Sunday, August 16, 2015

Alaskan Adventure - Day 18&19 - Vancouver, B.C., Canada

Saturday we continued our adventure just as a party of 2, since the others needed to head home.  We spent the weekend in Vancouver, taking advantage of great weather, a slower agenda, and fresh sushi whenever possible.

Saturday morning Tom and I opted to walk off early carrying our luggage, instead of having the cruise line take it ashore for us.  First time we have done that and it worked really well since we were able to disembark right at the time we had been asked to vacate our rooms.  Would definitely recommend this option if you can handle your luggage and don't want to wait on the ship.
We caught a cab to our boutique hotel in the Yaletown area of downtown and got breakfast at the Twisted Fork nearby.  We actually had to search for some time to find a place to eat since we had walked off the ship at 6:30 am and most places were not even open yet on a Saturday morning.  After a hearty breakfast, the plan had been to do a hop on/off bus tour, but it turns out there was a marathon happening downtown so many of the streets were closed until noon and the tour busses were not running!  It was a bit of a scramble to figure out what to do since we were tired and did not have a backup plan, and it was too early to check into our rooms which is what we really wanted to do.  We had already bought the bus tickets, so we hopped a cab to the Aquarium in Stanley Park to visit for a couple of hours and then started our bus from that area.  The Aquarium was really nice, and had many large sea mammals and a great exhibit on British Columbia area sea life, however not as good overall as the one in Atlanta.

We finally managed to get on the bus tour around 1 pm and spent the afternoon doing the two routes around the area, stopping for Tim Horton donuts (think Dunkin Donuts for Canadians) and the Maritime Museum which was an impulse stop but we both really enjoyed the ship they had dry-docked within the museum.  It was the first to cross the Northwest Passage, and went with a fascinating exhibit about the quest for a way across North America by sea.

We had dinner at a fantastic sushi place near the hotel.  Their specialty is fish that is pounded flat and then lightly flame broiled before being placed in layers of sticky rice.  It's called aburu oshi and this restaurant pioneered the technique a few years ago. Apologies - I forgot to take many pics today.

On Sunday, we got up fairly early and ventured about 20 min north via Uber to the Capilano Bridge Park and Grouse Mountain.  Capilano Bridge is a huge swinging suspension bridge that stretches 450 ft across and 230 ft high over the gorge.  I was terrified to cross but managed to make it by holding the rail and not looking over the side and was rewarded with a canopy treehouse to climb on the other side and beautiful views of the river.  Tom also braved the cliff walk which is a narrow path that goes along the ledge, but I opted to sit that one out. 

After exploring the bridge park for a few hours, we caught the local bus to nearby Grouse Mountain where we took a gondola up to the top of the mountain (instead of the 2800 stairs up) and explored the animal habitats and exhibits they had.  They have 2 grizzly bears that were rescue animals that we got to see up close.  I was disappointed I never got to see a bear in the wild, but at least I got to see a grizzly bear up close in a natural habitat. Also saw some hawks and eagles and caught the lumberjack show.  The wolf did not make an appearance for us, which was disappointing.

The Canadians appreciation for nature and the outdoors is clearly evident in the way they have these parks set up.  They treat these as a family outing the way we might go to 6 Flags.  Families of all ages and handicap levels were everywhere, as well as the usual tourists.  We also saw lots of young adults from Australia and New Zealand, as well as local, working at these summer jobs which was great to see.  Everyone was very friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable, which is a refreshing change from some of the jaded workers we see at DC tourist attractions.

Tom and I turned in very early on Sunday as we are both fighting a cold that was going around.  The last few days of the trip are low key so we will rest up.  Monday we rent a car and travel by ferry to Victoria and then back to Seattle where we fly out on Tuesday.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Alaskan Adventure - Day 16 &17 - Ketchikan, Alaska and the last day at sea

Thursday we docked in the fishing town of Ketchikan, which is only accessible by water or plane - no roads in or out!  We explored the town, saw some Totem Pole replicas, enjoyed fresh crab on the docks, and finished the day with a flight seeing tour of the Misty Fjords National Monument.  Overall a really great day!  Friday we enjoyed our last day on the ship, and since there was no Glacier cruising on the agenda, we had nothing to schedule around.  A nice ending to the week long cruise.

