19 June 2013 to 2 July 2013
Aqua-blues from Glacier Bay
This is a sample of what I saw and experienced on my first cruise and first visit to Alaska. Later I plan to post a video. I prefer to control my own time and to spend my time away from home in new locations rather than in travel, which is why I have always resisted a cruise except where it would be difficult or impossible to go by other means. So this year Gladys and I set out with our friends, Anver and Masuma, for Alaska with the first leg by sea from Vancouver, BC. Departure in the late afternoon took us under the Lion’s Gate bridge and afforded good views of the downtown city.
The evening was cloudy, but there was still enough light to see the mountains of Vancouver Island behind which the sun was disappearing.
This was the last we would see of reasonably good weather for the next 2 ½ days. One was spent wholly at sea and I took the opportunity to photograph various parts of the ‘Coral Princess’ on which we were travelling. I can’t say enough about how helpful the staff were in various ways and the food was usually good as well as plentiful. However, I did not enjoy the seemingly constant buying pressure.
Two central elevators.
Our first land outing was at Ketchikan on the southern end of the panhandle. However, the persistent rain limited the photographic opportunities, although it did prompt me to buy a protective cover for my camera at our next stop as I intended to shoot whatever the weather.
Looking down from the deck to where planes await tourists and better weather.
Next day, we arrived in Juneau where Anver and I had been scheduled to fly by helicopter to the Mendenhall glacier, but rain and fog led to cancellation. However, this could have been to our advantage as the weather soon improved and other possibilities emerged. First there was more time to explore the state capital, which is located in a beautiful bay and shows some evidence of a Russian past. The US purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.
More important, we joined a small minibus tour that took us along the inside channels with stops at the Shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux (the patron saint of Alaska) and then inland for an hour at Mendenhall lake into which the retreating glacier loses some of its ice and debris each year. Nugget Falls to the right make an equally spectacular sight. We could have spent much more time there as it takes 20 minutes to walk to the best viewing areas.
Poppies brighten the day at the Shrine by the ocean.
Our next stop was at the little tourist town of Skagway, a place once known as the starting point for the Yukon goldrush. Today, the local economy depends on the hundreds of thousands of summer tourists, most of them brought by cruise ships like ours. As elsewhere, the cruise companies own many of the gift shops that line the main street.
Skagway street colours
Summer had arrived and we enjoyed a train ride of about 30 km up the steep valley to White Pass which marks the border with British Columbia, Canada. For a photographer this is less than ideal as there is no opportunity to leave the train at any point or to do more than quickly compose shots on the move – a problem for much of my time in Alaska. On the positive side, the landscape is dramatic and it was possible to stand outside on the ends of each coach so that window glass did not interfere with the shots. This was a good opportunity to chat with other photographers as well.
Near the White Pass.
The next two days were spent on board before disembarking at Whittier. After leaving Skagway with a beautiful sunset, the ship headed north to Glacier Bay National Park in remarkably warm weather – good for us if not for the glaciers.
The landscape was dramatic – a blue northern beauty that will stay with me. It was amusing to hear the scattered ice flows in the bay being described as dangerous icebergs. I was fortunate to hear and see several chunks of ice calving from the Margerie glacier – it was more like a noisy icy waterfall than the splitting of ice to create an iceberg. Innumerable otters swam close to the boat in the fjord, but that was the only wildlife I noticed apart from some gulls and several lonely eagles.
Typical scenery along the fjord.
The next point of interest occurred the following afternoon when the ship entered College fjord off Prince William Sound. Here glaciers side-by-side (almost) slip into the cold northern Pacific. They are named after various Ivy League colleges.
Next morning we joined the Alaska railway train in Whittier. For the first 30 minutes the line took us through a mountain tunnel and a well forested valley, followed by attractive shoreline.
Anver looks for a good image while the train stopped briefly.
Then it was a long journey to Talkeetna on the south side of the Alaska Range and Denali (formerly McKinley) mountain. The track took us through Anchorage and then north through a landscape that was rolling and fairly densely forested with spruce and birch. We stayed two nights at a lodge an hour away from the village of some 900 people.
The only general store in Talkeetna.
Mountain view from the McKinley Lodge.
Gladys decided later that Denali (McKinley) mountain is Alaska’s Loch Ness monster – much referred to and hard to see due to haze and clouds. This problem was not aided by the location of viewing points that were 60 to 110 km distant from the peak. The only way around this was an expensive local plane ride or to endure a 12 hour round trip in a bus from the main park entrance on the north side. Even then, there is no guarantee of a sighting. Next day we chose a nature hike along Byer’s Lake in Denali State Park. It was a great chance to see wild flowers and I could easily have spent more time there.
I did see Denali in the distance when the clouds lifted partially. Still it's an impressive sight.
Another travel day brought us by rail through the taiga forest, along and sometimes across rivers, and past mountains that rose in the distance to Denali village. Next day a five hour bus trip into the park led to the sighting of one animal – a caribou that walked down the road past our bus. Again, I took my chance when allowed off the bus to photograph the wild flowers.
A patch of wild flowers above the tree line.
Coming from Vancouver Island, I have many opportunities to see wildlife, but I was sorry that those who had travelled far from cities for that purpose saw so little. There are only about 300 bears in the giant park and they generally avoid people, so their absence was no surprise for me.
Our final day before flying home was made up of a non-descript, three hour bus journey through the taiga on a hot day to Fairbanks where we did have an enjoyable river cruise in a stern paddle boat.
She is an Athabascan and student at the University of Arizona. She also smiles... but not at this moment when displaying aboriginal clothing.
Where rivers meet at Fairbanks.
Several people have asked me if I would recommend the trip or go again. Don’t do it in the cruise and group tour format unless you are willing to risk seeing little due to weather – too wet or rainy to see landscape; too hot for wildlife – not counting mosquitoes. I was lucky to have good weather on three key days. Don’t do it this way at all if you are a photographer or any one else who wants to control your time according to the circumstances you encounter. Starting again, I would fly to Whitehorse, hire a vehicle, drive to key points of interests when roads are available, and hire a local boat in one of the small ports to go to the tidal glacier zones.
The final photo was taken leaving Vancouver on the BC ferry to Nanaimo and then home to Courtenay.