Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Alaska, part 2: Shipboard life

I headed for the back of the bus, where theres almost always empty seats available to stretch out on. Success! We rolled away from beautiful Denali, rumbling through mountain and river territory. At Broad Pass, the Talkeetna Mountains formed a straight line to the east of us, rising suddenly above the river plain like someone had lined them up.

We lunched in Wasilla, home of you-know-who... or is it? One guide told us she still lived there part of the year, and another guide said shed moved to Arizona or someplace, near her daughter. Anyway, the town was pretty and had a large, lovely lake. It also had a restaurant that specialized in sudden, large crowds like tour buses. They served sandwich fixings and had bathrooms with real water. The parking lot had a quickie mart (with liquor) and an ice cream stand, which reminds me that Alaska has the highest per capita consumption of both coffee (understandable) and ice cream.

We drove past what was little more than a crossroads, Willow. In 1976 Alaskans voted to make Willow the new capital. They didnt want Anchorage, the largest city, to be that, and thought the idea of a capital like Juneau, which is only reachable by boat, plane, or birth canal, was ridiculous. Which it is. Even if 1 in 6 Alaskans owns a plane. I mean, the State Fair was starting when we were there, and they couldnt hold it at Juneau because THERE ARE NO ROADS leading there! Willows on a major highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks; seemed a good pick to me. Anyway, the people in Juneau didnt want to relocate, so they blocked the funding to move everything, got another resolution on the docket, and in 1982 made sure Juneau stayed the state capital.

We had some conversations on the bus and at lunch. Once a lady said, “Don’t tell ‘em you’ve been coughing or sneezing or you’ll be in quarantine for two days.” I’d keep that in mind…

Our very funny bus driver was retired from his regular job and now works part-time for Holland-America. His son works for one of the airlines. They thus get free cruises and flights. He wants his wife to work for a rental car agency.

Anyway, he pointed out the "Alaskan mosquito eggs" that sometimes appeared over the highway. They're large orange ovals on electric lines that cross the highway. This is in case a pilot has to make an emergency landing on the roadway. They see the "eggs," and they won't hit the lines. Do emergency landings really happen that often?

Along the highway to Seward. The American TARDIS. Bring your Purell.

We reached Anchorage, which is a nice-looking, neat, small city. Then we swung off to go to Seward. That road has been voted one of the most scenic highways in the US, for good reason! The road follows a rocky coastline with the mountains and high-meadow glaciers in the background. The tides there are the second-highest in North America (coming, I assume, after the Bay of Fundy). When you get away from the coast mammoth mountains come down to touch the highway. In some ways, especially with the little shacks here and there, it reminded me of the Appalachian Mountains… but bigger. Much bigger. The scenery was jaw-dropping. I was so glad not to be driving, because I would have driven us right off the road from gawping at everything!

We arrived at Seward around 4 to go through customs and pre-cruise identification procedures, then get on the walkway that led inside the MS Zaandam. You get a card with a bar code on it, and you use that not only as a key for your room, but to pay for everything (you have a credit card on file) (funny thing; I came home to find that someone had hacked into that card) and identify yourself when boarding or disembarking. They also take a picture of you that is linked in their computer system.

My room was practically at the aft of the ship, just a few rooms from the end of the hall. I got into it a little after 4. There was a ship’s schedule waiting for me, to find that an orientation lecture had been scheduled… for 4:00. Our bus was the first bunch of passengers to arrive to the ship, other than people who were staying on board after the last cruise. (Yes, people do that.)  Why would they schedule orientation BEFORE people came on board? As it was, I got in the very long line at the information desk and had to listen to the same questions being asked over and over, questions likely covered at orientation.

I was housed on the Main Deck, Deck 2. There was a passenger deck below me, and one more deck below that that we used to disembark a couple times from, the A deck, which was also where the doctor was. “The Dining Room” was in the aft section of Decks 4 and 5. (Theoretically it was reservations only on Deck 5 and walk-ins on Deck 4.) You couldn’t get to the foredeck of Deck 4 from there. Deck 5 had the lovely Explorations Café, library, a couple bars, etc etc. Foredeck of Deck 4 had the info desk, art and photography places, I think the Pinnacle Grill, and a few bars and the casino. Can’t recall where the Mondrian lecture/entertainment hall was, but it was in the fore of one of the upper decks.

You could get to the outside deck promenade from Deck 4 (“Lower promenade”) only, even if two other decks were called variants of “promenade.” Two times around equaled one mile. There was a mini-promenade up at the top of the ship. The ship’s write-up says there are basketball and tennis courts, but I never saw those. Let’s see… Going up from Deck 5: Cabin deck, cabin deck, Lido deck (8) had the cafeteria, gym, massage, etc. and enclosed pool as well as open pool, and Deck 9 was the way to the top for viewing Glacier Bay. I think Deck 9 also had an enclosed forward viewing room with a bar, but I was fairly lost when I found that. The elevators were fast as hell, and quite helpfully had rugs that informed you what day of the week it was.