We arrived in Ketchikan around 9 am Thursday and headed straight off the ship to explore the town.  We were docked right in the center of town which was so convenient not needing a shuttle.  Pete and Ellen slept in again, still trying to shake whatever bug they had, but Carl, Tom, and I (after getting a little confused on the pickup point) caught the local bus to Totem Night State Park, about 20 min north of town.  This is a small state park on the water that features original and replica Totem poles along with a clan house from the First Nations.  This area was settled >10,000 years ago by those who crossed the land bridge from Asia.  Totem poles were works of art commissioned for births, deaths, tribe crests, or significant achievements.  They feature local animals like wolf, bear, orca, bird, and otter and often told legends and creation stories.  I thought the area was fascinating, but you can see from the attached picture that Tom was not as enthralled (he thought state park = trees and hiking).

We took the bus back to town (with Tom wishing we had rented a car for the day the whole time) and met Pete and Ellen on the docks for fish and crab.  Tom and I had been waiting all trip to enjoy fresh crab on the waterfront and we were not disappointed!  We had cod fish n chips along with king crab legs.  Ellen and Carl tried the Dungeness crab, and liked it better than the king crab they had tried previously on the trip.  We also had great blackened salmon tacos.

After lunch, Carl, Tom, and I walked along Creek Street which is a series of boardwalks over the creek that runs through town.  We made it to the fish ladder, which is a concrete structure that allows spawning salmon to route around the large waterfall that they otherwise cannot traverse upstream.  We saw several fish make it through but we also saw lots of dead fish in the water.  This is the tail end of the silver Salmon run and the fish are absolutely exhausted and unable to breath since they are used to salt water, so many die en route to the lakes where they spawn.  I think only 2 out of 1000 salmon make it to the spawning grounds.

Cute door stop outside of an artisan shop in Creek Street
We met at the pier under the liquid sunshine gauge (note, Ketchikan gets over 200 inches of rain per year; currently at 180" for 2015) to find our flight tour operator, Island Wings.  The flight left from a nearby dock and we had the plane to ourselves.  Although I have been in small planes many times, I had never done a water takeoff and landing.  It was much smoother than I expected!  We flew through the Misty Fjords and had beautiful views since it was an extremely rare sunny day.

After 45 min or so, we landed in a lake and got off on a floating dock to look around and stretch.  Fjords are Glacier carved inlets from the ocean, so despite looking like lakes, they are all salt water and connect to the see.  We also saw some fantastic alpine lakes high in the mountains, left by glaciers or made from accumulating rain water.  They often form long, beautiful waterfalls that cascade down to the ocean.  We were lucky enough to visit Ketchikan on one of the sunniest, most beautiful days of the year, therefore we did not see any mist in the Misty Fjords, but the views and experience were still breathtaking and well worth the cost of a flight seeing tour.

We headed back to the ship and made it just before all aboard (with Christina stressing about the time the whole last 20 minutes).  Enjoyed some fresh made, Napoli style pizza in the pizzeria on board as we watched the sail away and then everyone retired to clean up and nap before dinner.  That night Tom and I caught the magician performance and really liked it.

Friday everyone slept in and then we met up on the lido deck to sun in the lounge chairs.  It was pleasantly warm and you could sit out in swimwear as long as you were not wet from the pool.  After lunch on the lido deck we returned to the sun deck and caught glimpses of orcas and birds.  We finished out the day with a visit to the bar for happy hour (buy 1 get one free every afternoon), a round of trivia, and a beautiful sunset as we ate dinner.

View of the Grand Princess as we landed in our float plane nearby
Saturday we arrive in Vancouver early and part ways, with Ellen, Pete, and Carl flying back home directly.  Tom and I will stay on in Vancouver and then make our way back to Seattle, via ferries, stopping in Victoria, BC on the way.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Alaskan Adventure - Day 15 - Juneau, Alaska

Wednesday we docked in Juneau and unfortunately we had the worst weather of the trip - cold and very rainy.  Many people did not even venture off the ship that day.  Pete and Ellen were both getting over colds, and Carl opted to sleep in, but Tom and I donned rain gear and headed out to Mendenhall Glacier.

