The Beauty of Alaska – Part 1

When I sat down to write this I was planning to do a travelogue piece describing each day’s adventure on both the ship and the shore but I think that might get boring quickly so instead I am going to focus on the shore excursions and what we saw and experienced in amazing southeastern Alaska.

The first thing you notice coming up out of Vancouver is the fact that everything along this western coast of Canada is an island. Some large and some small but all are covered in mountains and pine trees – mostly Sitka pine (the state tree of Alaska) and western hemlock. The other interesting feature is that the islands have steep shores with no beach or easy place to land a boat. As you go up the mountainside the trees get shorter and you see open spots covered with green where an occasional mountain goat can be seen. As you go up even further you go past the tree line and the rock gets bare with a scrub bush here and there and snow. At the top of the larger peaks glaciers are seen increasing in frequency the further north you go up the coast.

Ketchikan

The first city in Alaska we stopped at was Ketchikan which is the southern most town in Alaska and also the wettest city in the US. You wouldn’t expect to hear that about any place in Alaska but it is true. Ketchikan gets around 160 inches of rain every year. In 1949 they got over 200 inches. Why do they get so much rain? Because of the unique combination of coastal climate and topography. The prevailing easterly winds carry a lot of moisture from the Pacific into the island which butts up against the mountains very close to shore. This causes clouds to build right over the town and since they have no where to go they saturate and then it rains. Temperatures are mild in the summer even when they have no sun (which is frequently) and even in winter it is usually above freezing at sea level so lots of rain. As you move north the moisture content is a little less and the mountains are arranged a little differently which means less rain in places like Juneau but more snow higher up which means more glaciers.

Ketchikan was a fishing and mining town back in the first half of the 20th century but today the mining is gone and the fishing is recovering from the near extinction of salmon in this area decades ago – I’ll get into that more when I talk about Juneau. Today it survives on tourism and that is primarily from the cruise ships. From May to October there are at least two ships in port every day and sometimes as many as a half-dozen. They get no driving tourists because there are no roads into town, in fact of the four ports we made only Skagway has a road in and out. Even Juneau the state capital has no roads in or out. The only way is by boat or plane. The reason is glaciers. There are so many that it is not worth the cost of going around them to meet up with the Alaskan highway. Because so many people work in tourism the towns thrive for six months and then the year-round folks survive on what they save and the out-of-towners head back to Canada or the lower 48.

We did a crab excursion where we took a boat ride out to an area where the crab pots are and Janice got to pull the pot full of Dungeness crabs up and then we got to take a closer look. The green hills and clear water made for a interesting ride although I was hoping to see a bear or other wildlife. After the crabbing experience we had a wonderful feast of Dungeness crab which is not as large as king or snow but just as tasty. Walking around the town of Ketchikan was fun once you get by all the jewelry stores and other tourist businesses. The buildings are not fancy but it is interesting to look over a block of buildings and have mountains looming over them – when you can see though the clouds.

The iconic welcome sign, a statue honoring the different trades that made Ketchikan and a nice carving in the totem style in the square.

Icy Strait Point

Icy Start Point is a small island northwest of Ketchikan that has a native Tlingit village at one end and a tourist area at the other. They built a dock complex that can accommodate at least two or three cruise ships at a time and there are many activities to do while there. The first thing off the boat is a walking trail that goes through a wooded area that has grown up from a clear cut nearly 100 years ago. The tide was out when we arrived meaning Janice could wander around and see some tide pools. Alaska has a diurnal tide meaning they get high and low tide twice a day. Typical tide here varies by about 14 feet – a challenge for dock builders. Also at this stop is a cannery museum which detailed the crude but efficient system used for canned salmon. An interesting display had dozens of labels from canned salmon over the years and I recognized a few of them from my younger days- Mom made a great tasting salmon patty. One the more popular things to do here is a mile long zip line where you can reach speeds of 60 mph. (not my cup of tea) Also popular was kayaking and nature boat rides. We did a whale watching trip that took us out to a spot where we got to see three or four humpback whales. That was exciting! We got to see them blow, surface a bit and then see the tail fluke as they went down again to grab some food or just swim below the surface. We did not get to see a breech but I was very happy to see what we did. Did you know that the underneath or a whale’s fluke is as individual as a fingerprint? I didn’t and it was interesting to see that they catalog each whale and can see where they move around. Another thing I did not know was that the whales we saw here go to Hawaii in the winter and then come back to Alaska in the spring. They don’t seem very large when you are standing on the observation deck of the catamaran but when they come close you get an idea of how large they are.

On the way back in from the whales we stopped at a channel bouy where two sea lions were perched enjoying a lazy afternoon. They seemed to almost pose for our pictures. When we walked back to the boat the tide was up and the tide pools were gone so Janice was happy she took time to look before we headed out on our excursion.

Whale fluke and sea lions on a buoy

Hubbard Glacier

Hubbard Glacier is at the end of Disenchantment Bay well north and west of Juneau. It is the largest tidewater glacier in North America and it is an advancing glacier meaning it grows most years. To see it up close from a cruise is impressive considering it is several hundred feet high most of it below the water. It is roughly seven miles wide where it meets the ocean and it flows about 74 miles from it source. We were fortunate that the day we went the ship was able to navigate through the hundreds of icebergs and floes to get within about a half-mile. This enabled us to see a lot of detail in the face of the glacier especially with binoculars. The first thing you notice is the colors. When I think of a glacier I think of a white mass of snow and ice and in the winter up in the mountains that is what you see. But as the glacier moves down the mountain and melts you see the icy blue color of unspoiled water and different shades of brown and black from dirt and rocks that have been passengers along the hundreds of years trek toward the ocean. The other thing is the number of crevices and holes in the glacier. This is from the process of uneven melting as well as the calving process – that is when pieces of the glacier break off into the sea making an iceberg. The day we visited the glacier was calving regularly -several times and hour. Sometimes all you would hear is the boom as a large piece fell tens or hundreds of feet into the water. This sound is called “white thunder” by the native Tlingit. Without a doubt this was one of the most awe-inspiring stops on the cruise.

 

A beautiful glacier on the way to Hubbard, ice floes on the way in to the glacier, and Hubbard Glacier.

For those of you who want to see what a calving glacier looks like I posted a short video here. I didn’t want this post to be too long so I have split it into two parts and will post the other which covers Juneau, Skagway and Tracy Arm tomorrow.