North to Alaska

Cruising the Southeast Alaska Coast - May/June 2012

Seattle in the Rearview Mirror
To celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, my folks organized an Alaskan cruise for the whole family. We set sail from Seattle on board the good ship 'Carnival Spirit'. As we pulled out of port, we got one last view of the Seattle skyline (featuring the famous Space Needle) framed by the wake of our boat. Our 7-day cruise would take us up the Inside Passage along the narrow coastal panhandle of lower Alaska with numerous stops along the way and grand scenery throughout.

World's Largest Ice Cube Maker
On our second day, the ship took a detour off the main channel to explore the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness - a pair of narrow glacier-carved waterways (divided into the Tracy Arm and the Endicott Arm) that provided close encounters with humpback whales, eagles and icebergs. Our trip up the Endicott Arm ended at the mighty Dawes Glacier - the source of the numerous small icebergs we encountered on the way up. It is amazing (and a little scary) that they can maneuver thousand-foot long cruise ships in the narrow fjords.

Downtown Skagway
In 1898, the tiny port town of Skagway became Alaska's greatest boom camp and the starting point for prospectors headed to the newly discovered Yukon gold fields. When men shouted 'North to Alaska, Yukon ho!' this was the first stop on a long hard journey that often ended with cries of 'South to Seattle, Yukon No!'. Today the numerous and well-preserved historic buildings make it a popular attraction similar to Tombstone in Arizona. The 1898 Artic Brotherhood building is decorated with an intricate design made of driftwood while the Red Onion Saloon (far left) was the town's most famous watering hole.

Tranquil Scene on a Tragic Trail
Unlike most mining boom towns, Skagway was a long way from the diggings - over 500 miles. After landing in Skagway, miners still had to carry their gear up and over the infamous Chilkoot Pass into Canada and then built a boat and float down the rough Yukon River to the gold deposits in distant Dawson. Many died along the way and very few of those that made it to Dawson found any gold. We hiked the first few miles of the Chilkoot Trail and the bright fresh colors of spring growth made it hard to picture the hardships that occurred here in the winter of 1898-1899.

Death Becomes It
Skagway's historic and picturesque cemetery is located a mile outside of town in a pretty little wooded grove against the cliffs of the valley wall. Beside it is stunning Reid Falls - named for the town's original surveyor who died in a gunfight with 'Soapy' Smith. Between the setting and the waterfall, it is one of the prettiest cemeteries I have ever seen. It seems very popular too - people are dying to get in.

Ran Out Of Steam
Completed in 1900, the famous White Pass and Yukon Route railroad provided an alternative way over the mountains to Canada, but by then the gold rush was already fading. The line has revived in recent years as a popular tourist excursion. The railroad maintenance and scrap yard are along the trail to the cemetery. This old boiler (from a steam engine?) seemed to fit in well with the nearby historic graves.

Stoned in Skagway
Local sailors have a tradition that when a ship captain retires, they paint a tribute panel on the cliffs beside the Skagway docks. However, the largest monument (a big white skull) is dedicated to the career of one of early Skagway's most infamous villains: Jefferson 'Soapy' Smith - a conman and gang-leader that robbed and swindled numerous miners before getting shot himself in 1898. He got his nickname for a scam where he sold over-priced bars of soap with the claim that many had money tucked into the wrapper as a special lottery-like prize (although the only people that 'won' were Soapy's co-conspirators).

Downtown Juneau
Our next day stop was Juneau - the capital of Alaska and a town only accessible by air or boat. It seemed to have a nice small town feel and was not as touristy as the other stops (though still not hurting for curio shops). It is also home to the Alaskan Brewing Company who continue to do all their brewing in Juneau despite having to import ingredients and ship out beer entirely by boat. Juneau is also home to the Mount Roberts Tramsway (seen in the background) which takes people to the top of the mountain face overlooking the docks.

