A Tale of a Whale

Whale Watching In Alaska

Sunset at Icy Straight Point

A Short Story

Kayakers searching for whales

A few years ago while on an early season Alaska cruise our ship stopped at Icy Straight Point. For a number of reasons we had decided to take it easy that day. The ship was anchored out and we had gone ashore early in the morning and took a nice hike thru the forest. We were back on the ship well before noon and had gone out on our balcony to read.

Some of our friends had taken the opportunity to go on excursions in the port and whale watching seemed to be the choice of the day. Of the whale watching options one was a kayak trip and as we sat on our balcony we could see the kayaks move along the shore and head out toward open water.

Humpback whale at Icy Straight Point

A little over thirty minutes into our reading we were startled by a load noise coming directly below us. It was a large Humpback whale that had crossed under the ship and was blowing as it surfaced directly below our stateroom.

We had been whale watching before and had seen whales off of Hawaii, Vancouver Island and in Alaska. On one cruse up the Inner Passage we had a pod of Orcas pace the ship for over a half hour. With them I never got a picture because we never knew where they would surface next and before you could react – they were gone.

Whale pod of Humpbacks encountered off Vancouver Island

This time at Icy Straight Point our Humpback stayed near us for twenty minutes, circling and diving and putting on a real show. Most of our fellow passengers were off exploring and it didn’t seem this whale was drawing much attention at all.

That evening talking to our fellow passengers it seemed that the whale watch tours that day were mostly a dud. The kayakers had seen whales but none had come anywhere near the group and one whale watching boat had not seen any whales at all.

Sometimes lady luck just smiles in your direction…

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Port of Call Juneau Alaska

A Day in the Port of Juneau

Probably the most isolated state capital in the United States and one of two that you cannot drive to (Hawaii). It is also one of the most frequented cities on Alaska cruise itineraries. Besides being isolated and the states capital it also has a lot to offer.

Where You Dock
Norwegian Pearl tied up at the AJ Dock
Historic downtown Juneau

Docking facilities stretch from the waterfront right at the foot of the historic district for a mile southeast along the Gastineau channel. If you are lucky and your ship docks near town you are only steps from shops and restaurants. There is however no cruise terminal or public facilities readily available at the dock. Restrooms are available at the public library just a block from the Red Dog Saloon along with a number of stores and restaurants. There is also a shuttle service provided from the docks down the channel but it is not free (currently about $2 each way).

Transportation

Besides the official dock shuttle there are taxis available at reasonable rates. To get to Mendenhall Glacier we would recommend the public bus service that departs from near the cruise ship docks. Current round trip fare toMendenhall NPS Visitor Center is $30 per person. Outside of the historic district Juneau is actually a very large city in geographic size. If you really want to see the wider area there are also rental car agencies near town.

Looking from library toward the Red Dog
Money

The U.S. Dollar and most credit cards are welcome

Attractions
Juneau Salmon Hatchery

Wander the streets of Juneau’s historic district, shop, visit the infamous Red Dog Saloon where Wyatt Earp lost his guns in a poker game. Within just a few square miles, browse multiple museums and an arts centers celebrating Alaska’s Native heritage. See multiple totems, the Ancon Mural, visit the fascinating DIPAC Macaulay Salmon Hatchery and be sure and go out to Mendenhall Glacier. Stop by one of Travel Juneau’s visitor information sites for a Downtown Walking Tour Map and be your own guide!

Mendenhall Glacier

Take a cable car up to a mountain top high above the city or take a helicopter up to the Juneau ice field and walk on a glacier. Go salmon fishing or whale watching. There’s more to do than will fit in a day.

More information on the Mendenhall Glacier.

More information on the Salmon Hatchery.

 

Port of Call Skagway Alaska

Spending a Day in a Gold Rush Town

Skagway is a very popular port of call for Alaska cruises. With a population that fluctuates between 700 and 2,000 from winter to summer it is easy to see what the economy is based on. While Skagway is small and isolated that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to do. Historically Skagway has its beginnings in the Yukon gold rush established as the port of entry for the Chilkoot trail leading up to the gold fields. Today it is a tourist destination with a lot of options for just spending a day off a cruise ship to even longer wilderness adventures.

