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Beautiful Ketchikan Harbor!

North to Alaska!

by Diannek

Ketchikan: Our cruise ship, the Dawn Princess, arrived at Ketchikan in the early morning hours.  It was August and we'd left the blazing sun and hot dry California summer well behind us when we boarded in Vancouver, BC. Now the sky was white, not blue, and the air had that distinctive Pacific Northwest feeling to it, sort of cool and misty.  The Princess simply towered over the picturesque town, and from the ship we looked down on the dock, where busses were lining up to take us on our first Alaskan shore excursions. 

I had chosen the harbor cruise and then a self-guided walking tour of the old town district. I boarded a converted buoy tender, which was a small boat, outfitted with passenger seating at small tables, great for my purposes. I had two cameras and my sketchbook with me. I'm a frantic and persistent note-taker, I can't help myself.

The guides were knowledgeable about Ketchikan and eager to talk. I learned a great deal, and now when I look at my sketchbook, I smile at the memory of what I was thinking that day. I was nearly at the end of my book and hadn't brought another one with me, so I crowded notes and little sketches all together on those last few blank pages.

The captain seemed determined that we learn something about salmon, so he insisted we have a snack of smoked salmon as he began his lecture. I'm not wild about fish or fishing, and it was nine in the morning, but now I remember the taste of the smoked salmon and the delight our tour boat captain took in showing off his beautiful Ketchikan harbor and in making sure that we learned about salmon.  

Did you know, for example, that there are five varieties of salmon? Yes, it says so right here in my notes: Pink, or hook-back salmon, which are small and abundant, with a 2-year life cycle; Red, or Sockeye salmon, which run to about 25 pounds and have a 6 year life cycle; Silver, or Coho salmon, which live 3 to 5 years, and run about 8 pounds; Dog salmon, which are considered "chum" or smoking salmon, a larger fish of around 12 pounds; and finally, the King or Chinook salmon, the really big ones, weighing anywhere from 10 to 50 pounds and prized as  sport fish.

We motored around the harbor, drinking our coffee and eating Ritz crackers with tiny morsels of smoked salmon on them and listening to our captain. The sun came out and caught the little ripples of water which sparkled in the light. I didn't know which to do first, keep writing or pick up my camera and try to capture that lovely effect, or just sit back and have another cracker.

The wood-frame houses of Creek Street's historic red-light district 
now have become tourist gift shops. It's possible to see the salmon runs from these docks
We motored along the docks watching cannery workers cleaning fish while the sea gulls flitted and squabbled among themselves over the scraps.  The captain explained that Ketchikan is still a fishing center, but that its main commercial enterprise these days is entertaining tourists. During the summer as many as six cruise ships might be in port at one time. 

The tender slowed as we approached Ketchikan's totem pole park. We could just make out the tall carvings from the water. The captain explained that the totems are oral picture stories that are placed in front of villages as a greeting to strangers and visitors.  Each village has special crests or icons, sort of like a Chamber of Commerce sign, I suppose, that distinguishes one village from the next. The types of stories they illustrate are family histories, fishing information and other tall tales. Among them are the chief's pole, the mortuary pole, the ridicule pole, the debtor's pole, family poles, and the most famous, the potlatch pole, where a village shows off its wealth. As we looked at those remarkable totems I was wondering what totem poles in Silicon Valley would look like. What icons would we choose to illustrate a totem pole our lives.

Whale Park, downtown Ketchikan
Juneau: Our next stop is Juneau, Alaska's state capitol. This time I choose the nature walk, so I board a bus with a small tour group. We are heading to Douglas Island, about a half an hour ride from town. Our tour guide is a young college student, a very personable young man. The walk takes us through a temperate rainforest, which also is a huge city park. We must walk along a wooden pathway constructed of raised planks that cut through it. We are cautioned to stay on the path so as not to disturb Mother Nature's work. Ecologically speaking, this is relatively new land just uncovered from the melting glaciers, so the flora is fragile. We are all in awe of this new clean world around us.  Everything seems so fresh and green.  

The weather was lovely with sunshine sparkling through the trees and onto the pools of water.  It's cool but not unpleasant. We were hesitant to leave this beautiful natural garden. Our guide talked about the weather and how good the sun feels to local folks.  There is a great deal of rain in the lower part of Alaska, up to 180 inches per year in Ketchikan, and nearly that much in Juneau. I thought Alaska was all snow, but that's not quite true.  Sometimes is just rains!

Juneau city park!

After lunch back aboard ship I was scheduled for the wild life cruise.  Another bus ride to yet another small boat harbor. I was amused at the advertisement for this trip.  t comes with a money-back guarantee: if we don't spot at least three different species of wildlife, our money will be refunded.  We were in an excursion boat this time, one that holds maybe 50 people. There's lots of room so we all spread out and took window seats. Our guide explained that it was a good day for the cruise because the water is calm. I was glad to hear that because I'm always afraid of getting seasick. That won't be a problem today, but our guide was still chuckling about the group he had taken out the day before. I've been hearing from all the guides that Bill Gates came through just ahead of us with hundreds of celebrities. Apparently they spent part of the trip hanging over the rails.

Our guide pointed out Mendenhall off in the distance and I pulled out my sketch pad and watercolors. The first wildlife we spotted were harbor seals.  Well, that's not much.  San Francisco Bay is full of them. They are pests. The same thing is true in Puget Sound near Seattle. We motored on out into a huge bay, heading for Vanderbilt reef. But first, the boat swung near a small outcropping of land with a few trees on it.  He pointed to one of the trees and said: look there on the branch.  Maybe you can see the bald eagle. Hmm. Two wildlife spottings down and one to go, and we'd only been aboard fifteen minutes.