With all the decks it should come as no surprise that, even with the elevator, it was easy to get 10,000 steps in each day. If I went out on a tour, I got around 6000, but if we were cruising, it was 10,000-12,000.

I had a window in my room as well as a queen- or maybe king-sized bed. It was two twins shoved together and yes, you could feel the central seam. There was a small couch and a desk with a chair. There were four closets, only one of which was large enough to fit my large piece of luggage in. There was ONE outlet. I called room service and they found me a multi-outlet extension so I could charge my stuff. I told this to other passengers, who had been complaining about the one-outlet situation.
So easy to lose track of time when you're onboard. The elevator rugs were changed every day.

Lifeboat drill was at 7PM the first day. If you didn’t show up, you were kicked off the ship. Your card was scanned, the crew checked it against your picture, and we all now knew where our boat was located. Some people complained later because the drill hadn’t been done to their exacting expectations, something about lining people up in order or something. I think they were insulted to be included with “ordinary” passengers, maybe. I didn’t get it. It seemed organized enough to me.

I was surprised to see all the people in wheelchairs. Some of the excursion tours specified that they welcomed wheelchairs, but most didn’t. In fact, some said things like, “You must be able to walk 400 yards down a gentle hill and back.”

There was a gathering for friends of some guy, and also a group of gays on board, both of which got their meeting places noted in our newsletter every day. The gays (am I stereotyping? Sorry) seemed to hang out in the gym. Every time I went by, there were all these gorgeous Adonis types on the machinery in their immaculate gym togs. Must be gays, right? And there was one very fit lady as well. I’m not going to get on a treadmill among the perfect-bodied! Go down the hallway to the inside pool, and there were all the out-of-shape men having a great time. Good to see it!

The ship info manual mentioned that if you had diarrhea and vomiting, you MUST see the ship’s doctor. Thanks to cutting my metformin pills in half, the first symptom was minimized quickly, and I never had the second one, nyah. I heard of three people who were quarantined during the trip. At disembarking, I met a miserable woman who’d been quarantined for five days of the trip, and was still feeling lousy. She said a nurse had told her that the ship had been in South America before it went on the Alaska trip, and that they were having flu season down there, so the ship had brought that back. On the news I heard that Australia was having its worst flu season ever. There were a LOT of Australians on board. Hm. EVIL AUSTRALIANS! EVIL AUSTRALIANS! No wonder by the second to last day of the trip I’d begun to cough. (As of this writing, some 2 ½ weeks later, I’m still trying to get over the plague. GET YOUR FLU SHOT!)
My office in the library. How's that for a view?

I was glad I’d bought the drinks package. I don’t drink alcohol, but that package covered any drink under $7, and something like up to 12 or 17 drinks a day. I think it paid for itself a few times over. I also bought the internet package, which was 100 minutes for $50. !!! Highway robbery! And to make it worse, the internet often didn’t work, and when it did it took FOREVER. Forget trying to post a picture on Facebook, much less a quick movie. Just trying to get Facebook to come up took five or eight minutes, if it ever did. Tick tick tick. They had a sale for ½ hour internet on the day before we disembarked, so people could print out their boarding passes. Who were they kidding?

You could also sign up for laundry service at $7/day. Or you could do itemized laundry. There was a passenger coin laundry on Deck A. I opted for the “everything you can fit into this tiny bag for $20” service. I don’t turn down dares. I had that bag stuffed within an inch of its life! Then I turned around and did the same thing a few days later. It was still cheaper than the $7/day service, and I didn’t have to waste time sitting next to a dryer.

The next day after boarding (or was it the one after that?) my sister, who NEVER posts on FB, posted a message that our mother was in the hospital. She’d tried to get through to me using the ship’s emergency number, but they said that unless Mom were dead, they wouldn’t connect her. Luckily the next day I got another message saying that Mom was just fine now, whew. I was making plans to call shore, even if such phone calls were $8/minute!!!!, but figured a quick message to her telling her that I’d received the message was good enough. As for cell service, about half the people said they could get a signal if we were in port, and half said they couldn’t.

TV was ship shopping channels, a “this is where we are” navigation channel, a couple 24-hour news channels, plus two movie channels that ran the same movie all day long. Sometimes only the shopping and movie channels worked. The ship had a library of 10,000 DVDs and a player in each room, which I wish I’d known about, as I’d have brought some DVDs from home that I’ve been meaning to watch.

