My Alaskan Adventure, Part 3: The Last Frontier

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Dawes Glacier

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.

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Equipped with robes and hot chocolate, we’re ready for some glacier-viewing!

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.

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Welcome to Skagway!

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.

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Adrenaline rush!

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.”

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Nick preparing to rappel down the cliff. My hero!

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?

P1050067The 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.

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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.

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Canoeing in the Tongass National Forest.

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!

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My Alaskan Adventure, Part 1: Vancouver

On June 16th, I woke up at 4am to catch a flight out of my small hometown airport to Houston. It would be the beginning of my greatest adventure yet. Not only did I fly to a foreign country and sail to Alaska—I experienced the magic of a week on a Disney cruise ship.

My boyfriend’s family invited me on this trip over a year ago, and his mom made all the arrangements for our group of ten. Nick flew to Vancouver, British Columbia on a Friday. Since I had work, I flew in that Saturday (my first time ever flying alone). Just being at an airport was exciting. I love flying, and this was my first flight since studying abroad in Paris—seven years ago! Glued to my window, I watched the sun rise as I flew from Alexandria, Louisiana, to the big city of Houston.

From Houston I flew to Vancouver. The flight was probably four or five hours, but I didn’t notice because I was enamored by the experience of flying. In an effort to pack light, I left behind books, laptop, and any form of entertainment; instead, I looked out the window, drank coffee with my non-English speaking neighbors, and daydreamed. Losing two hours with the time zone change, we landed in Vancouver at 1pm—with plenty of daylight left to explore the city.

Canadian customs was intense, and before I could leave the airport I had to get some Canadian cash for the Skytrain. It took me a minute, but I figured out how to buy a train ticket and find my way downtown. After a few minutes of showcasing those distant snow-capped mountains, the Skytrain plunged underground, eventually delivering me to the Waterfront station. A kind stranger pointed me to my hotel—the Pan Pacific, a high-class place directly connected to the cruise ship terminal—and I was free in downtown Vancouver.

I called Nick from the hotel lobby; he was very proud that I found my way to a foreign country without getting lost. We met up with his parents in the concierge lounge, which overlooked the cruise ship dock, Stanley Park, and the downtown skyline. I immediately discovered the espresso machine. Nick and I left to explore for a bit before meeting back up with his parents, brother, and sister-in-law for a food tour of China Town.

Our food tour guide took us to four restaurants (and then ran to get take-out from a Chinese restaurant, because we were expecting Chinese food and he couldn’t let us down). The first stop was a vegan pizza place. The second was gluten-free fried chicken. The third was an assortment—french fries, Brussel sprouts, and cauliflower. The fourth…I don’t remember but I know it was good.

See, we were also served a different beverage at each place. The first, rose wine. The second, cider. The third, gin and tonic. By the fourth stop my head was spinning. Keep in mind I’d been up since 4am and my only meal was an egg sandwich from a Starbucks back in Houston. I’m also not a drinker. What a way to kick off vacation!

By 10 pm the sun was still shining bright, and we enjoyed our Chinese take-out from the hotel room. In the Pacific northwest, on the week of the summer solstice, there are 19 hours of daylight. Before going to sleep, you have to draw the curtains tight; otherwise, you’ll be up at 3am to close them.

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Holy Rosary Cathedral, Downtown Vancouver

The next morning we went to mass at the gorgeous Holy Rosary Cathedral downtown. We spent the morning walking to Stanley Park, a 1,000-acre peninsula with forests, gardens, wildlife, painter’s circle for artists to sell their work, totem poles, an aquarium, and more. We took a horse-drawn carriage ride tour of the park. Nick and I discovered how tasty salmonberries are. A bald eagle flew over our carriage. We learned about the history of Vancouver.

We walked back to town for some gelato before heading right back to Stanley Park to meet Nick’s adorable nieces at the aquarium. Vancouver has an impressive aquarium, complete with dolphins, sea lions, and otters. Nick and I joined the hundreds of other joggers and pedestrians and ran downtown to met everyone for dinner at a pub.

The next day was my birthday, and about the time I woke up, the Disney Wonder was pulling up to the dock. What a great way to start the day! The Pan Pacific breakfast buffet did not disappoint—and it had a great view of the Mickey ship. We took pictures in our matching shirts, which featured everyone’s favorite Disney character (mine was Elsa). After going through the cruise terminal security and waiting around for an hour, it was finally time to board the ship.

P1040793We entered the Disney Wonder in the atrium/lobby area, and were immediately escorted into Triton’s restaurant for lunch. You can feel the magic the moment you walk on the ship—Disney music constantly piping through the walls, characters walking around, amazing service and friendly faces wherever you turn. Everything on the ship was clean and beautiful. Our food was delicious and the wait staff was incredible.

36248266_2369057716445537_2201209557114421248_oAfter lunch and a mandatory safety assembly, the cruise kicked off with a sail-away deck dance party. Mickey, Goofy, Donald, and Minnie led the count-down to when the ship set sail. Confetti was blown. There was a sing-along, there was line dancing. We did the Macarena, the cupid shuffle, and the chicken dance. I ran from one side of the ship to the other taking pictures of the mountains going by. Little did I know, these paled in comparison to the ones we’d see in a couple days.

But more about that in part two!