In Juneau, Shay and I signed up for a helicopter trip to the top of nearby Mendenhall Glacier where we got to go on a dogsled ride across the otherworldly plain of endless pure snow. Although not cheap, it was a great experience. The vast white stillness of the glacier-filled basin was one of the most tranquil, yet sublime, landscapes I have ever seen. Here a distant dogsled team is dwarfed by the surrounding mountain peaks.

Unless you're the Lead Dog, the View is Always the Same
We got to ride through the amazing glacier landscape on a dog-sled pulled by an eleven-dog team. We learned not all sled dogs are the traditional Siberian Huskies, but can be any large breed (or mutt) that likes the work and can stand the climate. Click here to see a brief video clip of the dog sled ride on YouTube.

Puppy Power!
The dogs really seemed to get into it and were clearly excited to go. Most were pretty friendly and liked to play during the couple breaks on our short trip round the basin. They also had some young sled dog puppies at the base camp. Sled dog puppies may very well be the cutest thing in the world.

Where Both Fish and Men Came to Spawn
There is so little level ground in the historic fishing village of Ketchikan (our stop the next day), that much of the town is built out over the water on piers. As late as the 1950s, Creek Street was a notorious red light district where hard working fishermen and lumberjacks rubbed shoulders (and other body parts) with sporting ladies and bootleggers including the famous Dolly Arthur. Today it is a prime tourist attraction and curio shop district.

Seascraper, Skyscraper
This view of downtown Ketchikan from the ninth-floor deck of our cruise ship gives an idea of both the size and layout of downtown Ketchikan and the immense size and height of our ship which towered over the town. One sad consequence of such large-scale tourism however is that downtown Ketchikan has become very touristy and lost much of its original flavor. While curio shops with Alaskan-themed trinkets are to be expected (even savored), many of the towns had surprisingly large numbers of generic gem and jewelry stores that seemed to have little to do with Alaskan arts, history, or culture - like going to Hawaii and finding it dominated by Persian rug shops.

Eagles and Whales and No Bears, Oh My!
After leaving Ketchikan, the boat passed by a swarm (that really is the best word for it) of well over a dozen bald eagles fishing (and fighting over fish) in the waters just beside the boat. It was quite an impressive show. We also saw many humpback whales throughout our trip (the two pictured above are from the Endicott Arm). Despite their size and frequency, the whales were hard to photograph as they would only surface and spout (leaving a plume of spray) for a few seconds before diving upder again for five or ten minutes. Apparently, they often spot bears along the shores in many places, but we never saw any.

Smooth Sailing
We spent most of our last day on the boat, heading south away from Alaska and toward our final evening stop at Victoria, British Columbia. We had surprisingly calm water much of the day which made for a very placid sunset.

Butchart Gardens, Victoria
Our final destination before returning to Seattle was an all too short evening stop at Victoria, British Columbia where we only had enough time for a quick tour of Butchart Gardens. When Robert Butchart closed his successful cement and rock quarry business in 1909, his wife Jennie felt the empty abandoned pit was an eye-sore and began converting it into a sunken garden which today has evolved into a world class attraction.

How Does Your Garden Glow
After nightfall, Butchart gardens is lit by thousands of hidden and often tinted lights which make the gardens and flowers seem to glow in their own beautiful eerie light.

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Sailor's Life for Me
As one might guess from this website, I prefer to avoid crowds and large organized tours and activities. So I was not sure how I would take to a trip on a very large mainstream cruise ship, but I have to admit that I was very impressed with the whole experience. The food and service was excellent, the accommodations were comfortable, and despite the thousands of passengers, the ship was big enough that I could usually find a little space and quiet when needed. The above images show my window-view cabin and the lobby bar. Getting to see a wide range of locations and landscapes without having to pack up every day was nice. The ship included at least four restaurants, a half-dozen bars or lounges, two major theaters, a video arcade, library and small shopping mall.

Happy Fiftieth
Thank you to everyone for an amazing and unforgettable trip!

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