The photographer at work

We wanted to see the whales and the guides knew it. One of them was posted topside with field glasses scanning the water for dorsal fins.  We're instructed to do the same from our window seats. Suddenly the topside guide broke into the captain's patter. He spotted something. The captain responded and off we went, tearing through the water to get closer. Sure enough, the black dorsal fin of an Orca in the water up just ahead. We ventured a little closer, and then cut the engines to a trolling speed. They had spotted a whole Orca pod, including several babies.  

The captain explained that we must be quiet and the engine must run very slowly so as not to accidentally bump into the whales, because they are large and hard to see beneath the water. The whales came closer. One came so near to the boat we could see its eye, then it dove under the boat.  It surfaced on the other side of the boat. Everybody raced starboard.  Other whales came closer. They were diving back and forth around the boat and we were all dashing back and forth, delighted at the spectacle.

Even the crew was excited. They broke out their own cameras and opened up the off-limit bow deck so we could all go out and get a closer look.  They cautioned us to be very careful. I asked one of them if this happens all the time. He says, "Hell, no. I've never seen this before. When you see the crew getting this excited, something strange is happening." 

I was trying to watch and take photos at the same time. I decided that it was more important to see them than to try and catch a photo. They stayed with the boat for about half an hour, frolicking around. It was like they knew we were enjoying the show, and they were performing for us. Finally, all together, they turned and swam away. 

We were all drained from the excitement. The crew broke out our snacks, hot chocolate and the inevitable smoked salmon and Ritz crackers. Yummy! We picked up speed again and were nearly at the far end of our planned excursion. The captain announced that we'd make a wide turn and head for a place where he heard another group spotted a humpback whale. That would be a bonus. We had already met our wildlife quota, and then some. 

After about fifteen minutes, we heard another announcement. The captain had spotted a humpback whale dead ahead. We all dashed up to the bow, and sure enough, we saw it. These whales look like round black crescents in the water as they break the surface and the roll and dive again. They have several different diving patterns, depending on whether they want to stay near the surface or dive deep into the water. We watched the whale turn in the water for several minutes, and then the captain said he thought it had completed a terminal dive and would be underwater for maybe ten minutes. He cut the engine.  We were going to wait for it to come up again.

We were all looking at each other trying to be very quiet. The captain thought it would come up aft, so we all headed for the back of the boat.  But quietly. We waited for what felt like a very long time, scanning the water several hundred yards from the boat. And then all of a sudden, right beside us, the whale surfaced, turned and flipped its tail in that classic whale pose. He was no more than twenty feet from the back of the boat.  We were all amazed.  We hollered and clapped!  What a show!  Even the crew was grinning.

What a trip! I couldn't wait to get back to the Princess and tell my traveling companions what I saw. We had each chosen something different to do. Marjorie went for a helicopter ride over the ice flows, our husbands wanted to go fishing. We all had something different to tell that night at dinner, but I thought I'd been the luckiest. It was unbelievably fun.

It's cold on deck as we view these magnificent glaciers.

Notes on Glacier Bay. After we left Skagway, and the lovely little train ride and the funky little tourist town, we were feeling a little tired from all the excitement. We were glad to be at sea again and were eager to see the glaciers. It's another beautiful morning, but we knew it would be cold out on the deck. We dressed in sweaters, coats, scarves, hats and gloves. The wind was brisk and the air bit our cheeks and noses as we stood in awe of the spectacle before us. The boys bought us a round of hot toddies, which tasted wonderful and warmed our hands as we sipped them. Hot chocolate, laced with brandy, and whipped cream. Sinful! The crew of the Princess thinks of everything for our comfort.

A naturalist from the Park Service came aboard to give a talk about the history and ecology of the glaciers. She spoke in a reverent voice. There is so much to learn, and there is so much beauty. We crept closer and closer and the glacier loomed larger than ever. The Dawn Princess is a huge ship, some fourteen stories tall, or more.  It's like a moving building. But we are dwarfed compared to the size of the glacier. It's huge, and appeared in color to be aquamarine blue, which is some sort of a trick of nature. We didn't care. It's lovely.

We spent the day cruising through the bay waters. We were surrounded by these wonders of nature falling into the sea. The glaciers are melting now. They are pulling back at an astonishing rate. Our boat goes 75 miles farther into the bay than was possible less than 200 years ago when Captain Cook first wrote about them. They are predicting that soon they'll be gone. What a shame. We felt a sense of loss as we watched them slip into the distance.  

Skagway: Our next stop is Skagway. Everybody we ran into said to save up for shopping in Skagway, which we did. The old gold-rush town stays true to its roots. Seeing Skagway is like stepping into the past. But the highlight of this town is the White Pass Railway, an excursion up into the mountains that surround this little outpost. If you'd like to read about that part of my adventure, it's a whole other page. Click here to see it!

We were nearing the end of the cruise. When our last morning arrived, they loaded us and our luggage onto busses for the trip into Anchorage, where we'll catch our planes home. But there was one last surprise in store for us. It's a three hours bus ride and they make a rest stop after about half way through it at an animal rescue shelter. It's there that we finally got to see the rest of that famous Alaska wild life. We saw a bald eagle with a broken wing, a bear cub, antelope, caribou and finally, at long last, a Moose!  Yeah!  

This friendly moose is looking for a handout.

What a nice surprise, and what a wonderful finale of our cruise.  I'm in love with Alaska's beauty, and the wonderful people who live there.  They must get tired of all the tourists getting off the cruise ships day after day every summer, but if they are, they don't show it.  They are wonderful hosts and want to share their beautiful state with us. It was a great trip.

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