang’ of harbour seals lying on a beach and some Stella sea lions that have taken over a buoy.
Back in Juneau for the afternoon we do our usual wander around the town. As well as eyeing off the usual eateries and souvenir shops it sinks in that there are numerous jewelry shops in these towns. It transpires that many of them are actually owned by the cruise ship companies and that is why they get the never-ending plugs on board the ship. We avoid them.
Next stop along the way is Skagway. We have another long all day stop in this town which was the step off place in the 1890s for the thousands who headed off on the trek to the Yukon during the gold rush period. It was a pretty treacherous trip (500 mile?) up and over the coastal mountain range and then along the Yukon River to Dawson City in Canada. Many of the buildings in the town are preserved structures from the late 1800s and the National Parks service look after them.
We took the easy way up in a small bus and fog to Whites Pass and the Canadian border, it’s about 3,000 ft up the steep route. The road follows in part the old railway which fellow cruislings are doing aboard the train. The train doesn’t stop for pictures, so in some ways the bus is an advantage in that we stop along the way and are able to take in the atmosphere of the place. It also allows us to reflect on the journey the gold seekers endured a hundred and thirtysomething years ago. It was a bit chilly up there too!
We headed back down to the ship and lunch on board, after which it was off on a late afternoon wildlife expedition. It would see us back on board around 8 o’clock for the sail away. The amazing events of that wildlife expedition though must await the next blog.
We awake to our first day at sea with gloomy weather on the port side and gloomy weather on the starboard side and gloomy weather ahead of us and gloomy weather behind us. It is rainy and foggy as we push out across Princes Charlotte Sound bound for Ketchikan in a days time. We are following the Inside Passage up British Columbia’s coast and then cross the border with Alaska just north of Port Rupert, where we had been a few days before. However, we are using a different channel to the one we did with the BC Ferries trip down from Prince Rupert. We are further off the coast in ‘wider’ water.
In a way its lucky we are having this weather as it is helping put out the fires that are still burning away. We are also at sea for a full day and can enjoy a quiet day on board. It is a formal night and people on board are really into this. Allthego and Homealone left their best behind as did a good many others. No one seemed to worry and we ate in the non formal area, the Italian restaurant. A very nice meal indeed. It was also time for the champagne waterfall, quite a performance with numerous bottles being poured by guests over the stacked glasses. Not sure what happens to the champagne though when it’s all over. Entertainment for the night was a ‘British Invasion ‘ show, with music from the 60s/70s from all those British musicians of that era.
We arrived in Ketchikan with improved weather, a little misty rain in the morning cleared out and we had some sun and a cloudy blue sky for the afternoon. Ketchikan is one of the wettest places on the north-west coast and can get up to 13 ft of rain a year, a sunny blue sky day is a rarity we were told. We were off the ship early for a tour of the temperate rain forest and a chance for wild life sightings along a salmon stream. Another black bear was spotted in the water, along with plenty of bald eagles in the trees. A short visit to a ‘animal hospital’ allowed a close up of a bald eagle and a few other birds of prey. These guys had been injured and rehabilitated but could not be released back into the wild because of their conditions.
The late morning saw us back in town checking out the town and its historical Creek Street area, back in the gold rush days of the late 1800s this area was home to the ladies of the night, some of the original buildings have been preserved, although now housing eateries and souvenir shops. The creek beneath the street is also a prime salmon run to a lake at the top. Salmon travel to the lake for spawning and having done so die shortly thereafter, if not the victim of bears, and get washed back down. They litter the banks of the stream and there is a strong odour of dead fish in the air.
Back on board ship at 1.30 pm we headed out for the passage north to Juneau and then Skagway.
We have arrived back in Vancouver from Port Hardy and are spending the night in town before leaving the next day aboard Star Princess for a journey up the Inland Passage to Skagway and then across the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage. BUT we are actually already in Anchorage and I am doing another of those series of catch up blogs, blogging at sea is a painful process with slow internet speeds so I have had a few days away from the typewriter.
