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Alaska: All Aboard Skagway’s White Pass & Yukon Route

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Riding the rails from Canada to USA.

The historic White Pass & Yukon Route train.

The historic White Pass & Yukon Route train.

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Everywhere you look: mountains, valleys, rivers and waterfalls.

I was in Skagway many years ago and I could see right away it has changed.  The commercial district has expanded, but has still kept to its original, historical architecture; the number of shops has grown considerably and been significantly improved in terms of the quality and price of the merchandise.  There were many shops featuring beautiful Alaskan mammoth ivory pieces and local art, all lovely and quite pricey.  The National Park Service has a greatly expanded presence with more facilities and museums along the main street of Broadway.

We took a bus ride out-of-town to Fraser Canada and enjoyed some historical commentary and beautiful scenery along the way. Once there, we boarded the famous White Pass & Yukon Route historic train for the 20-mile trip back to Skagway.  The rail line was built 113 years ago, against all odds, to facilitate the Klondike gold rush.   This narrow-gauge train cuts through dramatic scenery and winds through treacherous passages, reaching 2,865′ at its summit.

 

Our ship is now officially considered a charmed group, and once again we enjoyed blue skies and crystal clear weather.  I took this train before but didn’t have this incredible weather, so today’s scenery was especially glorious.  Unfortunately, they only run the vintage steam engine on Monday and Friday’s, so we were pulled by a couple of regular diesel engines.  I didn’t even see the steam engine on this trip.  Glad I got a decent picture of it years ago.

Obviously, the cruise ships have generated a more recent type of gold rush, bringing thousands of people (and their money) into this economy.  Skagway has handled the transition well.

When we got off the train, we spent some time walking on the quaint, retro-style main street, visiting the old-fashioned train station, and shopping.  We enjoyed a halibut chowder and seafood pastry lunch at Olivia’s Bistro located in the Historic Skagway Inn.

 

Alaska: Whale Watching in Juneau

Sea Lions relax in Stephen's Passage, Alaska.

Sea Lions relax in Stephen’s Passage, Alaska.

 

Searching for Humpbacks.

Searching for Humpbacks.

Look closely - meet "Spot" the Humpback whale.

Look closely – meet “Spot” the Humpback whale.

This afternoon, we headed out for an official whale watching expedition – this time looking for Humpbacks.  We elected to take a smaller excursion than offered by the cruise line, and had booked with Dolphin Tours.  We left from picturesque Auke Bay (just as all other local trips), and traveled up Stephen’s Passage against a backdrop of snow-covered peaks and tall spruce forests.

It seemed like the trip was over in minutes, but in reality we were on the water for about 1.5 – 2 hours.  We did see Humpbacks, not as closely as I would’ve liked, but quite a few.  Local laws required vessels be 100 yards from whales and we were not going to get in any trouble violating any laws.  We did see four whales together and that is considered unusual, AND that group had a baby and we saw the baby breach.  The breech was also considered unusual since it is generally a mating ritual, but the naturalist said the whales were teaching the baby.  Humpback Whales are identified by the pattern/color/scars that appears underneath their tail, readily visible when they dive.  We did get to see several flutes (tails) diving and looking at my pictures I can clearly identify the whales known as “Spot” and “Midnight” among them.

We were met at the dock in Auke Bay by a dear friend who lives in this part of Alaska and came over to see us.  We visited Mendenhall Glacier’s Visitor Center ($3) in the Tongass National Forest and enjoyed the great exhibits and touching the small iceberg on display, as well as the terrific photo-op.  Before heading back to the ship we had a tasty dinner at the Twisted Fish Company Alaskan Grill, located near the pier area.

 

 

Alaska: The Orcas Visit Tracy Arm Fjord

Celebrity Solstice near the South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm Fjord.

Celebrity Solstice near the South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm Fjord.

Blue ice at the North Sawyer Glacier.

Blue ice at the North Sawyer Glacier.

Orcas!

Orcas!