We watched reports of Hurricane Harvey. There were QUITE a few people from Houston, but all reported that their homes had weathered the storm without incident. Yay!

The ship was smaller than I expected. Guess the Caribbean ones are huge? This one held 1400 passengers. There was the regular restaurant, “The Dining Room,” which had two galas during the cruise. I went to the info desk and asked if I was dressed up enough to attend. The woman there looked me up and down and gave me a scathingly sour look. “Yes or no?” I demanded, but she refused to say. Bitch. The next day I asked some passengers and they said that was ridiculous, that some men had been in shorts at the gala. One man said, “By god, I paid $8000 for this cruise. They’ll let me in when I say they will!” Whew, $8000? He must have had a suite. There was also a surprise Luncheon for Big Wigs and Important Crew Members one day so everyone else had to troop up to the Lido to eat. Dining Room, Lido, and room service were the no-charge eating venues.

Some people dressed up even if there wasn’t a gala and it was just lunch. I figured they’d watched too many episodes of Love Boat.

The galas were an excuse for the cruise to charge for photographers to take your picture. The cruise was one big con shop everywhere you turned. You got your picture made when you boarded, and could buy it for an outrageous price. There was an art store (they were always having art auctions) with ugly, amateurish paintings – all prints, as far as I could see – marked at sky-high prices.

For a couple days the art place had a Thomas Kinkade print on main display. I stopped to admire it, not noticing the signature until the end. It was a pleasant, plein-air-looking landscape piece, about 11x14”. It was marked 236/775. I asked how much it was going for. The lady told me that ordinarily it went unframed for $350, but if I bought it on the ship, I could get it for $225 or something like that. Let me see… A Kinkade print that didn’t show one of his trademark thatched-roof houses or candles in a window. $225 x 775 prints = $174,375 for the print run. And that was just one size. They can make other print runs at other sizes.

Are you kidding me?

The rest of the inventory was very tired, anonymous figurative crap along with garish Peter Max crap. I heard one of the dealers on a one-on-one with a couple looking at a Max sculpture that looked like a very ugly lamp from the Sixties. He sounded like he was selling them a timeshare and they had to buy to get in on this offer within the next 60 minutes, or else! Sheesh. I also heard bids for $3000 coming over the wall at one of the auctions. People getting fleeced…

One day I was sitting in a lounge and heard the acupuncturist lecture on various types of acupuncture. She mentioned obesity. I figured what the heck, and asked at the desk about prices. I’d been thinking about going to my acupuncturist because he’d been talking obesity needles. This seemed a bit more expensive than he (of course), but what the hey, I was on a cruise. I signed up.

The first round was pleasant enough. As I was “soaking” I noticed that the office had a framed set of Dutch tulip tiles. The top two tiles on the left were switched, so the overall picture was disjointed. I begged the acupuncturist to give me an Xacto and some glue, so I could correct it. She didn’t break a smile. She was all Asian Seriousness. On the second round of treatment the next day (and I don’t think I got everything I paid for on that one), she was in an even more sour mood. She started muttering about how chocolate cake had 250 calories (she came up with the number out of thin air) and mutter mutter this and that, calories, calories. I think she didn’t like that I didn’t want to buy any of her expensive lotions and nutritional crap.

I had a hot stone massage as well. A lady at my home acupuncturist’s told me that I should “let yourself go” to get the best results. So I tried. Meh. Hot stones. Rubbing. The masseuse wanted me to buy lots of lotions. When I refused politely, he treated me like I was just a lump of flesh.

When you don’t buy, they stop being civil to you.

There was a jewelry shop with expensive crap. A very small casino. A library. A gaming room next to that library. A jigsaw puzzle room that connected the last two. A couple bars with various music at night. A theater for lectures and night entertainment. A cooking schoolroom. An electronics schoolroom. A gym. A beauty parlor. The afore-mentioned acupuncturist and masseuse. An indoor pool and Jacuzzi. An outdoor pool that I didn’t find until the final day, that no one was in.

When not on an excursion I stayed at lot in the library, next to the Explorations Café. I could set up my computer and work on editing a book (something I’d been looking forward to) while the ocean and sometimes shore spread out in front of me. Plus, I could get a chai from the café to keep me going. There were only a few times when loud, chattering women came in to spoil the quiet atmosphere. They quickly left, I think due to chess-playing patrons giving them dirty looks. I got a lot of work done and enjoyed the vibes!