Where You Dock
Cruise pier Skagway
Cruise pier Skagway
Ships tag the rocks above the pier
Ships tag the rocks above the pier

There are a set of modern docks right near town with specific docks designated for different cruise lines. While there are no facilities right on the docks it is a short walk right to the foot of State Street that runs up thru town.

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Transportation

Taxis are available but the town itself can be walked in a short period. There are locations to visit on the outskirts of town like the gold mine where a taxi would be your best option. There are also Pedi cabs and a number of tour operators that offer short ecursions.

Currency

Alaska is a U.S. state and the U.S. Dollar is the preferred currency with most major credit cards accepted.

Riding The White Pass & Yukon RR
Riding The White Pass & Yukon RR
Attractions

If you are looking for a scenic ride The White Pass and Yukon Railroad offers excursion trains up thru the mountains and back. The station is right in town. There is also a gold mining attraction near town and whale watching tours normally available. One of our favorites was the helicopter tour up to a glacier.

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State Street also has the usual lineup of tourist retail stores with an emphasis on jewelry. Look for local crafters and gift items.

Helicopters heading for a glacier
Helicopters heading for a glacier

If you are looking to book a tour our suggestion is to book on your own instead of thru the ship. You will have a whole day in Skagway with plenty of time to set something up. We called the helicopter tour service the day before we docked in Skagway and save almost fifty percent on the booking.

The National Park Service also has a Skagway facility with good information and exhibits about the Yukon gold rush.

Tip: Most U.S. and Canadian cell services do not have any surcharge for using you phones in Alaska. Just make sure you have a land based signal and are not on Cellular At Sea.

 

 

 

 

Glaciers and Cruising Alaska

Our cruise ship approaches Hubbard Glacier

Cruising Alaska has been gaining in popularity for a number of years and it doesn’t seem like interest will taper off any time soon. All the major cruise lines offer itineraries along with a number of smaller lines.

Cruising up The Misty Fjord

We often get asked what cruise we would recommend and we do have some very specific ideas on what to look for. Alaska has a lot to see and almost any cruise will be a memorable experience but there are differences.

Ice approaching Hubbard Glacier

 

First, some information on the general environment. Coastal Alaska has a limited number of ports and locations so there is a lot of cruise similarities. The major cruise ports are Skagway, Juno, and Ketchikan and each has a lot to offer and they are popular with passengers. There are also a couple of less visited stops with the most common being Hanes. Another common stop is Icy Straight Point. Both of those are more opportunities to take tours than a an actual  destination. There are also a couple of “cruise only” destinations. The first is the Misty Fiord which is usually a half day of cruising up thru the narrow fiord. The other is Hubbard Glacier where the ships cruise up near the face of the glacier. Finely is the port of Seward and it is the farthest north of the itineraries. Most one-way cruises make it up to Seward as this is a jumping off point for trips to Denali and includes the origin of the Alaska Rail Tours.

Hubbard Glacier calving

Our opinion is that the most spectacular sights are the glaciers and that should be a prime consideration in selecting a cruise line and its itinerary. Because the number of ships allowed to go up near to Hubbard Glacier are very limited we recommend that your first priority is to select a cruise that includes this glacier. Hubbard is a huge glacier that terminates at a bay and it is “calving” huge chunks into the water constantly. In addition the bay is filled with icebergs and flowing chunks of ice with seals being a common sight.

Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier is another popular destination and usually all you need is a bus ticket from Juneau. The glacier is a National Park with a good visitor center and great hiking trails and it really is only a half hour bus ride from town. Almost all Alaska cruise passengers have an opportunity to visit this glacier.

Dawes Glacier
Up on the Juneau Ice Field

 

 

A third glacier of particular note is Dawes Glacier located at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord. It also terminates into water with calving a frequent event. Unfortunately it is not on many ship itineraries probably because there is a limit on ships allowed all the way up the fjord. Tracy Arm Fjord is a branch off of the Misty Fjord and while cruise often include Misty Fjord, few make it up to Dawes Glacier.

