America Alaska Cruise
Story and Photos by Jim Friend
've never been very keen on the idea of taking
a vacation on a cruise ship, but when the opportunity presented itself
recently, I couldn't pass it up. I always thought cruises had everything
to do with old people. I was wrong.
Graciously, I was able to take this trip with some good
friends, which is always a great bonus when traveling indeed. Our grand
voyage, on Holland America's Westerdam, would begin in Seattle and take
us on a seven day cruise including Glacier Bay, Sitka, Juneau, Ketchikan,
and Victoria, BC. Let's go!
Day 1 -- Monsters of the Deep
Our first full day on the ship was a sea day, which
meant we were just cruising up to our next destination, Glacier Bay,
with no stops. Thankfully, someone informed me that this particular
stretch of the trip would be our best geographical opportunity to see
whales, so as soon as I woke up, I headed straight out to our veranda
to scan the inland waterways with a pair of binoculars and curious eyes.
Whales are worth takin' a gander at, I reckon. An adult
female blue whale weighs 175 tons, and remarkably, even within the category
of long-deceased dinosaurs, it is the largest animal to have ever lived.
To put the size of this sea monster into some perspective, the body
mass of a blue whale is equal to 25 full grown elephants. I wouldn't
want to be the guy who had to pack 25 gruesomely disassembled elephants
into the horribly detached skin of a blue whale to find this out, but
apparently it's been done somewhere. Anyway, a blue whale's heart weighs
1,300 pounds, and is the size of a small car. Its tongue weighs three
tons. The songs of blue and humpback whales are long (45 minutes long),
and geographically distinct, meaning there are differences depending
on which ocean they live in. Some whale species have songs that last
as long as an hour, and by the end of their mating season, all these
songs will somehow have morphed into the same tune. So then, as they're
listening to each other vocalize, they are gathering roughly an hour's
worth of information, and then re-vocalize the song again from memory
almost verbatim, incorporating a few various tweaks and adaptations
in accordance with the most recent nuances of whale musical taste. Can
you do that? I can't. (Come to think of it though, I suppose I could
be persuaded if it were a necessary requirement for mating season.)
In addition, it can be said with certainty that whales can hear these
songs from up to 100 miles away, and there's quite a bit of evidence
to suggest that they can hear these songs up to 1,000 miles away. Best
of all almost, is that the humpback whale belongs to a suborder of balleen
whales called the "Mysticeti."
The Westerdam in Sitka
So, anyway, I have to set all of this up because I'm
a bit embarrassed to say that when I saw a my first whale that day I
started yelling about it like an excited seven year old kid. I even
leaned over the railing and excitedly pointed it out to our next door
neighbors, whom I had previously ascertained hailed from Tennessee or
thereabouts. The elderly lady standing on the other side of the partition
gave me a sort of a disinterested, worried look, and then looked back
toward the water without saying a word. There must be a lot of whales
in the Mississippi River. Be that as it may, my friends were just as
excited as I was to see these massive oceanic curiosities, and as foretold,
there were indeed sea creatures galore in that channel: A ton of humpback
whales, a pod of orcas, seals, and otters. Classically, the humpbacks
bared their tails as they dove back into the depths, which is an amazing
sight indeed, worth the price of the trip alone.
When watching these Leviathans of the Sea somehow got
old, I decided to have a look at every square inch of the ship's ten
decks. Cruise ships are massive. Signs posted on the third level jogging
track stated that one lap equaled 1/3 of a mile. In other words, three
laps around the ship equaled a mile. Huge. Unfortunately, on one of
its multitude of structural layers, I ran into the ship's art gallery.
Posted in several areas were signs forbidding photography, and this
was indeed a merciful and necessary requirement. The only fitting word
for this visual holocaust was: "Vomitorium." It was as if
Jackson Pollock, in a horribly botched suicide attempt, swallowed a
gallon of mixed, cheap Daler-Rowney oil primary colors and then puked
them all back out onto canvases, resulting in statistically forbidden
arrays of impossibly horrible naked ladies and sickening landscapes
that defy attempts at rational categorization. The man who placed this
blatant and cheap horror into a reality within our grasp will surely
spend his final state of existence as the lowest, wretched quarry in
a Hieronymus Bosch painting for all eternity as recompense for this
foul tragedy. Amen and amen.