Beginning about 5:30 in the morning, the Solstice entered the Tracy Arm Fjord and got fairly close to the South Sawyer Glacier.  Once again, our good luck held since favorable weather and ice conditions have allowed the ship’s Captain to navigate this far.  Often ice issues require ships to head in another direction.  We had wonderful commentary from the public areas, by our on-board naturalist Brent Nixon.  Once in position, the ship paused for a bit and about 120 of us got on a smaller boat for a very special five-hour excursion.  I left my mom to relax, and continue listening to the great commentary from the comfort and warmth of the “mother” ship.

Once on board, I grabbed a seat in the smaller (heated) upper cabin, so I would have quick access to the outdoor platform for optimal photo-ops.  And wow, what a day it turned out to be for photography.

We immediately went as close as legally possible to the South Sawyer Glacier.  Surrounded by incredibly blue glacial water, floating ice bergs, a few playful fur seals and terns flying around we were rewarded with seeing the glacier calve (when portions of the ice fall off).  To hear the big boom and see the ice fall and water beneath explode on impact was a rare treat.  We saw lots of the beautiful blue ice which is indicative of old ice that has been compressed for a long, long time.

The morning was incredible.  Clear skies and very cold; you are essentially standing inside an ice box.

As we headed to the North Sawyer Glacier, our good-looking, young British naturalist (who was quite experienced), explained the geology and the wildlife of the area.  He told us they rarely saw the elusive mountain goats and about 10 minutes later we spotted four, three quite close to the water’s edge, among the rocks.   On the trip we also saw a black bear climbing on the steep side and a pair of eagles observing their territory from high atop a spruce.

But the most incredible experience for me was seeing Orcas!  We had no expectation of seeing any whales at all and then, out of nowhere, we were next to a pod of about 7 whales.  There were several females, a baby and at least two large males.  One of the males, who stayed a little farther from the main group, is well-known to naturalists from this area, due to the curved deformity in his large dorsal fin; he is called “Captain Hook”.  I found out from the ship-board naturalist that this was a “transient” pod that was visiting the area to hunt, specifically seals.  Transients are one of three types of Orca pods that travel in these waters.  We stayed with the pod for quite some time; they seemed oblivious to our presence.  I had tried several times in the past to see Orcas (generally in the heavily Orca-populated San Juan Islands area off Victoria/Vancouver) and every time have been skunked.  Finally seeing them when least expected was an absolutely incredible experience.

(Meantime, back on the Solstice, four Orca were spotted near the ship). 

 

Alaska: Naturally Grand in Ketchikan

 

Dawn in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Dawn in Ketchikan, Alaska.

View from the ship: Ketchikan, Alaska.

View from the ship: Ketchikan, Alaska.

New Eddystone Rock.

New Eddystone Rock.

We got to set the clocks back one more hour today, making us 4 hours behind EST.  That was a good thing because we were up at dawn for an early excursion to Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness.  On a high-speed catamaran we covered 100 miles, traveling through the Revillagigedo Channel to Behm Canal and around New Eddystone Rock (initially mistaken for a sailing vessel by Captain Vancouver), before entering the National Wilderness through Rudyard Bay.  As a glacial fjord, it looked very much like New Zealand’s Milford Sound, complete with narrow waterfalls, deep water and dramatic sheer cliffs.  Incredibly, we had another majestic day; chilly but with a dazzling blue sky and sparkling, calm water.

Upon returning to downtown Ketchikan, we walked around and saw famously bawdy Creek Street (the creek having no visible salmon today), and shops, ultimately finding Annabelle’s Famous Keg & Chowder House for lunch.   Our Halibut sandwich was fresh and delicious; expensive too.

After dinner we positioned ourselves in the ship’s Sky Lounge (top, forward) to look for whales during the sail through Snow Passage.  We weren’t disappointed.  We saw a number of “blows” and some surfacing in the distance.  Upon learning some were expected starboard in a few minutes, we rushed back to our room and were rewarded by seeing a young Humpback whale flip his tale for us.  Mama stayed under.

So far, our starboard cabin has had perfect views.