So thankful for my REI rain jacket and Marmot rain pants today! First time I have needed the pants the whole trip and they worked great.  We hiked 2 mi roundtrip to Nugget Falls which is near the face of the glacier.  The glacier is receding so you can no longer get close to it unless you hike around the other side of the peninsula, or get a helicopter to drop you off.  I got a video clip of the roaring glacial falls.

Saw all types of moss and lichen along the trail that made beautiful natural, but miniature waterfalls in the rain.  We also walked along the Steep Creek Trail where the silver salmon were running, but unfortunately, the local bears were not making an appearance right then.  Although we saw bears at the conservation center in Anchorage, it would be spectacular to see a bear in the wild.

We took the shuttle from the Glacier back to town and stopped for a beer and a bowl of salmon chowder in the saloon in Juneau.  The Red Dog Saloon is the local, campy watering hole complete with sawdust floor, corseted barmaids, and an old time piano player.  Some impressive taxidermy too.  See the bear chasing the lumber jack up the pole in the photo?

Original plan was to meet the others for seafood in town but since the weather was so awful we headed back to the ship and met them there for lunch.  Ship sailed at 3 pm so everyone took advantage of the quiet afternoon to read, play trivia, and then nap before dinner, which was our second formal night.  All the food has been great on the ship, and we only ate at the specialty restaurants twice, instead opting for the main dining room for dinner on the other nights.  After dinner, we usually catch a show or go somewhere to listen to music.  Pete and Ellen particularly liked the piano player/crooner Liam Ryder who played in the piano bar most nights.  On Wed he did a 1 hr show in the lounge and all of us really enjoyed that.

Thursday we are docked in Ketchikan, the last port of the cruise.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Alaskan Adventure - Day 14 - Skagway, Alaska

Tuesday we docked in Skagway, Alaska which is tucked away in the fjords of Southeast Alaska.  We split up today, with Tom and Carl ziplining in the morning, while I explored the gold mining town, and then everyone but Carl went kayaking in Canada and then took a scenic train ride on the White Pass and Yukon Railway back across the border. Carl did rock climbing and rappelling in the afternoon, and we all met back at the ship to attend an art lecture on Thomas Kinkade and dinner.

Southeast Alaska is known for milder weather than the interior, but with that comes lots of rain.  We got to experience that first hand - thankfully it didn't rain all day.  Skagway was founded just before the gold rush and was used as an entry point for the 500 mile trek into the Yukon Territory where gold was found.  Miners had to bring 1 ton of supplies such as flour, feed, beans, etc. by Canadian law to enter the Yukon as proof they could survive. The town itself is very quaint with a few original, but mostly rebuilt houses in bright colors.  Instead of sidewalks, they have wooden boardwalks along the shops.  I walked around the town in the mid morning when it was misty and a little rainy.

Town of Skagway, Alaska
Met up with Tom, Pete, and Ellen to do our kayaking and rail tour.  We were picked up in a small van and then drove about 40 minutes north, up through the White Pass and crossed into Fraser, British Columbia, Canada.  The mountain pass was completely covered in fog so you could not see into the gorges we crossed.  As we passed into Canada, the fog broke and we arrived at Glacier Lake with mist, but no ground fog.  Our guides got us into paddle jackets, skirts for the kayaks (think suspenders with a short, elastic hoop skirt that you pull tight around the hole of the kayak so water doesn't go in).  The paddles had wet suit gloves attached to keep your hands warm too.  We paired up for the double kayaks and set out.  We paddled around the lake for over an hour, staying close to the shoreline to see birds, shrubs, and other plant life.  The kayaks are very stable, and even had a rudder that you control with your feet to make steering easier.

After kayaking, we warmed up in the snack tent and then boarded the White Pass and Yukon train to return to Skagway.  The train was originally built to carry stampeders and their gear, and then went into disuse for many years before it was restored as a scenic railway.  We traveled for 1.5 hours down the mountains, back to sea level.  All the tunnels and cuts were made with black powder.  As we did the switchbacks, we caught glimpses of the wooden trestles we had just crossed and the architecture is incredible!