There were a couple restaurants I never went into because one only served groups family style, and I was a single (they charged extra anyway), and another that just didn’t have an interesting menu (also an extra charge). The Lido deck was mostly filled with a cafeteria serving a variety of food. You could find a decent salad there, but heaven help you find some place to sit to eat! It was rushed and noisy. It was there that served ice cream through the day, but that post wasn’t staffed and people had to run get someone to come, and they never knew exactly what was going on and where the chocolate sauce was kept and… Before and after mealtime, though, the Lido was a fine place to visit. You could sit and have a cup of tea or ice cream and look out the windows in relative peace.

Finally there was the Pinnacle Room, to which I got one reservation as part of the cruise (otherwise it very much cost extra). You had to dress up. I put on a nice blouse and said what the heck; I have a reservation. At the worst they can seat me in a dark corner. There I finally had my shrimp cocktail. It had three shrimp. Three ENORMOUS shrimp. I also got the petite filet mignon, which was one of the three best steaks I’ve had in my life. It was pretty big and came alone on a huge white plate. The potatoes came on their own large plate. The brussels sprouts came on their own large plate. ??? Great food, but those folks HAVE to work on their plating.

Food servings were modest (except the Pinnacle Room, where we all stuffed our faces) (the Pinnacle Room usually costs extra!). Desserts were also modest in volume, which I appreciated. The Dining Room’s fare varied widely in quality. I had some decent food there, but I also had some onion soup that didn’t have any onion in it, some crab cakes made without crab (it was just crispy breading), and some pretty bland crap. Good bread always, though.

Almost every day there was a tea at 3PM in the Dining Room. I attended the first full day, and was seated with a variety of other single ladies. One of them was pretentious out the wazoo, and we all waggled our eyebrows at each other at her statements. We were offered one kind of tea only, though I spotted one waiter with a variety box. I was given hot water but no tea, and had to flag down someone who didn’t apologize. The sandwiches were tunafish and something else – no cucumber sammies here – and tiny sweets that one could find on Lido and the Explorations Café (the coffee bar next to where I hung out).

The next time I take a cruise I might take a blouse with a little glitter, but even if I forget that, I’ll still attend the galas if their menu looks good. (Note: on gala nights I had the same menu with room service, which didn’t cost anything extra.) I’ll continue to hang around the Explorations Café because you can’t beat that view while you write, and the baristas were fun and friendly, and quickly knew I took chai latte. Grande, please, if I were working on a sex scene.
Rough seas!

Our first full day was a Day At Sea. The evening before, the captain had come on the intercom to explain that some big storm was brewing with 50 mph winds and (iIrc) 20-foot seas, so he was altering our course and taking us closer to the coast. Whew. That night I woke up thinking I was on final approach to Anchorage – we were rocking and rolling! The next day it was funny to watch everyone walking down the hallways. You’d start off on the right side and then step-step-step until you were on the left, and then step-step-step to get back to the right as the ship rolled.

They closed all but two of the doors to the promenade (I didn’t know it at the time) and when I went out for a walk I began to get worried about just how safe that railing was. We were rolling, the ocean was splashing, we had a bit of rain coming onto the decking, and you couldn’t walk a straight line to save your life. Then when you said, “The heck with this!” and tried to go in – the door was blocked from the inside. I tried all the doors I could find until I found one that was still open. It might have been the one I came out of. The rolling didn’t stop until we entered the bay at Haines the next day.

The computer workshops were a dud as far as I was concerned, because they were for PCs and I’m so definitely a Mac. However, one workshop was “how to use your digital camera.” It was SRO, and I learned that my little Olympia can do many fabulous things! We were all exclaiming in delight as we discovered the wonders of our cameras! Later in Glacier Bay the instructor was on deck showing people the best way to photograph wildlife, but I was busy and couldn’t attend, but before it began I thanked her profusely for the camera workshop. Bravo! I made note of her on my survey later.

Which reminds me: the BEST buy I made for this trip was a camera strap. It took a while to figure out how to attach the camera to it (instructions were microscopic, and the YouTube video had the guy covering up what his fingers were doing), but once it was on, it was What I Wore. I felt naked going out of my cabin without it. So handy! Before I’d always had the camera bag bump-bumping around off my purse, to which it was attached, but now I could just reach down and bring up the camera and click! I took 1004 pictures on this trip.
The hand-washing station outside the Lido cafeteria.

Let’s see. Before we got on we were told there were four rules of cruising: (1) Wash your hands. (2) Wash your hands. (3) Wash your hands. (4) Attend the lifeboat drill. Every restaurant had a fancy Purell stand at its entry, and the Lido had an automatic hand-washer. You know those Dyson hand dryers in airport restrooms? (I was gratified to see at least three other brands of them now.) It’s like that, you put your hands down into the holes and suddenly water rushes all around you, sounding like a dishwasher. Heaven help you if you’re wearing delicate hand jewelry. After a while the cycle ends and you use a paper towel to dry off.

