As much as I love my job and my coworkers at The Times and Democrat, it was a real treat to take a 10-day break from the daily grind to cruise along the southern coast of Alaska.
Romantic novels about the Northwest had planted visions of snowy scenes, dog sleds, igloos and Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska” in my head, and I’d always dreamed about visiting there.
The only thing that lay between me and the fulfillment of that lifelong dream was the 3,000 miles between me and the port at Seattle. This country girl — who’s old enough to remember running out the front door to gawk at the few planes that passed overhead — feels a whole lot better when her feet or the wheels of her car are resting firmly on the ground.
But my daughter Jessie and her husband Ashley, who drag me all over the place, made plans for Jerry and me to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary on a cruise with them and Ashley’s family.
I told them I’d be fine — as long as they took a 2-by-4 to use on me like the one the A-Team sometimes used on B.A. Baracus. I really like B.A., who’s always made me feel better about my cowardice. I figured if that huge, brave Vietnam veteran was scared to fly, it was okay for me to be chicken, too.
Fortunately for me, Jessie and Ashley decided that even my hard head might suffer from contact with the board and refused to follow through on my request. They got us settled on the plane with little mishap, except that officials searched Jerry’s luggage when X-ray equipment showed up a suspicious bottle of water and 8-inch tube of toothpaste.
During our trip to Seattle, we discovered that this is truly a small world.
We landed in Minneapolis, where we had a four-hour layover. Jerry and I were wandering around some of the airport’s shops when he stopped dead still and turned around as if someone had poked him in the back.
“I just saw Barry McRoy (head of Colleton County Fire and Rescue) and another fireman from Walterboro,” he said. Jerry took off behind the two, with me in tow.
We caught up with them and learned they were on their way to California to pick up a 1970s-era fire truck that Barry had bought and planned to drive back home.
On the flight between Minneapolis and Seattle, Jessie and I got into a conversation with my seatmate, a young woman named Hadassah Nelson. We learned that she does the same job at Juneau, Alaska’s, Capital City Weekly that Jessie does at Barnwell’s People Sentinel, and that both papers are owned by the same company.
By the time we arrived in Seattle, I’d forgotten that my feet were thousands of feet off the ground, and the landing didn’t bother me a bit. The descent was slow, and I was happy to watch the ground get closer and closer.
Sunday and Monday, June 2-3
We sailed from Seattle on Holland America’s Oosterdam on Sunday with some 2,000 other passengers. That would be the last time we’d see more than a few tidbits of sunshine until the next Saturday. While Alaska has only a few hours of total darkness each day during the summer, they surely don’t get too much sunshine. Rain falls almost every day of the year, and cloudy skies are almost constant. We kept waking up at 4 a.m. to find it was daylight, and we could still see a faint line of light on the horizon at 11 p.m.
We spent the first two days eating too much food at a 15-hour buffet that offered not just Northwestern cuisine, but various ethnic foods from around the world. There was also the formal dining room and the poolside bar, where you could get hamburgers and others sandwiches “made your way” when everything else was closed.
What a life — no food to prepare, no dishes to wash, no beds to make and no bathrooms to clean. I could really get used to this.
Tuesday, June 4
On Tuesday, we sailed into Tracy Arm Fjord, surely one of the most beautiful places on earth. Words are my business, but they fail me as I try to describe the wonders of that narrow strip of ocean that stretched for miles.
It was bordered on each side by rugged mountains, some tall and stark and barren with snowy peaks. Others were covered by trees and plant life and crooked waterfalls flowing down to the sea. Sometimes we could hear the roar of the falls as they poured into the water. But when we looked through binoculars, we could see that many of them were really long strips of ice stretching down the mountain to the sea, still frozen solid even though it was June.
Used to the sun and heat and flat land of South Carolina, it was pure pleasure to stand on our balcony and breathe in the cold, clear air flowing down from the snowy peaks — air so moist it kept the railing dotted with drops of water.
Dozens of chunks of ice from the Sawyer Glacier dotted water so green that it looked like somebody had poured in a huge bottle of food coloring and stirred it up. The farther we sailed into the fjord, the larger the ice became, and to our surprise, much of it was the most gorgeous shade of aqua.
We later learned that the blue ice was broken from the bottom layer of the glaciers. The pressure of ice pressing down on it made it so dense that it couldn’t absorb blue light rays. They were reflected out, making the ice appear blue.
To my disappointment, we saw no bears, moose, seals or anything exotic. We did see several bald eagles catching a ride on the blue ice, but I’ve seen more than one eagle fly over my house.
I found it really hard to judge distance or the size of things on the fjord, including a sail-motor boat. It looked so small that I wondered what a kid’s toy boat was doing out there. When we got closer, I realized there was a tiny little man on board, so it was a lot bigger and farther away than I thought. I’m still wondering just how big those chunks of ice were.
My only disappointment was that when we first moved into the fjord, my pictures turned out black and white because it was so cloudy. Happily, the sun peeked out just a little, and I got some good shots later.
Wednesday, June 5
Juneau, the capital of Alaska, was our first stop. Like the other “cities” we visited, it stretched out along the bottom of the mountains. It rained and rained and rained while we were there, and there were very few public restrooms.