After arriving at the depot in Skagway, we browsed the shops and made our way back to the ship. Ran into Carl in town who had been rock climbing all afternoon, and loved it even if his hands were roughed up and he could barely move the next day. Tom particularly liked the train vehicles that were on display outside the depot.  See pic of the huge snowblower car that can be pushed by 2 engines to clear the tracks.  Exhausted, everyone took a nap before dinner.  Ellen is getting over a cold and Pete appears to have picked up something, so we are all trying to get some extra rest when possible. 

We dined in the Grand Princess main dining room after attending a lecture on the work of Thomas Kinkade, an artist known for luminous landscapes.  The lecture talked about how his childhood influenced his paintings and explained the lithograph (aka print) process he used, since he never sold his canvases after his first art show.  Dinner was Italian themed and very good.  After dessert we called it a night since we dock in Juneau at 630 am on Wednesday.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Alaskan Adventure - Day 11.5, 12&13 - On board the Grand Princess

I sent my last update on Saturday when we reached Valdez around mid-day.  We got off the bus and walked to the nearby 'Drunken Mermaid' as it had the best sounding name for lunch options.  Enjoyed more Alaskan brews and a smoked salmon pizza.

Shortly thereafter we boarded the Catamaran in Valdez and it was a good thing I sent my last post during lunch because we had no data service on the phones when we got to Whittier.  As we cruised for 4 hours through Princess William Sound we saw otters sea lions, birds, and a humpback whale.  We mostly sat indoors on the lower deck and played cards, but we did venture up top side to the outdoor viewing area to enjoy beautiful views, crisp sea breeze and spray, and spot wildlife with the binoculars.  It was a good dry run for dressing for the glacier viewing days on the cruise!  Inside they were serving hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps at the bar, so that was my drink of choice to warm back up.

Map of the cruise across Prince William Sound
We docked in Whittier and said goodbye to John as he then headed back to Anchorage via the train and then on to Atlanta since Georgia Tech starts fraternity rush preparation now.  The remaining 5 of us boarded the Grand Princess cruise ship and we each did our own thing for evening activities and dinner the first night.  They always have a muster drill which is mandatory, but otherwise you had a choice of trivia, a show in the theater, the main dining room, or the buffet on the lido deck.  Being trivia junkies, Tom and I made a beeline to that and then enjoyed a quiet dinner in the main dining room which did open seating for the first night.  Near the bridge, they posted maps of our entire voyage plan for the week.

Since the first two days of the cruise (Days 12 and 13 for those keeping track) were at sea days they have been fairly relaxing with trivia, movies, and art lectures, etc. being our activities of choice.  Carl, Tom, and I drank ourselves from one of the ship to the other on Sunday starting with a pint at the British pub lunch, then the champagne art auction, followed by a scotch tasting as we learned about watches, and finishing with a vodka tasting.  Carl and I really liked the smoked salmon vodka - would be great in a bloody Mary for brunch!  We capped off the evening dressed to the nines for the first formal night.  I got a new necklace on board that is a replica of the one Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany's.  It was perfect with my black dress, just wish I had packed my elbow gloves!

Tom spotting tiny icebergs from the lounge where we played trivia

My fabulous new necklace from the Audrey Hepburn collection
Monday we all took up various outposts on the upper decks to enjoy the glaciers as we cruised through Glacier National Park.  Two rangers boarded the ship in the morning and started with a PowerPoint lecture that was broadcast in various lounges of the ship, and then they narrated as we passed each glacier, which was broadcast over the speakers outside.  I found a good spot on deck 15 where we were outside and could hear the glaciers cracking and groaning, but we sat behind a glass panel as a windscreen so that we were not as exposed.  We had a misty rain/fog all day which was quite chilling, but bundled up we were fine to be outside.  We passed Marjorie Glacier, Johns Hopkins Glacier, and Lampugh Glacier over the course of the day.  The scale is massive and the blue is electric.  Carl, Tom and I finished the afternoon with a wine tasting seminar and then met Pete and Ellen for an excellent dinner at the Italian specialty restaurant.  After dinner, some of us (aka not Tom) went up to the disco hoping to dance, but the party scene was not happening so we called it quits after some time in the cocktail lounge.