Public restrooms on board had plaques inside the outer doors telling you to use a paper towel (dispenser next to the plaque) to open the door. National park pit toilets kept their Purell bottles pretty much stocked up. Non-national park pit toilets usually didn’t have a bottle of Purell. Keep a bottle with you!

Shipboard internet (free!) gave us our schedules every day, and we also got a printout of the more general “what’s going on” daily schedule every evening. These would tell us when the ship would dock and when we had to be back onboard. One day I was hanging out on the promenade at onboard-time, and watched as the last people hurried up the gangplank to the ship. After a few minutes the gates closed. Two people came walking quickly up the dock, and were let in. About twenty minutes later, right before we were supposed to set off, a guy comes running up the dock. They had to open the gates to let him in, and he ran all the way. Whew!

Rules are: if you were on a ship-sanctioned expedition, the ship would wait for you if you were late getting back. If you were off on your own, the ship would NOT wait. It was up to you to make it to the next stop, if you could.

Next: Ports of call!

Monday, September 18, 2017

My Alaska Cruise

Aug-Sept 2017

I’d heard that October is the month to buy cruises, as that’s when they go on sale. Thirty days in advance is also the time to get a good buy, getting a bargain on unsold rooms, but for a big cruise like I’d planned… naw, October.

So last October I went to the Holland-America site. I’d heard they were the most adult-friendly (as in practically no kids) cruises. (One of my co-workers said they were “cruises for geezers,” while giving me a full up-and-down perusal like I was something she'd just scraped off the bottom of her shoe. Lovely woman.) We didn’t yet have a job schedule for 2017, so I took a guess and found a likely-looking date. Then I told Francine, our Production Manager, and she said no problem, the August-September portion of the 2017 schedule could be built around my vacation. Well it wasn’t, but we did warn the printers in plenty of time to expect a couple days’ delay.

About three weeks before departure, I began making my packing lists, which grew slightly as time passed. The week before departure I’m usually running crazy out of my mind, so it’s good to have The List so I can check things off as they go into the luggage.

Which was new. Cruises highly recommend hard-sided luggage, and mine was soft. A co-worker told me Macy’s was having a significant sale so I picked up some there. The carryon and middle size were fine, but Macy’s didn’t measure wheels for the large size. Airlines do. They were oversized by an inch, maybe two. Fellow travelers on Facebook assured me this would be no problem, though the airline’s help line told me I’d have to pay an extra $200 for the bag. Turned out: no problem. Whew!

But man, that bag is BIG. It weighed about 35 lbs when I went to the airport, and it did NOT want to get off the moving slidewalk. I almost face-planted as I tried to maneuver it and the carryon about. For the return trip, I rented one of those carts they have. Worked much better (especially since by then I was using my backpack as my carryon, making three pieces of luggage to lug about).

Note to self: before my next big vacation, GET A FLU SHOT!!!!!! Cue the ominous music, but we’ll get to that at the end of this multi-part report.

A few years ago I’d taken a New England Fall foliage tour. Our guide had been in the Alaska tour biz a few years before and he warned us NEVER to book an Alaska land tour before June 1. Then he hauled out a picture of himself applying snow chains to the bus on May 31. Always take the land part first so you can relax on the cruise afterward, he also advised.

So that’s what I was doing: the Denali/coastal Alaska tour. Luck was with me! Our quarterly goals came in early – the day before I took off. Yay, I had money! When I got to the airport I discovered that yay, I also had great seats! The very front. You have to secure your purse in the overhead bins, but you can stretch your legs. It was going to be a loooong trip, longer than the one to England. I made sure to stretch as much as I could. I’d heard stories about long airplane trips and blood clots.

At Denver we arrived at gate 16. My next plane was gate 55. I made my way at a fair rate of speed down the ten miles or so (it seemed) there, asked at the gate if I had time to grab lunch, and they assured me I had 20 minutes. That meant four bites of a delicious if overstuffed burrito! I got out of a quick trip to the ladies’ room to discover… a ghost town!

“Have I missed a gate change?” I asked.

“Gate 15. It’s leaving at the same time.”

ARRRRGGHHH!!! I RAN back through the airport fast as I could. I figured everyone else was having to do the same thing so I really didn’t need to run quite so fast – I wasn’t that far behind them – but I still ran. Got back to where I’d begun and they hadn’t started to board yet, whew.

As we neared Anchorage, the pilot warned us of uneven terrain causing turbulence in the air, as well as the presence of 50 mph winds. The plane began to lurch and rock violently! Thank goodness for seat belts! My seat mate, who was making the trip from NYC to see her boyfriend for the weekend, kept clutching her seat arms and moaning, "Jesus! JEEEZUS!" Then we were out of it and sailed calmly into town.