Day 2 -- Glacier Bay
The next morning, we arrived in Glacier Bay, and by
some merciful and amazing meteorological happenstance, it reached 81
degrees that day. Sweet. Now, I have forever longed in my heart as a
treasure of my life to witness glaciers calving into the sea, and here
was my unbelievable opportunity. On TV, I have never been able to ascertain
the scale of these collapsing behemoths. When we arrived, I was finally
able to behold the scale of these colossal monoliths. The two glaciers
we hovered around this day were just barely shy the height of the Space
Needle. Unreal. Like, fully unreal. I couldn't believe it. The icy,
massive, glacial barbarian abnormalities stared back at us as we stared
at them, completely reluctant to unleash their wrath upon their sworn
enemy, the blue sea, out of a perfect and pure disdain for the puny
gathering of minute human beings gawking back at them, who were surely
completely unworthy to witness such holy events. Begrudgingly, the glaciers
bestowed their unusual gifts. Transfixed with the events unfolding,
we often saw boulders of ice the size of houses rumbling off the glacier,
but these were the meagerest offerings to behold there. Adding to the
amazement of it all was the absurd and completely unexpected bonus of
seeing massive waterfalls birthing from the middle of each of the glaciers,
cascading out as elephantine deluges into the angry sea below. Mighty
crackling noises with the sound of car wrecks and distant thunder unleashed
from 4,000 year old ice structures. Every now and again, a giant offering
of ancient ice the size of a warehouse would unleash from the icy mass,
crashing into the waters below, resulting in a wave that likely could
have been surfed. The ship's captain kept the ship well away, it was
pretty obvious that if even just the first 50 feet of the entire terminus
of the glacier broke loose, the resulting swell would have washed over
the decks, sweeping many unsuspecting glacier fans into the drink.
Legends of the Fall -- Glacier Bay
Hmmm... speaking of the captain and drinks... One thing
that completely mystifies me about taking a trip on a cruise ship is
how fascinated people are with the concept of eating dinner at the captain's
table. I heard several people talking about this. I don't know about
you, but I would rather chop rats in half with a cleaver at the Rat
Death Factory for an hour than play dress-up-and-pretend with that batch.
Unless he's a former Navy commander who got kicked out of the service
for shelling a contingent of United Nations "soldiers" running
away from the latest ethnic genocide, or in fact the very same vodka
saturated skipper who plowed the Exxon Valdez into that pristine bird
sanctuary up in Prince William Sound in '89 and has been on a 20-year
bender ever since, eager to recount the tale to the first "rascal"
or "scallywag" who buys him another round of scotch, then
I don't want to hear about it.
This guy surely makes $100,000 a year just to stalk
about in his Napoleonic, faux admiral's outfit and command his underlings
to fetch him another portion of Moulard duck fois gras with pickled
pear and a goblet of 1978 Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac. What kind
of stories is he going to tell? Probably the one about the time when
the wind outside was blowing about a four on the Beaufort scale and
a ten-foot rogue wave "rammed into the ship," causing him
to spill a freshly poured chalice of bubbly on his ascot, and how the
first mate then gallantly dashed back to the bridge from his exfoliating
foot scrub so the stricken captain could retire to the wardrobe room
to change his costume and get a Celebes eucalyptus oil massage to decompress.
Sheesh, give me a break. Anyway, as it turns out, the captain of our
ship turned out to be a fellow that grew up in a Dutch town about twenty
five miles from Andijk, the small village where my dad grew up, so he
couldn't be that bad (unless that town is in Friesland, then all bets
Day 3 -- Juneau
Juneau sprang into being in the 1880's when an opportunistic
American mining engineer offered to remunerate any local Indian that
would lead him to gold. A fellow by the name of Chief Kowee turned the
engineer on to to a local area where jelly-bean sized pieces of gold
littered the landscape. Only about a year later, Juneau was populated
enough to be declared Alaska's first officially recognized township
after the Seward's Folly was enacted. A local Russian Orthodox priest
summarizes the city's history this way: "First came the prospectors
and gold miners. Then came the saloon keepers and their associates,
closely followed by the missionaries wagging their fingers." These
days, as you might imagine, the town's fortunes ride on the greenbacks
of tourists and the Ultimate Sacrifice of millions of fish. The town
itself is gorgeous, with tons of tiny, brightly painted houses, and
millions of flowers exploding out of yards and planters everywhere.
Idyllic. (Until, I'm sure, winter shows up and relentlessly grinds down
the hearts and minds of the locals into a Ted Kaczynski-inspired milieu.
