North to Alaska

Disenchantment Bay

If you follow me on Facebook, you would no doubt know that we have recently had a trip to Canada and Alaska.

This has been a bucket list trip for me for as long as I can remember so when I booked the trip when I was on a cruise with my mum and sister last year, I was very hopeful that it would live up to my long held dreams.

We flew to Vancouver Canada from Houston on Thursday morning. It was an early start and I think we had a stopover in Calgary for second breakfast. I have never been to Canada before but of course it was also on my list. Vancouver proved to be a pretty fun place and the downtown area near the harbor was very charming. Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Sydney-siders reading this will sympathize. It is a harbor city bounded by mountains and the ocean. Real estate is very expensive- it ranks in the top 10 of most overpriced cities in the world. However, Vancouver is also one of the most livable cities in the world. The public transport is pretty easy to use and there are lots of beautiful parks and green spaces including the massive Stanley Park. The harbor only has two bridges, one of which was financed by the Guinness family of Ireland, when the developer couldn’t raise money for the bridge at home.  It was pretty around the harbor. We went to a night market across the bay to a new swanky area and tried some local made gin and cute crafts.  Vancouver seems to be rebuilding its industrial areas to become chic residential areas.

The forests in British Colombia are temperate rainforest. Stanley Park and the fascinating Capilano Park have beautiful maples, red cedars and douglas fir trees. Both parks have lovely creeks running through them. The first day we were there was quite hot and there were people swimming in the water holes. The water was so clear it was mesmerizing. Of course, for us the main objective was to see the wildlife. The trees and creeks are beautiful but where are the bears….?

Vancouver has an historic area called Gastown. I thought it was because of the gas-powered clock but its actually named after its founder Gassy Jack. Such an unfortunate name to have for history. Anyway, the gas-powered clock is fun, and the wine bars are plentiful.

Now to the ship…

So, Alaska is an unusual shape. I thought, before I booked this trip that it was just the big part up in the north, but Alaska actually comes right down the west coast of Canada in a narrow strip called the Inside Passage. This was the area where we cruised. The most northern point of the cruise was Glacier Bay and the amazing day at Hubbard Glacier (pronounced “Glasha” for all you Aussies). Our cabin was at the back of the ship. I figured that if there were things to see on both sides then you want to be able to see both sides. It worked a treat. We were so lucky with the weather. On the first day which was an at sea day it was pretty foggy and I was worried that we might not see anything. We had been told that August was a really rainy month in this region of Alaska, but (thanks to climate change) we got lucky and the rain and fog stayed away for the rest of the trip.

We only made three land stops in the 7 days of the trip, but they were really memorable. The first was a tiny native Tlingit settlement called Hoonah and the port called Icy Straight Point. The locals have set up the longest zipline in north America and a whole lot of tours that get the cruise liners in. apparently its one of the busiest cruise ports in Alaska. We went on a bear searching tour with a local guide. The bus is met by other local guides with huge shot guns to keep us safe in case the bears need scaring away. We headed down to the creek and stood on viewing platforms. We had just about given up when a bear appeared in the distance. It was a long way off, but we could claim to have seen a bear. We moved onto the next platform and were again about to leave when we were told not to move because there was a bear headed our way. It was so cool. A big brown bear turned up in the creek quite near us and started fishing. He caught a salmon and stood there eating it for a few minutes while we all went crazy taking photos and feeling very happy with ourselves.

first bear

On the way back to the boat we chatted with the guide about how they live through the various seasons. He hunts in the hunting seasons to provide for his family and his parents and grandparents. When he has met his family quota then he will hunt for elderly people in the village. They have a deer, salmon and duck quotas. They preserve the meat by drying freezing or canning it. They also collect and berries and fruit and grow and preserve vegetables. There is a supermarket in town but its really expensive so they travel to Juneau once a month or so by boat to buy household things like nappies, toilet paper and so on. It’s a tough existence but they love where they live and it provides for them if they are careful with resources.