The Anchorage airport has a slew of interesting architecture in its complex, but none is cohesive. The main building has curved eaves, as if inviting snow to begin to pile on it because it can hold lots. ??? You’d think they’d want a roof that discouraged snow accumulation.

The hotel was a nice one in its day, but that day was long gone. It was downtown Anchorage and I wanted to take a quick bus tour but wanted dinner first. I walked a few blocks, checking out posted menus. The lady at a souvenir shop told me that “This is Alaska,” and I had to expect prices to be sky-high. Finally I decided to dine at the hotel’s restaurant. This vacation was going to be seafood paradise! I’d begin with a shrimp cocktail. I asked how many shrimp it had. “Two.” For fifteen dollars? I settled on fish n chips, forgetting that the rule is NEVER to have fried food when on vacation. I’d had fish n chips in England last year, and had been surprised at how tasteless both occasions had been. This? Lovely! Not too oily, either. Good choice.

By the end I decided to ditch the bus tour. I was five hours ahead of myself, and it was the middle of the night back home though the sun was still up in AK. Went to bed, got a HORRIBLE cramp in my left foot! OMG BLOOD CLOT!!!! After walking around a few minutes it went away. There was no swelling. I was still breathing. Okay, back to bed. Got up to enjoy the nice buffet downstairs. (Btw, Alaskans pronounce it like they’re about to waste away in Margaritaville. I heard people from three different regions pronounce it that way.) We were instructed NOT to use the fancy luggage tags the cruise line had told us to use, and that we wouldn’t be using the boarding pass that the cruise line had told us was absolutely necessary.

From here we got on one of those trains with the view dome. What a great view! The very middle of Alaska is rather flat and humdrum (a lot comes from the ’64 quake, which had ocean water overrunning large flats and petrifying the trees), but the rest…!

There was one canyon with a loooong bridge – no sides – that made a lot of folks woozy. No, I didn’t look down. And then there were mountains, mountains, and forests! Occasionally there’d be a town or road crossing. We pulled into Denali and got on buses that took us to the lodging resort Holland-America owns. Princess’s is right next door. Each little resort had shuttle buses to take us to our cabins.

Like I’d discovered in Yellowstone a few years ago, the more snow-bound parks like to celebrate Christmas early, since their employees likely won’t be around during that season. Whereas Yellowstone just takes August 25 to do this, Holland-America at Denali was on Christmas time all week. They’d be closing the next week, shuttering their properties and draining the plumbing to get ready for winter. All employees at the H-A site were wearing elf caps and Xmas was on the muzak. I wanted to explore, but with all my outings I never had the chance to try the entertainment venues or restaurants. Across the highway was the “civilian” tourist stuff with more restaurants, souvenirs, etc etc.
Jeff King

As soon as I got to my room it was time to leave again for the “Husky Homestead Tour.” THIS IS A MUST-SEE! It was a short ride to the summer digs of Jeff King, four-time Iditarod winner. (He’s been in the race over 27 times.) I was alarmed that the dogs were all chained up next to their individual houses, but his staff assured us that he consistently wins humanitarian awards for care of his dogs.

You get to meet and hold all the puppies. Puppies!!! The staff takes pictures of you holding the sweet little things, and of course you can buy the pics. King’s daughters name all his dogs. Each year they have a new theme: money denominations, card suits, MASH characters, paired words, trees, etc.

The puppies and older dogs have solid “hamster wheels” that they can run in. The dogs are clearly excited to be running. They watch when the various teams go out. I think all the adult dogs get to go out with a team once a day. The staff were taking an ATV and hooking it up to a team of dogs, then going off on various back roads. Once they loaded them all onto a fifty-foot treadmill and showed us what they can do!

The treadmill!

Then it was inside, where we learned about the Iditarod. I was pleased at the emphasis they put on women being a part of it, and was surprised at how many times a woman had won. They’re expecting a woman to win this year, because she’s come in second for the past few years.

They showed us how they dress for the dog race. (“There’s no bad weather in Alaska, just bad clothes.”) Jeff’s sleds are different than others. He has a seat just behind the standing position, with a small storage area behind that to balance.

Any dog that crosses the finish line MUST have started with the rest. This is why the dog teams are so very large when they begin. An ideal team consists of 9 dogs. After that, you don’t get any increase in efficiency. But things happen during the race. The human is there to, above all else, care for the dogs. They clean and massage the dogs’ feet at every stop. (I want to say the schedule is 4 hours on the trail; 4 hours sleeping.) They feed the dogs (10,000+ calories a day per dog) and gather new food from places along the trail where their support team has hauled in supplies. Only the driver and the official race vet are allowed to touch the dogs. It’s only after the dogs are tended that the driver gets to sleep. And oh yeah, pretty huskies don’t participate in dog racing. They’re for “heavy lifting and Disney movies.” Dog racing is done by mutts who are lean, runners.

