Friday, July 07, 2006

Alaskan Recap (Cont'd)

On the first day of our cruise we were on the open ocean, traveling down the Alaskan coast to the Inside Passage, a series of islands, inlets, rivers, and archipelagos that would be our playing field for the next six days. Our first day involved lots of getting-to-know the boat and enjoying good food and the relaxing atmosphere of the ms Ryndam. The crew was all foreign, mostly Indonesian and Phillipino. A more charming and relaxed people I could not imagine. Everyone was smiling, everyone was pleasant. I felt completely at home within the first few hours.

The second morning sticks out in my memory for a few reasons. It was cold. Seriously cold. Cold is something foreign in Florida, it comes occasionally, more infrequently than hurricanes, cold like this was definitely something we weren't use to. We bundled up in all the layers we could find and headed out to view College Fjord, our first national park, named because all the glaciers have names of Universities, like Harvard, Yale, etc. It was dark and misty and the clouds were so low, you could smell them. It was, in retrospect, the rainiest and cloudiest morning of the trip, but beautiful and haunting and memorable. So many glaciers calve all day all week all year here that the water is covered in small icebergs. They told us to keep our eyes open for any seals or otters using the icebergs as sea buses to travel, but we didn't see any. In fact, save the whale watching later and the copious Bald Eagle sightings, our wildlife quota was very low. Which was fine, the scenery more than made up for it.

The next day, the Ryndam sailed into Glacier Bay National Park, a large inlet that was once sealed off from the rest of the Inside Passage by glaciers. When the famous George Vancouver sailed into that area two hundred years ago, where his map showed a shore, there was an opening, revealing a series of finger-shaped lakes and bays that awe to this day. At the far corner of the park is the spectacular Margerie Glacier. The Ryndam came up amazingly close to the Glacier and parked, as if it would at a port, for a full hour while 95% of the boat stood on the open decks, enjoyed the surprising sunshine, and stared at the incredible glacier.

There's a sound glaciers make. The natives call it, White Thunder. It comes from little pieces of ice falling off the glacier and hitting the water below. There's also a waterfall-ish stream coming off the glacier. But that's nothing compared to when the beast begins the process called calving. There's a grumble, almost a moan from the ice, and massive pieces of it slide off and splash gloriously in the water below. Words can't quite describe the natural majesty of it. There's something ancient and fulfilling about glaciers, like old old trees; it invokes an almost god-like awe in the presence of them, especially when they are as detailed and beautiful as Margerie.

The next day, with the rain coming down in sheets, we arrived at our first port, the town of Haines. We had nothing planned for the day (my fault) and attempted to go on a nature hike through a rainforest, but we hadn't planned well in advance and there was nothing available. We instead went on a small trip in search of bears. We didn't see any. But we did get to see a very pretty lake and a whole bunch of bald eagles. We spent the rest of the day doing some gift-shopping in the town. We got some great stuff, including little totem poles and a native knife thing-a-majig callled an Ulu that Shawn fell in love with. (Maybe she just liked saying the name.) Click here for more info and pictures on Ulu's.

After spending the day being drenched by an angry Alaskan sky, we retreated daily to something called a Thermal Suite. I highly recommend doing something similar when going on a cruise, if it is available. We paid a small flat fee for the whole week and had acess to a semi-private suite in the Spa area. In this suite, there was a Turkish bath, steam rooms, and hot stone beds. It was the perfect way to soak in some relaxation and often Shawn and I were the only ones in there, so it was like our own little corner of the big boat.

Next day: Janeau, Alaska's small capital city. This was not a day for shopping or idle sightseeing, but rather adventure! Early in the morning, we ventured out in search of excitement. We had an excursion planned for the morning, but we wanted something in the afternoon, too, and we had decided two days ago that we liked whales and wanted to see some, dammit. From the boat, a lot of people were able to see whales thanks to their binoculars, but we were cheap and didn't buy any, so we didn't get to see anything. Besides, we weren't going to be satisfied by seeing a toy tail miles away, we wanted to be so close, we could touch them! But I'll get back to that.

First up was our helicopter ride towards the Hubbard glacier. Seeing a glacier from above is an incredible sight to behold. It was like passing over a blue mountain or something that looked like Superman's Fortress of Solitude. And to actually land on it! We set down next to an alien blue lake and stepped out of the helicopter. Those first steps are cautious and unsure. It's ice, for crying out loud! What if it breaks or gives? But it's didn't. Turns out ancient ice is as hard as stone. So, passing danger, we let ourselves by awed by wonder. The rain was back in full force causing clouds of mist the size of cruise ships and we were surrounded by these black mountains sliced by waterfalls. It was like another world. We walked around like astronauts without the zero G. Way too soon, it was over, and we had to return to normal land.

Later though, we embarked on our whale watching tour with the incredible Orca Enterprises and their newest boat, the Purple Streak. There were a few whale sightings that day in other parts of the surrounding waters, but our fearless captain and excited tour guide took us to a deserted part of the inlet system where three or four straits meet and there was no other boats in sight. It was there we saw incredible things. First, a distance shadow. Then, a waterspout. Then, a tail, slowly and seductively rising and falling out of the water. It was a pod of humpback whales netting, or feeding. They parked themselves not fifteen feet away from our boat and swam and ate and almost breached a few times while we watched in awe from the top deck of the Purple Streak. Suddenly, a cry from the other side. Another group. Two groups of humpbacks surrounding us, feeding. It was almost too much. But there was enough eye-candy for everyone in the boat. We took tons of pictures and even some video of the incredible mammals. Up close, even just seeing the curves of their torsos and their tails, you are gripped by excitement. We saw so much, even the tour guide broke out a video camera and started to take footage of what we saw.

Again, too soon, we had to return, specifically because Shawn and I were late for our boat! We had been told by the sales people earlier that day that the trip would last only til 4:30, which would give us enough time to make All-Aboard at 5:30. But it was coming up on 5 and we were still on the water! Thankfully, the people at Orca Enterprises are professionals and made it their upmost priority that we would not miss our boat. They sent one of their representatives to wait at the gangway of the Ryndam and make sure it waits for us and sent an umarked private van to take Shawn and I back. There were some stressful moments there as we pondered what would happen if we were stranded in Juneau, Alaska, but I was confident we'd make it in time. As soon as returned to the boat, though, we changed and headed straight for the Thermal Suite to decompress.


Shawn said...

alaska kicks so much ass

Anonymous said...

best regards, nice info » »