Our next stop was Hubbard Glacier in the unfortunately named Disenchantment Bay. We had a perfect day, we were far from disenchanted. The weather was calm and clear and the captain was able to take the ship as close and any boat is allowed to the glacier (about ¼ mile). Hubbard Glacier is huge, about 400ft above the water and 600 below. It is one of the few Glaciers to still be advancing. It starts about 122 miles north and drops about 12000ft on its trip to the ocean. Apparently, it takes ice 400 years to travel the full length of the glacier. The color change of the water was fascinating to me. As you get into the area where the moraine and all of the tiny suspended particles are in the water it is a milky green color. There are a number of other glaciers in the bay all heading into the water, but it is only Hubbard that is meeting the ocean. The noise of the ice calving was unexpected. They call is white thunder and it sounds just like thunder. You hear the noise and then see the huge sheets of ice falling into the water. Because we couldn’t see the whole length of the glacier (its 6 miles wide where it meets the bay) sometimes we could hear the noise but not see the ice falling. It was the most exquisite thing. After a few hours on the deck we retreated to our balcony and toasted the grandeur of nature; (thank you God). It is a sobering point that our grandchildren may not be able to visit these amazing places. The naturalist on board showed us pictures of the glacier when she visited it as a child. It was very different to now. The biggest change was in the other glaciers in the bay. Something to think about. We were so happy to have such a great glacier view that seeing the seals and birds in bay almost went unnoticed.

Next stop was Juneau. This is the capitol of Alaska. It seems to be in a strange place to be the capitol but I guess the other parts including Anchorage may have been cut off in the winter and most of the people probably live in the southern parts. Juneau also boasts the beautiful Mendenhall Glacier. It was a very pretty place. The indigenous craft museum was really fabulous as were the MANY gem shops. The opalised ammonites were particularly interesting to me. Some of them were enormous. We did not buy anything but looking was fun.

Anyway, for us, Juneau was whale day. We took a boat tour doing a bit of scientific data collecting; dip netting and crab potting and then headed out to see the whales which we were identifying and recording. Straight away we saw 3 adult humpbacks in the bay, feeding and coming up for air. There was a bit of tail flapping too. They were quite close, but it was pretty tame compared to whale watching at Byron Bay. We then got word that there was a mum and baby a bit further up. Our captain asked if we wanted to go there or go look at the seals. Fortunately, the Kiwi lady and Rob and I prevailed, and we went to see the baby and mum humpback whales. They were being quiet and just feeding. I asked the guide if the babies jumped much and he’d said no, when this little fella started flapping his tail. Well, he jumped and flapped and played around for about 30 minutes. He even dived right under our (little) boat and came upright next to us. Amazing. It was the best day.

We thought….. our next stop was Ketchikan. On this stop we went to a nature reserve where the locals had built boardwalks over a creek where the salmon run. The outside of the reserve was open and bears were free to wander in. And they did. We had really wanted to see lots of bears well this was amazing. The salmon were everywhere in the river and there were bears everywhere. It was so interesting. The bears only eat the bits of the salmon they like and just leave the rest lying about for the birds. Bald Eagles and seagulls were dropping in for a feed of the leftovers. While we were there a mother bear and her cub came across the bank on the other side. The cub was very cute trying to mimic his mum and wanting to eat her salmon. They swam across the creek and mum just casually picked up another salmon as she got out of the water. We were so close, maybe 10 meters away. I got some fabulous photos of the bears almost right under me. This may have been another best day. Best bear day.

Ketchikan was a really interesting visit. When the local indigenous populations leave their houses and gardens, they allow them to just decompose to replenish the site. I guess they take away anything that won’t decompose but its an interesting idea. They have the luxury of space but perhaps we could all learn from their recycling and patience: understanding that time is also a part of respecting their environment.

It was such a fabulous cruise and really lived up to expectations. So much so that I have booked another Alaska cruise next year! Different itinerary- one way to Anchorage.

We had another couple of days in Vancouver before heading back to Houston, so we hired a car and drove to Whistler. This was a beautiful way to finish our trip. We did a bit of hiking and went on the most amazing gondolas going between peaks at the ski resort.  Like all of the other ski resorts we have been to in summer Whistler was full of mountain bikers and hikers. It was also a public holiday in Vancouver so there were lots of families having a day out. The we had a great time travelling between the peaks. The village was full of flowers and nice places to eat. It was lovely.

When we arrived back in Houston, I started teaching in the charter school system as a substitute teacher. What an amazing experience that has been.

I’ll tell you about it in my next blog.

2 thoughts on “North to Alaska

  1. I have finally found time to read your Alaska blog. The photos are exquisite. So much wild life. Looks like a beautiful place.


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