 

Helicopter tours Skagway

A fourth frequent glacier opportunity is a helicopter tour up on the Juneau Ice Field. These tours are available from Juneau as well as Skagway. One tip that can save you some money is to book the tour on your own rather than thru the ship. You can call using U.S. cell service at most points near the popular towns and often book at the last minute. The tours only take a couple of hours so it is easy to fit into a port day as well.

Regardless of which cruise line you prefer pay attention to the available itineraries and try to get a cruise that includes Dawes or Hubbard. Most cruise will list Hubbard on the cruise itinerary but you will probably have to make some inquiries regarding Dawes.

 

Cruising Alaska

Icy3As we write this, we are just finishing our fourth Alaska cruise. Having done this a number of times before, we recognize that there are a lot of similarities but also some significant differences in these cruises. Because it is so vast, Alaska is a destination that is more easily seen by cruise ship. Cruising gives you an opportunity to view some of the towns, cities, glaciers and wildlife up close and personal. After a first trip, it is then possible to decide if you want to spend time further exploring by train, ferry, car or a combination. It is also possible to add a land portion before or after a cruise which could include places like Denali, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

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A lot of ships begin the cruise in Seattle or Vancouver, two wonderful cities to spend a few extra days before or after a cruise. They are easily accessible and offer an abundance of hotels, restaurants and things to do in a wide range of prices (hotels in Seattle are rapidly getting more expensive though). A lot of the cruises are seven nights and depart and return from the same port.

A common itinerary for Alaska cruises is up the inside passage. Normal port stops are Skagway, Ketchikan, Juneau and Icy Strait Point and visits to the Misty Fjords and Hubbard Glacier. Some cruises also visit Victoria, Canada on Vancouver Island. A typical

Ketch1
Ketchikan before dawn

seven night cruise will include four or five of these places with lots of opportunities for tours arranged through the cruise ship or setting out on your own for independent exploration. If you spend a little time on the internet investigating your ports of call, chances are you can locate an independent tour operator who will take you to a glacier, panning for gold, etc. at a significant savings over the cruise ship tour prices.

One sure highlight of an Alaska cruise is a visit to a glacier. There are three which are easily accessible and each has a different character:

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Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier is a National Park and the easiest to get to since it is only a few minute bus ride outside of Juneau. Ships offer a number of tours to Mendenhall but we would recommend the public bus service that departs from near the cruise ship docks with a round trip fare of $30 per person.

Hubbard glacier is spectacular and is a destination that a limited number of ships can visit. Hubbard would be high on our list of itinerary stops when selecting a cruise. The ships maneuver up near the face of this massive glacier as it calves giant chunks into the sea which makes for spectacular photo opportunities.

Dawes glacier is way up inside the Misty Fjords and also calves chunks of turquoise ice

Dawes
Dawes Glacier

that float down the fjord. In booking, be warned that a visit to the fjord does not guarantee your cruise getting up to the Dawes glacier as it depends on conditions.

mendenhal1
Hubbard Glacier

In addition to viewing from land or sea, there are also helicopter tours that can be booked that will take you to glaciers up on the Juneau ice field. These helicopter tours are usually booked in conjunction with stops in either Juneau or Skagway.

Because Alaska is on most U.S. cell service plans you can consider booking one of the helicopter tours directly. We did this in Skagway and saved almost half on the cost of the tour over booking through the ship. Because of scheduling concerns there are times that we would not recommended booking a tour other than with the cruise. In this case we were in Skagway all day, we booked for a morning tour and were back with hours to spare before the ship sailed. It also was the same tour provided by thehelos cruise excursion desk.