We have no great issues in boarding the ship except it takes forever! We lined up a little before 1 pm with a plan to have lunch on board. But there are 3 ships leaving and all the boarders are being processed through the same queues. A best estimate is that there were about 6-7,000 people queuing up. Then once through the ship signing up process it was off to get through Uncle Sams border protection processes. Allthego was getting a little restless with the bureaucracy but was held in check by Homealone. Americans and Canadians had their special line and the ROW was strung out in queues that wound their way back and forth across the terminal. There was a minor drama when Allthego had to go off behind the scenes because his electronic visa for the USA didn’t seem to be registered on their computers. The border protection person was a little confused because Allthego had a valid paper copy on file for reference. It was all ok though with things tidied up by a more senior official. We finally bordered after 2 and half hours. All this proves Allthego’s general boarding approach of arriving late in the process and missing all the queues.
Our departure day is quite gloomy with cloudy and rainy skies to see us off around 4.30pm from the dock at Canada Place. The cruise staff try their best to wind our fellow cruisers up. But it is a little subdued. Allthego and Homealone try to contribute to the frivolities as well as featuring on the ship’s big screen as we sail away out of Vancouver Harbour.
Homealone won a small prize for being part of the winning team in the ‘how many feet can fit in a hula hoop’ contest. A close examination of the photo below will see her in the lower left corner of the photo. This was quite an achievement. If you can’t quite make her out you can click on the photo and it will blow up bigger.
The ship with flags flying seems to just slide under the Lions Gate Bridge as we head out into English Bay and then head north through the Georgia Strait for Alaska. This strait takes us north between Vancouver Island and the mainland past Port Hardy, from which we had flown to Vancouver from 2 days before.
We go to bed a little late after going along to the Welcome Aboard concert. We are in a cabin high up in the ship on deck 12 gazing out at the gloomy skies as we make our way up the Georgia Strait.
We are finally at rest in Port Hardy for a couple of nights after the long boat trip down the Inland Passage from Prince Rupert. Allthego had booked the Pioneer Motel on Booking.com and hadn’t paid much attention to it’s location. It is about equidistant from the ferry terminal and the town, 6 km in either direction. It is also very aptly named. It is a circa 1950/60s establishment probably done up from time to time, but not much. The room had that funny lived in feeling with a musty overlay of humankind, perhaps the odd fish or two had also been in residence from time to time. The electrics were a bit average, when you plugged something in the lights or whatever else you had on went off. The power point was loaded up with plugs and you wobbled it around a bit to get the power to work. The people were really helpful though and pointed out the scenic features of the 6 km walk into town along the river bank through the woods. The salmon were running and the bears were out they said. Only black ones, no grizzlies on Vancouver island.
We caught a cab into town and had lunch at Captain Hardys. this establishment was named after Vice Admiral Hardy who commanded The Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson was the Admiral. The calamari was really good, as was the Fat Tug IPA Allthego had later on our walk to the marina. The marina being about half way back to the Pioneer Motel. The memorial to the Carrot campaign is a prominent feature, this was installed after ‘carrots were dangled’ in front of politicians to get the road paved through to Port Hardy. The campaign was ultimately successful.
But the highlight of the day was our ‘walk in the woods’ back to the Pioneer in the early evening, 7 pm or so. It was getting a bit dim under the tree canopies as we walked the trail. Evidence of bear was sighted on the path, relatively fresh too. We paused to look at the stream on an old rustic bridge. It was full of salmon thrashing around in the shallows.
Then out of the under growth came the black bear. It stood on the bank and perused the salmon, before wading into the stream and across to the other side. It wasn’t interested in catching any salmon. Maybe it had already had its fill, perhaps the salmon were not good enough! What a sight!
We rather hurriedly moved on up the trail as darkness set in, occasionally looking back over our shoulders.
Now if we hadn’t stayed at the Pioneer Motel we wouldn’t have seen that bear!
We are now back in Vancouver having flown down from Port Hardy. The next stage of the journey begins when we board the Star Princess and head north to Alaska.