Upon crossing the state border, I fell in love with Alaska, mystified by the fact that most of the state is nothing but wilderness. We stopped in three small towns along the southeast Alaskan coast: Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan. Outside of these quaint towns, you won’t see cell phone towers, telephone lines, or any other indication of civilization. In fact, two of the three towns don’t even have roads leading in or out; all travel to the mainland must be by ship or plane.
Our first day spent in Alaska wasn’t at one of these ports-of-call, but in the Endicott Arm Fjord. That morning, Captain Mickey steered the ship to some fjords, or narrow inlets, leading to glaciers. The Tracey Arm Fjord had too much ice flow that day for it to be safe for travel, so the captain made the decision to go down the equally-scenic Endicott Arm.
The weather in Alaska is typically cold, rainy, and overcast (the forests there are actually rainforests). However, it was unusually sunny and clear on Glacier Day, making for some gorgeous photo opportunities. As we sailed further down the arm, we began to see ice chunks which had calved off of the Dawes Glacier. I noticed one that was brilliant blue, indicating it had recently calved off and had not been exposed to air very long.
As we turned into the final stretch of the arm, we could finally see Dawes Glacier—and many more icebergs. Seals floated by on flat hunks of ice, which they use to birth their young. The ship finally came to a halt right in front of the glacier, and stayed parked there for an hour as we all marveled at this tremendous natural phenomenon. We were lucky enough to witness some of the ice calving off, watching the big splash through our binoculars.
Sadly, the glaciers are receding at an incredible rate. This trip was truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me to see the Dawes and other glaciers, because in ten years they could be inaccessible, or at the very least, much less impressive. So if you have a desire to go to Alaska, don’t put it off.
I mentioned in my last post that the first day on the ship was my birthday. Upon entering our suite, I had found a birthday card with two warm, fuzzy Disney Cruise Line robes, a bottle of champagne, and a box of chocolates courtesy of our travel agent. These robes came in handy on Glacier Day; the temperature near a glacier is ten degrees colder than the already-cool Alaskan temperatures (in the 40s, if I had to guess). Cruise staff walked around the balconies with trays of hot chocolate to offer guests all afternoon.
The next morning we awoke in Skagway, Alaska. I could have spent a whole week in this town; it has hiking trails, a train that takes passengers deep into the mountains, and an interesting history from the gold rush era. With around 900 inhabitants (mostly seasonal), the town’s population tripled when our cruise ship docked.
Nick and I spent the morning on a six-mile round-trip trail with an 850-foot elevation gain called Icy Lake and Upper Ried Falls Trail. We crossed some neat footbridges, wandered through Spruce and Hemlock forests, and saw some glacial silt. The trail ends at a huge waterfall plunging down the mountainside. We had to practically shout to hear each other over the rushing falls.
After lunch, Nick, his dad, and I met up with our excursion group for some rock climbing and rappelling! Our guides drove us to a mountain, where we hiked up to a vertical rock wall; he gave us some rock-climbing shoes, secured us in harnesses, and let us try a couple climbs. It was terrifying.
I’d never done this before—and may never do it again—but I’m glad I did it. This experience is a good microcosm for life. This wall looms before you, seemingly impossible to climb. But you must take it one hand and one foot at a time–stopping if you need to, and never looking down. Next thing you know, you’re at the top thinking “That wasn’t so bad.”
Rappelling is about overcoming fear. We hiked to the top of the cliff, and (only those brave enough) climbed over the ledge and lowered themselves to a 90 degree angle, proceeding to control their own descent down the 100-foot vertical rock. If anything went wrong, ambulances would be involved. Although some people got all strapped in only to chicken out upon looking over the edge, I went through with it. You have to overcome fear at some point, so why not here and now?
The next day’s excursion was in Juneau, Alaska’s capital city. The whole family did a whale-watching and science adventure. Our tour guide first took us on a nature walk to see the Mendenhall glacier. We then boarded a small boat to find some humpback whales. Along the way, we saw sea lions, bald eagles, a starfish, and seals.
To spot a humpback whale, you must look for the spray from its blowhole. Once you see the spray, you’ll spot the whale’s back surfacing. After surfacing several times, the whale will take one last breath and dive down to the bottom to feed—when they do this, you’ll see the tail fin pop up out the water. It was a dream come true to see these whales up-close, in-person. This was a major highlight of the trip.
Our last port-of-call was Ketchikan, where Nick’s dad, Nick, and I did a canoe excursion in the Tongass Rainforest. The weather was overcast and cold in this, what is considered the rainiest city in the United States. The lake was dark due to tannins from the surrounding trees. Our group shouted at the top of our lungs to hear the echo bouncing off the mountains.
We canoed to a canopy area, where a local chef had cooked clam chowder and hot chocolate over a campfire. We also enjoyed some bread and local raspberry jam. After loading up on snacks, we did a nature walk in which the guide pointed out edible and non-edible plant species.
Alaska is beautiful, isolated, and unique. I saw lots of bald eagles, seals, and sea lions, and a few whales; other cruisers saw bears and mountain goats as well. I faced fear by descending a vertical rock wall, lived my dream of seeing a whale in the wild, and saw magnificent glaciers, waterfalls, and snow-capped mountains. I hope to return someday!