Santa's doppleganger was on our cruise.  He wore a red hawaiian shirt with surfing santas (or a similar motif) and red short every single day, no matter the weather

Bundled up to survive the elements and get up close and personal with the glacier faces

Face of the Marjorie Glacier

Tom and Ellen enjoying the view from our perch behind the windscreen.  Binoculars were very valuable on this trip as a whole, but in particular while viewing the glaciers and wildlife.

Face of the Lampugh Glacier with its electric blue coloring
Today we are in Skagway doing ziplines, rock climbing, kayaking, and a scenic train.  Details and pics to follow at the next port!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Alaskan Adventure - Day 10&11 - Copper Center, Alaska and then to Valdez

Friday we stayed in Copper Center, at the Copper River Princess Lodge.  We chose to split up in the morning.  Tom and I caught the dog sled demonstration where a local who raises sled dogs brought 4 of his 16 dogs and hitched them to a cart with wheels and took us for a ride around the property as we learned about the care and method of training the dogs.  He is definitely a strange ranger, but one comes to expect that from someone who lives by himself in backwoods Alaska with 16 dogs.  And he clearly cares so much for his animals and communicates well with them.  The dogs are a mix of husky and short hair, so they are small and lean and he puts sweaters on them in the winter.  The others had done the dog sled demo the night before and had the same assessment.

 After the dogs, we met up with Carl and John and caught the free shuttle to the nearby National Park visitor center.  Wrangell - St. Elias Park is the biggest National Park in the US.  It has over 100 glaciers, and 3 of the top 10 tallest mountains in the entire country.  Mt. Wrangell is an active volcano.  The hikes from the visitor center were slightly disappointing in how short they were, but the views of the river and mountains were nice.  We hiked all of the trails they had in under an hour and got back on the shuttle.  Pete and Ellen did laundry in the AM and then watched a moving picture, narrated show about the Aurora.  We all met for lunch at the pub at the lodge.

In the afternoon, Carl took a jetboat tour and went salmon fishing in the Klutina River.  The rest of us went on the "wild and scenic back country rafting" trip.  This time, we did not have the option to paddle, but instead were ferried down the river.  Our guides explained that it's safer to do it this way because when you paddle you are not looking at what is coming at you and you are not holding onto anything, therefore more likely to get tossed out of the raft.  Although I liked the excitement of paddle rafting better, this option was nice in that we got to look at the surroundings much more and could take pictures.  I got a short video of us going into a big rapid and will share a link when I can.  We saw baby eagles and other birds, and even passed Carl with his fishing group along the way.  Carl caught a 45 lb salmon, but opted to release it because the guide explained that looking at the color it was older and the muscles were deteriorating due to the migration strain and would not have tasted great.  They give you the option to ship back home whatever you catch, but this particular fish would not have been worth the shipping cost compared to buying fresh salmon from the market back home.

Carl was so focused on untangling his line, he didn't even see us when we rafted by his jet boat!

45 lb salmon catch on the Klutina River

Pete and Ellen model the utilitarian, yet quite garish water gear provided for the rafting.  Unlike the first rafting adventure, these were not dry suits, although if you buttoned up the collar you stayed fairly dry.

After excursions, we got cleaned up, packed, and I did some laundry before dinner.  We enjoyed dinner while watching the sunset behind Mt. Wrangell.  This was our last night as a group since John has to return to Georgia Tech and will not be joining us on the cruise.  We had asked to get a wake up call if the Aurora showed either night we were there.  We checked the Aurora forecast and consulted my dad for the expert weather forecast and decided the conditions looked promising on Friday night, as log as there was not too much smoke from forest fires.  Around 1:30 am we got a call that it was showing.  We bundled up and stood outside for about 15 minutes and then it started to appear.  It goes in bursts and although we didn't see colors, it looked like milky whites waves across the night sky.  We watched the entire burst for about 5 min. and when it ended decided we had seen enough and went back to sleep.  Overall it was disappointing, but clearly we were not seeing it at peak season and the fact that the sun never really sets this time of year means the ambient light was definitely interfering.  Although I can technically check it off the bucket list, I think I want another shot at the Aurora Borealis.