I need to remind myself of this before I immediately move there.) My
friend Alex and I walked for miles through the neighborhoods, complete
with kids gleefully playing in the streets, and ended up spending a
good bit of time at the microscopic St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox church,
built in 1894, primarily by Orthodox Natives and Serbian gold miners.
I bought a few bizarre treasures in the gift shop and while doing so,
spotted a picture of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the wall, who had visited
the church in the 1970's to bro' down with the serving priest, who was
his homeboy from the Old Country.
Idyllic street scene in Juneau.
After tons of this sort of exploring, I caught a bus
out to the Mendenhall Glacier to hook up with Alex (who had gone on
before me) and the rest of our friends. The glacier itself is a must
see; it's vast, the landscape is gorgeous, and there are lots of huge
brown bears there. A small stream runs right next to the visitor's center,
spawning grounds and cemetery to thousands of salmon. The park rangers
built a system of raised wooden walkways over this small waterway, much
to the excitement of visitors there, as one of the big female bears
has chosen a spot right under one of the sections of the walkway to
nap, and nurse her cubs. It was a hot day for the state of Alaska, certainly
in the 80's, so unfortunately for us this bear was no doubt kickin'
it closer to the glacier ice. Even so, the monstrous imprint of her
body was left in the grass below the catwalk. Huge. After just about
a half hour of walking around, and a bit disappointed that I hadn't
seen any large carnivores, I decided I had had enough and was going
back to the ship. As I was waiting alone on the bench for the shuttle,
a lady walked up and asked if I had seen the bear that had just crossed
the road behind me. I declared that certainly I had not, ma'am, and
immediately hopped up to find it. I didn't see the wicked, drooling
beast, but spied two people suspiciously leaning over on the railing
of bridge about a half mile away. I finally reached them and asked if
they'd seen a one of those horrible, wicked, hairy creatures. They replied
that they had just been watching a bear up in a tree, but that it had
just descended and was likely somewhere "down that trail over there,"
which was next to the bridge. They said this with a chuckle, as if it
was obvious what a foolhardy venture it would be to go poking around
for a prehistoric predator like that out there on a lonely forest trail.
So of course, I had to walk over to the trail to have a look. The path
was straight for about 100 yards, and devoid of human presence entirely.
I stood there knowing I had a decision to make. Should I go exploring
for bears on a deserted trail, all by myself? The answer turned out
to be easy: I couldn't NOT go. So, I headed off down the trail, making
a strange whistling noise to alert any hungry bear that there was a
large exotic bird on the the nearby and easily accessible footpath,
certainly worthy of immediate culinary investigation. I probably crept
about 100 feet when sure enough, a black bear poked its head out of
the foliage about 50 feet ahead of me. I stared at it, and it stared
back. I grabbed for my camera and while I was fumbling about, it turned
its head to see if the savory eight-foot-tall Big Bird of its imagination
that it was hoping to sample was down the other that'a'way. It was not,
so, determined to avoid any more human weirdos, he simply crossed the
path and disappeared into the brush on the other side of the trail.
Looking for even more weirdos in the other direction.
Day 4 -- Sitka
The Sitka-area was originally settled by the native
Tlingit people. In 1799, a Russian explorer by the name of Alexander
Baranov decided the rest of Alaska wasn't big enough for him, so he
set up shop right next door to the Indians in a part of town still known
as "Old Sitka." The Tlingit didn't take very kindly at all
to this, and in 1802, they put the old ambush-and-attack plan into blitzkrieg
effect on the unsuspecting Slavic settlers. So kicked-in-the-keister
were the Russians by this bum-rush that those who escaped death had
to come back to pay a big ransom for those still being held captive.
Not approving of this series of events at all, and in typical Russian
fashion, Baranov returned two years later with a whole-bunch-of-more
Rooskie dudes in a huge naval ship loaded with cannons, and blew the
hell out of the Tlingits that were still partying in his old fort. The
Tlingit took off and built their own fort across the river, and declared
a trade embargo: "Who run Bartertown?"
|Russian Orthodox cemetery -- Sitka
Sitka is cool because you have to take the lifeboats
from the cruise ship to get to shore. This is nice especially, because
you get proof-of-concept on the idea that the lifeboats actually work.