Though the race lasts for days, it's sometimes come down to a matter of seconds to determine the winner. It’s all terrifically fascinating! I’ll be watching the Iditarod this winter for sure!

Got back to my room only to discover that my room key had de-magnetized. I had to troop to the shuttle stop with my jet lag in full gear, go up to the main office, get chewed out for putting my key next to my phone (it wasn’t), and go back to the room, where the key indeed worked and I collapsed.
Dall sheep

I was not looking forward to the next tour. It wasn't an extra; it was included in our cruise package. Most people (like me) were surprised to find it on our schedule, especially when we discovered how long it was and that the bus was not one of those sleek touring buses with comfy seats and, you know, a toilet in the back. I’d ordered a box lunch the day before, and it was waiting for me when we took off for the 7-hour+ bus tour of Denali Park. Our bus was a little better than a schoolbus. Our driver/guide was terrific. She’d been working in the park some 19 years and was looking forward to winter, when she leads one of the three dog sled teams that patrol the park daily.

She liked pulling our legs. She told us what to expect on this 7- to 8-hour tour. Blah blah blah. And on this 7- to 9-hour tour… Seven- to twelve-hour tour…. Finally it was 7- to 72-hour tour.

There was a shorter version of the tour and our guide pointed out their turnaround point. It was only a few miles in. Don't go on that one!

Did you know the difference between reindeer and caribou? Reindeer can fly. Otherwise, they’re the same. I was never sure about the difference between black bears, grizzlies, and Kodiaks. Some guides told us they were the same, with the identical scientific name, and others said there was a difference, but their territories were different; they lived in isolated parts of Alaska. Around Haines, I think, the guide told us that black bears stay up higher in the mountains and don’t often come down for fish. They let the larger grizzlies have the lower elevations and the rivers. Kodiaks, the largest of all, are only found on Kodiak Island. I dunno. Guess I could look it up, but "bear" is good enough for me.

Our guide could also whip our bus around a corner, sheer cliffs under our outer tires, while scanning the landscape for wildlife. Eeek! She was DETERMINED that we’d see Denali – the highest mountain in North America, visible from far, far-off Anchorage on a clear day – as much as possible. It was rare to do so, she told us. We kept seeing peeks of it through the mountains, brilliantly spotlit by the morning sun. At each stop she’d hurry us. By the time we got to the turnaround point, about 40 miles from the mountain, clouds had moved in. We could see the north peak and the south peak, but not at the same time. Still that put us in the 30% category, maybe better. Only 1% of people at that point have seen the mountain in its entirety.
Denali, about 80 miles away, clear as a bell.
Next stop: Uh oh. Condensation is beginning to form around the base.
Closest approach: 40 miles away.

Unlike Yellowstone, Denali Park is a wilderness park. That means that if any ranger runs into an injured animal, they let it lie. There's no interference. Denali never banished wolves, and thus never had to reintroduce them, unlike Yellowstone.

Along the 95-mile dirt road, our driver told us how most of the park is sub-Arctic desert. It has a lot of foliage because the permafrost keeps the water close to the surface. It gets about 10 inches of rain per year, and the snow is a light, blowing type. The Alaska Range blocks most of the moisture coming in from the Pacific. The temperate rain forest of Alaska’s coasts can get 300 in/year. In the next 30 years it’s estimated that the coverage of permafrost in Denali will go from 50% to 5%. The sub-Arctic desert will REALLY look like a desert then.

She used the phrase “down in Canada,” something I’d never heard before. The place is a pristine wilderness. We saw grizzly bears (little dots in that river down there) (thank goodness I’d bought binoculars for the trip, although our driver had a video scope she used to show us detail on two screens), Dall sheep (the reason Denali was made into a park in the first place, to preserve them), fat squirrels ready for winter, and golden eagles.

Over 600,000 people visit Denali each year. There were certainly lots of buses parked around the pit toilets. So fun to pass another bus on the narrow, cliff-side road! Accck! And then someone would spot a bear (the driver signal to other drivers is to make a claw motion out their window) and everyone stops to look.