One of our favorite towns is Skagway and while its’ primary purpose today is as a seasonal tourist destination it is still a fun and interesting stop. The town is the home to the railroad excursion train known as the Yukon and White Pass Route that climbs up to the pass that was a primary gateway into the Klondike during the gold rush days. The Yukon gold rush was the event that gave birth to this boomtown and was the entrance point to the Chilkoot Trail, described as the “meanest 33 miles in history”. In 1897 the dreams of thousands were attached to the call “North to Alaska” and the promise of gold. Today

Skag
Skagway’s main street

the main street of Skagway is lined with gift and jewelry stores along with art galleries and a few bars. Because the cruise ships represent the heart of the town’s economy, once the “season” is over the population of the town drops to only about five hundred intrepid souls.

The largest cruise city and the state capital is Juneau and while the waterfront is dominated by jewelry stores and gift shops, tourism is not its’ principal business. Fishing boats come and go from its’ docks and it is home to a university and, of course, the government dominates the job scene. The famous Red Dog Saloon, founded during Juneau’s mining era, has been in operation

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Salmon Hatchery Juneau

for decades and still serves visitors and locals alike. For a time, “Ragtime Hattie” played the piano in white gloves and a silver dollar halter top. Later, in territorial days, the owners would often meet the tour boats at the docks with a mule that wore a sign saying, “follow my ass to the Red Dog Saloon.” Wyatt Earp is said to have lost his pistol in a poker game there. The saloon also hosted an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show just after Alaska became a state.

Near the cruise docks there is a cable car up to a mountaintop that offers a panoramic view of the area. Juneau is also home to the Mendenhaul glacier and during one cruise we visited the local fish hatchery. It is a remarkable operation that scoops up and processes tons of fresh “wild” salmon and is a good alternative to the controversial salmon farming which has become popular in recent years.

Ketch2
Ketchican

Ketchikan is another popular port where you can, depending on the season, book a fishing trip to bring back your own salmon or, if really lucky, a haddock. There are operations where your charter captain can have your catch smoked or flash frozen and express shipped home (expensive but worth the bragging rights). Again there are jewelry stores and gift shops everywhere and also one of the better opportunities to buy canned or smoked salmon to take home to family and friends. It does seem that each time we come back to Alaska, the price of salmon jumps in price, probably driven by of the growing popularity of Alaska cruising, so shop carefully.

Icy Straight Point is another popular stop with the big draw being whale watching tours. There are also some nice Alaska rain forest hiking trails and a new zipline. On one recent trip when we were anchored out we returned to the ship early and a large humpback whale spent almost an hour near the ship. We have been told that that was not that unusual an event here.

whale
Whale at Icy Straight Point

After taking several Alaska cruises, we decided to try something different this time. We selected a Celebrity ship, Solstice, which was doing its’ last seasonal cruise in September, beginning in Seattle and terminating in Vancouver. The ship was then heading to Hawaii and then on to Australia. We decided that we wanted to stay on the ship and disembark in Hawaii which meant we invoked the Jones Act. (See our post on the Jones Act here.)

Victoria
Victoria, Canada

To avoid a Jones Act violation, we needed to disembark and spend the night in Victoria, Canada, the last cruise port, and then board the ship again in Vancouver the next day. This requires special permission from the Canadian Government to disembark early, before termination of the cruise. The process is called down lining and can be arranged after your cruise is booked. The transfer to Vancouver can be made by helicopter, seaplane or ferry and we selected the latter for both convenience and price.

ferry
Vancouver Island ferry terminal

The disadvantage to transferring by ferry is that the ferry port in Victoria is some distance out of town and in Vancouver is not in close proximity to the cruise ship terminal (Canada Place). The BC Connector solves this problem by offering a ticket which provides bus service to the ferry port in Victoria all the way through to Canada Place. The bus literally drives onto the ferry where passengers spend the crossing in clean and comfortable lounge areas. Upon arrival in Vancouver, the bus drives on to Canada Place. Cruisers head inside for check-in and suitcases are given to porters for loading onto the ship. This service should be reserved and paid for in advance on the internet as there are a limited number of seats available.

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whales
Our ship passes a pod of Humpback Whales.

Visiting Alaska’s Denali

Above photo: First look at “The Great One” Mt. Denali and the Alaska Range.

