WILD, BEAUTIFUL ALASKA
On June 7, 2013, my husband, William, our oldest Daughter, Shandy and her husband, Dennis departed Puyallup, WA via our 2005 Navigator. The drive to Bellingham took 4 hours with stops along the scenic route. We parked in the long-term parking for 2 full weeks @ $30/week. Checks ONLY.
That same day we boarded the Alaska Highway ferry at 1800.
The crew aboard the ferry are exceptional. We were greeted and guided to our reserved ‘suites’. The rooms had a porthole, sink, brief closet, toilet with shower and two bunk beds. Now… if you have ever traveled in a standard suite on Amtrak, the ferry offers a larger, more comfortable setting. The upper bunk bed is actually large enough to sleep and getting up and down is not that difficult. LOL
I spent some quality time in my lower bunk napping, resting and reading. This was especially true as we traversed the rough waters in Canadian territory. I even took Dramamine, which is not my normal routine to take drugs of any kind. But, the Captain warned us and I was already struggling when I had to be inside. On the deck I loved each minute. Sometimes, though, hanging on was challenging.
The whole trip up to Skagway was remarkable. The sites are breathtaking. We saw wildlife while traveling. The Captains are alerted to wildlife sightings both for our enjoyment and for the safety of the wildlife. We traveled through very narrow passages and up close and personal with Icebergs and mountains. It was warm, sunny and clear for viewing the entire trip. The snow is inviting to look at!
We arrived on June 11, 2013, at 1545 in Sitka, AK via Skagway. Our ferry traveled to the top before heading into the inside passage to Sitka. We had a short layover in Skagway, time for a walk on land and seeing the small but very busy town. Arriving in Sitka,
we rented a car from Avis paying exorbitant rate once they added all the additional charges (but it was a Full-Size Chevrolet Impala); we made our way to our hotel before searching a dinner location.
Speaking of eating – The ONLY thing on the ferry that I would caution anyone about, is bring your own food! Eating in the dining room is very expensive for mediocre food and small portions. They even ruined my halibut that I was so looking forward to having. Can you believe, it was a frozen halibut something while I am traveling on the ferry in the middle of Halibut habitat! Eating in the cafeteria was just a bad, not as expensive but limited to sandwiches, soup, and hamburgers. YUK. Next time I will bring Univera Protein Quotient (PQ) foods to supplement my meals. But… in all fairness and truth: We did NOT travel for the food.
BTW; The restaurants in Skagway are excellent!
We lodged for 3 nights with Karen at her Cascade Inn (907.747.6804); 2035 Halibut Point Road; Sitka, Alaska 99835; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.cascadeinnsitka.com. Rooms were very comfortable, easy access and a gracious host and hostess.
Personal Charter to See Ocean Wildlife
The next day, June 12, we were booked with Black Bart Charters ( 907-747-7416 http://www.blackbartscharters.com/rates.html) owned by Mitch Cowen. He advised us to book a very early morning cruise as the water is smoother. When we arrived at the appointed hour and location we could not find Mitch. We waited about 20 minutes and began to start conversations with other Captains. While they did not seem as competent, honest nor excited, we did not want to miss our once in a lifetime trip out on the Alaska water in a small boat. But.. Praise God, before we finished interviewing the available Captains, a young man was calling my name.
He had been contacted by Mitch to find us and cater to us. Mitch had a family tragedy the night before with the unexpected loss of his brother. He had to leave immediately but did not want to disappoint us nor have us spend our precious time with an incompetent alternate. Mitch called me about that same time to tell me his sad news.
So we followed the directions of the new Captain(Paul) to his mooring site and boarded his very small boat (about 25 feet). LOL
IF you ever have an opportunity to travel to Alaska, this is a MUST DO trip. We spent over 4 hours on the water while our Captain guided his boat to specific areas he knew in the vast ocean. I am still in awe and that was several years back. This young man would say something like, “let’s go see what the otters are up to”. He increased his traveling speed and soon we were stopped. Floating amount the resting, playing otters. Some moms had their young sleeping on their stomachs as the mom floated alert but relaxed around us. It was astonishing, beautiful and made me want to reach out and touch them. I did not.
We would move on to various other wildlife habitats and always see numerous of the species. We traveled to an island that is uninhabited by humans with the exception of a few brave and determined scientists. We launched to observe but did not leave our boat. We traveled into a cavern made solely by the wave action of the powerful Pacific Ocean. We were able to be up close and touch the walls and realize both the calm and the danger lurking as the tides and weather shifts.
Then it was time to see the humpback whales.
We cruised to the location our Captain determined was correct for the day, time and weather. We waited. And waited. We did not become concerned but the Captain was getting a little worried as time was slipping away and we needed to head to shore. He stated we would wait another 10 minutes and then have to call it a day. About a minute into our 10, a humpback came very close to us, blowing water and flicking his tail a little. We were thrilled. AND THEN the same one or another one did a FULL BREACH! He landed a few feet from us, I saw the whole thing. I did not get it on camera as you may imagine. I was in total shock. I was not afraid in the least, just in awe.
You need to think about this for a second. That whale could have come under our boat and tossed us to our death. He could have landed on top of our boat. BUT…. He decided to give us a show. We are so very Blessed. Father God helped us realize a dream many will never begin to experience. How big was the whale you ask. Our Captain saw it too and said it was longer than his boat by a few feet (over 30 feet long) and weighed about 7,000 pounds!
Following an exhilarating day, we enjoyed a scrumptious dinner of Halibut, shrimp, salad, and all the trimmings.