Since this wasn’t Yellowstone, our driver warned us that we had to be QUIET if we saw nearby wildlife. They didn’t want it to get used to humans. If we made too much noise, she’d start the bus and continue on. So when a GIGANTIC bull moose breaks out of the brush right next to us and everyone goes, “AWP!” out of surprise she whispered at very high volume for us to be quiet!!! The big man behind me kept braying, “MOOSE! MOOOOOSE!” but he FINALLY quieted down and we stuck around to look at two females across the road.
"Termination dust": They'd just had the first light snow the week before.

I was there to look at the landscape. There were so many different kinds! It switched over to the desert version about ten miles or so from the park entrance. Before that, it's a regular mountain forest. And I discovered that the reason why so much of Alaska’s water is teal-colored is because of all the glacial sediment. It’s supposed to be quite gritty to touch. We were warned not to try to drink it. Even if it is coming off the mountains, there was an animal – I forget, but it was a smaller type – that carried some kind of dire disease that was in most of the water.

You can get off the bus at any point and hike around as much as you want. Every so often a green bus, which runs the ENTIRE length of the road (we only did 95 miles of it and back; I think the entire road is something like 120 miles), will stop for you when you want to return. You can go off for an hour, for a day, for a week... They don't keep track of you. There is NO cell service. There are sudden blizzards in July, mudslides, blown tires, rock falls… Our guide told us how once she didn’t get back for three days. The park flew her passengers out, but she had to wait for the road to be cleared and her equipment to be fixed.

But we got back all right and congratulated ourselves for powering through!

Three moose were taking baths in the rain on the way to our evening event.

That night I had a “Covered Wagon Adventure with Backcountry [Gourmet] Dining.” I paid $90 for it. I wuz robbed! The wagons were roughly home-constructed and didn’t look right from a distance, much more from inside. They were covered with sickly plastic, and were cold and wet as hell. The horses were unhappy to be there. The ride to the dining site took over a half-hour of misery. Our guide was Jamaican, and clearly had only received the most rudimentary of training in how to conduct an “Alaskan adventure.” He told us what kinds of trees we were passing through, and that was it for him. On the way back, he sang some Jamaican songs, one sad, one happy, one I don’t know, but they all sounded alike and I couldn’t understand him.

I asked him to tell us about how Alaskan pioneers lived. That was what all this was about, right? He didn’t know anything about that.

We got to the venue, which was a planed log cabin, two-room deal. You know, it didn’t look like logs; the lumber was smooth and straight, very Home Depot-ish. There were no bathrooms, only portalets. There was water and horse ick all over every pathway, and it looked like even if it hadn’t been pouring rain everything would have been wet. Inside, someone had sloshed water all over the floor, not bothering to clean it up or set out warning signs.

We were quickly ushered into the larger room, where extremely uncomfortable picnic tables had been installed. The seats didn't protrude enough to find your butt, so you balanced on your thighs instead. We were the last group in. Everyone else was in the middle of their dinner. We’d asked what was being served (we passed the grill on the way in) and were told with a shrug by the Jamaican guy who’d worked there all summer as guide and waiter that he had no idea, but there was always corn on the cob. There was not corn on the cob. But there was a lot of food. It just wasn’t seasoned at all. Oh, the slaw, potato salad, and chili were okay, but everything else – ugh. And it kept coming. People got full and the crew came in with more platters. There was no menu posted to tell us what to expect. Salad was served. Ten minutes later, the salad dressing arrived. We were freezing; there was no heat. The ride back was another long, cold, wet mess.

The only interesting thing were the Chinese/Chinese-American people. There was a woman and her husband, both from New Jersey. They had JUST HAPPENED to run into her sister and her husband, visiting from China!!! that day!!! Neither couple had any idea the other would be there. They just happened to look across the lodge and – hey! Sis! They had both booked this event.

What are the odds? They were having a swell time just being together. It was so sweet. The next day they'd separate to go to their different cruises.

The next morning our luggage was supposed to be out at something like 6 AM. Mine was out in time, and by the time I left to catch the shuttle to the main lodge and the bus to the coast, it had been picked up.  I met two other ladies waiting for the shuttle—it was running VERY late--and pointed out the last luggage truck. “But luggage isn’t supposed to be out until 8:30,” they told me.

"What time does your bus leave?" I asked them. "Uh, 8:30." They looked at each other. Then they double-checked their schedules. Ack! They ran back to grab their luggage and took it with them to the lodge. Luckily, they were able to get it on the bus we were taking to Seward to catch the cruise. There were about, oh, five or six, maybe more, buses loading up. I was on the first heading out of Denali.

If I were to visit again, I’d certainly skip that awful wagon ride and maybe try something like rafting instead. Maybe I’d just stay at the lodge and enjoy their entertainment. I’d force myself to get up around 2 AM to see the Northern Lights if it weren’t cloudy.

Next: The trip south and the cruise ship. Storms! Flu! Glaciers!