Seals on Resurrection Bay
Onboard the Wilderness Express

We visited Denali as part of a cruise-land package. Many travelers enjoy this combination of cruise and land tour as it is a comfortable way to visit this part of Alaska. We took the cruise from Vancouver and then traveled overland by train and bus. If we were to do it again, however, we would do the opposite. It would be much better to spend a number of days touring and then have a wonderful seven nights to relax and be pampered on the cruise ship.

We disembarked our cruise in Seward where we visited the Alaska SeaLife Center and then enjoyed a Resurrection Bay Wildlife Cruise. Seeing the variety of wildlife, dolphins, birds and animals was amazing.

In the early evening we boarded the Wilderness Express which took us to Girdwood where we spent the night at the Hotel Aleyska. It is our understanding that some cruise lines offer train service all the way to Denali but the Celebrity package did not. The trains are made up of glass domed observation cars with a dining room on the lower level. The cars themselves are actually owned by the various cruise ship lines.

On the second morning of our adventure we took the Alyeska Tramway to see the views from 2,300 feet above the valley. We had time for some hiking and took lots of pictures. In the early afternoon we boarded our bus and spent the next night at the Marriott in the city of Anchorage. While in Anchorage we spent time at the downtown market and had a light meal at a wine bar, Crush Wine Bistro. The following day we spent most of the time on the bus getting to Denali with a stop for lunch in Talkeetna. We also got our first good views of Mt. Denali (McKinley).

We arrived late in the afternoon at the Denali Visitor Center where we took the Discover Denali Tour, a 1.5 mile walk and stop at the Visitor Center familiarizing us with the park and all it has to offer. We spent the night at the McKinley Village Lodge (now Denali Park Village). The next morning we embarked on the tundra wilderness tour, sponsored by the Park Service, with approximately 8 hours on a bus dedicated to enjoying the scenery and wildlife and learning the park’s history. There were lots of photo stops and a “bag lunch” was included.

If you are planning on going to Denali on your own it is important to understand three things. First, the park is vast and has very little in the way of rest areas or visitor centers. Second, the park generally does not allow private cars far beyond the entrance and visitor’s center. Lastly, you need reservations to take the park operated bus tour and they book up weeks, maybe months in advance. Visiting Denali is not a casual process and considering the vast distances crossed in Alaska, you need to make your arrangements months in advance.

A Dall Sheep

The highlight of this whole trip was the day touring the park. The scenery is inspiring but so is the very desolate and wild character of Denali (map). The focus of the tour is the wildlife but that too needs some explaining. Area wise, Denali is our largest national park. It encompasses about 9,492 square miles (larger than the state of New Hampshire) and most of it is without roads or even trails. The animal populations are much smaller than most would expect. There are only 70 Grizzly bears per 1,000 square miles. Other census numbers per 1,000 square miles show 131 Black bears, wolves less than 8, and the estimate for the total Denali Caribou Herd was about 2,230 animals. Dall Sheep totals for the park are less than 1,900. Based on these numbers it’s easy to understand that looking for wildlife is the major focus of the tour. We were lucky and saw two grizzly bears, a small herd of Caribou and two different groups of Dall sheep. We also saw many “suicide squirrels” so named because locals think they prefer to die in front of buses rather then face the prospect of a grizzly bear digging them up.

The landscapes are vast and rugged and North America’s tallest mountain, Denali (previously Mt. McKinley) stands above everything. The only problem is that it is shrouded in clouds most of the year, but, even if you miss the “Great One,” the Alaska Range is awesome.

After another night near Denali our bus headed for Fairbanks and our flight home. In Fairbanks you can see and walk under The Alaska Pipeline, visit an interesting history center and see gold mining operations. We love cruising Alaska but this land tour was a truly unforgettable trip.

Photos top to bottom: Featured – Mt. Denali Range, Sea lions Resurrection Bay, Wilderness Express interior, Wilderness Express rounding turn, Approaching the Alaskan Range, Park Service tour bus, Park landscape, Grizzly bear, Caribou, Dall sheep, Park landscape.