Some 31,000 people live in Juneau, but the narrow two-lane streets and old-timey two-story shops gave it the feel of a small town. I felt I could have been in one of those old movies on TCM, were it not for the modern vehicles on the streets.
The first thing we did in Juneau was look up Hadassah. She was really friendly and showed us around her paper, which was probably about the size of the Barnwell Sentinel. She was also nice enough to let me use the restroom.
Jerry and I went to a salmon bake somewhere out in the woods near Juneau while Jessie and Ashley did a kayak tour. A rapidly flowing stream ran through the property, but we didn’t see much of it because it rained the whole time we were there.
The rain didn’t stop the salmon bake, though. Those folks had a shed where they baked the fish, and huge tents where they served the food and we ate.
Jerry loved the salmon, but it was too “fishy” for me so I ate baked chicken. I was surprised to find that their baked beans and potato salad taste pretty much like what we make in South Carolina.
Our final stop in Juneau was the Mendenhall Glacier — the one thing I saw that almost matched Tracy Arm Fjord for beauty. Amazing! We stepped off the bus, looked across the parking lot past a stand of small trees and saw a huge ice field between two mountains. The familiar bluish tints peeked out of the snowy white ice that stretched high above our heads.
We soon discovered the glacier wasn’t as close as it looked. As we walked across the parking lot, we saw Mendenhall Lake just beyond the trees — and, like Tracy Arm Fjord, it was filled with chunks of white and blue ice.
We visited the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, where we learned that the glacier has receded almost two miles since the 1850s. Before leaving, I snapped pictures of some purple flowers along the path to the visitor center. It surprised me to learn that every city we visited had beautiful flora despite temperatures in the 50s.
Thursday, June 6
Historic Sitka was the only place we visited where we had to take a tender to shore. The city covers more than 2,800 miles, but has a population of only roughly 9,000 people. Settled by the Russians in 1799, its greatest claim to fame is the mount where the Russians signed Alaska over to the United States in 1867 for only a few cents an acre.
We were there only a few hours, but during that time, we saw St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral; the historical Pioneer House, now used as an assisted living home; and Mount Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano overlooking Sitka and the Russian bishop’s home, which has been turned into a museum. We took a tour through the Sitka Lutheran Church, which, at 170 years old, is Alaska’s oldest protestant church.
We decided to walk to the Raptor Center, which rescues and rehabilitates injured birds of prey. It was supposed to be a 20-minute walk from the shore, but after walking an hour, we gave up and returned to the Oosterdam.
Friday, June 7
Ketchikan has the largest collection of standing totems in the world. Jessie and I visited the Saxman Totem Park and toured Ketchikan while Jerry and Ashley took a seaplane tour over area fjords. It rained the whole time we were there, but I loved it.
The guide explained that the totems were the natives’ way of telling history. One of the park’s totems has a very short-legged Abraham Lincoln on top. According to the guide, two tribes had been warring for many years. A ship named the Abraham Lincoln visited the area, and its captain helped bring peace to the two groups.
According to the guide, the man who carved the totem was a short man, and it’s said that’s why he gave Lincoln such short legs.
Another totem was of William H. Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State who arranged for the U.S. to buy Alaska. His story, however, isn’t so pleasant. He visited Ketchikan, and one of the natives gave him a huge party and carved a totem topped with his image.
Tradition required Seward to return and throw a party for the natives, but he never did so. This disgraced him, so they painted his nose and ears red, and put huge circles around his eyes.
It was while we were at the totem park that Jessie and I missed the bear. We had stepped into one of the ever-present tourist shops, and while we were in there, a brown bear came out of the woods and dashed across the parking lot. By the time we left, animal control was out looking for the animal. Our guide assured us that he would only be put to sleep and transported farther out into the woods.
We learned that Ketchikan has little topsoil, and the old part of the city was built on a framework over the water. Our tour took us to Creek Street, where we saw how the historic houses had been built on supports over the water. Those houses are now shops catering to the tourists, but were once part of Ketchikan’s red-light district. Jessie and I visited Dolly’s House Museum, the former home of Ketchikan’s most famous madam.
Saturday, June 8
We were in Victoria, British Columbia, from 6 p.m. until midnight, and it was my least favorite stop. The city is beautiful, with gorgeous flowers, stately buildings, clean streets and sidewalk cafés. Jerry and I decided to tour the city on our own while Jessie and Ashley visited the Butchart Gardens. But by the time we had traveled some eight blocks, we’d seen four or five homeless people or drug addicts, and that was depressing. We walked into China Town, bought a souvenir and headed back to the ship.
Sunday, June 9
I loved the trip, but was kind of glad to get back to Seattle. Our plane wasn’t supposed to leave till 1:30 a.m. Monday, so we spent Sunday afternoon walking around the city. We visited the public market and, of course, the Space Needle. We also took a ride on the monorail before heading to the airport.
Jerry and I, identified by Jessie as the “old people,” leaned back and napped until it was time to board the plane. By then, I felt like a seasoned traveler, and enjoyed viewing the lights below us and watching the sun come up while everybody else slept their way across the country.
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