Thursday, June 13, 2013

Alaskan Cruise Memories

Last century - and it feels like that long ago - my now-late mother-in-law treated me to an Alaskan cruise. As a retired teacher, she traveled the world. We were used to her bringing back trinkets and memorabilia to share from various countries. As a single parent without child support, it never occurred to me that such adventures could be for me.

For one thing, I couldn't afford to take any time off work without long thought or an emergency erasing any choice. So when she called after her traveling companion cancelled, offering to take me along at her expense, I actually had to request time to think about it and decide whether I could afford to go.

I know, hard to believe, isn't it? I think I managed to insult her by not immediately jumping at the chance. And, knowing what I do now, I'd jump at any similar chance. I not only want to go back, I want to take Steve along for some great fishing.

We met at the airport and flew to Fairbanks. This cruise, arranged through Holland America, started inland. It was a long flight, and our first night was spent in unused campus housing, coping with attempting to sleep by keeping light-killing drapes drawn against a night which never darkened this first week of July.

While adjusting to jet lag, we bus toured a gold mine, including our own chance to try panning a bag of sand guaranteed to have some flake(s) of gold in it, took a riverboat cruise including lessons on local native cultures and tasty salmon spread on crackers, learned about building code requirements in a land of permafrost where house heat would sink the building if poorly placed. Startling examples were pointed out to us by our guides.

A train built for viewing took us to Denali, the only place food was out of our own pockets. I shopped the cafe carefully, but lunch still totaled over $21 where a single banana went for $3. While there we took a speedboat ride upriver to another gold mine, another panning opportunity. It was explained that the high speeds and sharp turns were necessary to keep the river channel clear. Whatever. It was a blast! Lylah got a thrill out of it too, one of her favorite memories of the trip.

We also piled aboard buses for the only allowed transportation allowed deep into the park. As usual in summer, the winds up Cook Inlet kept clouds around the mountain itself, but we had great views (narrated) of wildlife and braided rivers. Wildlife spottings included ptarmigan, moose, dalls sheep, and startlingly blonde grizzly bears.

Back on the train heading to Anchorage, there were frequent views of bald eagles in the tops of pines, and if you caught the right angle, red salmon in the many streams along the way. Anchorage itself was a time killer. We were shepharded to the bus depot, cooling our heels for hours until our particular turn came. Apparently everybody boarding our particular ship and who hadn't booked the extended tour starting in Fairbanks had flown into Anchorage to bus down to the ship. There were hundreds of us.

Shopping for trinkets at the local stores, located nearby to take advantage of boatloads of stranded tourists, eased the boredom briefly. One member of the local group Lylah had booked with had planned ahead and scored a bush plane ride over rookeries of puffins and other wildlife. He had one of the early tiny camcorders, and showed videos to us during quiet moments on the cruise ship we were awaiting transport to in Seward.

The bus ride down the Kenai Peninsula to Seward went through some beautiful green coastal mountains. There was one stop for a snack and our guide pointing to what she insisted were Dalls sheep at a distance that made them resemble grains of salt. Moving grains, but still...

The long line to enter the ship was delayed further by the ubiquitous ship's photographer. All of us were requested to stop and pose next to a sign telling where/when we were. Then, of course, we could later go purchase copies  at a store which displayed pictures of everybody doing all kinds of things aboard ship throughout the cruise, including shaking hands with our captain, if that was your thing. The latter was staged after one dinner, formal dress required.

Other than formal dinners, my memory of the captain was his stock joke about the ship's name. I don't remember which of the group it was, but they included the Rotterdam, the Amsterdam, the Stattendam, "and all those other -dam ships."

The dinners made another expense for me. I had nothing resembling formal dress. My life didn't require any. Being warned well ahead of time, I managed to pull some funds from the budget and hit the fabric store for patterns and uncrushable poly fabric. I wound up with a floor length black skirt and a sleeveless top in a blue print with a diagonal hemline. They still hang under a bag in my closet. Somewhere.

There were a couple other pieces of advance prep. First was a visit to the doctor for some anti-seasickness pills. My request was poo-poohed by relatives and friends ("The ship's too big, you'll never feel the motion") but I recalled an ocean fishing trip as a teen which surprised this resort-raised kid with a very miserable day. I faithfully took my pills for the first three days, enough for the body to adapt, and confess to a bit of smugness when we hit rough seas a couple days later which indisposed several in our tour group while I sailed through with nothing more than a couple bounces off the hall walls while passing through.

The other prep was stocking up on my favorite film. Yes, back then, film. It was Kodak Ektar 25, chosen for its ability to give a 35mm negative the capacity to be blown up to poster size with a clear print. These days that's called a high number of megapixels. I shot all of the 36 rolls I brought, mostly 36 exposures but a few 24. The result was two photo albums from the trip, one for Lylah as a thank you, the other for my own memories.

