Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Alaska: The Last Frontier, Part 1

Ed and I are home from our latest travel adventure -- and what an adventure it was: Alaska, the last frontier, and Ed's final state to color in on his U.S. map. (I'm not too far behind him: Oregon, Washington and Hawaii: here I come.)

A bit of background

We have always wanted to visit Alaska, but it is far away and the window for decent weather is narrow. How would we travel there? What was on our must-see list? How long would we stay? We vowed that 2017 was the year to figure it out and make it happen. Imagine our delight when an invitation to travel to Alaska aboard The World came unexpectedly from my Aunt Gina. 

We would fly out to Vancouver, spend the weekend exploring the city, then board the ship on Sunday, July 16. We would disembark 20 days later in Anchorage, then take a train to Denali National Park for a few days, before flying home on August 7. We would be away from Farm Dover for 25 days – a long time for me to be away from my vegetable, herb and bee gardens. But, as Ed pointed out, there would be other years to fuss over tomato plants – and this was shaping up to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip. We said, "yes" and "thank you."

The World is the world's largest privately owned residential cruise ship and our three-bedroom apartment was luxurious, with a deck running along the left back of the ship (or, as they say on board: the port stern). We could chose from a number of restaurants on board or make simple meals in our kitchen. When we were anchored or docked, we went ashore for our meals and to explore. On the days we were cruising, I did a morning yoga class and sometimes we would attend a lecture, but the rest of the time we mostly sat on our deck reading and watching the world flow by. All in all, it was a delightful and stress-free way to travel. 

As in past travel blogs, I offer perhaps more detail than you may care to read. So feel free to skip over parts; it won't hurt my feelings. The details are included to help me remember this special time and for those who might plan a trip to some of these same locales in the future.

Vancouver, BC

We hot-wired a hotel in downtown Vancouver and spent three days getting to know this bustling west coast seaport in British Columbia. We took a city train and then a boat taxi over to Granville Island to check out the incredible Public Market; we hiked the scenic loop at the 1000-acre Stanley Park, and headed to Chinatown for Sunday dim sum. In between, we (twice) found a coffee shop that we loved, sampled some local craft beer in a Gastown cafe and enjoyed a wonderfully creative meal at Forage

Mid-afternoon on Sunday, we boarded the ship.

Ketchikan, AK, population 8175, salmon capital of the world

The next two days we spent sailing up British Columbia's west coast and acclimating to life on the ship. The first port of call was Ketchikan, the place where Ed could officially declare that he had visited all 50 United States. T-shirt and jewelry shops greeted us – but didn't entice us. Instead we made our way over boardwalks to the colorful old houses and watched as floatplanes, boats and ferries came and went from the shore. 

Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary where we saw a dozen black bears in the wilds of the rainforest and nearby salmon hatchery, got up close with a bald eagle, peregrine falcon and barred owl at the aviary rehab center and watched a master carver at work on a totem pole. 

New York Cafe. Perhaps an odd name for an Alaskan cafe, but a great local bar/restaurant serving salmon benedict for breakfast; so good we came back the next day for dessert. 

Alaska Fish House. Hot crispy fried fish (trio of salmon, halibut, and cod), cold craft beer and live music, complete with a dancing toddler.

From Ketchikan, the ship headed out along the inside passage, traversing the length of Misty Fjords National Monument, a vast protected rainforest, part of the Tongass National Forest. It gets its name from the light fog that perpetually drapes the coast -- sure enough, it was foggy, but beautiful. 

For a closer up look at Misty Fjords' scenic Smeardon Bay, the ship lowered a number of inflatable zodiac boats into the waters and took small groups of passengers out to see eagles, sea otters and jumping salmon. 

Next stop: Wrangell, one of the oldest non-native settlements in Alaska...

Wrangell, AK, population 2,411

The town looked old-fashioned, perhaps a bit forgotten, but ended up being one of our favorite places. We arrived early on a Saturday evening and the town seemed ghostly, with its few shops already closed up for the day. The Elk Lodge was hopping and some good-smelling grilling seemed to be happening, but it turns out it was a private affair. The only other option for dinner on shore was the Stikine Inn Restaurant, so we headed there and were pleasantly surprised by the selection of draft beer and deliciousness of the food. In fact, it was so good, we went back the next night and I ordered (again) the grilled rockfish tacos. 

While walking around on Saturday evening, we found a Presbyterian Church up on Church Street (of course) so Sunday morning found us worshipping with 15 others -- 17 if you count the minister and piano player. After church, we climbed Mt. Dewey, affording us an incredible view of the town and bay. 

While there, we headed out on a jet boat for some sightseeing of the Stikine River and the Shakes Glacier. I had seen a glacier on a previous trip to British Columbia and I have to admit, I was unimpressed. It was cold, and hard, bare and dirty, and it wasn't going anywhere fast. My opinion of glaciers changed as we worked our way past floating chunks of blue ice and came alongside a magnificent mass of ice that seemed very much alive. 

From Wrangell, we cruised northward with a stop in Frederick Sound and Tracy Arm to check out the icebergs and mountain goats, via Zodic boats. Then it was on to Juneau, capital of Alaska...

Juneau, AK, population 32,766 

When we pulled into the Juneau docks, there were already five huge cruise ships anchored. That meant thousands of tourists, acting touristy. The town was full of souvenir shops, many owned by the cruise ship companies. I knew we would have to work hard to figure out the next couple of days on our own terms. 

First stop: Mendenhall Glacier where we spent the better part of a morning hiking the trails on our own and marveling at the glacier. No tour guide needed. 

Because it had started raining, we looked for something we could do that didn't involve getting drenched. We found the Alaska State Museum and spent a couple of hours wandering through it. It is not mentioned in any of the "top things to do lists" but I believe that is a serious omission. It was a fascinating look at the history of the early native tribes, the state's Russian colonial eras, and its more recent past of becoming the 49th U.S. state. It included some fine art, natural history and exhibits of industry and trades. The museum was recently renovated, reopening about a year ago. It is a real jewel.

Next stop: Glacier Gardens, which is a strange place indeed. Not exactly a botanical garden, it is a private 50-acre rainforest property that is best known for its upside down trees. (Fallen trees that are sunk upside down into the ground and the tops -- formerly roots -- planted with annual flowers). Interesting...

One of my secrets to finding non-touristy places to eat is to google: where do locals eat in _____ town. High on the Juneau list was a small cafe called The Rookery, and like in the last two towns, we ended up eating there twice. Really good, creative food, with an Asian twist.


We had plenty of time to read while on the ship. When we travel, we like to read books that take place in the region or are otherwise related to our journeys. On this trip, I took along Driftwood Valley: A Woman Naturalist in the Northern Wilderness,  by Theodora C. Stanwell-Fletcher. It proved to be a good choice. The book journals the three years (1937-1939 and 1941) that the author and her husband spent in the wilds of northern British Columbia, collecting plant and animal specimens for the Smithsonian. It is one of Wendell Berry's favorite books, as he explains in the Introduction, 1989 edition. 

Ed chose to tackle Herman Melville's Moby Dick, all 578 pages of the epic whale tale. Talk about a tough read, but Ed is always up for a reading challenge and seems to have enjoyed the story of Ahab's obsessive quest. If nothing else, it added a dimension to our own obsessive quest to spot a whale from our deck.  

Our next port of call was Haines, adventure capital of Alaska. But you will have to wait until my next blog post to find out how we managed kayaking around Chilkoot Lake. Stay tuned...

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