The next day, June 13 Dennis and William joined Karen’s husband owner of Big Blue Charters ( 877.747.5161; (907) 747-5161. http://www.bigbluecharters.com) for Halibut Fishing. While it was very expensive and somewhat disappointing it was a memorable and good trip. Dennis was seasick most of the way. William caught his halibut but it was small. The laws of Alaska are such that you must keep whatever you catch and you are not allowed to catch another. So, for over $1,000 expense, we ended up with some very tasty halibut, a few pounds of another white fish and memories.
Shandy and I explored the town of Sitka. We walked miles even though the town is rather small. We witnessed several cruise lines docking, met a pastor of a local church and were invited in to see the artwork, watch talented young people perform
Russian dancing and ate a delightful seafood lunch. When the guys were back from fishing, we were invited to attend a social hour at our hotel hosted by the owners. They served several hearty hors d’oeuvres, soft drinks and flowing alcohol. We did not stay long as it was solely the people who had just returned from fishing, long time return customers and very loud, drunk and rambunctious. Plus, Dennis did not feel like socializing in his current state of seasickness. We enjoyed the time and retired early.
Alaska Raptor Center
On June 14, our last day in Sitka we thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Alaska Raptor Center ((907) 747-8662; www.alaskaraptor.org).
The walk from the car was beautiful and excitement grew as we began to hear the sounds from the birds. We had the complete privilege of seeing owls awake in the day, bald eagles who had been injured and now recuperating, hawks and all manner of preying birds.
We stayed for several hours but pulled ourselves away as we wanted to visit the bear protected habitat too.
Fortress of the Bear
It is only a short drive to the Fortress of the Bear. The fortress is self-funded by donations and sponsors for the various bears residing there. Shandy sponsored a bear. This was after we had a glorious time observing them in a natural habitat, performing what appeared to be ‘tricks’ but in actuality were just normal behavior in given situations.
One of the bears had been there a long while and the park personnel taught him American Sign Language. He was so cute. Never filled to his satisfaction, signed wanting more fish. We were allowed to join the park officials in the back and feed the bears peanuts. This is a strange behavior for humans. I hung back while Shandy forged ahead. But, in the end, I was feeding them also. They have huge paws, nails, and teeth.
They stood well over 8 feet tall looming above us in their enclosure behind a wire fence. They are not tame by any stretch of the imagination but sort of respective of the humans with food. Since they rely completely on donations from local businesses, entrance fees and donations from visitors and merchandise sales we looked at shirts. Unfortunately, they did not have any that we liked or were in our size. Maybe another time via the internet. If you check them out and are interested you may want to help support their endeavor.
Later that same day (1405), Dennis and Shandy boarded their Alaska Airlines flight for Seattle. They had a smooth flight arriving at 1717. They had arranged for their daughter, Jaymee, to pick them up for the short journey home.
William and Patricia also left (1400) but via the Alaska Marine Ferry system. We arrived in Juneau at 1830. We caught a cab for the short 2 mile trip to our hotel for the night. We stayed at the Best Western Country Lane Inn (907-789-5005) which afforded us easy access to several good quality restaurants for dinner. The hotel was comfortable for our short stay. We had an early morning wake up call scheduled for our 0700 departure for Skagway.
We arrived in Skagway at 1330. Even though we had traveled this ‘highway’ earlier in the week, we thoroughly enjoyed all the scenery again. The Mendenhall glacier soars above the ocean in the distance. It is impressive at 12 miles in length and 1.5 miles in depth. It appeared that we were heading straight for the glacier but that is only because the Captain must maneuver the ship through a narrow channel. Many cruise ships sail close by as well to photograph this monstrous glacier.
Arriving in Skagway, it is a short walk from the terminal to the Westmark Hotel 907-983-6000; where we spent 3 nights. Our first order of business was to secure tickets to the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad (907-983-2217; http://www.wpyr.com). Since I love trains, I was beyond excited. This is one of the train routes I had always wanted to ride. I was not disappointed.
On June 15, we departed on the train that was built in 1898 – this is during the Klondike Gold Rush.
We traveled up steep canyons, across huge crevasse on bridges that appeared to be marginal at best and around sharp bends that provided a clear view of our own train out our windows. We booked 1st class which gave us access to the caboose outside part of the train. This is exceptional as it gives access to photography not available inside. I traveled the majority of the trip outside with a couple from France. He was English and she was from the Ukraine but they resided in France. He was an experienced near professional photographer so I followed his lead.
We were Blessed with breathtaking views of glaciers, mountains, and gorges. The waterfalls are tall and powerful. Many times we found ourselves in complete darkness as we traveled through long, tunnels. Crossing trestles as described above was always a little disconcerting. We had the opportunity to stop and visit sites where history took place. We traveled in style in vintage parlor cars of which one was the caboose.
Our train travels slowly for safety, views, comfort and photography. We saw wildlife along the way. One set of Brown bear cubs was sitting by the side of the tracks. Impossible for me to photograph but so much fun just to watch and store away in my memories.
Getting around in Skagway is very easy. Walking is the preferred method and shops and restaurants are within easy access. The only exception is a unique garden, greenhouse, gift shop a few miles out of town. But, the town shuttle runs frequently and is a door to door service.
On June 17 we departed Skagway at 1715 on our homebound Alaska Marine Highway Ferry. We had another marvelous trip, beautiful pictures, and restful nights. We arrived in Bellingham, WA on Friday, June 21, 2013, at 0800.
I can honestly say if you have an opportunity to travel to Alaska, do it. Fabulous state, rough and tough but friendly and they speak English.