Saturday morning, we left at 8 am by bus destined for Valdez and are driving a very scenic route through the mountains.  We stopped at Worthington Glacier for a quick bathroom break and photo op and the kids hustled up to the leading edge to see the ice cavern and get some pictures.  We raced back down the glacier to make it to the bus.  The bus also stopped at a nearby waterfall and we took some more family photos before we prepare to part ways this evening. 

We are now pulling into Valdez for lunch and I am going to try to find WiFi and post this, so you will have to hear the rest of the details about the cruise across Prince William Sound and getting to the cruise ship in the next bulletin.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Alaskan Adventure - Day 9 - Denali to Copper Center, Alaska

Thursday we departed at 730 am for a 9 hour bus ride across the unpaved Denali Highway to reach the next lodge in Copper Center.  I woke up early and took some pictures of the property as the sun rose and then went on a coffee run with John who is the brew snob of the crew and had researched a great local coffee shop, Black Bear Coffee House, across the street.

The bus ride was fairly non eventful, and with the exception of a few very rough bumps, not uncomfortable considering the road conditions.  Most of us read or napped as much as we could.  Throughout the trip, Tom has been keeping a tally of things we could have done better on our own, versus going through Princess.  He was very thankful that he did not have to drive that road and instead got to sit back and enjoy the view.  Halway through, we stopped at the one place to get food along the whole route, the MacLaren Inn.  They served a great lunch of sandwiches and chili, and their summer special dessert of wildberry pie and homemade vanilla ice cream.  Along the ride, we learned about the tundra, and how the area was formed by glaciers, spotted some moose and caribou, and caught up on sleep.  Arrived at the lodge around 4 pm and took some short walks before a nice dinner at the lodge.

Since there is not much interesting to report about the bus trip, I wanted to share some information about Alaska and the lodges we have stayed at.  It's also a chance to practice my recall so we can prepare for trivia on the ship.  Alaska is the 49th state.  The territory was purchased in 1867 for $7 million.  It is the northernmost, easternmost, and westernmost state, since the Aleutian Islands cross the date line.

Restaurant placemat with more facts about Alaska
We have learned a lot about the terrain.  The tundra that we crossed yesterday on the bus is not arctic tundra covered in snow, but rather a mossy spongy top layer of the ground.  Almost no trees grow on it, but there are lots of shrubs.  It is favored by moose and caribou because they can see predators coming easily.  Almost all of Alaska is permafrost, meaning that even in the summer only the first 2 feet thaw, so the trees all have very shallow roots that travel in a network underground.  Because of that network and the air inside the roots, fires can smolder under the ice all winter and then pop up again once the top layer thaws.  For the most part, they only try to control the fires if they are headed towards towns or the highway, otherwise they let them burn naturally.  There are currently several fires in the Wrangell Mountains where we are now, and you can smell the smoke and see it hanging in the air when we stopped the bus.

The tundra almost looks like the foggy cover around the Great Smoky Mountains, but it is actually smoke from the forest fires!
There are so many edible plants here!  On our ATV ride we saw and tasted something similar to a cranberry. Tom and I saw at least 10 different kinds of mushrooms on our hike in Denali.  Blueberries and raspberries are also in season, but have not seen any bushes of them yet.  Have enjoyed them in pies though!

The lodges have all been very nice and on the rustic side.  McKinley and Denali had a main lodge with a great room for sitting, coffee shop, restaurant, gift shop, bus stop, check in, etc. and the rooms were in separate building spread across the property.  Copper River has a similar main lodge, but the rooms are upstairs in the lodge, like a hotel.  It is also the smallest of the three we stayed at, with less than 100 rooms and only 2 places to eat.  McKinley and Copper River had short hiking trails around the property.  All three had nice decks or fire pits to sit out on and relax.  The rooms all have blackout curtains which are greatly appreciated!


Friday we are hiking, rafting, and fishing along the Copper River.