Speaking of the ship being huge... it was. Twelve levels. Pools. A track around the top deck. Elevators. I had expected a teeny room with bunk beds and a camper type bathroom. We had twin beds with a window between along the outside wall, a sofa and TV (ignored) in the middle, and closets and a full bathroom near the hall. Supper that first night was cafeteria style in an enormous dining room, though other nights required formal attire, assigned seating around round tables with linen tablecloths and an actual captain's table across the room. The menus for the formal dinners would have been pricey meals at fancier restaurants, including pheasant and prime rib.

The first thing we were told, and repeated via loudspeaker announcements at regular intervals, was that at a specified time after diner there would be a lifeboat drill. Our life jackets were pointed out to us, and we were each given an assigned rendezvous spot. Nobody was allowed to budge from the spot until every single passenger was accounted for, by name. Anybody who hadn't taken the drill seriously was hunted down and escorted to their spot to check in. A half hour later everybody was suitably impressed with its seriousness. Those who prepared in advance - I thought that was cheating - and arrived with life jackets on five minutes ahead of the start of the drill were given special praise.

Once you've gotten the tour of the ship, if you don't jump in a swimming pool with a hoard of strange kids, gamble in the onboard casino, drink at the onboard bars, or shop in the onboard shops, there's nothing much to do while under way. You can stand at the rail and look at slowly passing scenery. If you were really lucky you might get a sighting of a dolphin playing in the bow wave. Mostly we moved at night and stopped in a port for the day. That was the best part.

Each stop offered a variety of activities. A few were even free, as in walking through the streets of the city where you stopped. Lylah and I were more into tours of various kinds, and luckily, she had the budget to pay for them. You could take a bush plane or a boat and tour the area for wildlife. At Ketchikan we took a plane in and a boat out. On the way back to the ship on that jaunt our guide took us closer to the shore where we were offered a rare photo op: the chance to shoot a whale, grizzly, and bald eagle all in the same frame. The whale had died and washed up on shore, and the other were scavenging, occasionally arguing over who got dibs over the carcass first. It was the grizzly, of course, but the eagle just lifted out of harm's way as necessary.

At Sitka there was an interesting historic tour, as well as a hike through the rain forest past totem poles. First, however, you had to descent stairs to water level on the ship and board small boats shuttling passengers to the dock. The bay was too shallow for the ship to dock itself. I'm told the mountains there are spectacular, but low clouds obscured any view.

One morning we entered a bay with an actively calving glacier, which would have been spectacular had it not been so foggy we had to keep sounding the foghorn to help us not collide with the other cruise ship in the bay which was sounding its horn trying not to collide with us. What we could see was pretty straight down, lots of little ice floes and a dozen or so sea otters floating belly up cracking shells open on the rock they kept on their belly. That afternoon our tour stop offered a bicycle-pulled cart ride from the dock along a long spit of land to the town. We paid our driver double to give us the scenic tour of town and return us to the ship.

I think Juneau was my favorite stop. In the morning, we hopped a bush plane to Taku Glacier Lodge. At the time it was the only glacier in the area which was still advancing. I doubt it still is. It was across a small bay of water from the lodge, and provided the water and ice for our lunch. The highlight was grilled salmon, cooked outside on a monster grill. We could watch our cooks, tour (shop) the gift shop, take the trail to a waterfalls. The latter was discouraged until after the meal, since the smell of the salmon attracted bears. This particular day that meant a mama black bear with her cub. We tourists were corralled by the staff wielding huge 4x4s, not for us but to keep the bears away. The meal also featured baked beans, corn bread, applesauce, and some forgotten kind of dessert. Best meal of my life, both for flavor and atmosphere.

For the afternoon, we chartered a boat for whale watching. If they couldn't find any, our fee would be refunded. They were still in business, so the track record must have been pretty good. Radio communication with other boat captains kept them informed of where various pods were at any given time. Not too much into that trip we became surrounded by a pod of orcas, a great time to use up film. After they had passed, we headed out toward a pod of humpbacks which were bubble-net feeding. Our captain lowered a mike into the water so we could hear the action and know when to expect them to rise open-mouthed from the water. We couldn't get really close, as we had with the orcas, but we stayed watching through several feeding cycles and had a great time. That was the one time they had to contact our cruise ship and warn them we would be late getting back. What did we care? We made the ship (not the latest group to return) and found out that the room service menu was free, as were all the other meals on the ship.

Speaking of all the food, it was wonderful and plentiful. If you were to be gone over lunch time, you could even order a brown bag lunch before you left the ship if your tour didn't provide.  One onboard event was a 2:00 AM death-by-chocolate extravaganza. I couldn't stay up for it. Dang! Somehow I weighed a pound less after the trip than before!

The best take-away from the entire trip? An irresistible need to come back to Alaska, which I've now done. Now, of course, I need somehow to get Steve up there.

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