Sitka was full of even more beautiful houses and flowers, and was totally
charming. I spent a lot of my time there investigating the Russian Orthodox
cemetery on a hill towards the eastern edge of town. It was somehow
unfortunately highly vandalized (please refer to the aforementioned
Tlingit/Russian spat perhaps), but was still completely worth the time.
When I was done there, I decided to walk down a random road towards
wherever. As I was doing this, a bee flew right into my mouth, alerting
me with verve to the fact that I walk around with my mouth at least
partially agape, which is something I'll have to work on apparently.
God works in mysterious ways. Anyway, I spit it out immediately, and
turned violently to see where it landed so I could crush it with my
giant foot in my furious wrath for scaring the crap out of me like that,
but alas, about 12 inches before it hit the ground, it somehow recovered
in mid-spit trajectory and flew off again. I walked along with the strange
taste of bee in my mouth for several minutes, very grateful that I didn't
have to return to the Westerdam with my tongue and lips swollen up to
Joseph Merrick proportions, having to explain to frightened passengers,
slobbering through voluminous productions of saliva and trauma-birthed,
pinkish facial liquids: "I. Am not. An animal!"
The "wherever" I ended up at turned out to
be the Sitka National Historical Park, so I went strolling along on
one of its many trails. There were signs posted by park rangers of very
recent brown bear activity, and as it turned out, the bear incident
from the day before, which hadn't bothered me a bit at the time, had
caught up with my psyche big-time. Every big black shadow in the bushes
caused my brain to report back frenetically that it had just seen a
huge, hairy, barbaric, ravenous fiend; and that every odd noise in the
bushes was certainly, by the same logic; a sharp-toothed, fifteen hundred
pound Philistine brute looking to feast on my Israelite throat. I was
crawling out of my skin through the whole last half of my trail walk.
When I finally escaped the travails of the Death Forest unscathed, I
made my way back to the ship to have lunch and then hit the streets
of Sitka yet again. I probably walked ten miles that day, and ended
up, and nearly on my last stop, at one of the strangest shops I have
ever set foot in. It was truly awesome. A local guy with native blood
had set up a shop called Indian Village Artists, and had all manner
of mammoth tusks, walrus skulls, whale bones, ivory fangs, and who know
what else. It was totally amazing. If it was a bone or a tusk or a bit
of fur and came from a walrus, or a seal, or a whale, or a polar bear,
you could find it in there. Totally, totally amazing and cool. Interestingly,
much of what was for sale there could only be purchased and owned by
indigenous native Alaskans. Indian Village Artists is my #1 recommendation
for Sitka, you'll never seen anything like it again, anywhere.
Top: Walrus tusks at Indian Village Artists, with
seal fur backing. Bottom: (Clockwise from top left of picture) A seal
paw, a polar bear claw, and a whale's eardrum bone.
Day 5 -- Ketchikan
Ketchikan was founded in 1911 by a monstrous, seething
horde of space aliens looking for an earth base from which to conduct
cattle mutilations and human abduction missions. Even so, it's somehow
now known as the "Salmon Capital of the World," whatever that
means. Maybe it means there's more salmon there than anyplace else in
the world. Maybe it means there's more salmon fishing there than anywhere
else in the world. Maybe it's the place that all the salmon in the world
decided would be the capital of Fish World. Who knows? That's what they
call it though. As if you needed another reason not to live in Ketchikan,
the locals have provided a giant billboard of sorts, right downtown
next to the cruise ships where you can't miss it, advertising perhaps
the most convincing proof of why you want to stay away from that place
forever: The sign proclaims that the town had 202.5 inches of rain in
1949. Case closed. Stay away from that wretched place. You have been
warned about it all.
Even with all this talk, I have very fond memories of
Ketchikan because last year, the folks from the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman's
Tour invited me up there to take a few tours on their boat, the Aleutian
Ballad. I met some of the most interesting people I have ever had the
privilege of meeting (Troy "Chief" Hulls, just to name one),
and had an amazing time. When I got off the cruise ship, I was determined
to bump into a few of my old pals, but it didn't happen at all. I saw
no one. Even the Raven's Roost, my adoptive Ketchikan bar, was closed.
No luck at all. As a consolation prize, me and my pal Jade headed off
to see if we could see some bears where I had seen a ton of them the
year before. Nothing doing there. No bears either. I'll stop complaining,
but if you like to shop, Ketchikan is a great place to do so, as there
are hundreds and hundreds of seasonal stores there. There are also tons
of fishing trips offered, and the city also boasts the highest number
of standing totem poles in the world. Creek Street, essentially a small
suburb built on stilts, straddling about 200 yards of a small river,
is a totally worthwhile sight also.
