Weather offers myriad surprises on Alaska trip |

Weather offers myriad surprises on Alaska trip

The Buchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, are famed for their brillant colors.
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After years of talking about an Alaskan cruise, we finally sailed out of Vancouver harbor and under the Lion’s Gate Bridge, crowded with afternoon traffic. A sunset was soon on one side, with beautiful forests, mountains and small towns on the other.

When we reached the inside passage, the wooded shore often seemed close enough to touch. Majestic white-headed bald eagles scooped salmon out of the water beside the ship.

Our first port was the tiny Indian village of Metlakatla. Salmon fishing is its main industry, and eagles enjoy the leftovers. Only small cruise ships and the Alaskan Ferry stop here, so it is not a tourist town.

Metlakatla is near the Canadian border and is an example of the government letting the Indians run their own reservation. Homes and businesses we saw seem to indicate it is working.

Alaskan coastal towns are usually built on a narrow shelf of land between the water and the mountains. The towns are small – even Juneau, the state capital, has less than 31,000 people. These towns have only a few miles of roads that don’t connect to any place. Boats and seaplanes are the main means of transportation. The roar of seaplanes taking off is heard loudly in every port.

Juneau’s 80-degree temperature was unexpected (even in July), and local people were most uncomfortable. When we got to the Mendenhall Glacier, there were swimmers in the pool below the ice. Salmon struggled up the creeks to reach their spawning place.

Skagway is described as “a living museum.” Gold miners came here from around the world in 1897-98, and much of the town still looks as it did then. The famous Chilkoot Pass is where uncounted miners died trying to get across to the gold in Dawson. Today the railroad crosses that pass, but it came too late for most of the miners.

We did not visit Hubbard Glacier because the fog was too thick to even see the shore; the captain chose to turn around. A few days later we had perfect weather for Glacier Bay and were able to see big chunks of glacier break free – calving.

Seward and Kodiak were two of the towns damaged by the tsunami (tidal wave) resulting from the 1986 Anchorage earthquake. Both water fronts were severely damaged. In Kodiak, we saw places where fishing boats had been washed right up into the center of town. The water fronts of both these towns were later damaged by the Exxon oil spill. Kodiak got a new Alutiiq Indian Museum and Fisheries Research Center from the settlement money.

As we were leaving Kodiak, a large flock of puffins flew and swam around the ship. They have prominent orange-and-white beaks, plus a unique way of flying/running on the water. They were exciting to watch and one thing I had really hoped to see.

The next evening, the ship stopped for about 30 minutes beside a group of feeding whales. They were so close we did not even need binoculars. Needless to say, the ship was tipped a little to one side as everyone watched the whales.

Sitka was once the Russian capital of Alaska and is a charming town, even today. The people have decided they don’t want a big cruise dock, and all ships of any size must bring passengers ashore in small boats – tenders. I had been reading Michener’s book “Alaska” on the trip, and felt I already knew Sitka when we arrived.

Almost every cruise ship calls at Ketchikan, and when we arrived the next day, the town’s population was about tripled with cruise passengers. Stores and streets were very crowded.

Houses in Ketchikan are often built up the sides of the mountain behind town and are reached by stairways. One street is elevated on a partial platform built into the side of the mountain. I don’t think I’d like to drive up there.

Creek Street is the famous Ketchikan landmark where “ladies” once conducted their “business.” Most of these buildings now house tourist shops. The creek is still an important route for spawning salmon.

Several of our ports had convenient public libraries, where we were able to catch up with outside newspapers. Some libraries also had the Internet available to the public. We liked this, since we have mostly replaced postcards with e-mail to send home. It is faster, cheaper and easier.

At this point in our trip, we were well acquainted with our little ship, the Universe Explorer. It was informal and smaller than many Alaskan cruise ships. During 100 days each fall and spring, it is a floating university for the Semester at Sea program. It has a 16,000-volume library instead of a casino. The ship emphasizes learning, and there were four university professors to lecture about Alaska. With the usual shipboard activities and frequent eating, we managed to keep busy.

In our final port, Victoria, we chose a trip to Buchart Gardens. They were lovely as always. With this, our long postponed Alaskan cruise drew to a close.

We saw wonderful scenery and made new friends. We did not take the ship’s excursions since we preferred to explore on our own, but found more than enough to see and do at every port. The trip was all we wanted and had expected, certainly worth the long delay.

Back in Vancouver, we enjoyed a few more days on our own exploring Stanley Park, Gas Town, Granville Island and China Town, even in the rain. We had been to the 1986 World’s Fair and wanted to revisit Canada Place and the big geodesic dome. City buses were on strike, but Vancouver is an easy city to see on foot.

Two extras topped off the trip. We were able to stop at the U.S. Consulate office to get extra pages in our passports, free and in just 20 minutes – much better than mailing from home later.

The second extra was visiting the Vancouver Public Library. From the outside it looks like the Roman Coliseum. It was the grandest of all the libraries we visited.

Dorothy Peavy lives in Grass Valley.

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