Alien hunters -- Cool dogs in Ketchikan.
Day 6 -- Victoria, BC
In contrast to the wretched perils of the alien-infested
Ketchikan, Victoria was lowered from heaven for us to enjoy as a sort
of a precursor the New Jerusalem... it's so beautiful it's ridiculous.
If you haven't been there, you have to visit. Two million people a year
take this advice and are not disappointed.
We arrived there in the late afternoon, and I got a
late start getting off the ship, so as I was passing the two Canadian
border guards on duty outside of the Westerdam, I was all by myself.
I asked if they wanted to see my passport, and one of them, a twenty-something
guy, motioned for me to come over to him. He asked me if I came to Canada
often and not really knowing how to respond to this, I replied, "Well,
no, not really--." Before I could finish what I was trying to say,
he interrupted me tersely: "That's not the answer I want to hear."
Then, "You often come up here looking for friends?" As you
can imagine, my mind was struggling to make sense of this interaction,
but then it finally dawned on me, and I started to laugh. The other
border guard, a woman in her early 30's, started to chuckle too. He
looked at me with a straight face and said, "You don't have to
laugh out of pity." He then smiled and handed my passport back,
"Have a nice trip, sir." He was inferring that he was somehow
so lonely that he regularly used his position of power as a bully pulpit
for gathering new friends. Too funny.
Anyway, downtown Victoria is awesome, the perfect place
to hang out on a summer night: Huge ivy-covered Victorian-era buildings,
flowers everywhere, and thousands of relaxed people wandering about
in reverent preoccupation. I sat for awhile on the Harbor steps looking
out over the boats on the moorage, listening to the steel drums and
reggae tunes of local street performer Swan Walker, and soon after bumped
into my pal Jade. We went to a pub and sat outdoors over a couple of
beers and great conversation, and then ambled back to the boat. The
Westerdam slipped away from the docks at about midnight, and very unfortunately,
we all disembarked the following morning, completing an amazing adventure.
I cannot encourage you enough to take any cruise your
heart might even fleetingly desire. The whole package is nothing less
than profoundly relaxing. The sleep you'll experience in the expensive
beds is worth the price of admission alone; the constantly comforting
rumbling and rocking of the ship adding even more of a depth to your
narcotic-style snooze. When you wake up, the amazing and endless food
available will soak your soul with serene tranquility. With the added
plus of being able to experience brand new ports-of-call each day, along
with all of the innumerable shore excursions available at each one,
you will find fairly much any cruise you choose to be an exercise in
the practice of future heaven.
You will love it.... Go!.
Front yard flower arrangement typical of Alaskan
homes, this one in Sitka.
trip oddities/Cruise trivia:
- Our cruise ship had 800 people on staff, and there
were 1,200 passengers.
- Most of our crew were from Europe, the South Pacific,
Indonesia, and the Phillipines. They were sincerely among the nicest
people I've ever met.
- It was so sunny and nice on our trip, I came back
from Alaska with a tan.
- We drank several Grolsch on the boat, and I found
the green bottles to be a perfect vessel for a proverbial "message
in a bottle." I corked one up and let it loose somewhere in the
open Pacific Ocean just between Clo-oose, BC, and Cape Flattery, WA.
- I very rarely gamble, but one night, I went to the
ship's casino with Jade to play $10 on a few particular slot machines
that boasted a $20,000 jackpot. While I was playing, the lady sitting
right next to me won the $20,000. The very next night, we saw her
playing the same slots.
- If you ever wondered what Edward Jones does with
your investment money, let it be known that there were at least 50
Edward Jones stock brokers on the cruise, it was all company paid.
- Tragically, a woman on the Holland America cruise
ship just ahead of ours ended up in the water in Glacier Bay and died.
(Edward Jones customer, no doubt, not unlike myself.)
cool Holland America cruises available, with current prices, if you're
(all prices quoted for a veranda room, an inside room
would be about 1/3 the cost):
- 114 days, around the world cruise: $33,999 per person
- 70 day South American and Antarctica: $36,499 per
- 54 day Mediterranean: $28,349 per person
- 32 day Australia, New Zealand, South Pacific: $16,599
- Cheapest week-long Holland America cruise available:
Vancouver, BC to Seward, Alaska (or reverse), $649 per person for
an inside room.